Baby boomers are familiar with wartime housing. Many of us lived in those modest, wood-frame homes built in the late 1940s when all the soldiers returned from WW2 and started families. According to my dad, they were originally built to last twenty-five years, but more than seventy years later most of them are still going strong as successions of new owners have upgraded and improved them over the decades. They tore down the woodsheds on the back, added a family room and insulation, dug basements and added central heating and perhaps air conditioning.
Those original wartime houses were clustered together in new neighbourhoods and are still visible in communities across Canada. The homes were originally built without basements and featured three or four basic designs; two-bedroom bungalows and three-bedroom one-and-a-half-storey houses. The entire house was originally heated with an oil burner in the living room and the kitchens were small and spartan.
With the real estate market becoming prohibitively more expensive, it appears we could be shutting out an entire generation of young families needing to buy homes. It’s never easy to buy your first house, no matter when you were born. When my parents left the war-time house they had rented for nearly two years to buy their first home, they already had two children and my dad had to sell their old, used car to get enough money for the down payment.
The first home they owned (with a mortgage, of course) where my brother and I grew up, was one-and-half storeys. It was built in the 1880s, had a coal furnace, wooden floors with linoleum, heavy wooden storm windows that my dad with my help had to put up and down twice a year, and no insulation.
When I bought my first house with husband number one in 1978, we were already in our thirties and had to buy in Pickering, Ontario as Toronto home prices were out of our reach financially even back then. Fortunately, we managed to get in just before mortgage rates surged to 18%.
We joined the ranks of commuters and loved our little no-frills townhouse with cheap broadloom and Formica countertops. I clearly remember Dad asking me the size of the lot when we announced our big purchase. “It’s 22 ft. by 100 ft.” I replied. “No. Not the house. What’s the size of the lot?” he asked again. “That IS the lot size” I replied. Coming from a small town, he couldn’t imagine a lot that small.
It was three years before we could afford to buy a clothes dryer because we had the budget for only four appliances and I so badly wanted a dishwasher. I hung wet clothes on lines in the (unfinished) basement. In those days, most of our parents who were raised in The Depression weren’t in a position to help out with a down payment. At least today’s young people have an advantage we did not.
Compare our first home standards and those of our parents with those expected by young people today. Would today’s young people be satisfied with anything less than granite countertops, a two-car garage and the full complement of appliances and upgrades? Different times; different expectations.
There is a solution
Without a doubt, something must be done to help young families buy a home. Apart from lowering their expectations, which is the most logical place to start, it’s time to get creative with solutions. The cost of land is a major obstacle, especially in urban areas where a million dollars will buy you a tear-down. Density is one solution and buying a condo is often the first step into the real estate market. Hopefully, investment in a well-located condo will increase in value over the first few years and that can be leveraged into something else. That is one approach.
Another approach I think we should consider is a return to modern-day war-time housing developments. Instead of wooden clapboard bungalows with no basement, what about neighbourhoods of engineered homes? There are some marvellous designs and technology in engineered home construction now. Lot sizes are proportionately smaller than for more ‘permanent’ homes and local building codes would have to be amended accordingly. Young families starting out could get into the market with a home constructed on a leased lot. Today’s engineered homes are outfitted with gas and electric fireplaces, ensuite bathrooms, and all appliances included. Some are even designed with a second storey.
While an engineered or manufactured home may not have the same cachet as a bricks-and-mortar house, it has value as a ‘starter’ home, just like those war-time houses. It would allow young families to enjoy having a tiny yard for barbecues and swing sets until they can afford to step up. Young families with or without children would be able to build equity and get a start in the market. As the workforce becomes more able to work remotely, land could be acquired in smaller towns and urban centres, improving affordability and increasing the tax base for smaller communities.
This type of housing appeals not only to young families but to us old boomers too. As we age and downsize, some of us still want a front porch, a tiny yard for gardening, and street-level access. And, I’m all for living without a basement as they tend to be nothing more than a giant repository for all our junk that we hate to part with.
As our generation ages out of the large, brick, three or four-bedroom behemoths with family rooms and double-car garages, that should open up a lot of new real estate, but at what cost? Will there be an eventual glut of large, boomer-style family homes on the market? Time will tell.
Imagine living Florida-style in Canada
Another option that I think is amazing is the style of homes that flourish in retirement communities in Florida. Single-storey homes with no basement and two-car garages are affordable and perfect for retired boomers. Even one-car families can benefit from the extra storage space offered by the two-car garage. They are available in two and three-bedroom layouts with a den for accommodating the big-screen television and computer desk. Entire retirement communities are built with activity centres, sports facilities, libraries and even golf courses, all conducive to community living and social interaction.
This style of home would work perfectly in Canada. Different price points address owner budgets and are available as townhomes, detached, semi’s, and four-plexes. Efficient living can be achieved in spaces from 1200 sq. ft. to 1800 sq. ft. with covered verandas and screened-in porches at the back of the house for protection from Canada’s vicious mosquitoes.
A few developers offer this type of housing but the inventory is limited and prices are rapidly climbing because of high demand. Such communities usually include a monthly fee for grass-cutting and snow-shovelling which is perfect for seniors.
As one of the older boomers born in 1947, I may not live long enough to see how things shake out, but when my time comes to move into a seniors’ residence, all I can say is, I welcome it. No more meals to cook and someone else to drive me around to see the Christmas lights and autumn leaves.
It’s something to look forward to, as long as my friends are in the same building when I can no longer drive. I’ve often thought a ‘pod’ of those engineered homes with a central dining and recreation area would be ideal to warehouse all us boomers. But that’s another topic for another day. Any ideas?