Revisiting the Emerging Neighbourhood

A reader recently wrote in to ask me about the Distillery District following an early post.  He's not the only one to wonder about 'emerging neighbourhoods'.  While up-and-comers are an option for the first-time buyer, successful Cabbagetowns don’t grow overnight – if at all.  Before you decide to move in, consider these six insider tips.


1.    Pioneers are brave and crazy

In spite of the jovial dances and candied apple treats, you got the feeling that the Little House on the Prairie folks were a bit nuts to settle the Midwest.  While droughts and camp raids may not be on the minds of Torontonians, it takes vision and courage to see past crime and blight in the city’s lesser-known areas. “Everyone told me I was nuts when I decided to focus on Parkdale,” recalls Lucy Sanford, a local real estate agent who began working in the artistic neighbourhood over 20 years ago, “but I came from the theatre, I came from that environment, and I loved the architecture.”

2.    Fully furnished – with people

Emerging neighbourhoods, generally defined as being affordable for first-time buyers, are home to a mix of people who differ in everything from income levels to gardening philosophies (after all, Jurassic Park is a look for some).  “Be sure to spend some time on the streets and in the coffee shops to see the tenor and attitude of the neighbourhood,” advises Richard Silver, a real estate sales veteran and Cabbagetown specialist.  Move Smartly’s John Pasalis, a Toronto-area agent who works with many first-time buyers, agrees.  “A client told me that friends who bought in Leslieville were disappointed to find that some parents wouldn’t lobby to improve the local school.”

3.    Renovations are not created equal

Frenetic renovations and bidding wars aren’t always a good sign for an emerging neighbourhood.  Now booming, Parkdale experienced a sharp rise in home prices once before, only to crash when the market plunged in 1989.  “Back then, investors were buying to flip with quick renos that were terrible,” says Sanford, “The key difference now is that people are buying in Parkdale to live there.”  Pasalis also looks for higher quality, total upgrades.  “It means that people want to live in an area, but the houses are not the right size so developers and home owners are prepared to buy a piece of property and demolish it to build something that really fits their needs.”

4.    Evolution not revolution

While the business glossies tend to make ‘economic restructuring’ sound like a week-long event, it’s best to remember Darwin when it comes to emerging neighbourhoods.  “It’s not just about waiting for Starbucks,” Silver cautions, “It’s going to take time to weed out those dollar stores.”  Mary Lynn Biener, a social worker who has found west-end Mimico to be ideal for her young family, admits that the wait for trendier shops and restaurants can be trying.  “At first, I found myself driving to far flung box malls just to get out and it only made me batty.  It wasn’t something I’d normally do.”

Emerging_neighbourhood_2_3 5.    Two stops too far

Media hype can airbrush away social tensions, lack of transit and other obstacles common to emerging areas.  In late 2007, New York Magazine reported that the once unstoppable Brooklyn neighbourhood of Red Hook was ultimately a bus ride too far.  “I really watch out for poor commercial establishments,” Pasalis says, “as well not being walkable or really accessible by transit.  Even if other people call these areas emerging, I’m a little reluctant.”

6.    What’s love got to do with it?

While the words ‘up and comer’ may conjure up visions of a rising bank balance and HGTV glory, you need to love the neighbourhood you’re in – for better or for worse.  “Do you really want to live there and have it be your home?  If so, jump in,” Sanford advises, “But if you are only buying because you think the area is going to emerge, it’s not a good enough reason.  If the market slows down and you have to stay, are you going to be happy?”

Urmi Desai is editor of the Move Smartly blog.

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