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Downtown Halifax is the province’s hottest neighbourhood—is it right for you?

Haligonians are making the jump from renting to ownership, but what they get isn’t always what they wanted

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HM May16

“The dream is to be able to find a house that’s in good condition, is the size you want, is on the peninsula and you can afford,” says homeowner Denise Gow-Morse, 28.

Gow-Morse didn’t achieve the goal, but she came as close she could. She and her husband, Trevor Morse, moved to Fairview about a year and a half ago. After looking at many houses, the couple purchased a property that’s about a 15-minute drive from downtown Halifax.

“The homes [we looked at] were often lovely and the prices were low, but some of the neighbourhoods just didn’t feel like one I’d want to walk around by myself at night,” says Gow-Morse. “In the end we had to go on a bit of a mid-ground. We chose a neighbourhood that isn’t in Halifax proper, but it’s safe.”

Vixie Brown, 28, also factored in safety and proximity when she and partner Norman Allen decided if they should buy the house they rented in Spryfield.

“We have a cute home in Spryfield in a quiet, residential neighbourhood that was quite affordable and we love it,” says Brown, who took ownership of the house in January. “Looking outside of the downtown area and considering more suburban areas is worthwhile, as they are a short drive or slightly long bus ride from downtown.”

Some residents are achieving the downtown living dream, as new homeowners migrated to the peninsula within the last few years. The number of new homes sold in Halifax has held steady since 2013.

“The North and West ends seem to be hotbeds right now,” says Audrey Wamboldt, a mortgage specialist with Approved Mortgage Professionals Ltd. “That’s an area people are looking at. They’re buying up the older properties, fixing them up, and reclaiming that area for themselves.”

The walkability of these central neighbourhoods is a draw.
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“You have property that’s right in the heart of the city, so you’re in walking distance to pretty much everything. You have access to services like universities, schools, hospitals, and shopping,” says Wamboldt. “I think that’s why that demand is there now.”

Others are moving into the downtown area to live closer to potential job opportunities.

“When looking around and seeing the number of construction cranes around the city, that instills confidence in people,” says Glenn Musgrave, a property facilitator with Royal LePage Atlantic.

But these properties are also becoming more expensive.

“I grew up in the North End and my grandmother’s house on Fuller Terrace went for $96,000 and it would be in the range of $250,000 today,” says Wamboldt.

Musgrave says many of his younger clients are living in the downtown to start with, but eventually they move out to the suburbs or other outlying areas.

“Young professionals are buying homes in the downtown core to get the best of both worlds with work and their social life,” he says. “When they’re ready to get out of the downtown core they want space for kids, the dog, and everything that goes with that.”

However, location isn’t the only factor that’s taken into account when purchasing a new home. Buyers who need a little extra help have to look mortgage rates. These differ from year to year, bank to bank, financial situation, and type of mortgage. According to financial comparison platform RateHub, a current five-year fixed mortgage for a Halifax home costing $250,000 has monthly payments that vary from 2.49 per cent, or $895 per month, to 4.79 per cent, or $1,139 a month. This also depends on the agreed upon down payment or prepayment.

“The banks have guidelines as to how much they can lend you [and] the federal government has its own guidelines… if you’re in the five to 20 per cent down payment range, you can use up to 42 per cent of your gross annual income for your mortgage,” says Wamboldt. “If a person doesn’t qualify under federal government mortgage rules then that will determine the kind of house they can have.”

When the Morses looked for a home, the mortgage rates determined if they were going to buy a house or stay in an apartment.

“When my husband and I bought our house, mortgage rates were less than four per cent,” says Gow-Morse. “It was the lowest they had been in years, so we looked at the interest we would have build up over 20 years and decided it wasn’t an unreasonable amount.”

Another factor that comes into play is the look of the home. While some buyers prefer houses that need to be fixed up, not all do. When house hunting, Gow-Morse found a neighbourhood and price she liked, but not the house itself.

“The decor hadn’t been updated since the ‘70s and it had a mould problem, so it was pretty quickly written off our list,” she says. “The thing that made it stick out in my mind was there was one room in the basement where the floor was covered with a two-inch long, orange, shag carpet that went up into the wall; half way up the wall it stopped and a blue shag carpet started.”

Musgrave says not updating a home can hurt the sale. Sometimes, an updated home has a much better chance of selling than one that isn’t—even if it’s in a popular neighbourhood.

“For example, the Tupper school district [off Quinpool Road] is a highly sought after area,” he says. “But, homes that aren’t updated are going head-to-head with homes that are brand new or have technology upgrades and are the same price.”

Even if a seller owns an older home, they must first examine the market to see what kind opportunities exists or will soon be available.

“When you have a mix of high density residential, like an old residential neighbourhood that now has high-rise apartment buildings, people are looking to see where they fit in,” says Wamboldt. “If you’re the little old lady who lives on this street and is the only hold out and all these skyscrapers are going up around you, people are going to be looking at your property for development potential.”

No matter if a person is looking to buy or sell, it takes a lot of planning to ensure everyone involved gets exactly what they want.

“It does take planning and time, especially to raise money, but for anyone who wants a more independent living space, home buying is really worthwhile,” says Brown. “It really isn’t as insurmountable as people often make it seem.

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