A 'hip' lifestyle of one's own I
There have never been so many single, urban homebuyers—and condo-sellers know just how to reach them
The industrial-chic offices of Brad J. Lamb Realty are located downtown along Toronto’s busy King Street West corridor where, after a spotty gentrification process, the city’s most exclusive restaurants, interior design shops, and boutique gyms have established a decent foothold. Brad Lamb is Toronto’s self-proclaimed and undisputed condo king, and the fired-up star of HGTV Canada’s Big City Broker, a half-hour series about the fast-paced, high-stakes world of urban residential property development. Over the past several years, his firm has become ground zero for Toronto’s booming condominium market, and chances are, if you’ve ever visited the city, you’ve seen the man himself: hard-to-miss ads featuring his shiny, bald pate superimposed onto the body of a lamb have been splashed across billboards, benches and municipal garbage cans all over town. Subtlety, it seems, is not a requisite tool in the marketing and sale of condos.
At six foot five, Lamb cuts a towering figure. He wears a signature pinstripe suit. He’s got sharp facial features and he speaks in a clipped style laced with profanity, like a character out of Glengarry Glen Ross. Over the span of his 20-plus-year career in real estate, Lamb has cultivated a reputation as a mover and shaker, and talking to him you get the unmistakable sense that he sees himself as shaping this city while everyone else is sleeping. Condos are the future, he says. Actually, he’s been saying it for 20 years, and if you don’t believe him, try arguing with his company’s $3 billion in sales revenues ($800 million in 2007 alone).
“Back in the ’80s, condos were not cool,” he says, leaning back in his oversized chair. His desk is buried under precarious-looking stacks of papers, file folders and, most tellingly, a pencil sharpener in the form of a Willy Loman-type character lying prostrate with his pants around his ankles (you can imagine where the pencil goes). “They were shitty boxes in the sky. They had crappy finishes and crappy carpets and bad kitchens.” Indeed, when the condominium was invented in the ’60s, it was not as a lifestyle option, but as an economic and legal model for parsing up real estate in the sky. It was not until
a new generation of visionaries came along— architects, interior designers, developers and realtors like himself, with a real understanding of contemporary style and demographics—that the market began to see the true potential of the condo residential model. Condos are not just four walls and a storage locker, believers like Lamb will tell you, they’re an idea.
Though it’s tempting to dismiss this kind of talk as the self-promoting bluster of a born
salesman, in cities across North America condo units are mushrooming faster than anyone can count. Condominiums make up nearly one-third of all new residential construction in Canada. In September 2007,60 per cent of new homes sold in the Greater Toronto Area were in high-rise condos. In Vancouver, thanks to ever-climbing housing prices, condominiums are projected to make up 60 per cent of all MLS sales in 2007Construction is happening so fast that Canadian cities are actually in competition for cranes with cities like Las Vegas, San Diego, Seattle, Miami, New York, Atlanta, Houston, and others—all of which are experiencing the very
same type of urban residential explosion. Across Canada, it’s estimated that roughly three million people (and counting) wake up in a condominium every morning.
But condo-mania is about much more than an exceptional number of real estate opportunities for developers in the downtown core. Rather, it’s the result of a dramatic reshuffling of how people live—and don’t livetogether. The same impulse that drove suburbanism in the ’80s and ’90s—the need to create a fenced-off, affordable and controllable space for you and yours—is driving the condo boom today, only it’s been extended to new demographic groups: empty nesters looking to downsize, young couples who can’t yet afford a single-family home, and in some cases, families with young children. More than anything, though, this explosion is about the fact that North Americans are living alone in greater numbers than ever before.
For the first time in history, according to a 2005 U.S. Census Bureau report, the single
largest chunk of American households now consists of one person—no spouse, no children, no roommate or extended family. The number of middle-aged, never-married individuals living alone has climbed by over 250 per cent since the mid-’80s, according to a Harvard University study. Single Americans now make up 42 per cent of the workforce and 40 per cent of homebuyers.
Part of the appeal of the condominium, of course, is purely pragmatic. House prices and down payment requirements have become inflated to the point where buying any sort of home in the city is a pipe dream for your average middle-class single person
or young couple. Condominiums have emerged as a smart alternative, particularly for these buyers, who are more inclined to care about proximity to restaurants and theatres than big yards, good schools and nearby playgrounds. Add to that low interest rates and minimal down payments, and suddenly a whole new breed of homebuyer is pulled out of the rental market and into the world of mortgages and home equity.
In particular, women have found themselves amenable to condo life. Since 1994, households headed by unmarried women (with or without children) have accounted for nearly a third of the growth in homeowners. Condos generally provide a safe and secure way of living close to the action. There
are security systems and guards. There’s usually a concierge ready to sign for packages. It’s low-hassle: no worrying about fixing a leaky roof or cleaning out the eaves. In fact, a whole new demographic is emerging across North American cities: the Single Professional Woman with Condo. According to a study from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, almost one in five homebuyers last year was an unmarried woman. That’s double the rate of buying among single women only 15 years ago.
Among other things, the condo boom reflects a massive shift in economic power— the cumulative effect of years of social evolution. Women are choosing to live alone largely because, for the first time, they can afford to; and, if the numbers are any indication, they’re eager to experience the freedom of a lifestyle that was considered inappropriate for them
up until very recently. A New York Times analysis of U.S. census results published in January 2007 found that, for the first time, more American women (51 per cent) are living without a spouse than with one.
This proliferation of young singles and the housing to cater to them is largely symptomatic of a pandemic state of mind—an ideology of hyper-individualism that is making it harder for people to wrap their heads around commitments of all kinds. The proportion of married couples in North America, for instance, has been on a long, steady decline. Late-life divorce has become a widespread phenomenon; in the U.S., the divorce rate among those over the age of 65 doubled between 1980 and 2004. All across the West-
ern world, the number of people getting married has been plummeting. Meanwhile, other couples are choosing untraditional living arrangements, like non-marital cohabitation or LAT (living apart together)—couples who live in separate single-person residences, unmarried, but retain a commited intimate relationship. Life for both men and women has become much more fluid. Couples couple up, they move in, they move out, they marry, they divorce and they reunite. The urban condominium market caters to this fluidity.
For many people, condos are a seductive symbol of their hip, young, unencumbered selves. From the architecture to the interior design, the amenities, the designer-sanctioned choices of layouts and materials, tarted-up sales centres, websites and model suites—every facet of urban condominiums is marketed to meet a set of precise emotional needs: to pro-
ject a fantasy life onto concrete and glass. What this urban fantasy looks like is remarkably consistent: a luxurious reimagining of the “authentic” artists’ lofts first made popular in the ’60s, with wide open spaces that promote creativity and deliver a quintessential bohemian bourgeois sensibility.
More important than the design of the building itself, however, is the marketing campaign used to sell it. Current averages of development costs show a division of about five per cent toward design and a whopping 15 per cent toward marketing, says Mason White, a Toronto architect and a lecturer at the University of Toronto’s faculty of architecture, landscape and design. “That 15 per cent,” he says, “is people sitting in a room debating endlessly: ‘What should we call it? How are we going to sell it? Who’s our target audience? Let’s do a photo shoot. What should the brochures look like?’ Then finally, ‘What’s the building look like?’ ‘Oh, I don’t know. Just make a space, 700 sq. feet, kitchen, done.’ ” The reason the pre-construction marketing push is so crucial, he says, is because condominiums are infinitely more “brandable” before they actually exist. The buildings themselves—whether they are 10 stories or 20 stories, mostly glass or mostly brick—tend not to differ that much from one to the next. Condos, says White, “are the only building type that typically has another temporary building, the sales centre, built in anticipation of its coming.”
These sales centres, staffed by attractive, stylish young people the market wants to identify with, are like sets. Laid out are glamorous mock-ups of the amenities: rooftop bars, tanning cabanas, private screening rooms, swimming pools, a gym with yoga room, a karaoke party room, or maybe an on-site spa. Sales centres are designed to promote what White calls “atmosphere amenities,” the intangibles like luxury, social acceptance, and access to the in-crowd, that carry a more powerful emotional wallop than any workout or party room ever could. “We want to make people feel like they are that [fantasy] person,” says Lamb, “that they’re living a hip, cool downtown lifestyle by being in that space—even if they’re not.” It’s about creating an environment that tells people that, by buying this tiny piece of property in the sky, you are investing not in a couple of rooms, but in a fully realized, designer-sanctioned, fully catered lifestyle.
This need among buyers to see their homes as a sort of affirmation—and as a reflection of their idealized selves—is increasingly leading condo developers to create a whole new culture of “you-centred” living. In Toronto, one new development called Boutique, for
example, located in a prime spot in the Queen Street West area, is a typical example of the many new developments pushing their property as a “residential hotel.” The idea is that here, you will not just be an anonymous resident; rather you’ll be a VIP guest in your own home. At Boutique, residents will have access to 24-hour pay-per-use “privileged concierge services à la carte.”
Whether you’re looking for restaurant reservations, theatre tickets, a dog-walking service, housesitting or housekeeping services, laundry dry-cleaning, or grocery delivery, the inhouse concierge will make it happen.
Condo developments are also marketed to appeal to different urban tribes. So for instance, in Toronto, if you’re an arty person, maybe you’ll buy into the Bohemian Embassy, a west-end building that, according to its website, “is looking for freethinking, art-loving, unconventional urbanites to take up digs in its chic, unique and oh so Bohemian residential suites.” (As though any self-respecting unconventional urbanite would ever heed such a call.) Or maybe a buyer sees himself as the type to rub shoulders with celebrities. Toronto’s Festival Tower, now under construction, will function as headquarters for the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival: “One part condo. One part film festival.” It’s “a world first.” Or perhaps she identifies as an eco-minded sophisticate? Perhaps she’ll consider Rezen, a condo that, according to its creators, embodies “a new zenitude.” Suites are described as “sanctuaries,” and the website graphics show a person, presumably a resident, in a yoga meditation pose—and a sand garden, ostensibly newly raked by an obliging downtown monk.
Avant-garde developers make a big show to prospective buyers of the many ways in which they can customize their purchase. These sorts of personal touches were unheard
of in the condo market 20 years ago, when condos were first and foremost functional, low-cost spaces. Today, forward-thinking developers will recruit the biggest names in interior design to select a limited range of standard options for buyers: three or four different hardwood stains, and a few choices in the colour of tiles, backsplashes, countertops and cabinetry, for example. Buyers can also invest in upgrades —a kitchen island, maybe, slate bathroom floors, or stainless steel appliances; they cost more, but the more money you spend, the pitch goes, the more “unique” your home will be. Even though the choices are very limited, the important thing is creating the illusion that the final selections were yours.
In truth, the sell is an inch deep, an exercise in co-operative self-delusion. Nobody becomes an arty bohemian just by buying into a space—and if they did, you’d have to wonder about their definition of the term. And structurally, there is only so much even the most brilliant architects, designers and developers can do with, say, a 700-sq.-foot box. They can play with ceiling heights. They can decide to add balconies or terraces onto some units. More often than not, developers say, it’s the little details that hook people. Maybe it’s the soaker tub that makes the sale. Or a sexy bathroom vanity. A woman might see it and imagine herself there some morning, perhaps wearing a fabulous silk kimono, and performing her morning ablutions. “You have a nice vanity with a nice sink and a very contemporary tap—it gets them every time,” says Lamb. Because the box is not what they’re selling anyway. M
Excerpted from The Ego Boom: Why The World Really Does Revolve Around You by Lianne George and Steve Maich, to be published by Key Porter in the fall of2008.