Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Toronto glass condos not as great as you think

CANADA - Years ago an urban planner in Toronto, warned that all the glass condos Toronto was building would someday come back to haunt buyers.

At the time his colleagues thought he was daft, but he who laughs last laughs best.

According to industry experts many of the glass condominium towers filling up the Toronto skyline will fail 15 to 25 years after they’re built, perhaps earlier, and will need retrofits costing millions of dollars. Why?

The buildings in question (while made of pretty glass and steel) are grappling with nightmarish problems due to shoddy workmanship:

Insulation failures.
Skyrocketing energy and maintenance costs.
Water leaks.
Declining resale potential.

One Toronto developer calls glass-walled condos “throw-away buildings” because of their short lifespan relative to buildings with walls made of concrete or brick.

Toronto mortgage brokers are also shying away from such buildings, warning owners they would be better getting an older building which has passed the test of time. Glass condos are riskier investments.

No other city in North America is building as many condo towers as Toronto. Toronto has reshaped the skyline, blocked Lake Ontario from view. Even now there is 130 new towers are under construction.

Glass walls have been popular among developers and consumers alike because they’re cheaper than more traditional materials and make a good first impression. Builders worried about construction costs, production planning, inventory management, materials and delivering the finished condos on time aren't so worried about what happens down the road. They're primary goal is profits now. Such buildings aren’t energy-efficient and come with a hidden price tag that can soar down the road if built shoddily (and developers are more shoddy than not)

HOT TIP: Ask developers/builders about previous condos they've built, then go to those builders and ask the residents about the quality of the building and what they are paying for maintenance.

Floor-to-ceiling glass walls heat up and swell in the summer, freeze and contract in winter, and shift with the wind. The insulating argon gas between the glass panes escapes, the seals are breached and the windows are rendered useless against the city’s weather. Glass condos work well if you live in California and other locations where its basically summer all year around, but in a city with seasons like Toronto it is folly.

Eventually, the glass walls — the skin of these condo high rises — might have to be replaced entirely, with condo owners picking up their share of the multimillion-dollar costs.

Any of the glass condos built int he 1990s are encountering these problems now. Some of the buildings are even newer. The glass fogs up, the rubber gaskets and sealants starting to fail, and then complaints and lawsuits are launched. Lawyers start practicing their whipping with a reed switch.

Condo owners in a tower off Front Street are suing the developer, Concord, claiming the window-wall system in the nine-year-old building near the Rogers Centre has defects and water is seeping through. Other developers are facing similar lawsuits.

The high cost of retrofitting a highrise is also startling. At First Canadian Place, a retrofit will take three years and $130 million to complete. More money for the construction workers, but the building owners will be made to suffer.

Most condo owners have no idea about the expenses they’re in for and don’t ask the right questions. The buildings don't appreciate in value over time. They depreciate and become cheaper because of the maintenance costs.

The urban planner I mentioned earlier, calls such buildings "the future slums of Toronto". And he is absolutely right. Eventually the buildings will be used as rental units, and renters are harder on buildings because they don't care, causing them to wear down faster.

Buyers are looking at the glass walls with rosy tinted glasses. They are imagining romantic dinners, parties with friends in their ritzy condo... they have no clue that the glass walls undermine a condo’s durability and energy efficiency in a northern city like Toronto.

Glass-walled condos meet the requirements of the Toronto building code, although the code does not specify how long a building should last. Energy-efficiency is also a fuzzy area, since condos aren’t rated that way.

And what about the developers?

Well if the worst happens the developers can sell or split up their business. Declare bankruptcy or at least file for bankruptcy protection. They're not worried about energy efficiency or the long term wishes of the buyer.

"We don’t have energy-efficiency ratings on condominiums and that’s too bad, because we get them on dishwashers, refrigerators, and they only cost a few hundred dollars,” said Ted Kesik, a professor of building science at the John H. Daniels faculty of architecture, landscape and design at the University of Toronto.

Janice Pynn, president of the Canadian Condo Institute, isn’t sure energy efficiency is a big factor for condo buyers — even for buyers who care about not wasting energy. “People talk that they want it, but when it comes down to what it's going to cost them, it doesn't even come into the equation,” says Pynn, whose Simerra Property Management company manages 250 condos across the GTA.

“It really is ‘Can I afford to buy this?’ not 'What am I willing to pay to have a green building, or a building in the long term, that will be far more economical, and cost-saving and for the environment?' They're just not asking those questions.”

The end result? Glass condos in Canada are not worth the money you pay for them.

Check out other Canadian real estate oriented posts at My Search for a Home.

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