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Choosing your "home, sweet home"

When it comes to buying the perfect home, there's no such thing as one type fits all.

A young couple planning a family might want a suburban house with a huge yard for romping dogs and youngsters. A single professional who racks up record frequent-flyer miles might consider a low-maintenance condo a "home nirvana," while an empty-nest older couple might find their perfect abode in a planned community that offers extra amenities for seniors.

The one thing these folks have in common is that they are part of a growing trend: buyers who are considering their lifestyle needs -- not just a house's price tag -- when they choose their home sweet home.

Fortunately, today's market offers housing options to suit every buyer's fancy, from traditional single-family homes to urban lofts, condominiums and townhouses.

While some people jump into the home-buying process with a very clear vision of their ideal home, Bruce Sworik, a broker with Sutton Select Realty, in London, Ont., says most of his clients are still working that out.

"Spend time with an agent to ascertain what you're looking for. Lots of buyers don't know what they want. What you want and what you need (can be) a lot different. Everybody wants a double-car garage and an in-ground pool, but what they really need first is four bedrooms for the kids."

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Colin Holliday-Scott, a Realtor with Royal Lepage in Victoria, B.C., agrees that developing your home wish list goes far beyond selecting the ideal number of bedrooms and bathrooms.

"People's homes should reflect the kind of people they are in the best possible light and most people don't understand that. Usually, people don't know what they should be living in and they need someone to tell them."

In the 1930s and '40s, people purchased their ideal homes but now the market is so limited, "it's so expensive to get that white picket fence. Or all those ideas of a cottage by the sea when you retire are not always an option," says Holliday-Scott.

Another big issue when choosing your ideal home is privacy. "Your location of decks and patios is very important these days -- you don't want people looking down on you knowing exactly what you are doing, but lack of privacy is something we live with more and more because of the amount of space that we have."

Last but not least, consider how much time you want to spend driving. "In Victoria it isn't a problem, but in Vancouver it's nothing to drive an hour and a half to work and back," says Holliday-Scott.

These are the most readily available housing options on the market:

Single-Family Home (SFH): This is the kind of house that comes to most people's minds: a detached home on its own plot. "Single-family homes in Canada are not the perfect white picket fence portrayed in so many movies -- there are many factors that go into the perfect home such as location, price and the personality of the home buyer," says Robert Linney, communications director for the Canadian Real Estate Association in Ottawa.

SFHs remain the most popular Canadian home option, according to Statistics Canada.

Pros: Best choice for people who want freedom in how they care for their home and who are willing to take responsibility for maintenance. If you want to paint your house purple with a red front door, the choice is yours!

Other pluses: In most parts of the country, SFHs are reliable financial investments that appreciate steadily over time. They are great for families with kids and usually offer the greatest amount of privacy.

Cons: Possibly higher purchase price and maintenance expenses than other housing options, depending on home's age and condition.

Condominium: You own the airspace between the condo's walls (but not the building or land) and share common space, such as parking and recreation areas. "Condos have become a major part of the real estate landscape for Toronto and Vancouver," says Linney. Condos account for 12.7 percent of homes in Toronto, according to the Toronto Real Estate Board (TREB).

Pros: They are great for owners who want to do minimal maintenance or who travel a lot. The condo association often provides landscaping and exterior building maintenance. Security can be better, since neighbours are close. Can be less expensive than SFHs, though some new luxury condos are quite pricey. May offer amenities such as a clubhouse and covered parking. Also, condos in urban centres may be within walking distance of upscale retail shops and restaurants.

Cons: They are usually smaller than SFHs and feature less privacy and more noise, since you may have upstairs and downstairs neighbours. Resale prices may not be as strong as for a SFH.

Townhouse or row house: These are similar to condos, except that units may not be connected. They often consist of several levels and a private garage.

Pros: Same as condos, but with less noise since you probably won't have anyone living above or below you. They are increasingly available in urban areas and currently account for 5.7 percent of home sales in Toronto, according to TREB.

Cons: They may be more expensive than a condo. The owner may also have responsibility for landscaping -- a pro if you have a green thumb!

Still not sure? Bankrate has lots of information for first-time buyers.

Melanie Chambers is a writer in London, Ont.

-- Posted: Sept. 20, 2004
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