What Are You Looking At?

Condos | June 17, 2019


In one week, I will be bringing out a listing for a midtown condominium in a building where sales are, by the very definition, “hit or miss.”

My clients and I, however, have agreed that there is no reason for our listing to be one of the aforementioned “misses,” and this is based on fact rather than feeling.

In this building, many of the units have a view that is not very popular, in fact, I would surmise that this particular view is an absolute deal-breaker for many buyers.

We’re not talking about east vs west here; we’re talking about what these condo units look out at.

My clients are lucky to be on the other side of the building, so we won’t have a problem.

This got me thinking: what are the worst things you can be staring out at when you live in a condo?

So I made a list, as I always do, and here are my thoughts…

10 Staring at a brick wall

“Wow, great view,” a colleague sarcastically told me fifteen years ago when he saw the MLS photos for the condo I had just purchased.  Except that he, for some reason, chose to ignore my massive 440 square foot terrace with a BBQ…

Yes, my first condo did essentially start at a brick wall, and there was absolutely no view to speak of.  But I bought it specifically because of the outdoor space, which I turned into a spring-and-summer sanctuary, with large planters on both sides of the space, and sixteen Emerald cedars.  An 8-person dining set, a 6-person conversation set, and still room to putt golf balls.

So call me biased and defensive here, but I didn’t care about the lack of view.

My next condo, however, had a terrace that was almost triple the size, and a west-facing view of the CN Tower and St. James Park.  With a little more perspective, I looked back at my first condo and said, “Yeah, okay, the brick wall thing was tough.”

Not everybody buys a condo because of the view, nor should everybody.  This is a feature just like outdoor space, building amenities, location, etc.  It’s a personal choice, and not everybody values a view.  But staring at a brick wall?  That’s a tough sell.

Here’s a condo that sold last year, with a great outdoor space, but a little too much brick….

Should the brick wall be higher on our list than #10?

9) Overlooking the parking ramp

A friend of mine once lived at 650 Queen’s Quay in a south-facing unit near the top-level of the building, which faced directly south.

If you’re a geography buff, or a real estate one, you’ll know that south-facing from this building means you’re looking at Billy Bishop Airport!

My friend used to sit on his balcony and watch the planes land, and the few times that I was over there, I’ll admit – I did the same thing!  It was really cool, actually.

But do you know what’s not cool?  Overlooking the parking garage in a large, busy building.

Again, many of you live in units like this, and you say you don’t care.  I get it.

But if you’re on the second floor?  And you live in a 500-unit building?  That’s different.

I mean, can you hear the garage door going up?  Does your unit vibrate?

And be honest – how many people’s licenses have you memorized?  I’m not judging.  I sat next to the window at our 290 Merton Street offices for over a decade, and every time a car passed, I looked to my right.  It was reactionary; I couldn’t help it.  Today, I know the license plate of just about everybody in the building.  It’s otherwise useless, but fun if you want to creep the hell out of somebody.

I think I’d rather look at a brick wall than overlook the parking garage, if we’re talking 1-2 levels up….

8) Staring at a gas station

There are a seemingly-infinite amount of things you could be looking out at, and if you were to look at only businesses, there are probably tens of thousands we could name.

So why come up with just one for this list?

Well, as with everything else on this list today, I’m going by experience.  And I have yet to ever sell a condo that is directly across the street from, or looking overtop of, a gas station.

Perhaps it’s the smell of gasoline, and then it shouldn’t really be on this list, since we’re talking about our visual sense today, not our olfactory sense.

But I also think it has to do with the general thoughts and feelings that the mind conjures up when we see a gas station.  We think of the gas smell, we think of constant, almost frantic levels of traffic, and maybe we even consider the type of people who hang out in front of a gas station?

I can’t remember if Jay & Silent Bob were hanging out in front of a gas station, or if that was just your standard 7-11, but that’s an aside…

If we’re sticking with the film and television references, then surely you’ll understand this next parallel.

The one biggest problem, in my opinion, with looking out at a gas station is the signage.  The sign is unsightly during the day, but at night, it’s probably lit up, maybe even neon or LED.  I’m somewhat reminded of…

Yes, the episode of Seinfeld where a franchise of “Kenny Rogers’ Roasters” opens across from Kramer’s apartment, and the neon-sign shines so bright that he can’t sleep at night!

Anybody living across from a gas station will tell you that, depending on the company, there are signs that stay lit 24/7, and often light up your living room.

7) Staring into somebody else’s living room

This almost shouldn’t even be on the list, since Toronto is growing and it’s becoming more and more common to look out the window of your condo and stare directly into eyes of some random dude, standing in his living room, looking back at you.

Depending on how close you are to the building next door, this could be quite common.

Here’s a video blog I did last year on the topic:

And then there are some buildings where the design means that units look out at other units within the very same building itself!

The most famous example of this has to be at 75 Portland Street, which is shaped like a “U.”

I think they designed the building this way so that there could be a common elements courtyard down below where residents could look up and see all the balconies.

But in the end, it meant that owners of “courtyard-facing units” as we refer to them in real estate circles, result in residents looking across at their neighbours from about twenty-five feet away:

Since prices in this building are over $1,000 per square foot, it clearly hasn’t affected values.  This remains a popular building, I have sold to buyers in here, and residents will say, “It doesn’t bother me,” just as they would for anything in this Top-10 list.

However, just as one buyer doesn’t want to look at a brick wall, another doesn’t want to look at their neighbour cooking pasta while naked…

6) Overlooking the garbage bins

This is obvious, right?

There’s no debate here, I take it?

While some might argue that they don’t care if their unit stares at a brick wall, or looks at somebody else’s unit, surely nobody can pretend like they want to live above a garbage dump, right?

I remember years ago showing a condo at 18 Stafford Street that was on the second floor, facing west.  From the moment we entered the unit, we could smell something awful, and it got worse and worse as we approached the balcony.

This was the summer, likely mid-July, and it had to be 35-degrees.

We stepped out onto the balcony and this is where the illogical phrase, “I can taste the smell” comes into play.  It was the kind of smell that makes you chew, just to see if anything is there.

Beneath us were a meticulous row of black garbage cans, lined up like they were going on parade.  But despite their seemingly innocuous presence, within those cans was something so foul, that we almost wanted to call Gil Grissom and the team from C.S.I.

Maybe this point, as with the smell of the gas station, takes us off-book.  But even smell aside, who wants to look at garbage?  It’s like sitting at the table next to the kitchen at any restaurant.  I don’t want to see what’s happening back there.  I also don’t want to look out my window, every single day of my life, and think of human refuse.

5) Overlooking the street – from the 2nd or 3rd floor – on a busy street!

I never thought this was that big a deal-breaker, but it is.  Trust me.

I’ve had many female buyers tell me that living on the second floor is a “safety issue.”  A client of mine looking to buy at Rezen back in the day told me that this was her deal-breaker, and I said, “Oh come on, who’s breaking into your unit, Spiderman?”

Well, I thought it was funny…

The bigger issue here has to do with the “feeling” of being adjacent to the street, as though there’s very little separation between your private domain and the outside world.

I was at a party once, way back in the day, at 388 Richmond Street West.  I was on the balcony, sort of hanging over the railing, and a guy on the sidewalk said, in an “indoor voice” decibel level, “Looks like a raging party in there, eh?”  It was really odd, since I felt like I was inside the building, and yet this person who was outside the building, was talking to me like we were standing next to each other.  He then asked, “What unit are you in?” and I went inside.

I could have almost shook that guy’s hand from where I was standing, and since then, I’ve had a lot of push-back from buyers about looking out at a main street from the 2nd or 3rd level of a condo.

Also consider that people from the street level can see you in your unit!  If somebody were on the sidewalk across the street, that angle could probably give them a view of the first 3-4 floors.

If this is a busy, major street in downtown Toronto, you could end up with hundreds of people looking into your unit every single day.

Not my biggest fear, but definitely a critique of many of my buyers…

4) Overlooking a parking lot/future condo build

This goes without saying.

And once upon a time, say, a dozen years ago, downtown Toronto was filled with parking lots, and we didn’t really think about this sort of thing!

In 2019, are there even any parking lots left in the downtown core?  Well, if there are, my buyers won’t even consider a unit looking down at a parking lot, which is 100% going to be a condo one day, but first, a giant hole in the ground, then a loud construction site for two years.

I’m very surprised when east-facing units at 320 Richmond Street sell in multiple offers, for in excess of “fair market value,” whatever that means today.  This building is right next door to a car dealership that is going to be a condo one day, possibly quite soon.  That land was sold within the past two years for $60 Million, and I don’t think that price being paid has anything to do with cars.

Imagine having a beautiful, open, east-view, with morning sun, and then having that disappear on you?

Well, my buyers would never consider this.  I can’t remember the last time I sold a condo on a high floor that overlooked a parking lot.

3) Overlooking the proverbial “dark alleyway” where nothing good happens…

The funny thing is, this doesn’t even bother me!

And maybe the tall tales we’ve all heard about the “dark alleyway” have just scared us beyond comprehension.

But wouldn’t your rather look out and over a dark alleyway than look directly at a brick wall?  No?

As with things like the gas station, parking lot/future condo site, and busy street, looking over an alleyway is something that I believe has more downside in theory than in practice.  Some people don’t want to look out at an alley because it’s unsightly, some worry about the smell from restaurants, and some just can’t get this idea out of their head that alleyways are dangerous.

“I wouldn’t want to run into him in a dark alleyway,” the old adage goes.

But you’re not running into anybody in a dark ally; you’re merely looking over one.

I’ve had this experience a few times in the very same building: 66 Portland Street.

The north-facing units at 66 Portland Street overlook the alleyway where the restaurants on King Street West back onto.

So you have chefs and servers stepping into that alley to smoke cigarettes all day and night, plus people taking our garbage (remember point #6?), and then the loud dumping of glass bottles into recycling bins, plus deliveries.

Then how does the alley look?  Your friend Jimmy from work has a CN Tower view, and he talks about at aaaaaaall the goddam time!  You?  Well, you have a vew of grafiti, homeless guys pissing, and one beautiful piece of graffiti that actually is of a homeless guy pissing.  Kind of ironic, but it doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.

2) Staring directly at the highway

Based on how the downtown core is laid-out, this was bound to happen at some point.

Condos line the Gardiner Expressway, and until the green-enthusiasts succeed in having our major artery torn down as to apparently only increase commute times by two minutes, we will continue to see condominium units listed for sale that stare directly at the Gardiner.

One of the tougher condo sales I’ve had in the past few years was a unit that looked directly at the Gardiner, and it was such a shame, because this condo was beautiful.  The owner had exceptional taste, and had decked this place out.  It looked like it belonged in a magazine.

But despite the look and feel, and the price – which was a steal for an 864 square foot, 1-bed, 1-bath with a layout you’d be hard-pressed to find in today’s market, we weren’t getting any action.

When you opened the front door do the unit, if you looked straight ahead – about 40 feet, you could see cars.  In fact, if you wanted to press your face against the window, you could probably see the whites of the eyes of car-drivers.

Here’s a shot of the living space:

Gorgeous condo, and so well-presented if I do say so myself.  Between the owner and my stager, we made this place shine!

But look to your left, and you can see the Gardiner.  You can actually see a blurry car.

Now imagine being inside this unit?

Like I said, tough sell.

We eventually did get the unit sold, but not for what we had set out to achieve.  I sleep well knowing that if this unit were a tenanted-mess, listed by an average agent, we’d have got $50,000 less for it.  The client moved on to a home, and is better off, because I don’t see this being any easier to sell down the line.

1) Overlooking a cemetery

There is absolutely, positively, nothing you can do to change this, and nothing you can do to sell it.

I’ve tried, trust me.

Neighbourhood is dead quiet.”

Perhaps some people just don’t have my dad-joke sense of humour?  Come on – it’s Father’s Day!  Perfect timing!

Some people reading this will be aghast that this is #1 on my list, and some will even argue its presence on the list to begin with.  But I’m speaking from experience here, and this has more to do with the percentage of the buyer pool that will not even consider purchasing the unit, rather than those who hmm and haw at the idea, as they might with a unit looking at a highway, if it were available at the right price.

In certain cultures, cemeteries are bad luck, as we know.  Some cultures are more obsessed with the overall concept of death than others.  And over the years, I can’t tell you how many times I have found the seemingly-perfect property for a client, only to find that proximity to the cemetery was a deal-breaker.

I once had clients that were absolutely smitten with a property on Teignmouth Avenue in the Caledonia neighbourhood, and the property was on a dead-end (not trying to oversell the whole death thing here…) so it was super quiet and private.  The house itself seemed under-valued, but even still, it checked every box for my clients, and they even loved the style!  But guess what is immediately west of this property?  You guessed it – the cemetery.

Another set of buyers, years later, were in love with a house on nearby Chudleigh Road, and unlike the house on Teignmouth, it didn’t side onto the cemetery; it was actually a block away.  But one of the buyer’s parents nixed the idea right away, simply because of the proximity to the cemetery.

If we had another hour here, I’d tell you another dozen stories.

Instead, let me bring this blog post full circle and come back to my clients I mentioned at the onset.

They live in a condominium where roughly half of the units have a view of the cemetery.

Now as you might assume from my lead-in, they happen to own a unit that does not face the cemetery.  In fact, they have a wonderful view of the treetops on the north side of the building, and live in a corner unit with great sunlight.

We don’t expect any issue selling their condo, but the interesting part about pricing their unit was going through the sales and looking at the price-per-square-foot for units that both do and don’t have a cemetery view, as well as the days-on-market.

Even more interesting is how many units that do face the cemetery neglect to show this in the MLS photos.  In fact, I went through the last twenty-something listings, and only one photo shows the cemetery like this one:

Man, what’s wrong with that?

Honestly, it’s green, it’s unobstructed, and there’s no brick wall, no garbage bins, no homeless guy pissing, and no Kenny Rogers Roaster’s neon sign.

But it remains the #1 thing you don’t want your condo to look out at, that is, if you care about resale value.

As with any Top-10 list, I’m sure forgot something here, so please share.

But more importantly, if you live in a condo with a view of any of the ten things mentioned above, please chime in.

I mean, some people like their covered front porch, and some don’t, right?

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16 Comments

  1. Francesca

    at 6:57 am

    When I purchased my first condo, my building faced the 401 on one side and although the overall view was of the CN tower in the far distance I refused to buy a unit facing that direction both from a noise and view perspective of the highway. The north side where I bought faced greenery and other condos that were lower in height than the floor I bought on. I wanted to ensure my view would forever remain unobstructed. I remember looking at condos that faced parking lots and my realtor warning me that it was inevitable that they would build condos there one day. I’m glad I listened to her as those parking lots in North York were all sold to developers eventually. I can see where the superstition related to facing or being close to a cemetery can come from. Apparently in Chinese fend shui you don’t want your house to be facing a t junction either on a street as it means your money goes out the door. It’s interesting how when you buy a property you have to consider how the view and location can negatively impact your chance of resale down the road. In an ideal world everyone would prefer a property with the best view possible but that usually comes at a premium. Like a house that has a backyard facing a ravine or park with no neighbours behind it. It will be more expensive than a house on the same street that doesn’t have the same exposure.

    1. Not Harold

      at 9:13 am

      Not just noise/view thing.

      Within a few floors of the Gardiner/401 you’re getting a full cocktail of car exhaust. Not good for your health and you can see serious soot deposit if you have any outdoor space.

      Any outdoor plants will die VERY quickly.

  2. Ed

    at 8:23 am

    And be honest – how many people’s licenses have you memorized? I’m not judging.-David

    To be honest David most peoples minds don’t work like that. ; )

  3. Moonbeam!

    at 8:30 am

    David, a post for another day: What is the view from the back of your property? Your top-10 would apply. In my case, as you know, I have 3 GO-train tracks behind the hedges… the trains come more often during rush hours, and very less often during the day & on weekends. This was not a deal-breaker for me at all, but might be for some.

  4. Ed

    at 8:35 am

    Re the cemetery view.
    To me it’s a huge difference having your backyard adjacent to a cemetery compared to having a view of a cemetery from a condo.

    1. Not Harold

      at 9:09 am

      Ed I think you’re right.

      If you’re on the North side of Moore Ave you’ve got a wall at the end of your backyard so you can’t see it from the yard or main floor of the house. Since Mt Pleasant is so full of trees, most houses can’t really even see headstones/mausoleums from 2nd/3rd floor.

      Plus the side and front windows don’t look out on the cemetery.

      But if you’re in a condo on Merton looking south you’ve got a clear, unobstructed view of headstones and it’s likely your only view. At least Mt Pleasant is full of trees

      St Michael’s cemetery (West of Yonge between Balmoral and St Clair) is much more bare. A few of the houses on the North side of Balmoral rather directly look at it and the view South from the Granite Place condos is full on headstones.

      That’s MUCH harder to deal with even for someone who’s very, very white and just has some light superstitions. If you really care about Feng Shui forget about it.

      1. SW

        at 11:00 am

        Having lived on the north side of Moore (on the quiet dead end), I believe I was able to buy in part because there were fewer buyers. Hence my advice to all buyers: find something that may bother others that won’t bother you. Backing onto what is effectively a park (minus the view) and not having neighbours was great for privacy and noise levels.

        I always wondered whether that would affect resale value, and ultimately I found that was not to be the case; there were perhaps fewer offers than there might otherwise have but the price ended up being quite healthy. My agent also said that there was no discernible discount between Moore and adjacent streets. Pricing on the few units that have moved recently would tend to confirm this.

        i also think people despise uncertainty – facing a parking lot is terrible because you always wonder if they’re going to build, facing train tracks is also tough because it’s hard to get visibility on train frequency, etc If you back onto a cemetary, or face a busy street, you know what you’ve signed up for, and you know it’s not going to change.

        For that reason my biased self respectfully disagrees with David’s ranking.

        1. Not Harold

          at 4:45 pm

          Moore does see a discount because of traffic – those houses close to Mt Pleasant Ave and those on the eastern part facing the park and connecting over to Bayview. Same house on Garfield or Inglewood (away from Mt Pleasant) would go much higher.

  5. Geoffrey

    at 9:31 am

    My first (and only) loft purchase overlooked GO train tracks. And I don’t mean ‘a nice view’ I mean about 20 feet away. The GO train only ran 2x a day and otherwise it was a nice little ravine setting. But the first thing that people said – and me too – was ‘wow! the train is right there.. must be noisy, right?’ In fact, it was one of the quietest places I lived. But I knew when I bought it I was getting it at a discount, and would have to sell at one too.

  6. Pabrocb

    at 4:21 pm

    I could do a cemetery without blinking an eye. I’ve avoided alleys due to big restaurant fans, and light. But I get a bad feeling in my stomach when I even look at a photo of a condo looking directly at other people’s windows. Obviously this is the city, and is pretty much unavoidable. I don’t mind if windows are on an oblique angle, but couldn’t live looking directly in other’s windows, or they in mine.

    1. GinaTO

      at 9:49 am

      I was going to say pretty much the same thing. I wouldn’t want restaurant noise and garbage either. Cemetery? Sure! Guaranteed it won’t get torn down to build another condo, and the quietest neighbours ever!

  7. Frances

    at 6:16 pm

    Looking out at a cemetery wouldn’t bother me either – it’s quiet and it’s green, the best of all worlds. Looking out on a busy highway from an upper floor of a tall building would probably be okay but not on a lower floor. I’ve been spending a lot of time at the new Humber Hospital recently, the south side of which looks out at the 401 from about a block away and watching the traffic is fascinating. About the others, I agree with you although I doubt that people could see into an apartment from street level, at least during the day. A wall, a berm or a lot of greenery can damp down a lot of noise, especially in the warmer half of the year. And that big patio facing the brick wall would benefit from a wall of greenery in front of it. If you could install planters big enough to support a row of evergreens, that would work even in the winter.

  8. Frances

    at 6:31 pm

    And, David, “reactionary” in no. 9 – that’s not what it means.

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