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The view from Joyce Wayne’s downtown Toronto condo is that of relentless construction. (Joyce Wayne/Joyce Wayne for The Globe & Mail)
The view from Joyce Wayne’s downtown Toronto condo is that of relentless construction. (Joyce Wayne/Joyce Wayne for The Globe & Mail)

Retirement and RRSPs

Living in retirement: Trading a suburban house for a city condo Add to ...

Welcome to our Living in Retirement blog, where a recent retiree chronicles the ups and downs of her real-life retirement journey.

Two years ago, I was living in a 3,000 square foot house in Oakville. As a single parent, my daughter and I had shared our home for ten years after my marriage ended. We were content in our Toronto suburb. The Recreation Centre with a pool, library and fitness centre was across the road. Parking was free at the mall, traffic manageable and work only ten minutes away.

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Our house was comprised of three floors. My daughter could be downstairs partying while I was on the top floor writing. But it was too expensive. Hydro, natural gas and municipal taxes were steadily increasing. The house, which was 21 years old, needed costly repairs: a new furnace, new windows and new flooring.

Instead of renovating I decided to downsize to a condo. I’d also set my mind on moving back to the city. Life in the burbs, however pleasant, was lacking the artistic and literary stimulation I was yearning for. The ultimate goal was to be debt free and on the fast lane to retirement.

With my heart pounding, I bought a two-bedroom condo with an expansive terrace. From plans. Purchasing a residence from builder’s drawings is at best a gamble, but I chose a condo on a raucous stretch of Queen Street West in a western neighbourhood downtown Toronto. I’d lived in a loft not far from there more than 35 years earlier, when I’d originally moved to Toronto. Three decades ago, Queen West was just beginning to morph into the unique arts and entertainment magnet it has become. I must admit to searching for the Queen West of my youth.

The upside of moving to a condo was the de-cluttering of the Oakville house. I shipped three truckloads to charity or the local dump site. It was a brutal experience, vetting decades of accumulated possessions, but I don’t regret it in the least. As faded school yearbooks were delegated to the dustbin, the weight of too much stuff was lifted from my shoulders. Now I could prepare to move in weeks rather than months.

The hitch was I’d purchased my condo five years earlier and to come up with the down payment, I’d leveraged my house on a homeowner’s line of credit. For more than 60 months, I paid interest on that line of credit. When the condo was finally finished, I was free to move on. My house in Oakville sold in one day.

I was in the glorious position of paying off my line of credit, most of my debts and the balance owing on the condo. Within months I would be mortgage free. Better yet, the list price of the condo had risen substantially. Retirement was in clear view.

What I didn’t consider was how the landscape encircling my condo would change. During the long years between purchasing and moving to my condo, Queen West residents complained about the new glass and concrete tower dominating their world. It would spoil the special character of the neighbourhood and push out the authentic artists, they argued.

In response, the land outside my balcony was zoned for social housing. It was an enlightened idea, but the view from my window is now of a 20-storey apartment building and not of the lake. The garden has yet to materialize; the water fountain was never switched on. In 2011, when I moved in, there was a huge mud-soaked field outside my window. Today there is the relentless noise of another condo being erected, which shortly will block whatever view remains of the city.

Moving into 895 square feet was traumatic, but the city below me is vastly more interesting than I could have imagined. I’ve made new friends and become a member of both cultural and social communities, confirming my decision to move to the city was the right one for me at the time.

As for my finances, they remain tricky. Condo fees are $537.85 a month. Might I have saved that amount over a number of years and refurbished the Oakville house? Probably. Could I have discovered a new, more fulfilling life than the one I discovered in the heart of Toronto’s artistic community if I’d stayed put? Probably not.

In the end, it’s been a trade off: physical space for a more meaningful life. But the move was only one aspect of retirement living. Soon I was to discover that retirement, no matter how well organized, is full of surprises. And my journey was just beginning.

In the next blog post, Joyce looks at health care costs in retirement.

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