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Townhouse living – with no fee

Experts say fee-simple row houses end up being cheaper for younger couples because they can do their own maintenance and yard work.

Planners and housing advocates see ‘fee-simple’ row houses as part of the solution to high prices

People are confused when David Llonuc and Vanessa Prada tell them about their new row house in Surrey. No, it’s not in a strata, they explain: “Even though it’s attached to other row houses, we own it just like it’s a house.”

It’s freehold, they say.

“They always ask me, ‘What does that mean?’” says Mr. Llonuc, who bought his row house in a StreetSide Development project in south Surrey called Hycroft last year to give more space to their growing family, which now includes a five-year-old and a one-year-old.

Actually, freehold is the wrong term, even though StreetSide uses it in their advertising. A freehold refers to a piece of property that is not on leased land, which is not really the case here.

But the company’s slogan in its advertising – “Freehold means freedom” – conveys the basic idea of freedom of another kind.

The row house that Mr. Llonuc and Ms. Prada bought doesn’t have a strata council, which is a form of collective housing management that has become a prime feature of property ownership in British Columbia. It’s one that has enraged more than one owner, as strata councils have wrangled with owners over the noise of children playing, types of window coverings, smoking and the paint colours of their doors.

David Llonuc and his family relax in their home in Surrey, B.C.

The Hycroft row house doesn’t have strata fees, which was a primary attraction for Mr. Llonuc. He can do his own house repairs and gardening at a lower cost, rather than paying the $250 a month he did at his previous condo to have it done. And he doesn’t have to listen to anyone tell him what he can or can’t do with his house.

“The biggest appeal for me was the non-strata aspect,” says Mr. Llonuc, 33, who works in food sales and who has owned three other condos in strata buildings since he was in his 20s.

This form of housing – technically referred to as “fee-simple” row houses – is one that many planners and housing advocates in B.C.’s priciest cities see as a potential part of the solution to rapidly rising prices. It’s one that cities are making special efforts to try to encourage.

In Surrey, city planners developed a special type of zoning to encourage this form of ownership, which also results in a different kind of design for row houses, and has been urging applicants for several years to try to it.

StreetSide, a division of Winnipeg-based Qualico, finally did, with two new projects in the past few years.

Fee-simple row houses appeal to a lot of people who are currently reluctant to move into stratas, which puts a lot of pressure on the limited number of single-family homes in the region.

Architect and developer Michael Geller gives talks around the region to baby boomers wondering where to go next, once they sell their mostly empty three- and four-bedroom homes.

“Every talk I do give, invariably, people say, ‘I don’t want to live in a strata.’ By not being part of a strata, you exercise control over your own home.”

Mr. Geller says fee-simple row houses end up being cheaper for younger couples as well, because they can do their own house maintenance and yard work instead of paying strata fees to have it done.

So even though a similar strata-titled row house is typically cheaper to buy, in the long run, it might not be, he said. (In south Surrey, strata townhouses are selling for between $450,000 and $850,000, says StreetSide sales and marketing director Vanessa Isler, while single-family houses are selling at $1.2-million and up. The fee-simple row houses being built now are going for between $800,000 and $950,000.)

In spite of the obvious appeal, fee-simple row houses are rare in the Lower Mainland. There were some built in Langley and Coquitlam over the past decade, but booming areas such as Surrey and Vancouver have hardly seen any. Besides the two StreetSide projects already done, there is only one other fee-simple project under construction in Surrey.

One of the original problems was that provincial legislation made it complicated to build a fee-simple row house. One determined man in Vancouver, Art Cowie, built a set of fee-simple row houses at 33rd and Cambie more than a decade ago, but he had to build two sets of walls between each row house to comply with provincial law.

City of Vancouver lawyers asked for a change to simplify the process and the province acceded five years ago. Now, buyers just need to sign a party-wall agreement when they purchase so that everyone has a clear understanding of who is responsible for what concerning shared walls.

Planners in growing suburbs and cities have started developing new zoning categories to encourage construction of more fee-simple housing.

“We wanted to create more housing options in the city,” said Dave Stewart, a planner in Nanaimo. “It creates density on the existing roads. And it allows another form that is more street-facing.”

Mr. Llonuc says he much prefers the fee-simple row house model over traditional strata-titled housing.

So far, three projects have been developed, the most recent proposal with 20 units.

But, in spite of the encouragement, many developers are resistant.

“Lately, we haven’t seen many dance partners come forward,” says Kent Munro, the assistant director of planning for Vancouver’s midtown, where many townhouses are being built. The city, like others, has also tweaked its zoning to encourage the fee-simple row houses.

“It’s going to take a developer to jump into the pool. It takes one to bite the bullet and get on with it.”

It’s the same story in Surrey.

“Developers like to go with a product that they know,” says Ron Hintsche, the planning manager for south Surrey, who created a special new zoning several years ago to encourage fee-simple row houses.

So in Surrey and most of the region, developers continue to build strata-titled row houses instead.

Even in Vancouver, which would appear to be a rich market for downsizing boomers and upsizing millennials willing to pay for some independence, the explosion of townhouses and row houses on Oak Street consists only of strata-titled projects, some of them lined up perpendicular to the street, facing each other across an interior courtyard. Parking is frequently in a common lot underground, an arrangement that makes it impossible to have a fee-simple ownership arrangement.

Mr. Geller says that in addition to developers’ reluctance toward trying new things, many builders mistakenly believe that each house has to have a separate water and sewer connection, which they see as a significant cost. He says that’s not true.

As well, sometimes insurance companies are baffled by this arrangement, Ms. Isler of StreetSide says.

“It’s so uncommon, some buyers said their own brokers didn’t know what to do.”

Mr. Geller and many others keep waiting for developers to catch on, especially because of the variety this type of housing allows.

Mr. Llonuc, who bought his four-bedroom townhouse a little more than a year ago for $580,000, said one thing he really likes is the way he can have a basement, a detached garage and a small back yard, a combination that doesn’t seem to be possible with strata row houses.

It gives everyone a lot more options for playing, storing and using space in general, he said. It makes it feel more like a house.

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