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Calgary’s rare ‘hard lofts’ still in high demand amidst depressed market

Unlike other cities, Calgary has relatively few ‘hard lofts’ derived from 100-year-old warehouses. The Hudson, above and below, is one of four such buildings.

While supply outstrips demand across much of Calgary's depressed real estate market, there are still a few niche property types with consistently more potential buyers than buying opportunities: Lofts top the list.

By definition, a "hard loft" is a converted warehouse that is at least 100 years old, which means Calgary has an extremely small inventory: Four warehouses and 190 apartments, to be precise.

"We didn't really maintain those buildings very well in the eighties and nineties," Christina Hagerty, owner of CalgaryLofts.com, says. "Not in the way other places did, anyway. As a result, cities like Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver have many times the number of lofts we do."

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Ms. Hagerty says she has a 172-person waiting list of prospective buyers looking for the right loft to come to market. Their wait could be long: There are just three lofts currently for sale.

As Calgary's specialty loft realtor of more than 20 years, Ms. Hagerty has walked through all four of the city's converted warehouses prior to conversion and has watched the city's loft scene evolve since the mid-1990s. She's closed more than 200 loft sales in her career; selling the same lofts twice, even three times, over.

"The first conversion was the Hudson, which was originally owned by Hudson's Bay; it was converted in 1993. Second was the Lewis, owned by Lewis Stationary; then came the Manhattan, which was previously the Pryce Jones department store; and finally the Imperial, originally built for the Imperial Tobacco Company."

All four warehouses were built in the early 1900s and have the distinctive external features of lofts around the world: functional looking, centrally located with exposed bricks and large windows.

But behind the standard exterior, Ms. Hagerty says loft owners are anything but ordinary.

"People who want to live in a loft are most often entrepreneurial types, business owners, artists or just people who think outside the box. They're people who want to work and play, not commute. They want to be at the heart of city life."

They're people like Dan Blattler, a 25-year-old engineer who took ownership of his bachelor pad in the Hudson just a few weeks ago. He paid $445,000 for the 1,100-square-foot unit, which was sold "as is."

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According to Ms. Hagerty, that's a pretty good deal, with lofts typically achieving $450 a square foot, compared with condos in Calgary averaging $300 a square foot.

"We were the forerunners in pushing the price per square foot because we forced appraisers to take ceiling height into consideration. It's about the whole volume of space you get with a loft, not just the floor space."

The Hudson's 14-foot-high ceilings were a major attraction to Mr. Blattler who, at 6 foot 3, found condos "a little claustrophobic."

"I probably looked at more than 30 condos, but they all felt like variations of the same thing. I wanted something different but still city centre."

Mr. Blattler also viewed a loft in the nearby Imperial building, but fell in love with the Hudson's 100-year-old fir pillars and exposed brick walls.

"I preferred that to the Imperial, which is quite concrete inside. I went to school in Vancouver, and the Hudson really reminded me of the buildings there," he explains. "And I've been inside friends' lofts in old Montreal where it has that same industrial vibe, which I really like."

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The first-time buyer is currently renovating the property with his parents and he's excited by the prospects of wall-free living.

"I was looking for a fixer-upper; something I could invest in," Mr. Blattler says. "I see this being a four- to five-year home for me."

He and his parents have ripped out the kitchen and they're working on the bathroom, both of which will be replaced.

"I'm planning to put in timber shelving instead of upper cabinets in the kitchen to tie in with the pillars, and I'm taking out the bath completely and replacing it with a large shower unit."

Removing the bath will allow him to make the walled-off bathroom area even smaller, maximizing the open plan space.

He's also planning to move the gas fireplace into the middle of the floor to give his sleeping area privacy.

But whether this new loft owner sticks to his four- to five-year ownership plan remains to be seen.

Ms. Hagerty believes loft-lovers often form a long-term romantic attachment to their homes. "I've owned three lofts myself and raised my daughter in one until she was five; she slept in the elevator shaft and it was perfect for her. My generation of loft owners were the first ones to attach ourselves to that concept of living."

In those days not everyone "got it," she says.

"I'd show potential buyers around and they'd say: 'Where are the bedrooms?'" she says laughing. "And I'd think to myself: 'If you can't figure out where to put your bed without walls, you don't deserve a loft.'"

Ms. Hagerty admits she misses her loft. "It was my signature that I'm cool and hip. Often, selling means turning the page on that. It's always bittersweet and there's always tears."

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