The listing: 171 Willow Ave., Toronto
Asking price: $2,890,000
Taxes: $4,895 (2019)
Lot size: 25 by 118 feet
Agent: Daniel Shafro, Sutton Group-Admiral Realty Inc., Brokerage
The newly built house at 171 Willow Ave. is a study in bad timing.
“When we bought this house, it was in that ridiculous market,” said Robert Spektor, the seller. “Before we got to this house, we looked at 30 or 40 houses that were complete dumps and they were going for a million bucks.” He ended up buying Willow for $1,070,000 in January, 2017. From the beginning, the plan was to tear it down and build something better; he had sold his Parkdale loft and was ready for the next step.
“I had this idea of building a starter dream home for myself,” he said.
There’s a well-known pattern in Toronto where a small bungalow, sometimes 50-60 years old, is gutted back to one or two walls and a new monster home is built on top of the old footprint. It helps avoid development fees by classifying the resulting house as a renovation rather than a completely new build – not a small issue, as according to construction lobbyists at BILD, Toronto has the highest development fees in the country.
But when is a recently completed massive renovation not simply a flip? Mr. Spektor would argue it’s when the owner had every intention of living there – before his fiancé left him.
Mr. Spektor doesn’t want to get into the nitty gritty of the personal issues that ended his relationship in the middle of the two-year construction project, but as he shows off every near-obsessive detail in the house he hoped to start the next phase of his life in, it’s hard to imagine he built this house for anyone else. But now, it’s for sale … at a $2-million premium from what he paid for it. He won’t say how much he spent, but there are many clues that this wasn’t a house built on bargains.
“I’m not a builder, but I don’t want crappiness,” he said. “I learned when you tried to cut the corner, it ends up biting you in the ass.”
The house today
The house is set into a steep hill on Willow Avenue and the backyard rises toward the rear neighbours. Once, it was a two-bedroom cottage with a faux-Tudor roof (the neighbour at 169 Willow is a good reflection of what it used to be). Now, it’s a three-storey modernist block on top of the original brickwork. The façade is clad in burned-wood siding with commercial-grade windows.
From the street it is not out of context; nearby, there are other modernist houses of similar shape, and the Douglas Fir window frames on the front of the house soften the charcoal and black of the other features. Still, Mr. Spektor struggled at the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal to get approval from neighbours who opposed his plans. “When we started this project," he said, "I could have gotten more lot coverage, but we took a modest approach. What we lost in size we made up in functionality.” The house today has close to 2,800 square feet of living space, with four bedrooms and five bathrooms.
The living room is open concept, separated only by furniture features. The raw-oak floor stretches all the way from the front to the back door (about 45 feet of wood makes an impression). On the right is a staircase with a glass wall leading upstairs, below it is a staircase leading to the basement. The main-floor powder room is behind the stairs.
Mr. Spektor is the scion of the owners of Perfect Glass & Mirror Ltd., supplier of everything from showers and railings for low-rise homes to structural curtain-wall glass. The house is filled with the family firm’s glass, in particular the higher-end Starphire product (the difference being you’ll see a blue tint on the edge of a pane, unlike cheaper glass that has a greener tint from the iron content). The dining room table is from Starphire, as is the stair-wall (laminated, so it won’t shatter), as are all the windows.
“It’s double the price of regular glass. It’s one of those products I don’t push on people unless conditions call for it,” said Mr. Spektor, who has worked for his father’s company on and off for years. That’s where he gleaned many of his ideas for the house; when consulting on a glass install at some high-end client, he was taking notes.
The kitchen is one of those areas where Mr. Spektor eschewed the classic flip-house aesthetic. Rather than use a showier counter product such as carrara marble, he used Laminam ceramic slabs because his short-lived experience as a chef made him aware that marble stains. There are Franke plumbing fixtures, a Monogram fridge, custom cabinets. “I can’t put in Wolf appliances and skimp, and do a kitchen for $15,000,” Mr. Spektor said.
In the basement, finished out in classic man-cave style, he hid elements such as water service behind custom panels, and filled the utility room with a high-efficiency furnace and tankless water heater and a data hub that integrates all the digital-media needs (each bedroom has hard-wired Ethernet for smart TVs), as well as powering the WiFi, built-in speakers (indoor and outdoor) and integrated security system with both cameras and sensors.
The second floor is essentially all bonus to Mr. Spektor; since April, when he finished the house, he has lived mainly on the third floor. But the second level’s three bedrooms and three-piece en suite make 171 Willow a family home. They are all spare: white walls, oak floors, but the light fills the space, thanks to a two-storey street-facing window that frames the atrium-like hallway. This architectural feature is one of Mr. Spektor’s favourites, and he had plans to put a hanging chair here, but is now content to leave that decision to future buyers.
At the top of the third-floor stairs is a door to the rear roof-deck, made out of Brazilian Ipe (a mahogany-like rainforest wood), that Mr. Spektor said is like “living in a treehouse.” The mature trees here do frame the space and turn it into a calming oasis (albiet, one surrounded by neighbours higher on the hills).
The master suite looks onto the deck through a large window (another family product), which currently has no coverings: another concession to future buyer taste (for now, trees provide a decent privacy screen, though in the winter it could be a different story).
Behind the master is a deep walk-in closet, and on the other side of that is the gigantic master bathroom. This 20- by 20-foot space takes up the whole front of the house and has heated floors, with flush-mounted ceiling shower head and open glass stall, a free-standing tub and his and hers vanities. Here too, you can see some of Mr. Spektor’s deeply personal fixations.
Take the drains, right now there are plastic covers but even though he’s selling the house he’s waiting on his tile contractor to bring in custom-cut tile plugs to clean up the look.
“It’s been so stressful,” he said. “For everything I achieved in this house, I had to break my head and go through a million steps. The amount of time and effort that it took, I literally lived here on top of my supers and my builders just to make sure that like everything looked right.” Example? “I’m a little bit of a perfectionist; [the powder room tile floor] was a 16th [of an inch] off level and I’m like, ‘You guys have to change that right now,' ” he said.
Would he ever rebuild a house from the ground up again? He acknowledges that he could face tax trouble if he went right into the rebuilding market again, and he stresses that he’s not a builder, just a guy who had bad timing on when he would be ready for a dream home.
“I would never say never, but I think I want to focus on myself,” once the house is sold, he said. “If the feedback is good and people like what I did, potentially I’ll do a couple in the future.”
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