Opinion
Rob Warburton
Rob Warburton

Living Small, Thinking Big: Real Estate Cost of Living Tips

There are plenty of ways to reduce your expenditures if you're willing to be honest about necessities and innovative about solutions.
Do you really need a monster home?

On EDGE: Opinion

Over three elections this fall, we heard a lot of complaints about the cost of living in the North, and how unreasonably high it is. But rarely do we really stop to think of what we are actually complaining about. If your beef is with the price of homes or how much heating fuel costs, then please pay attention to the next sentence. These things are ruled by market forces out of the control of any one of us. This means any energy spent complaining about them is beating a dead horse. Accept this, and move on.

As individuals, most of us have some control over our financial situations. I realize many folks in the North live on low incomes, receive income assistance, are in public housing, etc., and might think they can’t do much to alter their lot; but everyone can make the choice to focus their attention on changeable factors. Let’s talk about some of those factors:

Check your space

Why do we think that bigger is better? After World War II, many houses built in Canada were of the 1000-square foot variety. Last time I checked, whole generations were raised perfectly well while sharing bedrooms and, god forbid, bathrooms. Our notion of a bedroom and bathroom for each person must be called what it is: a want.

Yes, space is nice, not to mention your own bathroom, but as my family and I discovered a while back, to say you need it is a boldfaced lie. Here is the real question we need to ask ourselves: do I want this or do I need this?

Do you really need 2000 square feet for two people, or even three or four? Be honest, turn off your emotions and preconceptions for a second, and have a hard look at this. You might surprise yourself with the answer. If you, as my family has, find you can live a happy, complete and cheaper life in a smaller space, then move into a smaller space already!

Here’s where the rubber met the road for us. We had a single-family home that came with all the costs you would expect, from mortgage to heating fuel. We could afford it, but this meant our ability to do other things we loved, like traveling and spending time together, were compromised. After a hard look at how we used our home we decided to change our living situation and move to something smaller.

We bought a home that required renovation but came with two rental suites in the basement. The revenue they generate has given us the ability to have a single-family home at a more affordable cost. People in my basement, yes. Stress about missing a day of work, no.

Let’s not forget about location as well. Our home is near downtown Yellowknife. This allows us to walk to work, the grocery store and all the amenities we need. Not only does this negate the need for a second car, it drastically decreases the use of our one car to, basically, the weekend. Yellowknife is small, but for some reason we often neglect to consider where we live as a factor in our cost of living.

Cash castle

Many of us think of a home as our proverbial castle, but kings and queens of old had their castles making money for them. Why be afraid to think of your home in a similar fashion? If a smaller space is not an option for you, bringing in some revenue might be.

Traditional options exist that most of us are aware of, such as a rental suite or just renting out a room. Can you carve out a section of underused basement to rent out? How about renting rooms and sharing the common spaces? This requires people in your basement, or even roommates at the breakfast table, but it will seriously decrease the cost of running the place.

Other forms of revenue exist that don’t require extra people in your house. How about renting out a parking stall, that garden you never seem to get around to planting or that shop that is really a storage locker? If someone was willing to pay you $600 plus utilities every month for your garage, and all you need to do is declutter, why wouldn’t you? Look around your home and get creative.

Alternative housing

For a variety of reasons, most North Americans consider a single-family detached home as the ideal goal for all. In the North, this means you have to heat all four walls by yourself. In remote places like the sub-Arctic, we can’t expect to have the same options as, say, Calgary, with its huge tracts of relatively cheap suburban houses. It’s a simple supply-and-demand factor that affects everything from lumber to land, a factor which is once again out of our control.

Few people in the North equals low demand and, hence, high prices. The words “affordable” and “large single-family detached home” need not even be entertained in the same conversation; it’s an emotional response to a purely economic problem. Again, accept and move on.

So what’s the alternative? Shared housing options abound, such as condominiums and townhouses. They are the most common, but they aren’t the only options. Some of the alternates listed below do not yet exist in the North. My question is why not?

• Micro Housing: still single-family in nature, but designed to be extremely small and efficient. Think under 1000-square feet and small lots. The Woodyard and houseboaters in Yellowknife are loosely in this category, but many might be lacking in the efficiency and legality part of the equation.

• Laneway Housing: Very popular in southern urban centers. Instead of a garage in your back ally, you essentially put in a micro-house. More housing using existing lots and infrastructure means you get more houses in less space, at minimal cost. This is now allowed in Yellowknife through the adoption of the Secondary Suite bylaw. Construction is pricey in the North, but if you think of it as the land already being paid for, it suddenly seems pretty reasonable.

• Co-housing: This is the idea that if you share large common areas your actual private space needs are decreased. Think of this as a small condo that has everything you need. You share all the space you want such as a garage, gardens, art studios, etc.

In the end

We are starting to see these changes being implemented in Yellowknife. Secondary suites being permitted, smaller duplexes being built and condo sales are healthy. This shows that we are okay living in smaller, more efficient living situations. And there will be even more options in the future as the market begins to adapt to this need for smaller-space living.

Not all options covered may be possible across the North, but what we’re really getting at here is that you do have the ability to change something when it comes to affordable living space. Once you focus your attention on the things you can affect, and stop wasting energy on the things you can’t, you will feel a lot better, and maybe even save a little bit of cash.

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