Real Estate 101

A quick primer on residential real estate in Toronto.

Choosing a Realtor

Not all Realtors are the same. Tips on how to pick the best one for you.

Forms

Real estate means forms.
So. Many. Forms.

Referrals

Toronto businesses & people you should know.

Real estate in a hypo-allergenic nutshell.

The information here is not meant to be construed as legal advice or as gospel for you to base all your decisions upon. This is just my attempt to give you an overview of real estate in the GTA, simple-if-imprecise explanations and definitions for common terminology, and my opinions on how you can potentially make better decisions no matter which side of the transaction you’re on.

  • Assignment: typically refers to the purchase or sale of an accepted agreement of purchase & sale. Common with pre-construction condos which typically have a long period of time between the offer acceptance and the closing. Assignments can take place at the original, below (discount) or above (premium) the original purchase price. 
  • Bidding War: a bidding war is a dramatic way of describing a situation in which a home attracts multiple offers, usually on a previously established “offers date.” Bidding wars are great for sellers and stressful for buyers. But beware! Just because your home fetched multiple offers, that’s not a guarantee that you received the highest potential price for it. The quality of your Realtor makes all the difference.
  • Buyer’s Market: when sellers outnumber buyers (ie, when supply of homes exceeds demand for homes), you have a buyer’s market. Typically coincident with a slump in the housing market, this is when a buyer is most likely to get the best deal on the best house. It’s common to see homes sell below asking price in a buyer’s market. If you don’t know what a buyer’s market is, that’s probably because Toronto hasn’t had one in forever. 
  • Client: real estate associations in Canada distinguish between “client” and “customer.” While Realtors are held to a high standard of ethics that govern their behaviours for all real estate transactions, there are important distinctions between a Realtor’s obligation to a client vs a customer. A Realtor represents a client (and therefore, is responsible for the best interests of their client), whereas a Realtor provides only customer service to a customer. The ‘Working With a Realtor’ form explains the differences in detail. 
  • Closing Costs: typically relate to lawyer’s fees, land transfer tax (paid by the buyer), real estate commissions, and property tax adjustments. 
  • Closing Date: also known as the completion date, is the date on which the purchase-and-sale agreement is finalized and possession of the property conveys (transfers) from the seller to the buyer. Closing dates typically fall on weekdays (excluding holidays) during business hours.
  • Commission: describes the fee paid by a seller (and in some cases, a buyer) to the listing brokerage. The listing brokerage splits that commission with the co-operating (ie, the buyer’s) brokerage. For example, if you agree to a 5% commission on the sale of your home, your listing brokerage will typically retain 2.5% and give the remaining 2.5% to the co-operating brokerage. Contrary to popular belief, commission rates are not fixed in the industry. Although the majority of residential real estate transactions in Toronto typically have a 5% commission rate, the rate is whatever is agreed upon by the parties to the agreement (e.g. the seller and the listing brokerage). Notably, numerous so-called “discount brokerages” exist that offer low commissions often associated with a lower level of service. Regardless of commission, all licensed Realtors and brokerages in Ontario must operate in accordance with the Real Estate and Business Brokers Act (REBBA). Note, real estate commission is taxable, so if you agree to a commission rate of 5% on the sale of your home, you will actually remit 5% + HST (harmonized sales tax, 13% in Ontario).
  • Completion Date: also known as the closing date, is the date on which the purchase-and-sale agreement is finalized and possession of the property conveys (transfers) from the seller to the buyer. Closing dates typically fall on weekdays (excluding holidays) during business hours. 
  • Conditional Offer: offers to purchase a home are usually described as either conditional or firm. A conditional offer means the completion of the transaction is dependent on a future eventuality or action on the part of the buyer, the seller, or others. There are an infinite number of conditions, but the common ones in Toronto’s residential market are (a) financing, (b) inspection, (c) condominium status certificate review, and (d) solicitor/lawyer review. A conditional offer has its advantages and disadvantages: in a multiple offer (bidding war) situation, it can hurt your chances of getting the property. But it also gives you a potential cool-down period if you change your mind. This is where a free consultation can be illuminating. 
  • Condominium: contrary to popular belief, a condo isn’t a building but a legal designation for a residential property that has shared amenities or services that are managed by a non-profit corporation or association comprised of owner-residents of the property. Townhouses can be condos, for example. That said, in the GTA, a condo almost always means what you thought it means – an apartment that you buy.
  • Co-operating Brokerage: typically describes the brokerage (and by extension, the Realtor or registered broker or salesperson) that represents the buyer in a transaction. A co-operating brokerage typically receives its commission from the listing brokerage (ie, the seller’s agent), and this commission is usually half of the commission paid by the seller to their listing brokerage. For example, if a seller agrees to a 5% commission with its listing brokerage, the listing brokerage and the co-operating brokerage will each receive 2.5% on the sold price. 
  • Counter-offer: also known as a signback, is when the other party in a transaction (e.g. if you’re the buyer, the other party refers to the seller) counters your offer with a different one. For example, let’s say you submit an offer of $1,000,000 on a house that is listed for $1,100,000. The seller can signback or counter at 1,050,000. Technically, each party can signback or counter an infinite number of times, and signbacks are less common in a seller’s market, but they still happen. And it’s not just the price that can be countered: any term of the offer can be countered (conditions can be added or removed, dates can be adjusted, etc).
  • Customer: real estate associations in Canada distinguish between “customer” and “client.” While Realtors are held to a high standard of ethics that govern their behaviours for all real estate transactions, there are important distinctions between a Realtor’s obligation to a customer vs a client. A Realtor provides only customer service to a customer whereas a Realtor represents a client (and therefore, is responsible for the best interests of their client). The ‘Working With a Realtor’ form explains the differences in detail. 
  • Deposit: when a buyer submits an offer to purchase a home, a deposit is included in the offer as a show of good faith and to give the seller recourse if the buyer doesn’t complete the transaction. Deposits are usually in the form of a bank draft or certified cheque made payable to the seller’s brokerage “in trust.” If you’re dealing with a private seller (ie, they do not have a realtor), the deposit is typically made payable to the seller’s lawyer “in trust.” The deposit is typically submitted either with the offer or upon acceptance. If a deposit is submitted on a conditional offer and that offer is not accepted or falls through, the listing brokerage must return the deposit to the buyer forthwith. Some listings will specify a deposit (ie, “deposit must be at least 10% of list price”), but the general rule of thumb is 5-10% of your offer. The longer your closing date is in the future, the higher your deposit should typically be.
  • Firm Offer: offers to purchase a home are usually described as either firm or conditional. A firm offer, once submitted by a buyer and accepted by the seller, must complete on the agreed-upon completion (closing) date. Neither party can walk away from a firm deal, unless both parties consent to it. There are advantages and disadvantages to firm offers, for both buyers and sellers. For buyers, a firm offer will give you a better chance in a bidding war. But, if your financing falls through, you could be in trouble. Schedule a free consultation with me if you want to learn more.
  • Holdover: holdover is a term you’ll see on listing agreements, buyer representation agreements, and seller representation agreements, among others. When you enter into one of these agreements, there is a defined period to which the agreement applies (e.g. 30, 60, 90 days, etc). However, the holdover effectively extends the validity of certain terms of the agreement beyond the expiry date (most notably, the period during which a buyer or seller must pay a commission to their Realtor). If your Realtor ever asks you to sign an agreement with a holdover of longer than 30 or 60 days, ask them for an explanation. If you’re not happy with that explanation and your Realtor is unwilling to budge, consider finding someone else to represent you.
  • In Trust: a buyer’s deposit is held “in trust” by either the listing (seller’s) brokerage or by the seller’s lawyer (in a private sale). This means the money is held in an interim account and has not been advanced to the seller until the completion (closing) date. If a buyer does not fulfill their obligation to complete a deal, they are at risk of forfeiting their deposit to the seller, though it could get messy and litigious.
  • Irrevocable Date: when an offer is submitted or countered, an irrevocable date & time is included in the offer. It specifies the period during which the offer cannot be revoked by the party who submitted it. For example, if a buyer submits an offer on Tuesday at 4pm with an irrevocable date of Thursday at 6pm, the buyer cannot change their mind and rescind their offer before Thursday at 6pm. This also means the seller, in this example, has until Thursday at 6pm to either accept the offer as submitted, counter the offer with different terms, or merely to ignore the offer. If the seller does nothing by the deadline, the offer is effectively dead.  
  • Listing Brokerage: typically refers to the brokerage that has a valid listing agreement with a seller to market the seller’s home on the Multiple Listing Service (mls listings appear on realtor.ca). A listing salesperson or listing Realtor refers to the registered broker or salesperson employed by the listing brokerage who represents the seller in the transaction.
  • Multiple Representation: a situation in which a seller and a potential buyer are both represented by the same Realtor or brokerage. Since a Realtor is obligated to represent the best interests of their client (among other things, to maximize the selling price of a seller-client’s property or to help a buyer-client purchase a particular home at the lowest possible price), a situation wherein the Realtor or brokerage represents both parties to the transaction introduces a possible conflict of interest. Multiple representation is permitted, despite its many critics and opponents. It’s important to know your rights and the obligations of a Realtor if this situation ever arises. 
  • Realtor: Realtor is a trademarked term by the Canadian Real Estate Association. It’s generally synonymous with real estate salesperson, real estate agent, etc. 
  • Seller’s Market: when buyers outnumber sellers (ie, when demand for homes exceeds supply of homes), you have a seller’s market. That should be familiar to you, because Toronto has been a seller’s market for what seems like forever. Bidding wars and homes selling for over asking price are characteristics of a sellers market.
  • Signback: also known as a counter-offer, is when the other party in a transaction (e.g. if you’re the buyer, the other party refers to the seller) counters your offer with a different one. For example, let’s say you submit an offer of $1,000,000 on a house that is listed for $1,100,000. The seller can signback or counter at 1,050,000. Technically, each party can signback or counter an infinite number of times, and signbacks are less common in a seller’s market, but they still happen. And it’s not just the price that can be countered: any term of the offer can be countered (conditions can be added or removed, dates can be adjusted, etc).
  • Staging: refers to a range of activities done to your home to help maximize its marketability and appeal to shoppers. Staging usually involves de-personalizing (removing family photos), de-cluttering, touching up (paint, dents, etc), and often redecorating or refurnishing with rented furnishings and accessories. In the case of new builds, staging the property with furniture can help some buyers visualize the space more effectively. Some Realtors advocate for staging, some not so much. Some Realtors can handle the staging themselves, but most typically work with a professional stager.
  • Zoning: relates to municipal guidelines that govern the permitted uses for a given property. For example, if a property has ‘RD zoning,’ that describes ‘Residential Detached,’ Toronto’s most restrictive zoning type. Permitted uses are predominantly single family detached homes of a designated size. Find out more about zoning on the City of Toronto website. 

Residential real estate is many things: it’s an engine of economic growth but it’s also an indicator of economic health. It’s a means of wealth accumulation but it can also lead to debt accumulation. It’s a drug for some and a phobia for others. It can be exciting but it can also be nerve-wracking. It’s also something that invites a lot of opinions from a lot of people, myself included. I’ve had some big successes in real estate and some unforgettable losses. Every transaction has taught me something, but I’d by lying if I said I’ve never made the same mistake twice. I have. Because no two situations are the same, in the end. There are always new factors in play.

Real estate in the GTA has been one of the most active sectors of the economy for years. Until the pandemic, rent prices were going up significantly year-over-year, especially in city centres. And despite the pandemic, house prices have been on an uninterrupted upward trend for a long time. I do not share the opinion of those who think the housing market is a bubble that will soon burst. While every economy has its cycles of growth and contraction, Toronto house prices (I’m referring specifically to freehold houses and townhouses, not condos) will continue to increase for the foreseeable future. Why? For a couple reasons: Toronto is an immigration magnet. And not just any immigration, but economically productive immigration. Toronto also has a highly restrictive (don’t get me started) zoning regime in neighbourhoods, and this regime loves its single detached homes. That’s significant: while more progressive cities around the world invite modern build-forms that allow for increased population density (ie, converting a single family home into a multi-family dwelling), Toronto wants to keep its detached single-family homes detached for the lucky-but-few single families who can afford the > $1.5M average price of said home. Furthermore, there is a limit to Toronto’s urban sprawl, especially northward. There’s a thing called the greenbelt that is an expansive swatch of protected land where residential development is not permitted. While sprawl & intensification can and will continue to the west (Halton Region, etc) and to the east of the city (Durham Region, etc), with our perpetually behind and inadequate transit system, there is a limit to how far people will go. And if you’ve shopped for a home in Burlington or Brooklin lately, you know there aren’t any deals to be had there. One technological breakthrough that could give urban sprawl another surge is the autonomous vehicle, but if you’re waiting for that to affect house prices, you’ll be ready for assisted living.

The basics of a real estate deal are this: a seller lists their home, usually on MLS (the multiple listing service) though there are alternatives, including a private sale that you promote with a lawn sign and probably on social media. Prospective buyers view the house, usually with their own realtor (or with the seller’s, if the buyer doesn’t have a Realtor). One or more prospective buyers submit an offer to purchase the home, with or without conditions (ie, a firm or conditional offer), below, at, or above the list price, with a short or long closing. The seller either accepts, counters, or ignores an offer (note: a seller has no obligation to sell a home just because they listed it). If a conditional offer is accepted, it is not a firm offer until the conditions have been waived. If one or more conditions are not waived by the stated deadline, then the offer is dead and the property reverts to “available” status on the market. A conditional offer is not public, so no one will know, for example, what price you accepted. Once a firm offer is accepted (or once the conditions have been waived in a conditional offer and therefore becomes firm), then the countdown begins to the closing or completion date. The buyer and seller each retain a real estate lawyer to handle the ultimate conveyance of the property, ie, the transferring of title from the seller to the buyer. This includes a lot of important steps, including ensuring the title is clear of any liens or encumbrances (aside from mortgages that will be paid off and discharged at closing). The buyer will finalize their mortgage with their bank or mortgage broker. The buyer will also be required to pay land transfer tax at closing, setup all the utilities (water, electricity, etc) to commence on the day of closing. The seller will arrange for utilities to be cancelled on or before the closing date, arrange for move out, and ensure the property is reasonably clean for the new owners and that everything that was included in the sale (appliances, light fixtures, etc) are in the same or better condition as when the offer was accepted. That’s a wordy-but-honestly-short version of a purchase-and-sale of a house in Toronto. Condos are similar, but have a few extra steps that relate to the condominium corporation. If you want the longer version, gimme a holler.

One other thing: real estate is not a zero sum game, meaning, there doesn’t have to be a winner and a loser in every deal. On the contrary, the best deals in real estate are those corny-but-true win-win-win deals. The seller gets a great price and banks accumulated equity. The buyer gets a home that will likely appreciate significantly for the foreseeable future. And the realtors? Well, they made some bank for their troubles, and if I’m being honest, it’s been a banner decade for Realtors. That’s probably why so many people are becoming real estate salespeople. If you ask me, it’s an industry that will continue to get disrupted significantly, and more in the next 5 years than it has seen in the last 50. But that’s just my opinion.

BUY OR RENT?
The decision to buy vs rent is one many people wrestle with, particularly younger people. There’s no blanket answer here. The right decision depends on your individual situation. Here’s something to think about:

What is the vacancy rate, or said differently, how hot is the rental market? A low vacancy rate generally equates to high rental prices and high demand for rental units (ie, a “landlord’s market”). Prior to the pandemic, renting in Toronto was proving to be an expensive affair and increasingly so year-over-year. You could expect to pay close to $3000 for a 700 square foot 1-bedroom condo downtown. Now, this period of high rent prices in Toronto also coincided with historically low mortgage rates. Depending on the property, you could get a mortgage for well below the cost of rent and start building equity in your own property. Even when you add the monthly costs of property tax and condo maintenance fees, you could still be in a situation where the cost of renting and the cost of owning are similar. So why rent? Well, assuming you can get a mortgage in the first place, you may not have the minimum 5% downpayment to buy. Or maybe you do, but you want to invest that money in your business or the stock market. While owning property has been the most common method of accumulating wealth, many people would rather live mortgage-free and use their money on other endeavours. One thing is true: barring an alien invasion or other unforeseeable calamity, it will always be more expensive to buy a home tomorrow than it is today. This is particularly true of land (a house, a freehold townhouse, etc). However crazy you think prices are today, in comparison with other major metropolises around the world, Toronto is still relatively cheaper, which means there’s nowhere to go but up. Anyways, if you want help, just holler.

SELL OR LEASE?
The decision to sell or lease is not a common dilemma facing homeowners, but a few people are lucky enough to be in that situation. I will admit my bias upfront: I loathe being a landlord. I keep promising myself I’ll never take on a tenant again, then I go do it, and regret it soon thereafter. I’m sure my remark will invite some activist-tenant-trolls (Toronto has one or two), the Residential Tenancies Act is comically, absurdly biased in favour of tenants. There’s a little thing called “the right to tenure” in the Act that basically says once you take on a tenant, you can’t end the tenancy after the rental contract expires except in certain circumstances. Think about that for a minute. You enter into a contract with a tenant for a fixed term (say, one year) and at the end of that term, unless you and the tenant MUTUALLY agree to end the tenancy, that tenant can stay there indefinitely on a month-to-month arrangement, unless you require the unit for personal use (and a couple other reasons). If you decide you want to sell your place? Sorry. That’s not grounds to end a tenancy. If you decide you want to have a place for when your niece comes to town? Sorry, nieces are not acceptable family members under the definition of “personal or family use.” This tangent-cum-rant when on a bit longer than intended. If you’re deciding whether to sell your place or lease it, much like the buy vs rent situation, the best answer depends on your individual circumstance. What are the pros/cons of freeing up your equity in a sale to allocate to other endeavours? Is it a seller’s market or a buyer’s market? If you’re in a buyer’s market and don’t have to sell, you may want to wait until the market recovers. How well do you know the tenants? Are these short-term tenants who are pretty much guaranteed to leave after the initial term (are they renovating or building a home, for example)? There’s a lot to consider and I’m happy to give you advice on your situation.

Choose your Realtor wisely. Or it will cost you.

So, you spent some time on Hossopolis and have learned enough about real estate to become dangerous. Now what? Well, if you’ve decided you want a Realtor help you purchase, sell, or lease a home, the question is “which Realtor should I choose?” Simple: me. Kidding. No, like so much in this business, the answer depends. Simply put, not all Realtors are the same. The best Realtor for single detached homes in Etobicoke may not be the best Realtor to help sell your triplex in Markham. A Realtor who works for a recognizable real estate company (you know the ones) is not necessarily better than one who works for a real estate company you’ve never heard of. At the risk of starting a scandal, real estate company brands don’t mean as much today as they used to. Thanks to the democratization of the internet, people really rank high on their list of concerns what logo is on the real estate sign on the lawn. Sorry, but it’s true. Here’s another truth that might invite some scorn from my fellow Realtors: the more desirable your property is, the more you’re in a position to dictate terms of your listing agreement. It’s understandable why someone sitting on a gem of a property in Etobicoke’s Kingsway area or midtown’s Lawrence Park area of midtown – who happens to know that every oldish home in the area gets multiple offers and goes over list price – would ask the question: what are you going to do for me, Realtor? If all it takes to sell your home for “over asking” is to list it on MLS at an obviously low price, then why are you paying someone a commission of X% to do that? I’ll take you back to my recent example. A rare property (rare because of the low-turnover street with massive lot sizes) came on the market at a price that was absurdly low in the still-early days of the pandemic. The lawn sign had the name of a familiar Realtor and the logo of a familiar company. The house sold for over asking, but not by much, and for considerably less than a nearby comparable. I’m being conservative when I estimate the sellers lost $500,000 on the deal. I still can’t get over it, and that one transaction was a factor in me creating this website.

Here is a list of things to consider when choosing the right Realtor for you, whether for a purchase, sale, or lease, and some questions to ask a Realtor before you commit to them:

  1. Choose a Realtor familiar with your neighbourhood. This doesn’t mean you should work only with a Realtor whose name you see on a lot of signs in your neighbourhood, but you want someone who knows the area, either through practice or through research. Knowing the neighbourhood’s characteristics, amenities, schools, transactions, etc, should all inform how effectively your Realtor 
  2. Choose a Realtor experienced in your property type. Marketing a condo is different than marketing a house. For starters, if you’re selling a condo, you’ll likely have a lot more direct competition (other units in the same building) than you will if you’re selling a house. The same is true on the buying side: you’ll have a lot of options for buying a condo in a chosen geography, but buying a house can be a more complicated affair. Add school districts to the mix and it gets even more challenging. A lot of Realtors see themselves as generalists (able to help you with any building type in any geography), but some are simply more effective than others, depending on the situation.
  3. What commission do they charge and why? A simple question that should be met with a simple answer. If not, move on.
  4. How will they market your home? A Realtor gets a commission, sure, but the ones who earn their commission do so because of marketing effectiveness and a commitment to maximizing your selling price or helping you purchase the home you want for the best possible price. Are you a buyer who is getting frustrated because you keep losing out in multiple-offer scenarios? If a Realtor can’t give you a convincing answer why you’re always a bridesmaid and never a bride, then move on. If you think their marketing plan sounds a bit weak, move on. If your Realtor convinces you multiple offers is synonymous with success, MOVE ON.
  5. Decide if you want a full service Realtor or a listing-service brokerage. Most Realtors, especially those who work for the likes of Royal LePage, Re/Max, Century 21, Sotheby’s, Berkshire Hathaway, and Harvey Kalles are full-service Realtors. Full service brokerages commit to giving your property the attention it deserves, a marketing plan, and will manage every relevant step of the transaction. This is contrast with listing- or limited service brokerages that will list your property on MLS (the Multiple Listing Service, aka, realtor.ca). Beyond this, their offerings are limited to their legal obligations under the Real Estate & Business Brokers Act. Don’t expect them to market your home over and above realtor.ca. Don’t expect open houses, brochures or feature sites, or much hand-holding at all.
  6. Are you leasing/renting? If so, know that some Realtors love leasing deals and others do not. Some do a lot, and some do few or none. Some subscribe the theory that a renter today is a buyer tomorrow, while others feel the juice ain’t worth the squeeze. If you sense a Realtor isn’t enthusiastic about helping you with a lease deal, find someone who is.
  7. Are you looking for a knock-down home to replace with a new build? Some Realtors (like myself) do have a lot of experience here, either purely on the transaction side or because of our own side hustles with construction. While the onus is on the buyer to ensure the property meets their needs, having a Realtor who knows about zoning, setbacks, construction financing, equity acceleration, building costs, permitting, etc, can help you make better decisions.
  8. Is your Realtor hungry? A hungry Realtor is a motivated Realtor. Having a familiar name on your sign does not equate with getting the highest price for your sale or the lowest price for your purchase. Your Realtor’s commitment to you and your specific situation is what matters. A faster sale is not necessarily a better sale. If you’re Realtor suggest you set an offers date 5 days after your listing, ask them why that’s better than 8 days, or 12 days, or no offers date at all. If their answer is some version of “that’s what everyone is doing” or is otherwise unsatisfying, move on.
  9. Last but not least, sometimes, the best answer for you might be to forego a Realtor altogether. 
  10. If you still can’t decide, gimme a holler and I’ll help you find the right Realtor. Even if it’s not me.

So. Many. Forms.

Real estate transactions mean lots of forms. While the common forms themselves are generally standardized, the terms therein vary from deal to deal. It’s important to know what you’re signing, what you’re agreeing to, and what the implications are of a breach of contract by any party to the contract. If you don’t know what you’re signing, your Realtor isn’t doing their job. Don’t sign anything unless you know what you’re signing and why. A rule to live by.

Working with a Realtor
If you're going to work with a Realtor, this form is mandatory. It explains the relationship you're entering into and the expectations of all parties. It also explains the difference between a "customer" and a "client."
View Form
Purchase & Sale Agreement
This is the juicy one. This is the money. This is the one you need to understand from top to bottom. Whether you're a seller or a buyer, understanding this form is crucial.
View Form
Listing Agreement
If you hire a brokerage to sell your home, you'll sign a listing agreement. You need to know what you're agreeing to. Don't let the confidence and anticipation of a "seller's market" lead you to enter an agreement until you understand it in its entirety.
View Form
Ontario Standard Lease Agreement
All residential leases in Ontario must use this recently standardized form, regardless of whether you're using a Realtor or not.
View Form
Condo Buyer's Guide
Ontario recently published this handy buyer's guide to help people looking to buy a condominium in the province. Read it, or just ask me what's on your mind.
View Guide
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Businesses & people you should know.

I like these people. I make no money from recommending them. I just like them, is all, and I want more people to know them. But if things go horribly wrong between you and them, it’s on you. Or them. But definitely not one me. I’m not offering guarantees or warranties or pledges. Like, if you spill hot coffee on yourself and sue the coffee shop for giving you hot coffee, please don’t contact these people. Or me.

Architects

I’ve never had the pleasure of hiring Studio JCI, but I’ve spoken with Jaegap – the husband half of the husband & wife principles of this remarkable firm – and I was impressed with his approach. A quick glance at JCI’s instagram or website makes obvious how beautiful their contemporary designs are, but what’s less obvious is that Jaegap is a builder’s architect. Studio JCI’s designs are informed by efficient & affordable construction techniques that don’t compromise on the design but make the task of building these works of art infinitely more enjoyable. This firm is just getting started leaving its welcome mark on Canada’s streetscapes.

They are so good, I can’t tell the difference between their new builds and their major renos. They have an aesthetic that is uniquely theirs, and uniquely stunning. Have a look at their website and follow them on instagram. You’ll be glad you did.

Richard Wengle is an artist. He does condos and houses that cater to the 1%, and for for good reason. His designs are timeless. They are works of art. They are stunning. If I won the lottery and was going to build my folks’ their dream home, Wengle would be #1 on my list of architects. Check out his instagram to see why.

You’d be forgiven for thinking this firm is based in a posh-corner of Etobicoke, given how many construction sites have Small’s recognizable burgundy sign in front of them, but no, this firm calls Mississauga home (not exactly a long jaunt). David Small Designs is responsible for dozens of classical, transitional, and contemporary single family homes, all of which are beautiful. They will also blow you away with their approach to interior design (not typical for architectural firms in teh city). They’re expensive, but worth it. Visit their website for more info.

Another firm I haven’t hired but I’m itching to work with. The firm first caught my eye with a High Park duplex that had such a striking design. Striking, but so restrained at the same time. The entrance and brickwork are both gorgeous and remind me of homes in Europe or the Middle East. This one design was enough to make fan out of me. Check out their website and definitely check out the High Park residence.

Builders & Contractors

Full disclosure: this is my brother’s company. But, in the words of the balding founder of the House of Masters, “I’m also a client.” Reza and I have built a few houses together and they are all examples of incredible craftsmanship and my brother’s sometimes painful perfectionism. Check out his website. And if you see him, tell him to be nicer to me.

When you’re the best in the city (maybe the country), it doesn’t matter that you have an unremarkable website. Gornik is a multi-generational family affair that builds some of the most expensive and iconic homes in Toronto. If you have all the money, or if your name rhymes with Heelon Husk, then give Tony Gornik a call. Don’t tell my brother I told you this. 

Colewood is a high end but relatively affordable construction firm with a fine chap running the show. Whenever my brother and I get into a fight, I threaten to hire Colewood to get even. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’ve come close. Also, Colewood doesn’t have a website. He’s too busy building. But you can click here to call Steve.

Designers

Allison spent a few years at Sarah Richardson Design before launching her own design firm. Her timeless, classic & transitional designs are getting attention, too, with spreads in House & Home magazine among other acclaim. Her designs are so eye catching that Home Depot used a picture of one of her kitchens without permission or credit. When the big boxes are stealing your talents, then you’ve arrived, I guess. Seriously, though, Allison is incredible. And she just launched Wil & Co, a line of Toronto-made lighting and accessories. She’s one to watch…and hire! Check out her website.

Kate Davidson is a really nice person. That’s my dad’s assessment. And that’s enough for me. Kate + Co is her design firm and despite the fact that Kate outbid me on an exceptional property that I rrreally wanted, I still dig her and would hire her in a second. Because she built a beautiful home on that same lot. And this is her website.

Sarah certainly doesn’t need my endorsement. You’ve seen her on HGTV, YouTube, on a paint can, and maybe even in Designer Fabrics (RIP) back in the day. It’s impossible not to love Sarah Richardson. Because she’s an amazing designer, sure, but also because she’s an amazing person. I could put a thousand links to her stuff here, but I’ll just leave you her website. You’re probably already following her.

Alisha is the first designer I ever worked with. She honed her craft at Yabu-Pushelberg, an iconic Canadian design firm with projects around the world. She left YP and started her own design firm with some friends. If you want to contact her, let me know and I’ll send you her email address.

Lawyers

Gerry is a lawyer in Etobicoke who has handled many of my real estate transactions. He makes real estate transactions effortless and he always makes time to answer my oddball questions. Gerry’s practice handles much more than real estate transactions, so if you’re looking for assistance with wills & estates, powers of attorney, etc, Gerry is happy to help. His office number is +14162317399.

Maryam Mohajer and her team have a diversified practice that can handle your real estate transactions and much more. She is also highly experienced in real estate developments, so builders and developers will find insightful legal advice from this North York practice. The office number is +14164878611.

Food & Drink

The bakeries listed here do sourdough bread better than anyone else in the city, and the pastry shops here are world-class. Occasionally, some of these spots do both exceptionally well. Although the list isn’t ranked, as with the restaurants list, one spot demands special mention: Prairie Boy. The best sourdough bread in the city and an exceptionally good family behind the operation. No contest. Period. Fullstop.

  • Barbershop Patisserie (College & Ossington) instagram | map
  • Bomou Artisanal Bakery (Bayview & Eglinton) instagram | map
  • Botham’s (Dundas & Keele) instagram | map
  • Chocolada (Steeles & Yonge) instagram | map
  • Prairie Boy Bread (College & Dovercourt, and soon, St Clair & Yonge) instagram | map
  • Rahier (Bayview & Eglinton) instagram | map
  • Roselle (King & Parliament) instagram | map
  • Robinson Bread (Brock & Queen) instagram | map
  • Shirini Sara Pastry House (Leslie & York Mills) instagram | map

You know that logic example, “all dogs are animals but not all animals are dogs?” Well, here’s one for you: “the best mocha joints are the best coffee joints but the best coffee joints are not the best mocha joints.” Listen, I know I’m talking to the 1% (not that 1%) when I talk about mochas, but trust me – I’ve been to the top 50 independent coffee joints in Toronto, including those popular on best of Toronto lists, and 44 of them make terrible mochas (because Toronto hates mochas), 3 of them make passable mochas, and 1 of them makes a really good mocha, and 1 makes a mocha so damned good that I drive hella far to get it. Also, these spots will all serve an 8oz mocha, which is curiously hard to come by ’round these parts (“I’m sorry, we only do a medium (aka 12+ oz, aka Big Gulp) mocha”). Anyways, here are the best mocha joints in the city and, yes, they also happen to be the best coffee joints in the city:

  1. Pop Coffee Works (Jarvis & Dundas) instagram | map
  2. The Regular (Annette & Runnymede) instagram | map
  3. Cocoon Coffee (Wilson & Dufferin) instagram | map
  4. Baddies (Lansdowne & Bloor) instagram | map
  5. Sydney Grind (Lakeshore & Islington) instagram | map

Farmers’ markets in Toronto are…just…<sigh>. If your frame of reference is the “local” section of a Loblaws, then they’re great. If your frame of reference is a farmers market in Europe or South America or Asia, you’re in for a let down. And not just because of our winters. Most farmers’ markets in Toronto are overrun by resellers-posing-as-farmers. Like, they’re not called food resellers markets. Or a “we just picked these up this morning from the Food Terminal or Costco and repacked them to sell to you at a slight markup from what you could get more conveniently wherever you get your toilet paper” markets. If you find yourself in one of these a-couple-farmers-but-mostly-resellers-markets, the tell is ‘selection.’ A vendor who sells everything (all the fruits, all the veggies) is a reseller. The vendors selling just a few things are usually the farmers (some of whom expand their offerings slightly by purchasing crops from nearby farmers to resell at the market…notably, not the same as picking up a pallet of Mucci tomatoes from the Food Terminal and passing them off as farm fresh). More legit markets abound outside Toronto in all directions. There are a couple markets that are legit-farmers-&-growers only:

  • Evergreen Brickworks Farmers’ Market (Saturdays, year-round, Bayview & DVP)
  • Humber Bay Shores Farmers’ Market (Saturdays, seasonal, Lakeshore & Park Lawn)
  • Trinity-Bellwoods Farmers’ Market (Tuesdays, seasonal, Dundas & Ossington)
  • The Stop Farmers’ Market @ Wychwood Barns (Saturdays, year-round, Christie & St Clair)

Full disclosure: we’re related.

@toronto_food

While most restaurants have turned into purveyors thanks to that nasty bug, this list is reserved for pre-pan & post-pan purveyors. This list is also reserved for local establishments, no chains, and businesses run by people who aren’t jerks. The list isn’t ranked, but if it were, Cheese Boutique would top this list and most others. Like my call-outs in some of the other lists, the character & quality of the person/family running the operation is what sets them apart.

  • Affinity Fish (relaunching soon) instagram | map
  • Alimentari Italian Grocery (Roncesvalles) instagram | map
  • Bloomfield Public House Market (Prince Edward County) instagram | map
  • Chantecler Boucherie (Queen & Dufferin) instagram | map
  • Cheese Boutique (South Kingsway) instagram | map
  • Hooked (South Kingsway, Kensington Market) instagram | map
  • Khorak Supermarket. aka Super Khorak, almost always open, great hot table (Yonge & Steeles) instagram | map
  • Sanagan’s Meat Locker (Kensington Market) instagram | map
  • The Sweet Potato (Dundas & Keele) instagram | map

Accept no other lists. This list isn’t ranked, because each of these spots is the best at what they do and they all deserve your patronage. They also need no descriptions, no explanation, no backstory, no menu suggestions. If they are on this list, it’s because they are legends and everything they offer is worth having. Moreover, as much as I can tell without being their friend or relative, they are run by great humans. That’s subject to change, sadly, as the pandemic unfortunately revealed (my pre-pandemic list would have a few more names on here). Now, I know I said it’s not ranked, but one spot begs special mention: Famiglia Baldassarre. I’m not sure if it’s because the pasta is the best pasta or because Leandro (Leo) is among the best human beings, but the result is the same.

  • alo, aloette, alobar (downtown) instagram | map
  • Avenue (Kleinburg) instagram | map
  • Bar Ape Gelato (St Clair & Christie) instagram | map
  • Beach Hill Smokehouse (Leslieville, Danforth) instagram | map
  • Byblos (King & John, uptown) instagram | map
  • Chubby’s Jamaican (Portland & King) instagram | map
  • Dandylion (Queen & Dufferin) instagram | map
  • Descendant Detroit Style Pizza (Queen & Leslie) instagram | map
  • Edulis (King & Bathurst) instagram | map
  • Famiglia Baldassarre (Geary & Dufferin) instagram | map
  • Frilu (Thornhill) instagram | map
  • Honest Weight (Dundas & Keele) instagram | map
  • Judy’s Fried Chicken & Barbecue (Prince Edward County) instagram | map
  • Langdon Hill (Cambridge) instagram | map
  • Matty’s Patties (Queen & Strachan) instagram | map
  • Olde Yorke Fish & Chips (uptown) instagram | map
  • Pai (Adelaide & John) instagram | map
  • Queen of Persia (Eglinton & Avenue) instagram | map
  • Restaurant at Pearl Morissette (Niagara) instagram | map
  • Sugo & Conzo’s Pizza (Bloor & Landsdowne) instagram | map
  • Sushi Kaji (Queensway & Kipling) instagram | map
  • Tachi Sushi (Richmond & York) instagram | map
  • Tom’s Dairy Freeze (Queensway & Royal York) instagram | map
  • Ten (College & Dufferin) instagram | map
  • Village Pizza (Landsdowne & Bloor, Dundas & Bathurst) instagram | map
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