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When morning rolls around in photographer Valerie Myronenko’s building, her neighbours don’t fret over a late streetcar or a line up at the gas station delaying their arrival at work. For the residents of the i-Zone lofts in Leslieville, the route to their desks, studios and workshops is traffic-free and costs nothing to take because it’s only steps from their beds.
They’re among the many Torontonians who have scooped up a spot in one of the city’s few live-work buildings zoned to allow residential and commercial space in the same unit.
The arrangement may be ideal because it eliminates a commute and can save small business owners the cost of renting out another space for their companies, but sometimes it means doing some financial calculations, confronting untraditional zoning regulations and mortgage rules — and getting creative with maintaining privacy.
To help prospective buyers of live-work units avoid pitfalls and find value in the unconventional spaces, realtors, finance experts and residents shared their advice with the Star.
At the top of their tip lists was calculating whether a live-work space will equate to a savings. Whether a unit is worth it will largely depend on how much space you need and the price it’s going for.
Recent listings showed a few live-work units priced at about $ 700,000 for around 1,500 sq. ft., but plenty more that topped 2,200 sq. ft. were listed for upwards of $ 1.2 million. Smaller live-work units were available for rent for as low as $ 1,500 a month, but larger spaces were listed for as high as $ 5,500 a month.
Meanwhile, November’s average Toronto condo price of $ 516,965 will get you around 819 sq. ft. in a condo and realtors estimated commercial real estate had reached about $ 60 per square foot.
For Myronenko, the price of renting a live-work unit was on par with what she might pay to rent a home and commercial location, but people who need far more or less space than she does might not see such savings.
And if they’re buying, there may be another challenge: a mortgage.
“Not all lenders will finance units in mixed-use buildings and those that do will often only consider a building if its commercial component does not exceed a certain percentage, which is typically in the 10 to 20 per cent range,” said Dave Larock, the president of Integrated Mortgage Planners, in an email.
While realtors say banks like TD Canada Trust and Scotiabank offer such financing, Larock said to be wary that the limited nature of the finance options isn’t leaving you to pay “higher than best available mortgage rates.”
You can also face financial strain if you don’t ensure your live-work unit can accommodate your business without zoning changes or by-law exemptions. Both can come with businesses operating heavy machinery or with buildings where only some units are zoned for live-work and the rest are designated for just commercial or just residential uses.
The developer who converted Myronenko’s building from a former Coca-Cola bottling plant and cork factory to 90 per cent live-work lofts and 10 per cent commercial artist studios years ago took care of zoning, so she moved in and seamlessly got Working Proof, her photography business, running.
Neighbours operating agencies, wood-carving workshops and studios completing work for major motion pictures and music firms also had little troubles, but those involved with late, loud work might not have such an easy time.
“I wouldn’t do something noisy in the middle of the night,” Myronenko said. “It is still more like a condo than a loft in the middle of nowhere. You can throw parties, but not crazy parties.”
She gets her money’s worth out of her unit by renting the studio to other photographers, who love that it can accommodate expansive lighting and backdrops, makeup stations and large sets that can be brought in via the building’s freight elevators — perks you won’t often find naturally.
“Most condo spaces will max out at 1,200 sq. ft and in our building, most of the units start at 1,200 sq. ft and go up to 2,500 sq. ft,” said Matt Casselman, a realtor with Re/Max Hallmark Realty who lives in Myronenko’s building.
“I find empty-nesters coming out of large homes with big furniture or big pianos are more suited to these spaces. All of the units have double doors, so they can bring in big tables or whatever equipment they need for their business.”
You’ll unlock even more value, he says, if you own a business needing high ceilings or skylights or benefiting from wood flooring and exposed brick walls and beams — characteristics of many Toronto live/work buildings converted from Wrigley gum facilities, munitions plants and baseball glove manufacturers.
Casselman’s live-work unit has been a cost-saver because it was the backdrop for his wedding (the ceremony was on the roof and the reception in his loft) and is a satellite office for his business — how he shows prospective buyers there’s “a luxury” in working from home with your own kitchen and personal effects nearby “rather than working in a lacklustre workplace.”
Just don’t let that closeness to comfort and creativity impede on your privacy or your profits, says Myronenko, who suggests live-work dwellers be savvy about how they’ll keep a healthy balance between their career and life, and operate when sick or they need to be alone.
Some use dividers or alter employee hours.
Myronenko loves her work so much, she says, “I don’t feel a need to turn it off,” but if you’re considering a live-work unit and worried that juggling will affect your bottom line, Casselman let the Star in on his secret that doesn’t cost a penny.
“I don’t bring my mobile device into the bedroom ever. I don’t do any work in my bedroom,” he said.
And he added, “I don’t plan on ever leaving this space.”