Share and share alike: The under-the-radar housing type known as a co-op

Co-ops come in many sizes; this four-unit townhouse-like building offers a small board and unique suite layouts.

Chestnut Park Real Estate Co-ops come in many sizes; this four-unit townhouse-like building offers a small board and unique suite layouts.

From the sidewalk, 141 Roxborough St. W. in Toronto looks like a well-cared for red-brick end-unit townhouse. Snuggled amidst large detached and semi-detached older homes, the century building in tony Rosedale, with its original windows facing the street, fits in well. But this is not a typical townhouse in a typical townhouse grouping. Since 1974, it has been an equity co-op building with four unique units, one of which has just found a special kind of buyer.

Susan Krever of Chestnut Park Real Estate is well versed in the world of Toronto’s co-ops and frequently fields calls from other agents asking for details about the differences between co-ops and condos.

An equity co-op, she tells them, is a corporation that owns a residential building and has shareholders rather than owners. Equity co-ops are scattered across the city and range from small older buildings to newer apartment buildings. The people who live in these co-ops are not property owners, but share owners with no legal ownership of the specific unit they live in. Their percentage of shares entitles them to a right of occupancy to a certain number of square feet, which corresponds to a specific unit.

So, in the case of 141 Roxborough, the purchaser of the shares is entitled to live in that upper-floor end apartment, one of the four units that make up the co-op. The buyer and the three co-op neighbours form the board that makes and changes rules; decides on fees and services; and discusses renovations, maintenance and upgrades. There is no overseeing body to dictate what may and may not be done. The board decides and enacts all.

Chestnut Park Real Estate

Chestnut Park Real EstateThe upper end suite at 141 Roxborough has almost 1,300 square feet as well as some storage in the basement.

Board president Nancy Henderson lives in a modern bright main-floor unit. She bought in three years ago, and says her fellow shareholders are a very relaxed and casual group, often exchanging emails to make decisions. “Co-ops are a form of ownership that is peculiar,” Ms. Henderson explains. “You have to be prepared to live co-operatively.

The building is a tiny neighbourhood. For me, it is a good fit.”

By co-operatively, she means that all decisions are made together, and all tasks are shared or assigned (such as putting out the garbage and recycling, which one shareholder has taken on). Ms. Henderson keeps the books. Monthly fees for 141 Roxborough are $1,017.60 and include water, heat, building insurance, property taxes and fees paid to an outside company for snow shovelling and landscaping. Each shareholder pays for his/her own hydro, cable and air conditioning.

Unlike condos, where anyone can buy and sell a unit, in co-ops, any potential share buyer must be approved by the board. Such meetings at Roxborough usually happen over drinks. Their main goals are to ensure the candidate is financially able to live there (if one defaults on a payment, the others must chip in to cover it), and that he/she understands the necessity of co-operative living, decision making and pitching in.

Chestnut Park Real Estate

Chestnut Park Real EstateThe dining room enjoys large original windows, retained for aesthetic reasons, but others can be changed as desired.

The unit that just sold covers 1,296 square feet on the upper floor at the east side of the building, but also has 152 square feet of space in the basement in the form of a curious single 10×9-ft. room with a toilet and sink, the tiniest shower you’ve ever seen, and a cedar closet. The two floors are connected by a narrow staircase from the upstairs kitchen that also connects to the side door, and conveniently, the garbage bins. It is the only unit in the building with a wood-burning fireplace.

Much of the apartment — doors, trim, mouldings, hardwood floors (now painted white), and wainscotting in the dining room — is traditional and could well be original. We know the street-facing single-paned windows are original because the board decided to keep them for aesthetic reasons. The others, such as the back windows and balcony door overlooking Ramsden Park, could be replaced with larger, more modern ones like other units sport. This would not be an option in a condo.

The flat has a double-closet master bedroom facing the park, a modern bathroom and kitchen with laundry facilities, and a 12×16-foot living room (with the aforementioned fireplace) across the hall from a large dining room. The 52-square-foot balcony, however, is outdated and way too small. As it overlooks Ramsden Park, it would be lovely for outdoor living if it were much larger. The board would agree to a redesign, providing an engineering study ensured safety and the integrity of the building. You don’t get this kind of flexibility in a condo.

The shareholder also gets use of an indoor parking spot, but the driveway along the west side of the building is narrow, so everyone chooses street parking instead and uses their underground spot for storage.

One of the benefits of co-op living is that prices are more affordable, likely resulting from the difficulty of attaining financing. “If this building turned into a condo, prices would go up substantially,” Ms. Henderson says. DUCA credit union is one example of a lender who will finance an equity co-op, with a 30% down payment. You might even join the Estonian Credit Union for $20 per person, to borrow up to 80% of the co-op’s appraised value, and have it amortized over 30 years. A line of credit can be used instead of a mortgage, but lawyer Martin Rumack, who deals extensively in co-ops, says it is more likely to be “a mortgage of the shares the borrower holds in the co-op corporation.”

Another benefit to co-op living, especially in this building, is that with four owners, decisions on changes can be simple. Some large co-ops, such as 10 and 20 Avoca, have many board members and disallow pets, so effecting change there is much more difficult than chatting with three neighbours because you want to live with a Great Dane.

Chestnut Park Real Estate

Chestnut Park Real EstateThe large, updated kitchen has natural light and plenty of counter/storage space.
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