(Dan Moyle/Flickr photo)

Downsizing: To rent or to buy, that is the question

Columnist ML Burke discusses the option available for seniors looking to downsize.

By ML Burke

Thinking of downsizing? There are lots of empty-nesters cashing out of this crazy housing market. Many are retiring to Delta where the weather is better and housing costs are slightly lower than the big city. If you always lived in a house and are planning to buy or rent a condo, there are a few things to consider.

The Strata Property Act BC, previously called the Condominium Act, is a basic set of rules that all strata’s must abide by. Every new multi-housing development starts out with this basic set of rules in place. Once the owners start moving in, they form a council that then can add more bylaws specific to govern the strata. A property management company may be hired to administrate the strata’s business, but the strata council members (owners) are the primary decision makers.

For example: The Strata Act has no rules about pets. If you are moving into a new building with a pet, you are grand-fathered to keep that pet for its lifetime, even if they change the rules to a no pet policy. This is just one reason why you might want to be part of a strata council, to have a say in what rules will be put forward for ratification by the other owners.

Think of it like a mini-government that can have both conservatives and liberals vying for power. Democracy can be difficult when you mix inexperienced folks with controlling types. Then again, like in the real world, if you don’t vote, you shouldn’t get to complain.

The main advantage of owning is the security of knowing you won’t be evicted. As an owner you must abide by the strata’s bylaws and pay your monthly maintenance fees, and hopefully you volunteer in the governance of the strata or its sub-committees.

As a renter, you no longer have to pay for repairs, unless you cause the damage. If you need something fixed, you only need to communicate with the owner of your unit or the building manager. You can enjoy the amenities in the building without paying strata fees or getting involved in the internal politics of the strata council. If you can afford to pay the rent and you follow the rules, you should have less stress as a tenant, but also less security of tenure in case the owner decides to sell or move into their unit.

Other considerations: If you are in a high rise, how many floors are you able to walk up in case the elevator(s) break, or floors to walk down in case of fire? If you can no longer drive, are you close to transit or in walking distance of shops? Would you actually use the building’s amenities such as a pool or fitness centre? Those perks can add a lot to your monthly strata fees or rent.

You need to also consider the age of the building. Older buildings are going to require more maintenance. If they were not well managed financially, it could result in an unexpected assessment to each owner of tens of thousands of dollars.

Before buying, make sure you read the strata council’s minutes for the past three years, or at least talk to some of the people living there about issues like the contingency fund, age of the roof, water problems and the building’s envelope.

Moving is also a big undertaking. Aging-in-place in your current home might be preferred, especially if you consider sharing with a friend or caregivers if you later need help.

ML Burke retired from the health sector to work on issues such as affordable housing. She sits on the Delta Seniors Planning Team and the BC Seniors Advocate’s Council of Advisors.