Todd Talbot Q&A: How not to make classic home-buying blunders

Love It or List It star Todd Talbot on right-sizing your home, right-locating your life and not missing out

Many TV property-show personalities might impart great wisdom on home buying, but Love It or List It Vancouver co-host Todd Talbot says he has "put his money where his mouth" is by “right-sizing” his family home.

In what he describes as an ongoing experiment, Talbot, his wife and two young children moved last year from a 3,000-square-foot oceanfront home in Lion’s Bay, West Vancouver, to a 1,200-square-foot, two-bedroom house on a small East Vancouver lot.

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Ahead of this month’s 2018 Vancouver Fall Home Show, at which he will be sharing his journey, Talbot spoke to Glacier Media about how he and his family chose to avoid making the mistakes he sees homebuyers making all the time.

Q: What initially prompted the move from your Lion’s Bay home to a small East Van house?

A: The journey started with my son Kesler [now age seven], who was starting to become obsessive about the amount of stuff he would get at Christmas, as is natural for kids. It put us on a path of looking at how we were raising our children and what we were bringing into the house, and that led to a recognition that staying on top of this big house was increasingly difficult. It led to a purging of stuff that we owned, along with a moratorium on buying new stuff for five months. Then we started to look at the idea that maybe the space that we were in was affecting how we were living. We put ourselves into an experiment of examining how we were living in the house, and where we were living in it. We decided to sell our big house and move to a more central location in a smaller home, with the understanding that we didn’t know the answer, and we still don’t – yet.

Q: Why have you made a point of calling the process right-sizing and not downsizing? After all, you did downsize your home.

A: The reason I call it right-sizing rather than downsizing is not to be fancy, but because the term downsizing has two connotations. One is that it’s related to retirement, which is not where we’re at, and two, it has suggestion of sacrifice. I think people should be inspired by the idea that you are choosing the space that facilitates the lifestyle that you want to live, not your home dictating how you live.

Q: Is that one of the classic mistakes people make – choosing a home that dictates their lifestyle?

A: I’ve been in the property game for 20 years, and people tend to throw the net out [geographically in their home search] and think they need a certain space, and then when they move to the big house, they end up not using the full space. So one element is, are you using your space effectively and efficiently? I’m on set right now on Love It or List It, and this family bought a big house in the Fraser Valley and now they’ve decided it was too much maintenance and cleaning, and too far away. People so often think that bigger is not always better – if we have more space, we’ll be happier. You see it all the time on Love It or List It. So my wife and I wanted to challenge that idea. You need a certain amount of space to live comfortably, but there’s an arc of how happy additional space will make you – there are diminishing returns. We wanted to find where, for us, the happiness quotient crosses that line. And that’s where you factor in the lifestyle component too.

Q: So what about the financial aspect of right-sizing?

A: Right, the other component is financial. Home ownership in all our major urban centres is challenged by the idea of whether it is affordable and whether you’ll be a slave to your mortgage. These problems aren’t going anywhere, so I wanted to bring a conversation forward that was more of a positive spin on the situation. We need to have young people and families being able to afford to live in our urban centres, so how do you do that? I think we need to show people that you don’t necessarily need the 33-by-122 lot with a big yard and a 3,000-square-foot house. It’s not sustainable, it’s not practical, and I wanted to shift the idea away from that. So my wife and I decided to put our money where our mouth was, and actually live through it.

Q: Is the move working for you so far?

A: I can say with absolute certainty that we are happier in our current scenario than we were previously. One of the key elements to that happiness is proximity to the amenities we need for the lifestyle that we’re living. We have a smaller footprint – small lot, small house – but we’re also closer to everything. So we end up having more time for ourselves, in terms of commute to work, school, activities – all of those things – and have more time for ourselves as a family. Inside the house, we’re closer as a family. Our kids are seven and nearly nine, and they love to be with us, they still like being in our proximity. In our previous big house, we were still usually all in the same space when we were at home, so there was a lot of space in that house not being used.

Q: That’s another financial aspect of right-sizing – relieving the cost burden of unused space.

A: Absolutely. I’ll talk about this at the Home Show, but when you break down the financial cost of not just buying, but also maintaining, decorating, furnishing and heating spaces that you don’t even use, in one of the most expensive markets in the world… You’d be silly to not be maximizing that space.

Q: So it’s going well, but your kids share a bedroom – what about when they get older?

A: Right now, the kids love it. They love it more than when they each had their own bedroom in the other house. But that’s not going to be the case forever. We’ve probably got another two years until we’d likely need a bit more space. I think the sweet spot for us, having lived through this amount of space, is around 1,800 to 2,000 square feet. The caveat is that it’s designed well.

Q: Is that another mistake you see regularly – badly functioning homes through poor design?

A: People get bamboozled with paint colour and tile and styling – which, don’t get me wrong, I love a great-styled space – but that’s not what makes a house work. What makes a house work is layout, and design, and functionality, and flow. Two thousand square feet can seem perfect, or small, depending on the layout of the spaces.

Q: You were lucky enough to have a Lion’s Bay house to trade in for your East Vancouver home, in a very desirable area. What about buyers who don’t have that kind of equity? Is it necessarily a mistake for them to “cast their net” into the suburbs to get the space they need?

A: I think a lot of people don’t fully understand what they can get for their money. We paid $1.175 million for our East Vancouver house at the peak of the market last year. That’s a lot cheaper than some of the larger houses out in the suburbs. People do make an assumption about what they can get without exploring all the options. That’s the whole point of this conversation I’m raising. It’s about dialling back some expectations in terms of home size and asking, is there another way to approach this? And for those who don’t have a million dollars and can’t raise a large mortgage – nobody starts at the top of the market. You have to start somewhere, and it needs to be modest. If you want to live in the city and you want to get in the game, maybe you don’t have a large space, or you don’t have in-suite laundry.

Q: So it’s about adjusting expectations?

A: Our home in Lion’s Bay [which itself was originally a 1,500-square-foot house that the Talbots renovated and expanded] was the result of 15 years of investing in real estate, leveraging value increases and putting in sweat equity. It all started with a two-bedroom place I couldn’t afford by myself and I had to rent out the second bedroom for years. It wasn’t perfect, but it allowed me to get into the market, using a little bit of creativity. There are lots of ways you can do this. Buy a place with a suite to rent out, or tweak your expectations around what the home you buy is going to look like, and do smart renovations. We have renovated our East Vancouver house, which honestly was a teardown. But now it looks beautiful, and it functions really well. I’ll share what we did [at the Home Show], how we did it, what choices we made along the way, where we decided to spend a bit more money and where we decided to pull back. It’s not extravagant.

Q: Do you think a lot of people miss out on owning a home?

A: Not everybody has a choice, but most people have a choice along their journey. Some people take action, and some sit on the sidelines and point fingers and say, "Here's why I can't do it." I decided to take action. I bought a property, it went up in value, I refinanced and bought another property, I renovated it, and I just kept doing that. As a theatre actor, which is how I started out, I needed a retirement fund and that was my way of achieving that. And rather than pay other people to do the renovation for me, whenever I had a break, I did the work and paid myself. That's what I do, I've been doing it for a long time. And I love inspiring young people, especially young families, to be empowered to take these challenges on and make smart choices.

Check out Todd Talbot talking about his right-sizing journey at the 2018 Vancouver Fall Home Show, October 18-21 at Vancouver Convention Centre West. For more information, go to vancouverfallhomeshow.com.

Listen below: Todd Talbot guested this week on Vancouver is Awesome’s latest podcast, discussing his right-sizing journey, his real estate investment strategy and his new vacation home purchase.

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