La Belle Province: Affordable and Close to Home

By: Tim Lehnert

Editor's Note: This is Part Two of a two part series on Quebec. The previous issue focused on Quebec's Eastern Townships.

Montrealers are intensely proud of their city, and for good reason. Montreal is difficult to top for its vitality, beauty and lifestyle. 'It's a little piece of Europe in North America,' says Montreal real estate agent Steve Osgood. Montreal is the second largest French speaking city in the world, but also has a sizable English population. Most Montrealers are bilingual, and many are trilingual and there are substantial communities of Italian, Spanish, Arabic, Portugese, Greek and Chinese speakers. The Montreal metropolitan region comprises 3.5 million people, with about half that number living on the Island of Montreal.

Founded in 1642, Montreal's location in the St. Lawrence River made it one of North America's early crossroads and a hub for the fur trade. In the 1800s, Montreal established itself as a leading port and industrial and commercial center. Montreal is Quebec's largest city, and the second largest in Canada (after Toronto). One of the city's great features is its livability - housing is affordable, the rate of violent crime very low compared to the US, and the central city bustles with people. Moreover, it's quite possible to live well in central Montreal without a car - the combination of walking, public transportation (particularly the clean and efficient Metro), and taxis serve many residents well.

Old Montreal is where the city was founded, and there is evidence of human habitation in the area dating back 1,000 years, well before the arrival of the first Europeans. In the 1800s Old Montreal was packed with warehouses, merchants, and tradespeople, and was the financial center of Canada. This is no longer the case, but Old Montreal remains a vital part of the city and the gray stone buildings, cobbled streets, and St. Lawrence River make for an enchanting and romantic setting. 'They come up for a vacation,' says Osgood of many of his clients, 'and fall in love with the city.'

Old Montreal is popular with tourists, but there are also many people who live and work in the area. Osgood, who specializes in second homes, says most of the properties he sells are condos and lofts in historic buildings. Such properties are in the $200,000 to $250,000 USD range, while two bedroom places in Old Montreal fetch around $300,000 USD.

In addition to Old Montreal, another area attractive for second home buyers is the Plateau Mont-Royal, known locally 'the Plateau.' This lively and diverse area lies to the East of Mount Royal and Park Avenue, and as one moves east it becomes progressively more French speaking. The Plateau is home to the characteristic Montreal form of housing: duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes with winding outside staircases. Within the Plateau there are a number of different neighborhoods, and several vibrant commercial districts and boulevards, each with its own character. The area is home to numerous artists, musicians and other creative types, as well as many students and professionals. It's a dense, but not oppressively crowded residential and commercial area that is ideal for pedestrians. And there's lots to walk to, including hundreds of restaurants, bars, cafes, and boutiques. You'll find some of the hippest places in North America on the Plateau, as well as the simplest of markets and convenience stores, or depanneurs as they are known locally.

Judy Thompson, a Houston real estate broker, and her husband bought the middle floor of a classic Plateau duplex in 2006. They'd been visiting Montreal since 2000; Thompson says she became hooked on the city 'after the first few days when I saw the way people live.' Their two-bedroom place, located in a renovated 1906 building, is close to just about everything, and was very reasonable. Prices in the area average around $200 USD a square foot, depending, naturally, on the quality of the premises.

Summers in Montreal are packed with myriad events, parades, and festivals. Thompson doesn't discount these, but says she and her husband 'do real simple kinds of things.' She cites Montreal's culture and lifestyle as its main selling points. 'I love living without a car, without air conditioning, and being able to walk wherever I go.' Going out for coffee ranks highly on Thompson's daily agenda, as does exploring the city and walking in Parc LaFontaine. 'I love that park,' she says, 'I couldn't believe how big and beautiful it was.'

Renting out a city property is different from a vacation place, where monthly and even weekly rentals are common. Osgood notes that condo associations typically have regulations barring short term rentals. As well, locals are typically seeking unfurnished accommodations with year-long leases. This combination can leave some second home owners holding property that is vacant most of the year, or having their pied-Ã?-terre become a full-time rental. Thompson says she was able to rent her property ('a well appointed place in an A+ location') for an eleven-month lease relatively easily. She did so by pricing it slightly below market value, obtaining a dependable tenant willing to accept a shorter lease than is typical.

Quebec, both rural and urban, is truly different from the rest of North America. Fortunately, it combines unique attributes with affordability, accessability and livability. Home prices in Quebec are continuing to rise, but the market is steady and the spikes typical of other areas haven't occurred. Steve Osgood says appreciation is expected to be in the 4-5% range in Montreal for the foreseeable future. Prices in the Townships and Laurentians are expected to show similar moderate increases. The Canadian dollar is currently strong against the US greenback, trading in the mid 90 cent range. It's expected to remain above .90 US for some time, and may reach parity with the US dollar. This means there's no scooping up properties at bargain basement prices thanks to a weak local currency, on the other hand, owners of property in Quebec can sleep easy knowing the currency is unlikely to tumble, lowering the value of their asset.

Quebec, both rural and urban, is a North American jewel. As anyone who's spent time in the province can attest, it's a place whose history, beauty and unique culture render it distinct. As a bonus, it's right in the United States' backyard, and affordable relative to comparable areas in North America.

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