Hamilton- where ghost-divisions are real

Ghost-divisions in HamiltonGhost-divisions: who needs swampland when you have a field?

It’s kind of hard to believe that in a City like Hamilton, Ontario, where development land is at a premium, there are huge swaths of land that seem to be stuck in some form of ’70’s time capsule.

When a lot isn’t a lot in Hamilton

As I was enquiring about a lot that I had been asked to evaluate, a Planner at City Hall explained to me that “there are these old plans of subdivisions that were on the table back in the ’70’s and for one reason or another they just never went anywhere.” On the City’s planning map, they show as one big parcel, still carrying the original agricultural zoning. There are lines on the map that show the lots that were once proposed, but the City claims that they never recognized the creation of the lots; even though it’s clear that all of the lots do have separate deeds.

In the case of the lot I was researching, the 75’ x 100’ property is one of 50 similar sized lots that are individually deeded. Together, they comprise approximately 35 acres of prime land- land that if assembled, would be able to handle a substantial number of residential units. They’re in close proximity to newer residential developments and services. The lots have separate PIN and Roll numbers- they are assessed as individual pieces of agricultural land; approximately $25,000 each, yet they can never be built on. First reason is that the land is still zoned agricultural, they’re not serviced. According to zoning regulations, they’re too small to build on. Secondly, they don’t have a municipal address; aside for private dirt roads or lanes, they’re inaccessible.

Sometimes it’s a lot…sometimes it’s not

This is where it gets interesting. The City claims that these lots, even though they’re individually deeded simply do not exist. Rather, the City views this property as one big chunk of agricultural land that is owned by 50 different parties. They claim these lots were never severed- even though their map clearly shows them. In the City’s opinion this is one big land co-op. Now, if that was actually the case, then these “imaginary” lots wouldn’t be able to be transferred but over the past decade, as the original owners have passed away, these lots have been transferred to their heirs. If it was in fact a co-op or some form of joint ownership, there wouldn’t be an individual deed to transfer- it would be some joint ownership agreement, assigning the individual interest in the 35 acres.

To make it more perplexing, over the past couple decades, some of these “not really lots lots” have been sold to adjacent property owners who do have frontage on a major road. These are probably the only people who may find value in the ghost lots that are in their backyard. Some have moved to purchase an adjacent lot and by doing so, the lots have merged and this is where I really get lost.

If it’s one big chunk of land with a lot of owners, how is it possible for one of the owners to sell their imaginary lot to a neighbour without obtaining a severance out of the larger chunk? I asked the Planner- he looked confused.

Not the only Ghost-division in Hamilton!

A colleague who’s familiar with development in the City of Hamilton tells me that there are a lot of these “ghost-divisions” in the City; land that the City allowed to be divided and sold 30 or 40 years ago and is now content on pretending the lots don’t really exist, or that they’re somehow part of a land co-op; a strange holding pattern where individuals, without any form of group approval, can transfer their assigned imaginary parcel out of the larger parcel…without any form of severance or City approval. Interesting concept that makes absolutely no sense.

After giving this a lot of thought I’ve come to the conclusion the only the City can really fix a “ghost-division”. They know where they are; all of the owners of the ghost lots are  individually billed for taxes to the City.

With a shortage of development land in the City, many would love the opportunity to acquire these parcels; unfortunately, it would be a very difficult task for anyone to assemble this land because the owners actually believe that they own a building lot that is worth 6 figures, rather than a share equivalent to 1/3rd acre of raw agricultural land with a value closer to $10,000.

What could the City of Hamilton do?

  • Identify the “ghost-divisions” and determine how much development land is frozen in time.
  • Contact every “ghost-lot” owner and explain to them that they do not really own a lot; rather they have an interest in entire parcel of land that formed an original Plan of Subdivision.
  • Market the parcels to interested parties.
  • Facilitate a sale and divide the proceeds with the registered owners.
  • OR, the City could buy the land themselves and convert it into green space or park land.


Of course, this is all very wishful thinking. I know it’s easier for the City to just put their heads in the sand and forget that these “ghost-divisions” even exist. I doubt I’m the first Realtor® who has made an inquiry on behalf of someone who wants to sell one of these imaginary lots. Problem is that as the City grows, these ghost-divisions will always be an obstacle to smart growth mainly because it’s acreage that stands little chance of ever being developed. Only the City has the ability to make this land viable and in an area where development land is at a premium, I would think they’d have the motivation to do so as well.

Countertops add value

the value of quality countertops

Quality countertops are definitely not a fad

For well over a decade, homebuyers have been showing their love for high end countertops.  When you consider that many homeowners don’t start thinking about spending money on updates and upgrades until it’s time to put up a “For Sale” sign, it shouldn’t be a surprise that one question homeowners frequently ask is  “should we put in granite countertops?”

Can a countertop add value?

That depends on the material. Standard ones, the kind you’ll find in cookie cutter new home construction and on the shelves at your local Home Depot or Lowes are laminate- a composite material covered in a decorative paper and melamine coating. They’re definitely at their prime during the first 5 years of their life (or until someone forgets what a cutting board is for) and are prone to nicks, cuts and burns by regular use or accident. With careful use, they can look great for decades but very few make it through a growing family without taking a hit or two. Even a new laminate counter many not add the value you would expect since it’s the bare minimum that buyers expect. Solid surface and stone countertop options are considered to be definite upgrades and tend to add value because their function and lifespan are so appealing to Buyers.

An alternative to a full kitchen reno

Most homeowners dread tackling kitchen renovations. The thoughts of spending tens of thousands of dollars and living without a functioning kitchen for a week or two can be overwhelming-emotionally and financially. The good news is that it may take you longer to select a new countertop than it will take to have it installed. Just like other renovation projects, the more prepared you are the better. Perhaps that new granite counter will be best served with a new under mount sink and that sink will probably be best served with a new faucet and maybe, that faucet is going to need new plumbing. You may want to accent your new countertop with new back splash and perhaps even a new slide-in range. The key is to make a plan and set a budget, keeping in mind that the end result will be well worth it.

Buyers love quality countertops

There’s absolutely no doubt in this Realtors® mind that decor and staging definitely helps sell a home, but one of the most fascinating trends I’ve seen over the past decade in the Hamilton real estate market, is Buyer attraction to quality countertops like quartz, granite and brand names like Corian and Caesarstone. And, it doesn’t matter what the price range of the home is, buyers seem to be willing to look past other issues when the kitchen and baths have awesome countertops. At first I thought it was a whole kitchen thing happening, but I don’t believe that’s the case. Seems like refurbished, painted or even original cabinetry take on a whole new life once they’re capped with a high quality counter.

Enjoy your countertop investment

At $60-$90 a square foot, decking your kitchen out with quartz, granite or one of the other materials may seem to be an expensive option especially if you’re going to be moving out of the house in the near future. But then again- why wait until you’re moving? Select the right product and it’ll look just as good 5 years from now as it does the day you have it installed. The true value may be in you getting to enjoy your investment.

Countertops & Technology

If you’re going to start shopping for counters make sure you check out Dupont’s charging stations- one of the solid surface technologies we’re bound to see more of in the future.

Speaking of HGTV- their 13 favourite countertop materials

Check out the difference in countertop materials at Popular Mechanics!







Illegal rental properties in Hamilton- Buyer Beware

Holding the Hot Potato- Illegal rental properties in Hamilton

Many years ago, the City started to investigate licensing rental units in the City of Hamilton. A couple years ago the City realized that there were going to be unintended consequences if they jumped too quickly into a licensing regime, primarily the loss of much needed affordable housing. It was realized that many units in the City were not compliant with zoning by-laws and had not been built with a permit. In September 2013 the REALTORS® Association of Hamilton-Burlington along with social housing agencies were successful in getting Rental Licensing “tabled” until stakeholders could participate in a Rental Licensing task force established by the City.

The Blue Team – Hamilton Zoning By-Law enforcement officers


At the same time the City tabled the Rental Licensing motion, they hired additional By-Law enforcement officers to blitz neighbourhoods in the City. With special training in communications and decked out in spiffy non-threatening blue golf shirts, By-Law officers are hot on the trail of property standards violations and zoning infractions. Pre September 2013, there were reports that By-Law officers were showing up in uniforms. Tenants described them as aggressive and threatening. Tenants now describe the new and improved “Blue Team” as nice, helpful and caring. The friendly, smiling Blue Team aka City of Hamilton By-Law Enforcement are in constant motion, leaving owners with fines, charges and orders to remove illegal units.

The Hot Potato

Remember that game where a group of people pass around a hot potato and whoever is left holding it when the music gets shut off is the looser? Illegal rental properties are no different. Buying an investment property should be financially rewarding-especially in an affordable city like Hamilton. The real profit on an income property containing illegal units is usually realized by the owner that created the illegal units. At that point it becomes a Hot Potato and the person holding onto it when the City comes calling is the looser. The Seller who sold the property as a legal duplex being sold as a 5 unit building has successfully passed the risk on. The Buyer who has purchased it thinking they can either continue as 5 units or easily change the use is the one assuming the risk. There’s also a good chance that the same MLS® listing information that attracted a Buyer to the property has also been read by the “Blue Team” over their morning coffee. Buyer beware.

Easy Conversion: NOT

About a month ago I received a call from “Bob”. He was interested in getting his 2 family home legalized under Section 19 of the Hamilton Zoning By-Law. I inspected the property and it met all the requirements- or so it seemed. During the rental licensing debate in 2013, we were told that owners “simply needed to get a building permit to change use”- that is to change from single family to two family. The key word here is “simply”. I decided that I would accompany Bob to the building department at City Hall to see how “simple” the process really was.

The City of Hamilton does not have a streamlined process in place to make adding a secondary unit under Section 19 easy. After 3 trips to City Hall and approximately 6 hours of time, we finally received “all” the information Bob needed to proceed. After a few more google searches, I discovered that the City does have their Building Permit application on their new website. City of Hamilton Permit to Build/Demolish

What you’ll need to fill out the application:

Building Permit requirements for “Conversion under Section 19- adding a secondary unit.”

Properties must satisfy minimum requirements under Section 19.

  • 699 square feet per unit (only above grade space and basements: anything that’s 50% above grade)
  • lot size of 270 square meters
  • one parking spot per unit and it cannot be tandem parking
  • parking cannot take up more than 50% of your front lawn- rear parking is allowed.

You will also need the following before you take your application to City Hall.

  • Zoning verification from the City of Hamilton   Order Zoning Verification Certificate online
  • The following drawings done by a Designer with a BCIN if you’re creating a two family, and an Architect if your property will end up having 3 or more units. i.e.) legal duplex adding an additional unit making it a legal triplex or legal triplex adding on an additional unit making it a legal 4-plex.
  1. Structural drawings (including cross sections)
  2. Mechanical drawings (showing HVAC system)
  3. Electrical drawings
  4. Plot plan to scale or recent survey showing parking, additions etc.
  5. You may also be advised that you need full architectural drawings- the Designer/Architect will guide you on this.

The drawings MUST indicate fire separations, drywall ratings and anything that you’ll be doing or is already there for the additional unit. There’s also the possibility that you’ll have to bring all of your units up to current code.

Once you have your drawings and after consultation with your Designer/Architect, you feel certain that you meet the requirements under Section 19, you can proceed to the Building Department and apply for a building permit.

The Cost

City of Hamilton Building Permit Costs/Fees

City of Hamilton-Minor Variance Application/Fee Schedule

Bob hasn’t completed the process, so I’m not sure what the cost of the drawings will be, but I can point you to a couple firms in the City that can assist you. If your property doesn’t meet all the criteria for a Section 19 conversion, you can always apply to the Committee of Adjustments for a special exception- however, there are absolutely no guarantees that the CoA will approve your application. You’re best to seek the advice of a Design/Architectural firm that is very familiar with obtaining building permits in Hamilton.

Lintack Architects Inc.

Nick DeFilippis of DeFilippis Design and Development in Stoney Creek at 905-643-2250.

What can you do?

Know what you’re buying! If you’ve already purchased a property and you’re looking to legalize your illegal rental unit(s), order a Zoning Verification Certificate and contact a Hamilton designer/architect first. It will save you a tremendous amount of time and money. It’s best that you take control and not wait for the City to stop by. Once the City determines that you’re in violation of the Zoning By-Law you may have additional fines/charges to deal with along with severe time limitations.

Buying an Investment Property in Hamilton- do your due diligence.

New from the City of Hamilton!

City of Hamilton Zoning Map

Just because the zoning permits your use, doesn’t mean the City recognizes the use. The above zoning map will simply tell you what your zoning is. You won’t know if the use of your property is legal until you obtain a Zoning Verification Certificate from the City. If you’re a Buyer, the Seller may already have one but if they don’t, make sure it’s part of conditions in your Offer.  Remember that when you’re purchasing an income property, you’re paying for the income the property is going to generate. It’s extremely important that you make sure that the income is secure. If you find out that the unit isn’t legal, you can make an informed decision factoring in the cost and/or likelihood of making it legal before you become the legal owner of a “hot potato”.

This is a section from a City of Hamilton zoning certificate. The property this certificate refers to was sold 4 times over the past 15 years as a 4-plex. The last owners ended up holding the potato. A year earlier, they paid fair market value based on the property being a 4-plex. It wasn’t until the By-Law officers showed up that the owners obtained a Zoning Verification Certificate.  Their worse fears were confirmed when it showed that the City recognized their 4-plex as a single family home. The property didn’t meet all the requirements for a Section 19 conversion and it was necessary to apply for and receive a minor variance to simply add “one” additional unit. After thousands of dollars in costs, the end result was a legal two family home producing $8000. less annual income.

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CMHC, the Province and Secondary Units

CMHC has recently announced that it’s loosening it requirements to obtain default mortgage insurance for 2 family homes. CMHC new initiatives


The Province

Ontario has mandated that all municipalities allow “secondary suites”, but there are issues in Hamilton that make things a bit more difficult. First, Hamilton Building Code is much more stringent than the Ontario Building Code, especially the  minimum square footage requirement for rental units in existing dwellings and ceiling heights in basements/cellars. In a City where hundreds of 400 square foot condo’s are being built, it’s hard to understand why the City is standing firm on its 699 square foot minimum for a secondary suite in a house- but that’s the way it is. Also, the City passed an amendment to the Zoning By-Law in the spring of 2015 allowing for development in “cellars” ( a space that is more than 50% below grade) . If this space qualifies for a building permit it can be used in the overall square footage calculations for some permits. The disappointing part is that the City of Hamilton Building Department is not recognizing this new change for Section 19 conversions.


The following is a sampling of issues my readers have experienced over the past couple of months. The names have been changed for privacy reasons. 

Bill: Tenant in an unauthorized triplex. Tenant on main floor called the City who sent the Blue Shirt brigade in. The owner is holding a hot potato. The current owner will now have to deal with landlord/tenant issues and making the building legal.

Joe & Hilda: Recently purchased a raised ranch in the lower City- had been a duplex for 30 years. The Blue Shirts arrived while on a blitz in the area and Joe and Hilda have now spent thousands of dollars getting their unit legalized on top of getting fined and taken to Court by the City for a Zoning By-Law infraction.

Uri and Anna- Torontonians who immigrated to Canada a couple of years ago. Purchased a property in Hamilton with 6 units. 4 in the main house and 2 in a coach house. After a visit from the Blitzing Blue Shirts, they were caught holding the hot potato. They had to vacate the coach house and reduce the main house to 2 units. Because the remaining tenants are protected by rent control, Uri and Anna cannot even increase the rent to cover the additional living space the remaining tenants have. Their potato was super hot!

Please don’t get pulled into the game. Yes, Hamilton offers great investment value but only if it’s legal or stands a chance of being legalized. Please remember, the City of Hamilton did not squash the idea of Rental Licensing, they simply tabled the idea until they could get their ducks in a row. The idea of Rental Licensing in Hamilton is still very much alive.

Related Links
Government Programs 

City of Hamilton Committee of Adjustment Application Form



New Listing Hamilton Mountain

Great Location!

•  1 bath, 2 bdrm 1 1/2 story – $234,900.

– Fantastic Hamilton Mountain location! Classic 1 1/2 Storey brick in need of a bit of TLC. Large eat-in kitchen & living room. Good sized deck with private side drive an garage. Wonderful established East Mountain neighbourhood.


House Flipping and Renovating- Making a Profit


House flipping staple- the 1960's kitchen

House flipping staples- the 1960’s kitchen

House flipping for a living is a lot harder than it was a decade ago. Even though buyers are eager to snap up them up like hot cakes, their home inspectors are ready to identify every single imperfection that you’ve left behind. Today, home renovations, renewals and flipping are a big boost to the local economy.  Dumpsters, panel trucks, workers buzzing around a house like a hive of bees- all signs that something magical is about to happen in the neighborhood. Just like an artist carefully strokes oil on a canvas, the renovator up the street is creating something beautiful – there’s a home that’s about to go from drab to fab.

Now, anyone who has done a few renewals or flips will tell you, it’s not quite as easy as the shows on HGTV or Flip this House would lead you to believe. Not everyone gets to dance around the “Sold” sign celebrating a huge profit hours after the house hits the market. A talented renovator makes it look easy. Like other forms of art, a pro makes it look easy because they know what they’re doing. It’s a different story for the novice renovator. Avoiding some key traps can go a long way in ensuring success.

House flipping mistake #1 : Overbidding 

Not every Power of Sale or Estate Sale is a good deal for a flip or renewal. Check the MLS® history of the listing. Has it ever been on the market before? Why didn’t it sell then? Mold? Grow op? Seasonal moisture issues? Hidden knob and tube wiring? Dry rot? You wouldn’t be the first person to see profits disappear by adrenaline fueled overbidding.

House flipping mistake # 2: Ignoring price ceilings 

Location, Location…Location. It holds true with flips and renewals. Every location has a ceiling in prices. It’s easy to think that you may be able to push it to a new high with a wonderful product, but it’s a huge risk. Check with a local REALTOR® who knows the area to find out what the price ceiling is. The thrill of selling fast can be countered by the agony of a mutual release if the appraiser can’t support the value.

House flipping mistake # 3: “It’s not that big of a deal”

Be shrewd. Roof, hydro, plumbing, kitchen,furnace,bathroom, flooring & parking-all important elements that if not considered, can cost you your profit. No drives or mutual drives may be common fodder in one price range, but quite a deficiency in another. Know what you’re creating and who you’re going to be selling it to.

House flipping mistake # 4: Too much or too little 

Divide your local market into 3 parts; low, middle and upper. If the house is in the low market, don’t chew up your profits with high quality hardwood floors and granite counter tops. In the upper market, don’t loose your profits by putting in laminate flooring and lower end light fixtures. Know your market and get it just right.

House flipping mistake # 5: Bad Math 

Overestimating the work that you’re going to have to do will hinder you in the bidding process – underestimating will result in paying too much. Be informed and have trusted trades on call. Sharpen your pencil and do your math. If you start writing in red, double check to make sure you’re not being over cautious. If you can’t see a profit at the end of the day- don’t be afraid to move onto the next property.