June 8, 2007 4:02 pm

The personal touch

Hintonburg is one of Ottawa’s oldest neighbourhoods, established in the mid-1800s and annexed as an official part of the city in 1907. In the past few decades historic charm has given way to depressing dilapidation, with cracked pavements, dirty façades and rusting store signs. Very recently, however, the area has begun to show signs of thriving again.

One big factor is its mixed citizenry and perception as a welcoming place. Along Wellington Street are small businesses, pawn shops and chain stores catering for all points on the economic and social spectrum. There are pubs that sell both high-end whiskies and quart bottles of domestic beer, plenty of ethnic restaurants, including Italian, Thai and Ethiopian, and the popular Parkdale fruit and vegetable market, frequented in the summer by people from around Ottawa.

Add to this some affordable housing in need of renovation and you can see why Hintonburg is starting to pique the interest of city home buyers. “In areas like this where there are some nice Victorian homes and the houses are not all the same, people can be creative and put their own touches on homes,” says Steve Brouse of Coldwell Banker Real Estate.

Prices are starting to climb in Hintonburg but there are still some bargains to be found. Most small “starter” homes in the neighbourhood are selling for C$250,000-C$300,000 (£110,000- £130,000) and buyers willing to hunt around might find a property for C$175,000-C$200,000.

Many parts of Hintonburg are still “working class” in character and in the past there have been occasional problems with drug dens and prostitution but residents say this shouldn’t deter investors. “It goes with the territory,” says Linda Hoad, president of the Hintonburg Neighbourhood Association. “It’s an area where cheap housing is available and it attracts people who need cheap housing, which is a good and a bad thing.”

The problems have pushed residents to band together and work on solutions, creating a greater sense of community. “This is a great place to live and it is a stable place for the most part,” Hoad says. “It’s not in your face and it’s not dangerous. [Crime can be] disruptive but it is controllable if people are willing to work together.”

Stefan Matiation agrees. He bought a house in Hintonburg in 2004 for C$300,000 and, since moving to the area with his wife and two small children, the family has really become a part of the neighbourhood. “We like it a lot. We find that it’s very friendly and there are a lot of young families around, so it’s great for the kids and [we like] the diversity.”

There are several schools within walking distance, local parks, galleries and a library. “You’ll get a pretty low-key, relaxed feel [here] if that’s what you are looking for,” Matiation says.

Although Hintonburg has in recent years been the preserve of the DIY remodeller (“There is plenty of opportunity for people who are interested in renovating and shaping a house the way they want,” Matiation says), developers are now starting to eye up the area.

The Regional Group, for example, is preparing for its first development in Hintonburg, which will involve converting an old school into 11 one- and two-storey lofts with 14ft ceilings, large windows and visible overhead heating systems to create an industrial feel. Townhouses, reflecting the style of the original building, will also be built at the back. David Kardish, a vice-president at the company, refers to the site as a “gem” because it overlooks a local park and has an old stone wall surrounding the grounds. “To me it’s a form of green technology because you are basically working with what you have. It’s a type of smart growth that the city likes. We had no problems with approvals from the Hintonburg community or the city.”

He thinks buyers will be attracted to the neighbourhood’s proximity to downtown and its relative affordability. The group expects loft prices to range from C$300-C$325 per sq ft, while the townhouses should go for about C$250 per sq ft. That compares with C$350-C$425 per sq ft in fashionable Westboro, just a few blocks away.

Hintonburg residents also have access to several forms of city transportation. On the edge of the neighbourhood is one of the city’s main commuter bus stops as well tracks for the O-Train, an 8km light-rail transit system that runs north to south through Ottawa. For car-driving commuters, the Queensway, the city’s main highway, is also nearby.

Salem MacDonald, a property developer for Sage Urban Developments, acknowledges that Hintonburg is no secret among Ottawans any more but he thinks there is still room for the market to grow. “It’s really taken off in the last three to four years. People enjoy that they can walk everywhere and don’t have to take their car, especially with the rising price of fuel,” he says. Yet “you can still pick up singles in the high C$200,000s and low C$300,000s. It changes so much – you can have a huge variation of housing stock from one side of the street to the other – but there are a lot of affordable places. And there are a lot [more] young people who want to be downtown and are not afraid to put the paint on and put in some work fixing up these homes.”

The types of properties most in demand now are duplexes and triplexes, he says. Buyers tend to live in one residence and rent the second or third to subsidise their mortgages.

Melina Craig is a local architect who, along with her fiancé, Brad, bought a three-bedroom, semi-detached brick home in Hintonburg in February last year for C$163,000. “One thing we were looking for was something affordable and we ended up getting a fixer-upper,” she says. The couple has renovated the kitchen and will move on to the bathroom later this year. They plan to spend approximately C$20,000-C$25,000 on the refurbishment.

“Structurally and electrically everything was fine and we are working on the cosmetics but it’s an investment here,” Craig says. In fact, the couple is so encouraged by the progress they have made on the first house that they plan to buy another, renovate it and sell it for a profit. Several couples on their street are working on similar projects. “There are lots of homes that have good guts and just need a little TLC,” Craig says.

Local agents

Coldwell Banker Real Estate, tel; +1 613-722 3555; www.coldwellbanker.ca

Regional Group, tel: +1 613-230 2100; www.regionalgroup.com

Sage Urban Developments,tel: +1 613-850 7653

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