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All About Duplexes

I’ve had the recent experience of assisting clients buy a full duplex as a place to live in. They are two families who wish to share one mortgage, thus finding a large enough home that was equal for both parties limited our search to full duplexes. A full duplex is when both sides of the duplex share one title. Going through the process was different than buying a single detached house in so many ways, so it made sense to share our knowledge for anyone considering this option.

When shopping for a duplex, be prepared to be patient. Since duplexes are an old style of building, they are fewer of them available for re-sale. With the building boom of the last 15 years, many duplexes have been torn down because of the large land that they occupy. New style homes, such as the two-storey with basements have often replaced them, thus reducing the inventory of duplexes on the market. Furthermore, in an economy with much uncertainty, duplexes are fairly easy positive cash-flow generators, so once an owner has a duplex, they hold onto them.

Then, when a new duplex listing pops up on the MLS, getting into a duplex is not easy, either. Since duplexes are often converted (legally or not) into a fourplex, 24 hours notice to get access is usually necessary. In fact, it is not uncommon to have to give 48 hours notice to get access.  Listing agents, or the sellers, have to track down all tenants to give legal notice. Getting into all sides of a duplex is so important because of the quality differences from each unit. Sometimes owners will renovate one unit when a tenant moves out, but leave other units alone as long as there is a tenant. So while the layout might be the same from one side to another, the quality can be drastically different. Finally, don’t be surprised that when you go to see it, there will be other potential buyers there at the same time. Since getting access can be difficult, a listing agent will try and get as many buyers through at one time. So be aware, as this can also create an urgency in the buyer writing an offer (when they see other buyers).

Not only do you have to be patient when shopping for a duplex, you have to keep a careful eye on the quality of the duplex, too. It’s likely that the seller’s of a duplex are probably investors and don’t live in one of the units. Since they are investors, they often don’t treat the duplex with the same kind of care that they provide their own home. In many investors minds, as long as they get the rent cheque, that’s all they are concerned with. Now to be fair, many tenants simply don’t report problems with the place, either. But since most duplexes are older buildings, often built back in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, they are showing their age. If owners have never lived there, it is easy to see how repairs can get overlooked. That’s why it’s even more important to have a thorough home inspection done on a duplex. Getting access to the attic, and the roof is of particular importance.

Many duplexes in the Fraser Valley seem to be located close to the city centres. So many also have redevelopment potential. But the word “potential” must be noted. Listing agents will tell you how prime the land is, but buyer’s agents must do their research to find out the long-term plan for the region.  Furthermore, with regards to zoning regulations, careful attention must be made to determine whether the duplex is conforming or non-conforming. A non-conforming duplex means that if the duplex was destroyed for any reason (ie-fire, or to rebuild), the city’s zoning laws would not allow it to be a duplex again. I think you’d agree that’s an important fact you’d want to discover before you buy it! Other zoning challenges when it comes to duplexes is to find out other restrictions of the land. Some duplexes are zoned as multi-family, and others are zoned as residential duplex…each with the own allowances for number of units, size of building square footage, etc. Do not buy a duplex without careful inspection of the city’s bylaws.

In the end, my experience with buyers of a duplex has been an exciting one. We’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly. My clients exercised patience and kept a reasonable head to ensure they found the right fit for them. But be forewarned, it is a completely different ball game than buying a single detached house. So be prepared!

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Blog post provided by Greg & Liz Holmes, a REALTOR® Team with Macdonald Realty in South Surrey / White Rock.   Visit The Holmes Team blog at holmesteam.ca