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New lease in life

Attractive spin on condo living popular with retirees

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Barry Christie was what you'd call a reluctant buyer.

But the bother of keeping up a cabin and a house was getting to be too much for Christie and his wife, Joan.

They wanted a lifestyle with a little less responsibility, and they found exactly that when they purchased a life lease 15 years ago.

"We thought we'd give up the house, which we did, and we moved into a lease at Colorado Estates," says the 78-year-old tenant of a life lease complex located about a five-minute walk from Assiniboine Park.

"And I must say we did so reluctantly a little bit at first because we thought we were maybe a little bit too young."

In his early 60s at the time, Christie and his wife planned to spend summers at the cabin, and a life lease seemed like the ideal choice because they would not have to worry about upkeep like they would with their house. So, they sold their home, used the capital to cover the upfront, refundable entrance fee of about $70,000 for the life lease and have paid monthly rent ever since.

"It's the best move we ever made," he says.

While not all seniors living in life leases may feel as positively about their decision to move as Christie does, these hybrids of a condominium and a rental apartment are a popular choice in Manitoba.

There are about 80 of life leases across the province, and most are run by non-profit organizations like church groups. In fact, Manitoba and Saskatchewan are forerunners in developing these residences and, over the last two decades, life leases have redefined seniors' housing across Canada.

While designed to provide affordable housing, life leases are in some ways exclusive -- at least in the sense that you must be 55 and older to be able to lease a unit.

In addition, potential tenants need a fair amount of capital up front for the entrance fee, which can be as high as six figures.

Yet despite the cost, life leases are an appealing option, says Jack Courtney, assistant vice-president of advanced financial planning for Investors Group.

"You can sell your house and you get a substantial amount of capital -- usually more than enough to cover the up-front cost of a life lease."

And they provide peace of mind for tenants, he says.

They can live in their unit until they choose to move or as long as they can pay the monthly rent, which usually ranges from about $800 to $1,500 a month.

"Because the majority of life leases in the province are non-profit, the rent is generally whatever the cost is to run the building," says Laurie Socha, general manager with SAM, short for St. Andrew's Management.

"Basically if the taxes go up, for example, then the cost for tenants goes up."

Many living costs are included in the rent such as utilities, property taxes, building insurance, payments on the mortgage on the building, regular upkeep, repair and even the replacement of appliances.

"It's a little different than a condo," Socha says. "With a condo you're looking after the interior of your unit by yourself, but with a life lease, the corporation is responsible for the entire building including the interior."

SAM Management runs three life lease complexes, including Colorado Estates. Like many Manitoba life leases, the upfront fee is about 40 per cent of the construction cost of the unit, and the fee is returned without interest within 90 days of the tenant giving notice to leave.

"A lot of couples like life leases because if something happens to their spouse, they don't have to worry about selling the unit, so the leases provide them with the security of the entrance fee, but the ability to get out if they have to."

Yet in the last few year years, a different type of life lease has become more popular in Manitoba because of the booming real estate market. These residences allow tenants to sell their units on the open market and get a return on investment if the value of the lease increases over time.

Lindenwood Estates and Lindenwood Villa are two such options.

"Our residents have three choices," says Theresa Jachnycky, executive director of Winnipeg Mennonite Seniors Care, the non-profit managing the two complexes.

"They can return the lease back to the landlord for repayment of the entire entrance fee, in which case what they paid for the lease is what they get back."

Or they can request the landlord to assign the lease on the open market, paying a small fee for the service.

But most tenants choose the third option, which is to assign the lease themselves.

Jachnycky says this structure provides tenants with the potential to earn a return on their investment with the security that they will at least get their entrance fee returned if the market is depressed. But those who purchase the leases from tenants on the market at a higher price do run the risk they may not be able to get that same price when they choose to sell. They are, however, guaranteed to receive at least an amount equal to the original entrance fee, which is not tied to the real estate market.

These types of life leases are the norm in Ontario, and some seniors advocates have raised concerns about a lack of regulation over costs and pricing, says Jane Londerville, a professor at Guelph University.

But this is less of a concern in Manitoba, which is the only province with extensive regulation, she says.

Under the Manitoba Life Leases Act, leaseholders are considered to be renters and afforded the same rights. But being essentially a renter may give pause to some potential buyers, Londerville says.

"The developer of the building is the owner so theoretically they can evict the 'tenants' and sell the building," she says.

To her knowledge, that's never happened because most life leases are run by non-profit organizations whose sole aim is to provide good, affordable housing, she says.

Christie can certainly agree with that statement. He says life leases are a more affordable option than condominiums after considering the all-in costs.

"For the same type of unit in a condo you're probably looking at $250,000 to $300,000," he says. "Here, you'd need about $70,000."

Life lease tenants do pay rent that is more costly than a monthly condo fee, but life lease tenants also are on the hook for fewer maintenance costs inside their units.

And many lease owners often invest the remaining proceeds from the sale of their home to provide a monthly income to cover the rent.

Still, cost savings aren't the primary benefit, in Christie's opinion. It's the community-minded lifestyle that really makes them attractive.

"Activities are going all the time," he says. At Colorado Estates, they have regular card game nights and catered dinners in the common areas, and often take group tours to casinos.

After all, leisure time abounds in the absence of concerns about those pesky problems that typically accompany home ownership.

"If something doesn't work here, you call the caretaker and someone fixes it," he says. "It doesn't cost you anything, and it's those things that seniors really seem to enjoy."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 11, 2012 B10

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