By Susan Doran

Writer Susan Doran with the surprise she found on her front lawn. (Photo: Aidan Brooks-Doran)
Writer Susan Doran with the surprise she found on her front lawn. (Photo: Aidan Brooks-Doran)

Opening my front door recently, I was greeted by several municipal workers digging a hole in the front lawn.

Many Canadian homeowners aren’t aware that there’s a portion of their property frontage, often the first metre or two in from the sidewalk, that is a city-owned right of way, allowing access for the installation and servicing of everything from sewer and electricity lines to utility poles, fire hydrants, traffic signage and more. This is a necessary fact of life.



As a homeowner, when you step outside to find a crew nonchalantly shoveling up your flowerbed – whether they are with the city or with a utility such as the local hydro, gas or telecommunications provider – the maxim “life is like a box of chocolates” embraced by Forrest Gump can begin to strike you as alarming. You never know what you’re going to get.

Or how it’s going to impact your property.

Turns out that what I got was a large fluorescent school safety zone sign topped by a brilliant yellow flashing light and solar panel. It may now be possible to find my house from space.

All kidding aside, it’s ugly and invasive but as installations go, I know it could be worse. The equipment that now blinks at me from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays (including all holidays, as I discovered over the Christmas break) is an element of the international Vision Zero road safety plan, which aims to reduce traffic-related injuries and fatalities. Apparently Canada’s global world safety ranking is abysmal. How successful the program will be here is still to be determined, but it’s undeniably a worthy endeavour.

And yes, I live in a city (Toronto), so such infrastructure is part of the urban package. Planners and engineers determined that my lawn was the most visible and effective spot for this particular beacon. My home was tapped by the fickle finger of fate.

So maybe I should just accept it. But I couldn’t help wondering if those engineers considered that there are potential alternative locations on wholly city-owned property – a park – a mere stone’s throw away from me. (I’m told that often an effort is made to install infrastructure on public property where possible.)

Nor had the city given me a heads up about the installation, although when I complained about it – repeatedly – I was told that as per best practice, I was supposed to have received a letter in advance so that any concerns I had could be addressed then.

I don’t like surprises, especially ones which could potentially summon the mother ship.

More to the point, I had no idea whether this installation could impact my property value. I started doing research.

The particulars around infrastructure vary from municipality to municipality. But I quickly discovered that generally, unless there’s been an oversight, once any kind of installation is up, attempting to get it re-located can be a time-consuming and costly uphill battle, especially if you get a lawyer and various paid experts involved.

Residents can always contact the relevant city department or utility, and also their local city councillor or even the mayor. Councillors don’t have full control over these decisions, but they can “advocate on behalf of residents,” says Toronto City Councillor Brad Bradford, who represents my ward.

“We have a lot of these conversations,” says Bradford’s chief of staff, Rishab Mehan. “We want to make sure that residents’ concerns aren’t ignored.”

In Toronto, in terms of such issues as keeping streetscapes uncluttered, hydro and the various other utilities often don’t work together with the city and transportation department, to ensure that – for instance – utility space is shared so that two poles aren’t erected where one would suffice.

“We aren’t there yet,” says Mehan.

Sure enough, my research turned up no shortage of opinion pieces by people increasingly dismayed at the visual clutter of the streetscapes created by duplicate utility poles, oversized and excessive signage and countless other factors.

Asked what a homeowner’s responsibilities are regarding disclosure when selling a property with an unusual installation situation, such as when equipment servicing on a right of way regularly becomes intrusive, Bradford says he would “encourage maximum disclosure wherever possible,” and get legal advice.

He’s cautious when asked whether installations can on occasion negatively impact property values, responding, “Every home sale is unique, so different potential buyers might have different views on how installations affect values.”

That sounds to me like a maybe.

But there can be positives too. For instance, a fire hydrant on your lawn can translate into lower home insurance premiums, and quicker access for emergency fire services. And “in general, measures that improve neighbourhoods, like road safety initiatives” can be good for home values, Bradford says.

Digging deeper, I reached out to the City of Toronto’s communications office in hopes of speaking with a city planner with comprehensive installation/infrastructure knowledge. I was told: “Each city sign or piece of equipment that is installed in the public right of way has its own considerations. There are also various utility companies, agencies and even city divisions that install a broad range of different signs and utilities. So I’m afraid it’s difficult to get one person to speak about all of them.”

I never did manage to get across the message that that wasn’t the point of my article. I went down the rabbit hole of bureaucracy, complying with the city’s repeated polite requests for clarifications of clarifications of questions, an endless tunnel of infinity mirrors. It did me in. I turned elsewhere for answers.

Enter Barry Lebow, a sales rep with Re/Max Ultimate in Toronto who as an expert witness specializes in litigation relating to real estate agency and stigma, including anything that can potentially detract from a property’s value.

In his experience, trying to prove that an installation devalues your property is a fight that’s stacked against the homeowner. As a result, efforts to get compensation or reduced property taxes will likely end in disappointment.

“I don’t know of any studies around it,” he says. “No one has ever been able to prove that it takes away from value. Most of these fights go nowhere. It’s you against a government authority… You don’t have deep enough pockets.”

The good news is that in Lebow’s experience, commonplace installations like hydrants and signage don’t generally impact property values negatively. (The exceptions are “extreme installations,” he says.) Most homeowners stop seeing standard installations and learn to live with them, especially in cities, where out of necessity tolerance for them is higher than in suburbs and rural areas.

Market conditions factor in too, Lebow says. “In a buoyant market like now, people are just happy to get in. Small problems are negated.”

There’s always the option of resorting to camouflage (although not with items like hydrants, which must be kept clear). Lebow had clients with a massive hydro box on their front lawn. They called the utility and discovered that although they weren’t allowed to put a hedge around it, bedding plants were permitted, with the stipulation that the utility could dig them up when servicing the box.

Unfortunately plants aren’t going to help with my flashing beacon. But all is not lost. I still have a shot at getting it moved.

“The ‘squeaky wheel gets the oil’ theory can work,” says Lebow. “They’ll want to get rid of you.”

In other words, I could try annoying people until they give in. At last, a challenge for which I am ideally suited.

6 COMMENTS

    • Thank you, Jim. I could probably write a book about properties where other agents wanted to use the stigma to punish the sellers’ sales; sometimes the sellers talked too much especially if a divorce was pending or a vacant relo. I told them to be quiet so as not to be taken advantage of; bring back some of the already divided furniture; hang clothes of both in the master bedroom. It’s no one’s business and has nothing to do with bricks and mortar market value.

      I listed properties that were vacant and agents often had negative reactions saying the properties would never sell anywhere near the list price. Every time my listings sold close at, or near list price and occasionally over list with a couple of multiple offers in an otherwise ordinary market or even in quiet markets.

      Properties where owners had allegedly been murdered or committed suicide. Properties where natural deaths occurred, and estate sales with feces smeared on the walls where the health department had to be called. Foot covers, gloves and masks needed.

      One house had a purple kitchen and colleagues said it would never sell at any price. Then there was the property with a not expensive semi-gloss crayon blue painted kitchen. Floors, walls, cabinets, counters: the works. Sold to someone who read the listing where I promoted the “colour” as having unique value to someone who would appreciate what no one else had, and the buyers later said that was their favourite colour and had always wanted to be so daring.

      Now they could buy it ready-made. Buyers were thrilled beyond words. Again, agents said it would never sell.

      Back in the 80s a very professional pleasant divorce lawyer who later became a judge had referred a listing to me. Someone in my office of the day brought an offer. We didn’t know there was danger involved even so the house had not been well taken care of.

      I can’t recall why but I had to deliver the offer papers (6 copies) to the man-owner of that house. Knock knock – “come in, door is open,” voice said.

      Kitchen was opposite the front door tiny entrance. Step inside. There he was sitting on the kitchen floor with a circle of various shapes and sizes knives all around him. (C’mon feet – MOVE! I nearly froze.)

      But I showed no shock and gently stepped backwards the three feet to the open door, saying I just had an emergency page from my office and I would be back shortly; don’t go way. I didn’t even ever carry a pager. Called the lawyer’s office. Never heard another word. No changes to the offer. Paycheque hand-delivered.

      Suicides were involved at some properties. I insisted on quiet full disclosure(s).

      The key is to remain professional in all circumstances and promote the property to likely buyers, often spending money to target-market. Long before tv or social media marketing.

      I sometimes prepared special marketing delivered to local business reception desks, (always courier delivered totally showing my stationery loud and clear, had to be signed for to prove delivery, including to banks, car dealerships, medical office buildings, and even to the post office office itself, requesting the material be posted on office lunchroom notice boards. And to certain shoppes that I patronized. Hang it at the cashier desk. A picture on the inside side window of my car when in a parking lot. Or marketing made into a windshield screen sun protector for when parked. With big words FOR SALE. (Gave to owner to use, too. They loved it.) Help me help you.

      The secret was in target-marketing, not trying to sell to someone who needed convincing to buy it and certainly not listing at a lower price to accommodate a sale. In one unique million-dollar difficult to sell property built by family of famous Hollywood actor, I had the then owner offer a VTB (that hadn’t been done in years) at current rates. A real estate agent bought it quickly in a quiet market.

      Sometimes you just have to be creative without endangering anyone.

      Appreciate your comment.

      Carolyne

  1. I had a listing years ago at a busy T-intersect street. Across from an elementary school but instead children were bussed to another location school. The street intersect had stop signs in three locations.
    And one of those signs posted right at the subject property, but on the edge of the street boulevard.

    Large numbers of children and parents gathered morning and afternoon at the stop signs because that is the spot where the school bus stopped. So the listing would be inundated with traffic.

    Agents told the owners that no one would ever pay top dollar for this well-kept, upgraded property due to clearly an abundance of traffic and typically the noise associated early in the morning especially with hundreds of children coming and going. Agents quoted extremely low suggested list price to punish this property. I didn’t know that initially.

    A sister of the owner lived in my farm area. The subject house was just outside the edge of my farms. Sister suggested owners call me. I didn’t know her.

    I did my homework and decided to take a chance, where normally I would have referred out that opportunity, and I insisted we had to market the house to someone who would appreciate the cleanliness, the upgrades, and that the location near schools and school bus stops to “someone” would be “an advantage” and this wasn’t a situation that any listing agent could cover up.

    So, to market we went. We were bang on market value and no need to punish the seller. In a quiet ordinary market we sold in a couple of weeks near list price…. to whom? People who had an agent and lived in a tiny house on the T-cross street, familiar with the traffic, children, school, stop signs: the works! They couldn’t miss seeing my for sale sign coming and going to their existing house. They wanted to stay in the area and buy this very large house.

    And I then sold the seller an MLS listing near the sister in my farm. And I got a most wonderful thank you letter.

    You gotta deal with what you have to work with. I marketed it to people who would want it and understood all the related issues. Probably hundreds of times in more than 35 years I encountered odd situations such as.

    Truly there is a lid for every pot. Certainly not a location to have open houses. And no street parking. A two car garage and two car short driveway. It is what it is. None of the situations could be changed. And As the lead subdivision street it was heavily travelled as a joiner intersect street to two main arteries.

    How lucky did we all get? I had the luckiest real estate career of anyone I knew in the industry.

    Carolyne L ?

  2. I can understand the possible necessity of a sign. The flashing light, in my opinion , would be the bigger issue.

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