When you factor in everything on the market—from decrepit one-room condos to palatial Bridle Path abodes—the average house in Toronto sells for $295,000. We decided to start with a more generous figure, a hypothetical half million—enough, we assumed, for a decent place in a decent neighbourhood. Our expectations were reasonable: a solid kitchen, a couple of bedrooms, maybe even a garage. Starting last December, we scoured the classifieds. What we found, over months of traipsing through one house after another, was astonishing. Here, a snapshot of what $500,000 buys in 2004.

Leaside

Curb appeal: Set on a tree-lined street in Toronto’s first suburb, this modest three-bedroom home near Bayview and Eglinton was built circa 1931. The house is in original condition, with the exception of an addition to the dining room and a walkout basement, which has been converted to a comfy in-law apartment. A private drive, detached garage and sizable yard make up the outer property. The house was last sold in 1992.

The walk-through: The place feels like a well-appointed cottage with the diminutive footprint to match; it’s hard to imagine a family living here without constantly elbowing each other. Many of the original flourishes have been preserved, including arched doorways, gumwood floors, art deco door handles and plaster walls. A bevelled-glass door opens off the foyer to the living room, which has a wood-burning fireplace. The kitchen’s tidy white cupboards and open shelving could have been filched from the set of Leave It to Beaver, while its cramped layout is suggestive of a railway flat. (The previous owners built an addition onto the back of the home, creating a small family room and inserting a bathroom—which means at some point the house was even smaller.) Space challenges are revisited upstairs, where only the master can hold a queen-size bed, with little room to spare, and the closets are incompatible with modern wardrobes. The lack of central air is remedied (on the top floor, at least) by a freestanding air conditioning unit that hangs from a second-storey window in the upstairs hall. The basement was finished in 1992 and has eight-foot ceilings.

Meet the neighbours: Legal and accounting professionals and their families make up the majority of local residents. According to Re/Max Unique agent Tony Hill, a 35-year veteran of the business, Leasiders are obsessive about their yards. “The neighbourhood probably has the city’s highest percentage of shovelled sidewalks,” he says. In the summer, grass cutting assumes an artisanal quality, with many mowing their lawns in tidy, Stepford-like diagonal patterns.

Local landmarks: Bayview is brimming with good restaurants (Lemongrass, Riz, JOV Bistro) and neighbourhood pubs (Duff’s Famous Wings, McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon), as well as pricey grocery stores and antiques shops. Budget-conscious locals gravitate east to Laird, where two recently constructed mega-plazas house the likes of Canadian Tire and Pier One. Grabbing a latte is no spur-of-the-moment endeavour: it’s a fair hike to either the Bayview commercial strip or the Second Cup at Laird and Eglinton, which means going for the occasional cuppa will probably involve a car.

Leisure pursuits: It’s a short jaunt to the Leaside Library, and weekend warriors and hockey parents appreciate the proximity to Leaside Memorial Community Gardens, home of the Leaside Curling Club. Trace Manes Park—a triangular block bounded by Millwood Road, Rumsey Road and McRae Drive—offers a baseball diamond and tennis courts.

School situation: Nearby Rolph Road Elementary School (JK–6), Bessborough Drive Elementary and Middle School (JK–8) and Leaside High School (Grade 9–12) all meet or exceed provincial standards in reading and writing but don’t reflect the city’s ethnic diversity. In 2003, of the 353 children enrolled at Rolph Road, only six were new to Canada.

Commute to King and Bay: 10 kilometres (17 minutes) by car via the Bayview extension.

The verdict: What you’re paying for is cachet, plain and simple; living in Leaside is a sign of status. As a result, real estate prices in the area remain consistent even in market downturns, which makes owning a home here a dependable investment. A comparable residence in a more mixed neighbourhood such as Pape Village, with its blue-collar contingent and ethnic diversity, would sell for $150,000 less. But let’s face it: most of us have to live in our investment, and this place is just too tiny for the money. Its biggest selling points—gracious arched doorways, stylish deco fixtures—will be cold comfort when you come down with a case of cabin fever.

Humber Valley

Curb appeal: Located near Royal York and Dundas West, this drab brick bungalow custom built in the mid-1970s is dwarfed by the discomfiting shadow of a colossal apartment block that rears up to the immediate south. Beyond the unremarkable façade lie three bedrooms (including a master ensuite), three large, multi-purpose rooms in the basement and three washrooms. Evergreens provide some privacy in the spacious yard but not nearly enough. The house was last sold in 2001.

The walk-through: If you can divert your attention from the flamboyant safari theme (leopard-print lampshades, tiger-themed artwork) in the living and dining rooms, you’ll notice the well-preserved original hardwood floors. A walkout basement makes the home feel considerably larger than it appears from the street. Besides a massive family room (specs include a wood-burning fireplace, parquet floors, expansive windows), the basement has a second cavernous area billed as a “games room,” plus a comfortable office, bathroom, substantial cold cellar and bare-bones laundry room. Size and layout suggest tremendous party potential on the lower level, but it will require immediate intervention from the Designer Guys. Mid-tone faux wood panelling gives the family room the murky ambience of a Bavarian tavern; panelling in the games room, though a few shades lighter, produces the same gloomy result.

Meet the neighbours: Doctors, money managers, teachers and retirees make up the bulk of the area’s population. Not one of them was evident when we visited.

Local landmarks: Humbertown Shopping Centre, a two-minute walk across Royal York Road, has the standard provisions: Loblaws, LCBO, Shoppers Drug Mart, Scotiabank and a Blockbuster fashioned like a small castle. Driving to these conveniences from Strath Humber Court, however, involves risking life and limb: turning left onto Royal York Road is a Tolkienesque adventure. A stoplight just metres from this court means that you’re forced either to befriend idling motorists or to play chicken with oncoming traffic.

Leisure pursuits: The house is less than a kilometre from the Humber River parks system and bicycle trail, a haven of green and the area’s single biggest selling feature. Duffers will get prickles of ecstasy knowing there are four courses (Lambton Golf and Country Club, Islington Golf and Country Club, Scarlett Woods Golf Course and St. George’s Golf and Country Club) all within a 10-minute drive.

School situation: Humber Valley Village Junior Middle School (JK–8) and Etobicoke Collegiate Institute (Grade 9–12) score high on provincial tests and boast strong ethnic diversity: 15 per cent of students at Humber Valley Village are learning English as a second language, while at Etobicoke C.I. it’s more than double that (35 per cent).

Commute to King and Bay: 15 kilometres (19 minutes) by car via the Gardiner Expressway.

The verdict: If you can overlook the looming apartment block, which the selling agent says knocks $200,000 off the home’s value, you’ll get an abundance of living space and a foothold in a desirable neighbourhood. Some agents exploit the proximity to the elite Kingsway area (a half kilometre south) to exaggerate prices here. But as Michelle Read, a consultant for Sutton Group Associates, says, “Backing onto an apartment building certainly won’t help resale if it ever turns into a buyer’s market. And it will.”

Riverdale

Curb appeal: Located southeast of Greektown, near Danforth and Jones, Lydia is a sleepy cul-de-sac cosseted by one-way streets. One in a row of identical homes, this three-bedroom detached brick house with mansard roof has three bathrooms, a basement with a walkout to a raised deck, and a built-in garage. The outgoing owners are the second occupants since the home was built in 1985. “You feel so removed from the city,” they say. “It just feels, when you turn the corner, that you are leaving it behind you.” No mention was made of screaming sirens from the fire station one block north.

The walk-through: The undivided living-dining room, combined with a series of trompe l’oeil murals along the open staircase (a window motif with cascading greenery), makes the main floor feel like the set of a sitcom. Overlooking the street, the kitchen is brightened by a tall bay window. Save for the master, the bedrooms upstairs are emphatically small. The master bath with oversized tub is adorned with more trompe l’oeil. A baffling renovation in the mid-’90s borrowed space from the neighbouring garage in order to augment the basement living area. The unfortunate result is a garage that can only house bikes, boxes and other smallish bits of domestic detritus, and a lower-level family room that’s too narrow to be functional. The back deck is a gift on sunny days; it runs the width of the house and overlooks a calming greenbelt. A TTC maintenance yard lies beyond the back fence but produces no distracting din.

Meet the neighbours: Those who live here often find themselves in the grocery checkout line with people they’ve seen on TV: Tragically Hip singer Gord Downie and media types such as Citytv’s Liz West are spotted regularly. The area also attracts upwardly mobile families; the sidewalks are clogged with SUV-size strollers.

Local landmarks: Chic clothing stores (507 and Maxi) and restaurants of every culinary persuasion (Katsu Sushi, Omonia, Silk Road Café) are only minutes away. IGA, Shoppers Drug Mart, Masellis Supermarket, the Beer Store and the LCBO are within a four-block stretch of the Danforth.

Leisure pursuits: Monarch Park to the east has an outdoor swimming pool, while Withrow Park, several blocks to the west, has a soccer field, an open-air hockey rink, two public tennis courts and a now infamous off-leash dog area. Both Rogers Video and Blockbuster are within easy walking distance, as is Square Boy, a charmingly dated burger joint. When those guilt pangs set in, there’s Oxygen Fitness at Pape.

School situation: Wilkinson Junior Public School (JK–6) is performing at or below provincial standards in the three Rs; 48 per cent of its students have a primary language other than English. That number is 56 per cent at Eastern Commerce Collegiate Institute—a daunting, four-storey edifice just outside Lydia Court—and 61 per cent at Riverdale Collegiate Institute, both of which are performing at or below provincial standards for math and literacy.

Commute to King and Bay: Seven kilometres (15 minutes) by car via Carlaw Avenue and Queen Street East. Donlands station is a 10-minute walk away.

The verdict: Squeezing into Riverdale’s eastern border by a hair (sticklers contend that the coveted neighbourhood ends at Pape, a couple of blocks west), Lydia Court lacks the charm of the area’s more central streets. And while it’s set on a peaceful dead-end strip steps from the Danforth, its tiny bedrooms, garish murals and other structural oddities make this place feel harshly overpriced.

Hillcrest

Curb appeal: Near Bathurst and St. Clair, Ellsworth is a pretty avenue of 1930s homes located just north of Wychwood Park, an exclusive enclave of multimillion-dollar mansions. The house we toured here has three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a finished basement. A deck opens off the kitchen and looks north to the derrières of the shops on St. Clair. The house last sold in 2000.

The walk-through: The sellers made the most of the compact space with renos and strategically placed small-scale furniture. They laid maple hardwood on the first and second floors, and recast the kitchen with maple cabinets, grey granite counters and sleek new appliances (Maytag dishwasher, Frigidaire refrigerator). A thatch of exposed brick between the stove and fridge gives the kitchen an industrial edge, while a large pass-through window to the dining room makes both rooms feel more expansive. In the basement, they added berber carpet in the rec-room area and installed a four-piece bathroom. Upstairs, while the master bedroom is big and bright with abundant closet space, the middle bedroom isn’t large enough to accommodate a single bed; it works as a nursery or home office but little else. The top floor also poses bathing issues: the petite tub is two-thirds the standard length. A mutual drive and front-pad parking virtually obliterate the front yard.

Meet the neighbours: Known as Corso Italia, the area is home to many Italian and Portuguese families. Local professionals include journalists and lawyers.

Local landmarks: Churrasco of St. Clair, a takeout restaurant revered for its Portuguese barbecued chicken, is a neighbourhood icon with the lineups to prove it. A huge Loblaws with adjoining Caban and LCBO outlets is within strolling distance. Unlike most busy Toronto thoroughfares, St. Clair hasn’t sprouted a litany of brand stores. What you get instead is a patchy commercial strip: upmarket retailers like Fiori Floral Designs sidle up to dingy thrift shops and X-rated video stores.

Leisure pursuits: Sir Winston Churchill Park to the southeast has walking trails and an eponymous private tennis club (April to October). The St. Michael’s Majors junior hockey team plays at the St. Michael’s College School Arena; the skill level is high, but ticket prices aren’t ($7.50–$12.50).

School situation: Hillcrest Junior Public School (JK–6) meets provincial standards in all categories and has some ethnic diversity: 15 per cent speak English as a second language. At Winona Drive Senior Public School (Grade 7–8), that number is 27 per cent. Oakwood Collegiate (Grade 9–12) performs below provincial standards in math, but its music program attracts many out-of-district students.

Commute to King and Bay: Seven kilometres (15 minutes) by car via Bathurst. Few intersections in Toronto are better served by public transit than St. Clair and Bathurst; buses, streetcars and subway are all within a five-minute walk.

The verdict: St. Clair’s inconsistent retail strip and proximity to the high-crime Oakwood-Vaughan corridor bring prices down a notch, making a neighbourhood with good housing stock and decent access to amenities and TTC reasonably affordable. If the house is more important than the ’hood, 40 Ellsworth is easily the most attractive place we encountered.

Richmond Hill

Curb appeal: Bayview Glen, a suburban development at Yonge and Highway 7, is devoid of any captivating topographical features and populated with large, unprepossessing garage-fronted dwellings. Built by Greenpark Homes in 1999, this detached two-storey house has four bedrooms, five bathrooms and a spacious one-bedroom basement in-law suite. The garage bears a sign with the original builder’s identification (Lot #13), a reminder of the home’s cookie-cutter provenance. Agents market neighbourhoods like this with such adjectives as “clean” and “safe,” because terms like “sterile” and “featureless” don’t move homes.

The walk-through: The main buyers in Richmond Hill are families, and this home offers many elements they look for: a kitchen with an island and an adjoining family room, generous yard and garage. The soaring, two-storey front foyer seems an extravagant waste in a house where the main floor suffers from cramped design—accessing the combined living-dining room requires a trip down a narrow hallway. California shutters—the ubiquitous window covering du jour—adorn the main-floor windows. The upstairs landing is a prime perch for addressing the family Evita style. With a separate entrance through the garage, the basement has all the makings of an ideal one-bedroom apartment: a full kitchen, dining area, living room, ample bedroom, three-piece bathroom and copious storage space.

Meet the neighbours: SUV-, wagon- and minivan-driving professionals of every ethnic stripe.

Local landmarks: This far north, the power centre is king. South Hill Shopping Centre, at Yonge and 16th Avenue, contains a Loblaws, Canadian Tire, Future Shop and a variety of smaller bakeries and shops. Across the street, woebegone Hillcrest Mall has recently undergone a massive renovation in an attempt to woo back shoppers; its tenants include the Bay, Zellers and Sport Chek. Nearby High Tech Road has Winners, Staples/Business Depot and other big-box retailers.

Leisure pursuits: The surplus of satellite dishes speaks volumes about how Richmond Hill residents spend their free time. No wonder—there’s little incentive to walk anywhere. You need a car to do everything, even check the mail (it’s delivered to a superbox at the end of the street). Culture vultures find nominal pleasure at the nearby Indigo Books and Silver City multiplex theatre (just north of Yonge and Highway 7). The Krispy Kreme outlet that opened near Hillcrest Mall in 2002 is still luring tourists to this dull ’burb.

School situation: While Grade 3 students at Sixteenth Avenue Public School perform at or below provincial standards for reading, writing and math, Grade 6 students generally meet Ontario benchmarks. In both cases, 21 per cent of students are enrolled in ESL classes. Bayview Secondary School students fall at or below provincial standards in Grade 9 math testing, while students at Thornlea Secondary School beat standards for Grade 10 literacy.

Commute to King and Bay: 36 kilometres (30 minutes) by car via the 404/Don Valley Parkway.

The verdict: This house has everything a suburban home should: a wide lot, physical largesse and a measure of quietude. And it’s fairly new (there are two years left on the Ontario New Home Warranty Program), which means you don’t need to trouble yourself with major repairs for a long time. However, the neighbourhood looks and feels like an army barracks, with no street life, no character—no soul. It feels like the ultimate sellout.

Yorkville

Curb appeal: Though the proper name of this low-rise condo complex is the New Hazelton Lanes, it’s positively ancient in Toronto condo terms. Designed in the late 1980s by architects Webb Zerafa Menkes and adjoining the Hazelton Lanes shopping mall at Avenue Road and Cumberland, the complex would make a perfect setting for a Jackie Collins bodice ripper—its decor favours the shiny, the sleek and the luxurious. Slick black marble floors lead to this one-bedroom suite situated in the city’s poshest shopping district. The seller is the original owner.

The walk-through: At first blush, the view alone is worth half a million. From both the living room and the bedroom, you get an unhindered panorama of Avenue Road and the charming peaked roofs of the Annex. Several years ago, the owner converted the solarium into an extension of the living room. Smart move—it expanded the space. Getting rid of the monolithic wall unit with ornate oriental screen covers would be equally beneficial; this piece of built-in exotica is ungainly and dominates the living room. The large bedroom contains a clever television alcove with a door that hides the unit when not in use. Shame about the wallpaper, though; red stripes scream bordello chic. Wall-to-wall mirrors in the master bathroom give even a quick powdering the creepy tenor of a Roman Polanski movie. With its granite surfaces and black lacquer cupboards, the kitchen seems better suited for alien autopsies than food preparation. It’s ideal for those who like to boast about their AEG double oven but spend most nights ordering dinner at Sotto Sotto.

Meet the neighbours: Strip away the tourists and visiting celebrities and you get the people who actually live in Yorkville: rich folk (investment brokers, high-powered lawyers, empty nesters) with artificially bronzed skin and designer garb. They only look like tourists and think they’re celebrities.

Local landmarks: Yorkville is famous for its art galleries and swish boutiques, but even the great unwashed can find decent-priced jeans at Over the Rainbow. The area’s biggest selling point is its easy access to all things upscale: gourmet groceterias (Whole Foods, Pusateri’s), retail chains (Chanel, Hermès, Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma), salons and spas (Glo, Jie Avenue, Stillwater), florists (Parterre, Teatro Verde), antiques stores (Paisley Shop, Howard & Co.), plastic surgeons (SpaMedica, the Cumberland Clinic) and luxury car dealerships (Rolls-Royce, Ferrari).

Leisure pursuits: For cultural enrichment, there’s the Royal Ontario Museum, the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art and the Cumberland Theatre (an art-house cinema of sorts), all within a five-minute walk.

School situation: The Lilliputian units in this building don’t usually attract people with young children. But for those rare exceptions, there’s Jesse Ketchum Junior and Senior Public School, which is over 160 years old and possessed of a diverse ethnic makeup (in 2003, 49 per cent of students had a primary language other than English). The school performs at or below provincial standards for reading, writing and arithmetic.

Commute to King and Bay: 3.5 kilometres (seven minutes) by car straight down University. It’s only a 10-minute ride by subway from Museum station, but what Yorkvillian would actually be caught dead toting a Metropass?

The verdict: Half a mil may seem rather outrageous for a one-bedroom, but everything is relative. “Frankly, Yorkville is a steal,” claims Ophira Sutton, co-founder and co-owner of Sutton Group Associates Realty. Compared with similarly exclusive areas in other major cities, “this magnitude of location doesn’t yield the dollars it should.” Geography aside, from an aesthetic standpoint, not to mention square footage, these digs just don’t justify the hefty price tag.

The Beach

Curb appeal: Set among lush trees and winding, sloping streets on the eastern edge of the Beach, this property was a vacant lot prior to 2003. Now it’s a two-storey detached infill, with three bedrooms, four bathrooms and a high-ceilinged basement family room with gas fireplace. Although it’s just steps from busy Kingston Road, near Victoria Park, traffic clamour is barely noticeable; walk a minute south to Bracken Avenue for a striking view of the rippling waters of Lake Ontario.

The walk-through: It was obvious before we had even shed our shoes: the layout is wonky. The kitchen, located toward the front of the house, is long and wide enough to accommodate a table and French doors leading out to the front porch, but this generous expanse comes at the expense of the front foyer, which is cramped. Like many builder homes, this place is marred by generic features, including garish light fixtures, prefab bathroom vanities and pinkish exterior stucco. The home’s biggest advantage is its newness (that new-house smell hits you when you open the front door): the rooms are pristine, the walls are equipped with the latest data lines (such as CAT 5 wiring, which enables high-speed Internet access), and it comes with seven-year maintenance protection under the Ontario New Home Warranty Program. Composed of interlocking brick, a mutual driveway provides access to a parking pad out back, but getting your SUV out for the morning commute will require tango lessons.

Meet the neighbours: This serene area attracts artsy folk and professionals who are either laid back or hoping to become that way. New residents quickly develop a staunch loyalty to the neighbourhood. Dianne Chaput, a salesperson for Royal LePage, reports that most of her clients are existing Beach residents who, due to the ebb and flow of family, want a bigger or smaller house in the same radius.

Local landmarks: The Queen Street East strip has everything from clever floristry (Cool, Green & Shady) to effervescent beachwear (OverKill) to pop-culture collectibles (Storyville). If you’re looking to restock your pantry, however, you’ll need a set of wheels; grocery stores are scarce in the immediate vicinity. Locals head to the Valu-Mart on Queen, or Loblaws and other big-box standbys at Victoria Park and Danforth.

Leisure pursuits: There’s Great Escapes, a delightful used bookstore, but otherwise excitement is in short supply on Kingston Road. Wend your way down to Queen Street, however, and it’s a different story, with charming hangouts like Whitlock’s and the Beacher Café, as well as second-run cinema the Fox. The boardwalk, which begins at Balmy Beach Park, buzzes with cyclists and rollerbladers much of the year. During the temperate months, residents and tourists (i.e., Torontonians from west of the Don) throng Kew Gardens Park, the site of the Beaches International Jazz Festival and a perfect place to gambol barefoot through the grass.

School situation: Depending on their house number, Bingham families send their progeny to either Adam Beck Junior Public School or Balmy Beach Community Junior School. Neither can boast about its ethnic diversity, but Balmy Beach performs at provincial levels in reading, writing and arithmetic, while Adam Beck scores at or below those standards. Senior students graduate to the well-regarded Malvern Collegiate Institute, Danforth Collegiate and Technical Institute or Monarch Park Collegiate Institute.

Commute to King and Bay: 10 kilometres (15 minutes) via Lakeshore and the Gardiner Expressway. The alternative is strolling 10 minutes south to Neville Park stop, the most easterly point on the Queen streetcar line.

The verdict: It won’t win any design awards, but what it lacks in looks it more than makes up for in usable space—and location. Save for Ward’s Island, this is the best simulacrum of cottage country to be found in Toronto. Bottom line: this house comes without the structural and maintenance headaches that plague many of the area’s old gems.

High Park

Curb appeal: Set in a peaceful corridor of towering Edwardian homes near Annette and Keele, this capacious home is ready for a family reunion. It has five generously sized bedrooms, four bathrooms, a dining room with pocket doors, two fireplaces and enough unexpected alcoves for hours of hide-and-seek fun. The seller has occupied the house for the past 15 of its 94 years.

The walk-through: Compared with the homes we visited in central Toronto, 73 Mavety is a palace. Our tour was like a discovery walk, every step yielding new and interesting compartments and chambers. Many of the original features remain: fireplaces in both the living room and master bedroom, leaded and stained glass windows, and a huge claw-foot tub in the second-floor bathroom. There’s something inherently charismatic about houses of this vintage, but this old-timer is definitely showing its age. The oak floors on the ground level are well worn, the original windows are drafty, the kitchen is in urgent need of overhaul, and the second-floor bathroom—which is separated into two rooms, one with the toilet, the other with the tub and sink—is an awkward hold-over from a bygone era. Effects of settling are evident from the curb: the home leans slightly to the north; the eavestroughs of 73 and 77 Mavety are touching. Although sterile, the basement has an apartment with kitchen and separate entrance. Just watch your head: the ceilings down there are low (six and a half feet) and seem even lower with all those overhead vents. A recurring complaint from potential buyers was the home’s lack of parking.

Meet the neighbours: Young professionals with less money but a more diverse cultural background than those living in the southern reaches of High Park or neighbouring Bloor West Village.

Local landmarks: A mix of grungy shops and sports bars makes the Dundas West retail strip rather uninviting. Bloor West is preferable; it’s just not particularly close. With its Ukrainian bakers, treat-laden cafés (Bread and Roses) and pricey home furnishing stores (Nestings), the shopping strip provides the means to while away a lazy Sunday afternoon. For grocery items, there is the No Frills on Pacific Avenue, which is a few blocks north.

Leisure pursuits: The neighbourhood’s beloved eponymous park, a mere half kilometre south, has extensive walking trails, a public pool, a zoo and lots of undulating green space. More immediate athletic venues include Lithuania Park, the West Toronto Lawn Bowling Club and the Keele Community Recreation Centre. The Annette Public Library is a short jaunt up Mavety.

School situation: Students at Keele Street Junior Public School (JK–6) and Runnymede Junior and Senior Public School (JK–8) generally meet or exceed provincial testing standards. At Keele Street, more than half (54 per cent) of the populace has a first language other than English; at Runnymede, 13 per cent of students are taking ESL. Students at Humberside Collegiate Institute (Grade 9–12) achieve provincial literacy standards.

Commute to King and Bay: 10 kilometres (15 minutes) by car via the Gardiner Expressway.

The verdict: We were almost giddy when we found five bedrooms—with character—within a short commute to downtown. So why the reasonable price? Although Mavety is quiet and child friendly, it’s still in the least desirable area of High Park. It’s much closer to the Junction, a scruffy district in the midst of renewal, than it is to tony Bloor West. South of Bloor, a comparable home would command $150,000 more. The absence of a private parking spot also lowers the value. However, the place has great reno potential. With a new kitchen and bathrooms, this house “could fetch up to $600,000,” according to Margie Kiersnowski, a Re/Max sales rep in the area. The place is a score.

Bathurst Corridor

Curb appeal: Westgate is a quiet boulevard lined with mid-century houses and a constellation of stuccoed new builds. This boxy 1950s-era, three-bedroom home near Bathurst and Wilson has two bathrooms and a finished basement, and is set on an ample lot complete with garage and private three-car drive. Westgate is surprisingly tranquil given that the perpetually gridlocked 401 is a two-minute drive south. The seller bought the home in 2001.

The walk-through: A recent remodelling is responsible for crisp, white crown moulding throughout the house, white California shutters on all the windows and a suite of sexy stainless steel GE appliances in the kitchen. French doors in the eight-seat dining room open onto a large deck overlooking a deep yard that craves a pool. Built-in shelving in the living room looks as if it were cobbled together on a Sunday afternoon—the effect is homespun and slapdash. A similar vibe pervades the petite kitchen, which suffers from clashing aesthetics: outmoded, ’80s-style cabinetry next to resplendent new floors and appliances. Because the house was built at a time of rampant paranoia about the toxicity of car fumes, the attached garage is not accessible from the inside of the house.

Meet the neighbours: The median age has dropped in recent years, with an influx of younger residents (civil servants, mainly) and their families moving into the ’hood. The area is about 90 per cent Jewish.

Local landmarks: Bathurst and Wilson offers few consumer temptations. There’s a No Frills at the intersection, but Westgate dwellers are unlikely to bag their own groceries. Most are inclined to drive south to Dominion (Bathurst and Lawrence), northwest to Highland Farms (Dufferin north of Finch) or take the circuitous, back-roads route to Avenue Road, which offers such epicurean enticements as Bruno’s Fine Foods and Pusateri’s, as well as posh shops like Zola, Want Boutique and Linea Intima. Jewish bakeries and delicatessens south of Wilson are also a big draw.

Leisure pursuits: Beckoning a kilometre north is Earl Bales Park, a lush, expansive green space with walking trails amid a variety of maple, beech and walnut trees. Included on the grounds is the North York Ski Centre, with modest slopes, equipment rentals and full snow-making capabilities, plus a 1,500-seat amphitheatre, a venue for live performances.

School situation: Many families in the area send their kids to separate Jewish schools like the Toronto Heschel School, Bais Chomesh High School for Girls and Lubavitch High School. But test scores at Summit Heights Public School (JK–6) are at or above provincial standards.

Commute to King and Bay: 13 kilometres (28 minutes) by car via Avenue Road.

The verdict: Most buyers look at a home like this and get wide eyed thinking about a two-storey addition off the back that would enlarge the cramped kitchen, tack on a family room and create a spacious master suite. It’s probably the most common renovation in the GTA, and as selling agent Joyce Rosenblatt of Forest Hill Real Estate points out, it’s the reason prices around here have jumped in recent years. (Well, that and the fact that builders are razing modest bungalows to erect much larger homes.) With or without an adjunct, the place is a good buy—it’s a safe and family-oriented area. Property values can only continue to climb.

Oakville

Curb appeal: There is an epidemic of gingerbread trim in Glen Abbey, a subdivision just north of the QEW that’s populated with large homes built in a Victorian Revival style. Adjacent streets bear romantic designations like Fieldcrest Lane and Potters Wheel Crescent, in deference to the area’s former status: some of the best agricultural land in Ontario. This grand home (more late ’80s than Victorian) is the largest house and property on sheltered Berkshire Court, and is set on an angular lot that’s three times as wide as it is deep. Vintage 1987, this 3,000-square-foot house has four bedrooms, generous living and family rooms, a vast rec room in the basement and an attached two-car garage. The owners live abroad and rented out the house until June 2003 for $2,700 a month.

The walk-through: Double front doors open onto a curving oak staircase that looms over the front foyer like a coiled brown snake. Due to this overwhelming focal point, the rooms upstairs all fan out from a semicircular landing, resulting in odd-shaped, triangular spaces and potentially awkward furniture placement. Because the last tenant had little stake in the look of the property, the interior has a tired showroom quality: the walls are painted an innocuous off-white; the slightly stained carpets are a bland ecru; and we won’t even mention the kitchen cabinets. The absence of a cohesive design strategy is also apparent in the light fixtures, which are a jumble of faux art deco and gaudy brass. Space is plentiful in the basement, where the ceilings are eight feet high and every door yields a closet—all except the one that opens to a two-person sauna. The home’s biggest selling point, apart from its size, is the neighbouring wooded ravine. Hop the back fence and you’re on the McCraney Creek Trail, which merges with Glen Abbey’s sprawling parks system.

Meet the neighbours: Mostly white-collar Caucasians and a preponderance of wheaten terriers.

Local landmarks: Between Pilgrims Way Plaza and Nottinghill Place—an inauspicious strip mall located at the east end of Pilgrims Way—shopping is restricted to upscale provisions (Bruno’s Fine Foods) and pocket-change items like gum and lottery tickets. But a well-endowed Sobeys is a three-minute drive away, and the Lakeshore retail strip in downtown Oakville (a 20-minute drive) offers chi-chi clothing stores (Tocca Finita, Silkeborg) and boutiques.

Leisure pursuits: Sidewalks in the area are barren and unappealing, but the McCraney Creek Trail is a green gateway for avid walkers and cyclists. The dour-looking Pilgrims Way Plaza features Abbeywood Spa and Monkey See Monkey Do, a child-care and activity centre. Oakville’s respectable art galleries are reachable by car—without which you can’t live in Glen Abbey as bus service is languorous at best. The Glen Abbey Golf Course no longer hosts the Canadian Open but remains a premier place to tee off.

School situation: Pilgrim Wood, Heritage Glen and West Oak Public Schools meet provincial standards in reading, writing and math. Grade 9 students at Thomas A. Blakelock High School meet provincial math standards. Classrooms in Oakville don’t approach downtown Toronto’s ethnic mix, but the town is less white bread than in decades past.

Commute to King and Bay: 44 kilometres (36 minutes) by car via the QEW (provided you drive at three a.m.; during rush hour the commute can take 75 minutes). It’s a five-minute drive to the Bronte GO station and a 30- to 40-minute ride to Union.

The verdict: A modest investment in new carpet, fresh paint and a few well-chosen fixtures would transform this sprawling home from downtrodden to delightful. The sidewalks may not be teeming with pedestrians, but Glen Abbey boasts an active community life. “When we moved in, four people came by to introduce themselves,” says Jane Pritchard, a 17-year resident of the area. “One neighbour even came by with a cake.” Folks are known to check on your house while you’re on vacation, and residents often pool funds for holiday fireworks celebrations. The suburbs do have their perks. So if you can cope with the QEW, the natural setting will reap rewards.