Saint John's old north end: Canada's cheap real estate destination?

Not every house hunter would see the potential in a partially renovated, century old, long uninhabited house in Saint John’s old north end.

Artist Daniel Gable finds real estate deal in Saint John but road to renovation may be rough

Daniel Gable, 36, a musician and former tree planter, left British Columbia and purchased a house on Victoria Street for $8,000. (Julia Wright/CBC)

Not every house hunter would see the potential in a partially renovated, century old, long uninhabited house in Saint John, N.B.'s old north end.

But Daniel Gable, 36, isn't a typical buyer.

Gable, a musician and former tree planter, became frustrated with real estate prices in his former home of Squamish, B.C., where he said the price of a single-family home starts around $500,000.

He started "searching around the country looking for — not the cheapest home I could find, although that's what it ended up being — but for an affordable house, basically."

The search led him to Saint John's old north end.

The dream of an $8K house

Looking online, Gable saw an old red house on Victoria Street listed at a mere $10,000 — a price, he said, that was too good to pass up.

"I'm not too particular: I knew I was going to be interested in anything for $10,000 as long as it was usable and safe for people to live in," he said.

"It was exciting to think that there are houses this affordable in a Canadian city."

The deal ended up being even sweeter than anticipated: he managed to knock $2,000 off the asking price, ultimately getting the place for $8,000.

After a bit of research, Gable was prepared to drive across Canada and move into his new home sight unseen.

"There was access to water, a university, Saint John as a whole.  It had all these unique properties of a good investment," he said.

"An affordable place to live, and access to a city — that's an artist's way to live, and that's what you have in Saint John."

Friendly, neglected neighbourhood

Many houses along Victoria Street in Saint John's old north end remain boarded up, but that has created a market for house hunters on a budget. (Julia Wright/CBC)
Arriving in the north end for the first time in August 2016, he said, "I was pretty excited. I was a homeowner, which I thought was great. The house, and Saint John, were even better than I thought."

That aside, the place wasn't exactly ready for a spread in Better Homes & Gardens.

Like dozens of others in  the old north end, the two-unit apartment on Victoria Street hadn't been occupied for years.

The building next door was heavily damaged by a 2010 fire.

"The inside explained [the price]," said Gable.

"It had been started on a renovation and then that renovation was cut short."

Despite the sagging floors, rotten floorboards, and weird smells, "it had some good things about it, said Gable.

In the past a month and a half, he's started ripping out boards in the "grossest part of the house," preparing to start drywalling and installing new insulation.

He plans to create a music space, a new kitchen and bathroom.

As for the neighbourhood, he said, from the first day "there were local people hanging around. Everyone seemed really friendly around here."

The vibe suits him.

"You can be just as creative here as anywhere," he said.  

Lots of work ahead

Gable said the old north end reminds him of what Vancouver's bohemian enclave, Commercial Drive, would have been like 50 years ago. (Julia Wright/CBC)

As one can imagine with any $8,000 house, there's still a lot of work ahead — and, given financial constraints and lack of hired help, he said the renos have so far been "sporadic."

Still, Gable said, he sees "so much potential."

"If I had an extra $100,000," he said, "this house would be amazing, but as it is it's functional. I'm not in a huge hurry."

Gable said he couldn't be happier with his investment.

"I've lived in my car, as a tree planter. So this is an upgrade," he said.

Cheap living for artists

The old north end, according to some, Saint John’s “best kept secret” is attracting new residents with cheap real estate and developers looking to renovate. 1:29

Gable said the old north end reminds him of what Vancouver's bohemian enclave, Commercial Drive, would have been like 50 years ago: "kind of on the outskirts, but accessible to the city and affordable to live."

"If you don't have a lot of expensive costs, you can have your pick of houses and where you want to live in Saint John," he said.

While it might require an artistic eye to overlook the abandoned buildings and rough exteriors of the old north end, "you can't just be an industrial city," said Gable.

"If you have more artists and alternative people moving in, a neighbourhood grows."


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