Has it come to this? Selling yourself to buy a house

A Toronto couple is going public in a bid to stand out from hordes of home buyers in a crowded market. They've printed a heartfelt plea, complete with family photos including some of their young son, on postcard-size flyers placed in hundreds of mailboxes in their neighbourhood.

Lack of listings means buyers have to do something to stand out, but is this it?

Njacko Backo, Valery Woloshyn and their son Koko are featured on hundreds of flyers pleading to buy a home. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

The price of a home in one of the country's hottest real estate markets apparently now includes your privacy.

At least it does for would-be Toronto homeowners Valery Woloshyn and Njacko Backo.

Woloshyn, an environmental engineer, and Backo, a musician, have come up with a radical way to stand out from the hordes of fellow homebuyers.

The couple has put themselves front and centre on hundreds of flyers being distributed in mailboxes throughout their neighbourhood.

The glossy, full-colour, postcard-like handouts feature several family photos.

Text on the flyers outlines how the couple has been renting in the neighbourhood for some time, loves the great schools and parks in the area, and is looking to buy their first house in which to raise their child.

A fixer-upper? Why not?

There's no price range mentioned (they prefer to keep that private) but there's some information on what type of home they're looking for (detached, minimum two bedrooms, "fixer-uppers OK") and a personal entreaty from their agent.

"Please help me find them a place they can call home!"  (Emphasis: theirs)

"Does it look desperate?" asks Woloshyn in an interview with CBC News.

Well, yes.

Val Woloshyn and Njacko Backo's personalised home buying plea (CBC)

In fact, the couple hasn't been house hunting for all that long. They've only visited about 15 houses and been outbid three times, barely scathed compared to some buyers in markets like Toronto and Vancouver. 

But they found the competition fierce.

"You can see in how the bidding is going. There are a lot of very eager people to buy houses right now," says Woloshyn.

"You put in an offer and [the sellers] could come back to you three or four times, like, 'You sure that's it? You don't want to go a little bit higher?'"

It was the agent's idea

Putting themselves out there publicly was the idea of their agent, Patrick Lowney.

"I do knock on doors up and down streets. I find that there are a lot of agents doing that now, and everyone is saying the same thing. They're saying, 'We have buyers for your house.' I think that people are savvier than expected and they're not buying it anymore," Lowney says. 

"So I just wanted to put a human face and say, 'No, I actually have buyers. This is their situation. If this isn't right for you, maybe you know somebody in the area.'"

Sales representative Patrick Lowney came up with the idea of personalized flyers. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

The problem in Toronto and Vancouver continues to be a lack of supply.

According to a report from BMO Capital Markets, in April new listings in Toronto were down more than 10 per cent from 2015 after falling 10 per cent the previous year.  With so few homes for sale, BMO says the sales-to-new listings ratio has pushed above 75 per cent, one of the highest readings on record.

"Everybody's holding on to their houses because making the move up is just as difficult as getting in to the market," says Lowney. 

Prices keep soaring

That limited number of listings means prices, which were already sky-high in both of Canada's hottest markets, continue to climb.

The average price of a detached home in Toronto is now $1.2 million.  In Greater Vancouver it's more $1.3 million. 

Woloshyn and Backo's flyers feature photos of their two-year-old son Koko. 

That's one reason Backo was initially hesitant about the idea.

"I was worried a little bit, to get our face with the baby and her and I just like that, to everybody that we don't know."

Going public 'scary'

"It's a little bit scary," says Backo.

"I asked Patrick, 'Why do you want this? Is this to help you? Your business? Or to help us?' And he said, 'It's a little bit of both.'  If he wasn't honest, if he just told us it was for me, I would have said, 'No, we don't need it. But if you tell me the truth, that it's to help both sides, that's acceptable.'"

CBC News showed the flyers to Lu Han, a professor at Rotman School of Management specializing in applied economics and real estate, who had the reaction Woloshyn and Backo were hoping for. 

"That's a lovely family," she said.

Rotman School of Management Prof. Lu Han, who specializes in applied economics and real estate, reacts to the flyers: 'That's a lovely family.' (Gary Morton/CBC)

Han says writing personal letters along with a bid can sometimes sway sellers. But dropping flyers in mailboxes of people who haven't even listed their homes is a long shot.

"This hasn't become very popular yet. And one reason is, agents are working very hard to try to spot those potential houses that could be listed on the market. So they will call each home owner and ask whether you are likely to sell your house. So I think the chances of them finding a buyer who is not yet represented is not going to be very high in today's market," Han says. 

Still, she says it's worth a shot.

"This type of personal communication is going to help to build some connections between the sellers and buyers."

That's all Woloshyn and Backo says they are trying to do.

Difficult to connect

"Both Njacko and I are people who like to connect with people, and it's really hard in the house-hunting process. You can't really connect with people very easily. Maybe the agents. But the owner, for a variety of reasons, you don't have that chance," says Woloshyn. 

"This is a way where we presented a little bit about ourselves. We put our pictures up. [As a musician] Njacko is already a public figure, so it's not that we're shy about having our photo in public. And we're just seeing if that helps us connect with someone who's interested in selling their home to us."

For his part, Backo doesn't want his young son to have to grow up worrying about having to move at the whim of a landlord who perhaps wants to sell their rental home. 

"Because, you see, we have a little boy growing up right now.  And if he has a place he can call his own, that way he grows and grows with the neighbourhood."

"It is desperate."


Aaron Saltzman

Senior Reporter, Consumer Affairs

Aaron Saltzman is CBC's Senior Business Reporter. Tips/Story ideas always welcome.


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