Would You Buy a Home with Strangers? These Canadian Companies Are Betting On It

From realtors to architecture firms, businesses are investing in co-homeownership—but adoption remains a challenge
(illustration: iStock)

Lesli Gaynor was tired of renting a home for herself and her two-year-old son. The Toronto resident wanted more space and a more stable living environment, where a landlord couldn’t kick her out. So, in the early 1990s she got together with two friends and bought a house in the city’s Parkdale neighbourhood, taking advantage of a place that was already split into three separate units. They shared the home’s backyard and mortgage. The group disbanded when Gaynor decided she and her son had outgrown the space and were ready to move on. Each co-owner used the equity from selling the property to buy their next homes. 

The experience had such a profound impact on Gaynor’s life; she says that getting into the market as an owner wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. It also sparked a new career idea: helping other people buy property as a group. “People want to co-live or co-purchase most often because of an affordability problem,” says Gaynor. “Then, as a result, they get a whole lot of other things that go along with home ownership, like a greater quality of life.”

Gaynor is now a sales representative for Forest Hill Real Estate and the co-owner of GoCo Solutions, a real estate agency that specializes in helping people co-own homes. While most of the people who come to Gaynor are multi-generation families or a group of friends, she’s increasingly been getting a lot of interest from people looking to buy a house with strangers—a shift that’s part of a larger trend.

According to Statistics Canada, households composed of roommates (two or more people living together that aren’t a part of the same family) grew by 54 per cent between 2016 and 2021, making it the fastest-growing household type in Canada. The agency also reported that the number of homes that are shared by multiple generations of a family, two or more families living together, or one family living with people that they may or may not be related to grew by 45 per cent in the last 20 years. In total, the above three types of households make up seven per cent of all Canadian homes.

This is all coinciding with the average house price reaching $816,720 in Canada earlier this year—the highest level on record and an increase of 20 per cent from last year, according to the Canadian Real Estate Association. Rents are also rising: The median rent in Canada in the second quarter of 2022 was $1,750, up seven per cent from the same period last year, according to Rentals.ca.

“People are trying to make ends meet and co-ownership is a natural extension of that,” says Gaynor. “If people have to combine their resources to rent, it makes perfect sense that people will need to combine their resources to own.”

In the past two years, Gaynor and her GoCo partner Parimal Gosai started to receive so many requests from people—often singles or young couples—asking for help finding others to buy a house with that they were like matchmakers, rather than realtors. To deal with the influx, the pair set up Husmates, an app that works just like Tinder but for property buying. On the app, which beta launched earlier this year, users build a profile and match with other potential co-buyers. Then, both parties meet up with Gosai and Gaynor to help find a house. The app is only available in Toronto right now and has more than 300 people signed on, Gaynor says. So far, only two groups of strangers have actually met IRL to look for a house together and there’s yet to be a purchase, but Gaynor is hopeful. The goal is to partner with realtors elsewhere in the country to expand Husmates’ reach.

 “People are starting to look at the sharing economy in lots of different ways”

Another company that sees potential in helping strangers live together is Toronto-based architecture and interior design firm Picnic Design. The firm has been working on customizable co-living designs to help larger groups live together under one roof. The properties are often split-level homes with their own units, or homes with large shared spaces—like living rooms and kitchens—but private bedrooms and bathrooms for each person or couple.

Joanne Lam, co-founder and architect at Picnic Design, and her team created three prototypes for these spaces and showcased them at the Toronto International Design Show in 2020 and 2022. Lam says the company has received a lot of interest following the event and is hoping to start building the homes in Toronto soon. “When condos first came on the scene in Toronto, people were quite resistant to them and asked ‘Why would I want to live in a box in the sky’ and didn’t want to take an elevator or live so close to their neighbours,” says Lam. She thinks it’s only a matter of time before co-ownership is the norm, as condos are, and shared homes the latest living trend.

One of the groups of people that Lam was envisioning when designing was a group of young people who all worked at start-ups in an urban area. A version of that group has actually already come together in Montreal, under the name of Nomad Coliving, a 16-bedroom shared home that houses anywhere between 14 to 20 people at a time. Founder and owner Maria Kinoshita opened the house for “digital nomads” and entrepreneurs in 2019 after staying at a similar place in Bali and loving it.

During pandemic lockdowns, renters stayed for a year or more, and now a lot of them want to buy into the property in order to stay longer. Kinoshita is looking at the possibility of opening a second property—a long-term Nomad Coliving home in Montreal—that prospective members would buy into, each having a piece of the equity rather than renting rooms from her.

Despite the hurdle of widespread adoption and finding properties suited for multiple owners, Husmates and GoCo co-founder Gaynor is still seeing a lot of interest in this style of living arrangement. In addition to the app traffic, she gets five to 10 calls a week from people looking for someone else to co-own a house with.

“I believe that people are starting to look at the sharing economy in lots of different ways, like borrowing cars or lawnmowers or even the single-family dwelling home,” she says. “People are rethinking certain aspects of life; why can’t that mean owning a house with a group of strangers?”