This past winter, my wife and I were taking a tour of Montreal when our guide mentioned that Westmount, the area of the city we had just passed, was probably the only place in Canada where homes hadn’t lost value during the global recession of the past four years.
My attention, which had been waning, suddenly perked up and I asked the guide to give my wife and me a quick swing through the area.
My guide, a lovely, informative Montreal native, Annique Dufour, was absolutely right on about all things Montreal — except for Westmount homes not losing value — but she is forgiven since Westmount’s recession barely lasted 12 months and the homes lost value in the single digits, at most.
Westmount, which is really a borough of Montreal, experienced a drop in prices of 5 percent from 2009-10, notes Marie-Yvonne Paint, a broker with Royal LePage Heritage in Montreal. "2009 was the year of the global economic crisis, and people stopped buying because they were waiting to see what would happen. They were holding back, but by 2010 Canada’s and Montreal’s economy appeared to be fine and everyone came back to the market."
The years 2002-09 were excellent years for Westmount, and 2009 weakened only because of the economic crisis, Paint adds. "By 2010, sales were flying. There was such a demand for Westmount homes that the number of homes sold in 2010 increased by more than 17 percent."
Paint, who specializes in high-end properties, does about 80 percent of her business in Westmount because "this is where we have the most expensive homes."
In 2010, Paint boasted an extraordinary year, personally selling over $100 million in properties. She’s hoping the market stays hot, hot, hot through 2011, although realistically she doesn’t think it can maintain that kind of momentum.
Westmount begins (or ends, depending on your perspective) near the crest of Mount Royal, the iconic mountain park at the center of Montreal. Most of the expensive homes, with values in the multimillion-dollar range, are close to the higher elevations because of the extraordinary views of the St. Lawrence River in the distance.
As the neighborhood eases into the flatlands, it becomes more urban looking and instead of large single-family dwellings there are more duplexes, triplexes, condos and apartments.
Dufour’s parents lived closer to the heart of Westmount, while she and her daughter lived in an apartment building where the land eases into the city proper.
The homes attract a lot of attention because of prices, but it’s the urban part of Westmount that has been very active lately because properties are cheaper and demand has been strong — especially from young professionals looking for a more citified experience, i.e., walking distance to shops, services and restaurants.
Westmount has all types of properties, and some of those in the flats, although somewhat standard, have seen very strong prices, observes Thomas Castle, also a Royal LePage broker. He recently sold half a duplex for $250,000.
Homes closer to the flatlands can still be found in the $600,000 to $700,000 price range, but they need a lot of work, and have little land and no garage, Paint says. Also, condominiums in Westmount are selling very well, at about $700 to $800 a square foot.
"Right now in Westmount, there’s a feeling that there should be more product on the market, but what is presently on the market is being looked at and purchased," Castle says. "Real estate prices are the result of the balance between supply and demand, and in Westmount the demand is stronger than the supply."
During the intense growth years of Montreal’s history, between the 1850s and 1930s, most of the English-speaking, wealthy families of the city lived closer downtown, in an area called the Golden Square Mile.
Then, by the turn of the 20th century, the adult children of the wealthy began settling in Westmount, which was on the west side of Mount Royal. The wealthy French-speaking families preferred the east side of Mount Royal, in an area that is called Outremount. To some extent, that language divide still exists today.
Outremount home prices can challenge those in Westmount, although on a general level Westmount remains the priciest neighborhood. Still, Paint’s most expensive deal in 2010 was an Outremount home that sold for $5.3 million to a couple from Paris.
That house totaled 8,000 square feet and rested on a 20,000-square-foot plot of land. Paint’s other big deals, homes that sold above $2 million, were in Westmount.
The highest-priced home Paint sold in Westmount fetched $3.5 million — that home has 4,500 square feet, nestled on 11,000 square feet of land. "This home sits on the top of the mountain with an incredible view of the river and the city," she says.
Generally, you have good company in Westmount. Former motion picture actress Norma Shearer and singer Leonard Cohen were born in this neighborhood. Today, you can find a smattering of Montreal Canadian hockey players, former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Quebec Premier Jean Charest, racing driver Jacques Villeneuve, and fashion magnate Lawrence Stroll (Michael Kors).
As its own borough, Westmount has a few other desirable advantages, says Dufour.
"My parents moved to Westmount because as its own municipality (borough) you pay a little more in taxes, but the services are phenomenal," she says. "We get six months of winter, and even in a huge snowfall the streets are plowed within 36 hours, whereas the rest of Montreal can take upward of two weeks."