Toronto Loft Wars: Hard Lofts Versus Soft Lofts

Toronto Loft Wars: Hard Lofts Versus Soft Lofts

It used to be that Toronto Realtors specializing in the loft market could easily explain to their clients the differences between hard lofts and soft lofts. But now, the term soft loft is so overused and, frankly, misused, that it’s muddied the waters. We wanted to clarify the differences for you today as it’s a question we get asked often and to give you our take on the terminology wars that have been waging in Toronto in recent years.

Making Sense of Toronto Loft Terminology: Hard Lofts vs Soft Lofts

A hard loft – considered an authentic loft – is a residential conversion of an historic building (typically a factory, a warehouse or a church) whereas a soft loft is a new build created in the style of a hard loft, meant to mimic the aesthetic.

Hard lofts are more coveted because they have authentic, heritage features like exposed, original brick or concrete, cathedral ceilings or regular ceilings that are 10 feet or higher, large factory windows (or in the case of church conversions, you’ll often see arched, stained glass decorative windows) and/or wooden beams and ceilings.

Many of these features you just can’t find in new builds today. Even if developers had the budgets to use similar materials, it’s really hard to source some of the things that were used in century old buildings in order to duplicate the heritage and quality. For example, reclaimed, solid wooden beams carved from a single tree.

These character features are considered “hard” or more industrial and rugged than the look of modern construction materials. Hard lofts also tend to be open concept, at least in the main living area, and there are many dual-zoned, live/work hard lofts in Toronto. But Toronto’s hard loft stock is becoming a much smaller percentage of the overall Toronto condo mix than it was even five years ago as new builds increase in number and heritage conversions dwindle.

There are many great examples of authentic, hard lofts for sale in Toronto but they’re not making many more because:

a) it’s harder to find a conversion-worthy building in a decent neighbourhood than it is a plot of land (or a tear-down that can be razed), and

b) it typically costs more to convert than build from scratch and the premium that builders can charge for authentic lofts isn’t always worth the extra hard costs and red tape they have to face at City Hall.

Thankfully, Toronto has a high number of beautiful hard loft buildings already. Some of our favourites include the Brewery Lofts, the Garment Factory Lofts and the Broadview Lofts, pictured above, all in the east end, the Candy Factory Lofts in Queen West, pictured in our lead image, the Toy Factory Lofts in Liberty Village and the Tip Top Lofts, pictured below, just to name a few.

Not to complicate matters but we should note: you’ll often see the term "loft" used to describe two-storey condos or lofts with the bedroom on a mezzanine level. This is not inaccurate – “loft” can also mean a gallery level as seen here in the Network Lofts located in Islington Village, pictured below. But this should be set aside in exploring the differences between hard and soft lofts as it’s a different matter altogether.

You can have split-level, mezzanine designs in hard lofts, soft lofts or condos but that feature in and of itself doesn’t define the property type.

Moving now to soft lofts, these are simply new builds meant to look like historic lofts and they’re much more common than hard lofts. Builders are continuing to erect more because a lot of buyers prefer them to a typical condo aesthetic.

So, a hard loft is a multi-residential conversion of an historic building, typically one that had an industrial function, and a soft loft is a new build in the style of a hard loft. Simple, right? Except that the term soft loft is becoming muddy and a lot of developers are slapping the moniker onto what’s essentially a condo building with a bit of exposed concrete and not a loft at all. It’s no wonder why buyers – and some Realtors for that matter – get confused.

The Term Soft Loft Is Often Misused

Traditionally, soft lofts have included higher ceilings than condos, exposed ductwork and a reliance on “hard” materials like exposed concrete. However, soft lofts are getting further away from authentic lofts in the name of profit (pack more units in and keep construction materials and finishes cheap) and so the very definition of “loft” is changing. And there’s a lot of confusion over what’s a loft and what’s a condo.

In my opinion, for a builder to label a building a “soft loft” it should at a minimum include the following:

And to really feel like a loft, I’d also add:

You can see many lofty qualities in 66 Portland for example, pictured above and below, with its concrete ceilings and mushroom pillars, large, floor-to-ceiling windows, exposed ductwork and 10.5’ ceilings.

Soft lofts are sometimes referred to as “fake” lofts but we’ve never liked that insinuation because it implies you’re getting bamboozled in some way as a buyer and that’s not the case with a well-designed and well-built soft loft. There are so many quality soft lofts on the market that conform to a traditional definition of a loft in every way save for the fact that they happen to be purpose-built, newer residences.

And there are many soft lofts that are appreciating faster / to a higher degree than comparable condos. And so they’re a great option for people who can’t find a hard loft on their budget or prefer a slightly less raw aesthetic with modern features like contemporary, European-style kitchens, without completely elimating the industrial feel.

But now we have a new terminology problem because there are “fake” soft lofts. And this is where we have to start drawing the line as Realtors and consumers and be clear about what a loft really is. If a unit has 8 ft ceilings, standard-sized windows, drywall on all the walls and the only industrial feature is a concrete ceiling then sorry folks, it’s not a loft. It’s a fake soft loft. In other words, this is a bog-standard condo with a bit less drywall.

Don't Overpay For Trickery

As a buyer, make sure that you’re not paying a premium for so-called loft features that are anything but, particularly in pre-construction projects where fancy sales brochures and idealistic artist’s renderings can make a place appear to have the edge and vibe of an authentic loft when the reality may be very different.

If you’re looking at pre-construction soft lofts, besides hiring a Toronto Realtor who specializes in lofts (remember, you don’t pay more to bring your own representation to the table), the best way to ensure that you’re getting the character features you’re paying for is to tour some of the developer’s completed builds. Nothing speaks more to the anticipated finished product than a similar building that’s already opened its doors.