Making the Most of Your Toronto Condo Balcony

Condo Balcony

It’s spring!  Well, it’s above freezing, which is good enough right now, and absolutely everyone wants to be outside again.  Now that the weather’s turning, using your condo balcony’s starting to look great again.  So here are some tips for taking another look at your condo balcony—the notorious “additional room” developers advertise—and setting up a space you’ll get the absolute most out of all summer long.

Set the guidelines

The board of your condo might have some specific ideas about what’s a go—and what’s a no—on your balcony.  Before sketching out that fourteenth-story dream oasis, check what your building has already nixed.  For most condo developments, paint is going to be off the table, and so will barbeques (unless you’re lucky enough to have a gas hookup built in)—but that doesn’t mean there isn’t lots of room to play.

Once that’s done, get to the brainstorming: What do you want out of your outdoor space?  What do you wish you just had that much more of in your home, today?  Think less about what you’d use if you were a different person—the aspirational stuff like that herd of adorable milk goats, or the tai chi you’re not going to do—but what you feel is actively missing in your life right now.  It can be as small as a quiet nook to read with a cup of tea on Sunday mornings—as long as it’s the thing that’ll get you out there, and give you that little slice of satisfaction when you use it.

Lights, fabric, action!  Do a little decorating

Next step?  Set the scene, and build that space both practically and for the look you want.

With Toronto weather being so frequently wet, we don’t often think of fabric as an outdoor decorating tool, but luckily for us, most of the hardware stores in the city have.  Generations of your parents’ friends with that cottage up north have brought us the miracle of outdoor rugs, which are usually latex-backed so they don’t slip or rot, UV-resistant, and comfortable for bare feet.  A few rugs thrown down on that sturdy concrete—and some bright fabric over the glassy dividers that sort of let you spy on your neighbour—can really kick your balcony space into something warmer, brighter, and absolutely easy to store when you take it down for the winter.  It’s also a great way to lay down some colour without having to use paint.

The other great way to put colour and texture into your balcony is with light.  Fairy lights or candles are an affordable, easy way to make a space feel cozy and warm—or romantic, or a great spot for a little party.  Both translate outdoors in a pinch: many balconies will have outdoor wall sockets accessible, and hurricane lamp-style candle holders are available at, you guessed it, most hardware stores to give you that soft light without wax and smoke going all over the place.

Outdoor cushions?  Also a thing, and not just at the Thompson rooftop lounge.  Twenty to thirty bucks at Ikea or Pier 1 Imports will get you bright, squishy, UV-treated outdoor cushions to scatter across your new balcony space with abandon, so sitting outdoors living the literal high life can be a lot more comfortable.

The furnishings

Picking out balcony furniture—a lot, a little, or none at all—is where your plan will come in.  Toronto has an overflow of stores that specialize in just patio furniture.  Treated wood is big for lawns and bigger outdoor spaces, but the balcony tradition seems to be rattan, which is light, portable, and wears the weather well enough to tentatively store outside, which is an important consideration for balconies we use about five months of the year:  Can it stay outside?  If not, where are you going to store it?

Modular furniture, where the frames will do fine in a Toronto winter and cushions or other components can come off to be stored inside, is always a great bet.

Grow something

You’re outside—and you’ll want to feel like you’re outside.  Whether it’s making sure you have the flowers for the proverbial smelling or raising some beans and tomatoes for dinner, one of the best uses of a condo balcony is for your own private, raccoon-free garden.

Think about what kind of exposure you get—south is a winner, followed by east, for sun-loving plants—and whether you’re high up enough for a lot of wind.  At a certain height, blooming plants should probably be punted in favour of succulents, low-growing plants, or shrubs, which can withstand any gusts of wind that much better.

Toronto’s own Young Urban Farmers have great tips for ornamental or edible gardens for any kind of balcony space, including pointers specifically for condo balconies.

Enjoy it!

Once you’ve got your balcony set up to be inviting, fun space you want, make sure to enjoy it.  Using your balcony doesn’t have to be a major production, or the experience to end all experiences.  We inhabit our homes in little ways, and your balcony’s part of your home.  Take lunch out there one afternoon, hang out with a coffee or glass of wine when friends are over, or move your laptop outside and do your usual email catching-up in the sun, with a nice breeze.

When it comes down to it, most of why most Torontonians don’t use their balconies as often as they could is because their balcony dreams don’t fit into their everyday lives.  Make yours part of your life, day in and day out, and those small enjoyments will build into something beautiful.

Five Steps to Your Perfect Condo Garden Party

Condo Party

Spring is springing in Toronto, finally.  (Finally?  And sticking?  Please?)  Now that we’re all preemptively breaking out the summer clothes, making plans with those friends we didn’t see all winter, and staring longingly at the Canadian Tire flyer and the Food and Drink Magazine, it’s a good time for the cottage-free among us to throw an outdoor shindig.  If you’re a condo-dweller looking to get some air, here’s how to make that happen without hitting a hidden snag.

  1) Book the space—and find out the rules

Lots of new condos have outdoor common areas that sit on green roofs, terraces, or courtyards, making the building’s rental ads shine—and otherwise getting absolutely no love.  Those views, plants, and benches are part of your rent as a condominium tenant, and instead of culling down your guest list to the handful who can fit on your balcony, take that party upstairs to the garden, spread out, and enjoy.

The first thing to find out is what the building’s expectations are for having a do in a common area.  You’ll likely have to book the space with your building’s property manager, and there are some important questions to ask: Is there a damage deposit like there can be with an elevator?  Can you decorate the space for the day?  How many people can occupy the space at one time?  Most importantly, can you have and serve alcohol in a common area of your building?  If not, it’s best to make that lemonade plain and take a little punch out of the punchbowl.

  2) Get the lay of the land

Outdoor entertaining always has its unique needs.  If you’re in Muskoka, bring the bug spray; if you’re hanging out in Bellwoods, get there early before the whole neighbourhood snags the shade.  And if you’re in a condo outdoor area, it’s a good idea to see how that space interacts with the elements.  Head outside before writing your invites and check out what the space does in terms of wind, shade, and the local Toronto wildlife.

All that will let you know if you’re going to be telling your guests to bring a sunhat to your afternoon do, if the money’s being spent on light paper cups or heavier plastic or glass ones that won’t blow away, and whether you’ll need to be on the lookout for pigeons or gulls, or setting up some citronella candles as it gets into the evening.  Anything planned for is a feature; it’s only the problems nobody anticipated that can sour a good party.

  3) Design your good time with the space in mind

A good party takes advantage of the environment, so now that you know what you’re working with, think in terms of creatively using that space to your advantage.

If the space is smaller, bring an iPod dock upstairs and use those walls to give yourself a little bit of (reasonable) background music.  If there aren’t many surfaces to set things down, grab a few small folding tables, drop light tablecloths on top, and revel in your sudden, affordable classiness.  If you’re serving snacks that’ll leave a bit of waste, like chicken or bocconcini-tomato skewers, make sure there are a few visible garbage cans for everyone to use, or set out a clearly marked jar to collect them.

More to the point, invite with an eye to comfortable capacity.  The rule of thumb wedding planners use is that you’ll probably get 85% of invitees showing up, and that’s for your wedding; for an average party fit in among everyone’s busy Toronto schedules, it’s probably more like 65%.  But if you’re working in a space with a set capacity, it’s better to aim conservatively.  If your guest list gets a little low, there’s no harm in telling someone a few days before, “Hey, I’m doing a thing this weekend.  Want to come by?”

  4) Drop your neighbours a courtesy note

The City of Toronto gets, every weekend, about ten party noise complaints per hour after the 11:00pm bylaw cutoff.  It’s good to not be that guy.  So if you’re hosting in a common area, or think the party might drift back to your unit after hours, it’s good courtesy to drop a note or a knock to your neighbours and any neighbours of the common space, letting them know you’ll have guests over that night, and inviting them to tell you if there’s too much noise.

Most arguments about noise in condominiums are really arguments about consideration: It’s easy to transform people not knowing how noise travels into not caring.  Preemptively showing that yes, you do care, will probably help your neighbours be a little more tolerant on the night of, keep the cops out of it, and raise the likelihood that if you’re bothering them, they’ll just come and let you know.

The important thing, though: If someone does knock on the night of, you have to back up your good word.  Turn the party down, and you’ll be the great, reasonable neighbour, not “the intolerant” next door.

  5) Leave it better than you found it

The end of a party is when you want to wander into bed, go face down, and sort it all out tomorrow.  But when you’re throwing a party in a common area, being considerate of your neighbours isn’t just a matter of noise levels (although, hey, be considerate about those too, or at least observe the rule that anyone who can hear the party is invited).  If you’ve got a common area for the day, cleanup’s part of the job, and it’s neighbourly to be thorough about your cleanup.  Make sure the plants are pristine, garbage is bagged and down the chute, anything you brought out has gone back home, and nothing’s sticky.  Sticky is unkind.

Enjoy your springtime!