This series is the story of how my family and I work to find inventive solutions to create a dream home. We begin with our current abode in Toronto’s Parkdale, which, though lovely, doesn’t fulfill all our needs. What we do need is not affordable, however, so we’ve rethought our real estate plan, and purchased what is a very un-dreamlike (but well-priced) house in a neighbourhood that appears to have everything. Will it be the one? This is our journey.
I used to think $ 300,000 bought, more or less, any renovation a reasonable person might want. It was going to be a lot of debt for us to carry, but by turning a brutalized house into a beautiful house, we would be creating equity to balance it out — while moving to a shady, quiet street five minutes from Dufferin Grove Park.
That the design we’d honed over months was going to cost more than half a million dollars to execute, ended up being a bitter pill to swallow. So bitter, in fact, that after reviewing the two estimates our architects had obtained, I went into denial. Those contractors are out to lunch, I thought. They don’t really want the job. If I can find people hungrier for a big project, they’ll come in way lower.
Evidently sometimes even with a will there’s no way. Some costs won’t budge and the five quotes we eventually obtained — all through trusted contacts of friends who had undergone big renovations — ended up spookily similar. Sure, one was $ 100,000 lower than the others, but it didn’t include windows, a furnace or a kitchen.
Regardless of what it’ll buy, $ 300,000 begins to play out like a circus act: The Incredible Disappearing Sum of Money! Take off 10% for design and project management, and then another 13% for HST, plus 15% of construction costs to the contractor, plus permitting and engineering costs — and don’t forget the appliances and several months of carrying both old and new property — and $ 300,000 is more like $ 200,000. Or lower. And we know people who know people, who spent half of that re-doing their bathroom/kitchen/garden shed/doghouse.
Option 1: Value engineering
This entails taking the drawings and concepts and stripping them down to a simpler, more affordable design. Sunken living area? We can save $ 60,000 by pulling that idea. Radiant heat throughout, including through the floors, instead of forced air? $ 45,000 in costs removed instantly. Triple-glazed windows? Um, just no. By building a smaller extension, at ground level, keeping the stair as it is, scrimping on flooring and millwork, no solar panels and doing little of interest in the basement, we can come in at our budget.
So why move from a house we love?
Option 2: Lose the extension but gain a third storey
It sounds counterintuitive, but apparently building another storey is often cheaper than building an extension. This isn’t just because the extension was planned to be two storeys, although that’s a factor. Building out onto the back yard would have required significant excavation and foundation work, so that the structure didn’t sit on the ground.
This house warrants a third storey: The roof is flat and featureless (therefore there’s less to rip off), and the view from up there is amazing. During summer, you’re sheltered among treetops and during winter the downtown skyline glitters so close it seems within reach.
However, the footprint of the house would stay as-is, and it’s quite a short house. With three storeys and no rear extension, we’d have the “uppy downy” house that both of us were trying to move away from.
Option 3: Make minimal changes; rent the house
A few thousand bucks would buy us the holy trinity of interior likability: an Ikea kitchen, wood-type floors, and a clean, neutral paint job. With these in place, the house can rent for as much as it costs us to own it. There wouldn’t be much in the way of profit, but it could slowly pay itself down.
Option 4: Duplex
With an investment of several thousand more than the above, the property could house two legal units. The biggest hurdle is that a parking spot is required when adding a legal dwelling, but this can be addressed with a visit to the Committee of Adjustment. We could argue that we are happy to rent to non-drivers who will not be using the street for parking. Add two more Ikea kitchens and bathrooms, build a fire escape and back deck off the second floor, partition the entryway, and the the duplex is done.
Selling it in the same condition we bought it after owning for just eight months goes against my instincts. Even allowing for today’s high construction costs, the house can be dramatically re-launched both style and function-wise. Despite our wild rollercoaster ride, we’re intrigued to discover the potential of this weird house.