To be blunt, most contractors are terrible. As alandlord, I deal with it all the time.
They don’t answer their phone. They don’t show up when they said they would. They don’t do what they said they are going to do.
But there ARE gems to be found in the rubble. The problem is most people have no idea how to identify that great contractor from all the bad ones out there—until long AFTER they’ve already hired one.
I want to share with you my seven-step process to identify a great contractor before hiring them. Whether you’re remodeling your own home, a rental property, flipping houses, or need a contractor for something else, here’s how to land a great one.
How to Find a Great Contractor
Build your contractor list
What I mean by this is you need to get the names and phone numbers of a lot of different contractors in your area. I mean, if we’re searching for a needle in a haystack, we have to first get a haystack.
You can find potential contractors in a number of ways, but my three favorite are:
Referrals, meaning ask people you know who they have used
Referrals, so yeah, asking people you know who they have used
You guessed it! Referrals.
Human nature is to generally do what you’ve always done. It doesn’t guarantee success, but when you know a contractor has done great work in the past, it’s likely they’ll do it again.
So get in the habit of asking your friends and family often—even when you’re not looking for a contractor. “Who did this work for you?” Then, keep track of those referrals.
There are a few other ways to find contractors, as well. I like to talk to other contractors and ask who they like working with.
Rockstars tend to party with other rockstars, and good tradesmen tend to work with other good tradesmen.
For example, I have a great finish carpenter, so I can ask him, “Hey, do you know any great plumbers?”
You can also build your list by snapping a photo every time you see a contractor sign on the side of a work truck, or by searching Yelp, or by asking the employees in the pro department of your local home store who they like.
Just as with tenants, our opinion of the contractor begins the moment we start talking with them, whether over email, phone, or in person.
Do they carry themselves professionally? Do they respond well to questions?
Ask them some general questions, such as:
How long have you been in this line of work?
What skill would you say you are the best at?
What job tasks do you hate doing?
In what cities do you typically work?
How many employees work for you? (Or “work in your company” if you are not talking to the boss.)
How busy are you?
Do you pull permits, or would I need to?
If I were to hire you, when could you start knocking out tasks?
Then, set up a time to meet and show them the project, if you have one. Set an appointment and be sure to show up a few minutes early, just to see exactly what time they arrive.
Are they on time? Late? Early? Do they look professional? How do they act?
If everything feels OK after this first meeting, move on to the next step.
The first thing we do now when looking for information on a certain contractor is to simply search Google for their name and their company name. This can often unearth any big red flags about the person.
You’ll also want to add your city name and some other keywords to the search, such as “scam” or “rip off” or “court.”
For example, if we wanted to find out more about First Rate Construction Company in Metropolis, we would search things like:
First Rate Construction Metropolis
First Rate Construction scam
First Rate Construction sue
First Rate Construction court
First Rate Construction evil
These terms can help you discover major complaints about a contractor. But keep in mind, not all complaints are valid. Some people are just crazy.
What this will do, however, is give you direction about what steps to take next.
Ask for references
Next, ask the contractor for references from previous people for whom they have worked. Photos are nice, but names and addresses are better.
Then, do what 90 percent of the population will never do and actually call those references!
You may want to ask the reference several questions, like:
What work did they do?
How fast did they do it?
Did they keep a clean job site?
You are related to [contractor’s name], right? (If they are, they will think you were already privy to that information and will have no problem answering honestly!)
Any problems working with them?
Would you hire them again?
Can I take a look at the finished product? (This could be in person or via pictures.)
These questions will help you understand more about the abilities and history of the contractor. Then, if possible, actually check out the work the contractor did and make sure it looks good.
Another tip recently given to us by J Scott was to ask the contractor to tell you about a recent big job they’ve done. Contractors love to brag about their big jobs, so he or she will likely regale you with the story of how much work they needed to do and how great it looked at the end.
Find out the address, and then go to the city and verify that a permit was pulled for that project. If not, the contractor did all the work without a permit, which is a good indication they are not a contractor you want on your team.
It’s okay to be trusting, but make sure the contractor is worthy of your trust first! To do this, first verify that they truly do have a license to do whatever work you intend for them to do.
If they are an electrician, make sure they have an electrical license. If they are a plumber, make sure they have a plumbing license. If they are a general contractor, make sure they have a general contractor’s license.
Next, make sure they do actually have the proper insurance and bond. As we mentioned earlier, you could ask them to bring proof, but you can also simply ask the name of their insurance agent and verify it with that agent. Either way, just make sure they have it.
Remember: this protects you.
Hire them for one small task
Before hiring the contractor to do a large project, hire them to do just one small task, preferably under $500 in cost. This will give you a good idea of what kind of work ethic they have and the quality of work that they do.
If the work is done on time and on budget, and if it meets your quality standards, consider hiring them for more tasks.
Even if the contractor has passed through the first several steps of this screening process, 75 percent of them will still likely fail at this step, so don’t settle with just one contractor. Hire multiple contractors for multiple small jobs and see who works out the best.
Ninety percent of the time, when I have a disastrous situation with a contractor, the blame lies on no one but myself. If I had managed the job correctly, I wouldn’t be caught in the positions I’ve been in.
Here’s an example. I hired a contractor to paint a bedroom. He says $500. I say, “Great.”
He calls me, tells me he’s done, and I send him the $500.
Now, I go check out the property and what do I see? He didn’t paint the ceiling, despite the obvious need for it. And there are a couple paint splatters on the floor that are easy to clean—but now I have to do it.
I call the contractor and he says, “Well, you didn’t say I needed to do the ceiling,” and “No, the floor was perfectly clean when I left. Someone else must have made the drips on the floor.”
Now, you might be saying, “But that’s ridiculous! It’s clearly his fault.”
But it’s my responsibility to manage him correctly. Therefore, when you work with a contractor, always get a detailed scope of work that clearly lays out 100 percent of what is going to be worked on, what’s included, and what isn’t.
Then, never pay anything until you’ve inspected the work. On larger jobs, be sure to spread out payments over the course of the job, so they don’t get too much money up front. You always want them hungry for the next paycheck.
To help with this, I put together a really simple “Contractor Bid Form” over in the BiggerPockets FilePlace—100% free—so you can fill this out every time you work with a contractor. Just go to BiggerPockets.com/bigform.
The Bottom Line
Whether you’re a real estate investor like myself or not, you’re going to need to deal with contractors in the future. By following this seven-step process, you’ll save yourself time, stress, and a lot of money.
Life likes to deal us surprises from time to time — a job loss, a chronic illness, an unfortunate fender bender. As a homeowner, any one of these sudden changes can throw you off your game, financially speaking, but if you’re house poor, even a minor expense change can have catastrophic consequences.
“You’re really fighting a situation where anything that happens becomes too much,” she says.
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House poorness falls on a spectrum of intensity. For some, not having much financial wiggle room means no vacations or new cars. For others, it’s the difference between paying the mortgage and saving for retirement.
“The more serious version of house poor that I think people are just starting to see, and possibly for a couple more years, is people who not only can’t afford to do those discretionary spending types of things, but who also cannot save for retirement, save for children’s education, other things that are really important to do as well,” says Jason Heath, managing director of Objective Financial Partners Inc.
While the prospect of house poorness is frightening, it can be prevented through detailed planning, budgeting and thinking into the future. Campbell and Heath share how you can avoid house poorness, even before you sign those mortgage documents.
Want to retire? Buy from the bottom
While it’s expected that Canada’s hottest housing markets won’t cool off entirely this year, affordable housing remains inaccessible for many. Campbell is concerned that in the current market conditions, some new buyers are still purchasing above what they can afford. In the event of a interest rate rise, she says that those who’ve bought beyond their means could be on a course for financial hardship.
Photo: James Bombales
“Even a quarter point could result in immediate financial discord for a family that has really bought at the top of their income,” says Campbell.
Heath has worked with a number of clients, who, after several years of house poorness, have not been able to efficiently save for retirement. In order to recoup their losses, Heath says that house poorness has forced some homeowners to make downsizing an inevitable part of their financial plan. He fears that those overpaying in today’s market will follow the same fate.
“Particularly if and when home interest rates rise, mortgages payments will rise accordingly,” says Heath. “I worry that you’ve got a whole generation of young people who may be putting a lot of their retirement plans into their home as opposed to saving in a traditional manner.”
Preventing house poorness starts with buying at the bottom of the market, where the prices are the lowest, but Campbell adds that it also requires ignoring the pressures of needing to buy right now — home prices may decline further yet. By monitoring the price of homes in the markets in which you want to buy, you’ll build your knowledge of a fair evaluation of prices in your desired area and skip overpaying, Campbell explains.
“Even if you want to buy a house a year from now, start doing your research now,” she says. “Know what the real cost of housing in the area you want to buy is so you can make sure you’re evaluating the houses that are up for sale with experience.”
Taking on a smaller mortgage loan may also prevent house poorness, especially in the event of an unexpected income change. Borrowing under the maximum amount a mortgage lender approves you for, Heath says, leaves a good buffer in your financial budget in case any unanticipated changes should occur.
“I think it’s a really good lesson to people before they buy to appreciate that job loss happens, health issues happen,” says Heath. “There are extraordinary financial situations that you may not be able to anticipate that could put you into difficulty if you bite off more than you can chew in the first place.”
Skip the McMansion — think long term
Like we keep a spare tire in the event of a flat, or a box of bandaids for those little accidents, avoiding house poorness requires establishing some safeguards in case of unforeseen circumstances. This means having a well thought out financial budget, and a good cushion of emergency funds.
When it comes to budgets, Heath says it takes a very personalized approach to get it right. The mortgage stress test does not factor in personal spending, so financial budgets for homeownership should reflect your own spending habits and expenses.
“The mortgage qualification process does not take into account things like your discretionary spending or the activities that your children are enrolled in, for example,” says Heath. “You can have two families with the same income and the same mortgage approval, but spend very different amounts of money month to month on housing related stuff.”
Beyond budgets, Campbell says it’s also important to account for the long-term lifestyle you’ll want under your mortgage. Owning a home in your early thirties with no children will mean different financial priorities compared to your late forties with post-secondary education fees and retirement in mind. It’s important that your mortgage accommodates your long-term savings and planned changes to family and income. Campbell says this starts with sticking to a budget.
“You don’t need the McMansion,” she says. “A lot of people think the bigger the house, the better it is and a lot of people regret that. So make sure that it’s within the budget that you have within an emergency fund that you need to develop around that budget and you’re able to do the things that you’ve wanted to do over time that won’t be impacted by the decisions you make with that home.”
Don’t give up everything
Owning a home ain’t cheap: there’s renovations, regular maintenance, seasonal upkeep and at least one emergency repair that you’ll need to fork out for at some point. Heath says that new home buyers tend to overlook these expenses — but they are critical to account for in any homeowner budget.
“I think it’s really important to, either on your own or with a professional, to try to assess what the true homeownership cost is going to be in that home,” says Heath. “Particularly, if you’re moving from a condo into a house, or from a rental into a homeownership position.”
Failing to accommodate regular home upkeep and extra costs in the budget can skew the true cost of homeownership. It can also be a drain on your finances. House poorness is marked by a lack of disposable income, which not only leads to skipping those needed repairs, but also the inability to go out and enjoy living life.
“People will often say, ‘We’ll give up everything to buy this house,’ but everything gets really boring very fast to have given up everything,” says Campbell.
Heath recommends making a detailed budget for the medium- to long-term financial outcomes of buying a home in order to assess true ownership costs.
Breaking up is hard to do
If you’re in a position of house poorness, don’t give up — there are options.
Campbell says that boosting your income is a good first step. You can do this by getting a part-time job, or creating side hustle from your home by renting out your extra rooms on Airbnb. But, if your mortgage payments have simply become too much, Heath says that you may need to consider selling and downsizing.
“There are situations where people need to consider the home that they own and whether it is too expensive,” he says.
If selling is the last resort, Campbell advises not to do so hastily. While there could be a mounting urge to get cash — and fast — selling quickly could cost you value in your home.
“Don’t wait until you really hit the dirt, and then try to sell your house, because chances are you’re going to have to sell it very quickly, and if you need to sell it very quickly, you’ll probably going to sell at a lower rate than you wanted to get,” says Campbell.
It can cost between $25K-$50K. Here are pointers to help you figure out a budget
My kitchen renovation last year was filled with surprises, most of them unwelcome (after all, our house is 100 years old). But by far the biggest surprise was the cost: After an initial meeting with our designer, we realized we needed to rethink our budget and come up with more cash (about 30% more on top of what we’d planned).
Turns out I’m not alone: Experts say most people don’t realize how much a kitchen renovation will cost and, as a result, they don’t tend to budget enough.
That could be because home renovation TV shows are notorious for showing unrealistic budgets for major work — so while a family might get a brand new kitchen for $20,000, it’s never explained what that price includes.
So how do you figure out what you should be spending?
Nancy Peterson, Founder and CEO of Homestars, a website that connects consumers with contractors and other home improvement professionals, says that, according to their data, the average kitchen renovation in Canada costs $25,593 — but, she adds, that number depends on how extensive the work is and whether you’re doing an outright gut of the space and replacing everything with new stuff. “A major renovation can cost as much as $50,000,” she explains, “especially if you’re buying high-end appliances or cabinets, which are by far the biggest expense in any renovation.”
So how much should you budget for your home renovation? Here are some pointers to help you figure it out:
Know where your money is going
Whether it’s cabinets, tiles or appliances, it helps to know how much each element of a renovation will likely set you back. Here are the top things you’ll be spending on, according to Peterson, including what the average Canadian spends on each during their renovation:
• New cabinets and countertops: $7,483.16
• Wood flooring: $6,392
• Stone countertops: $3,839
• Cabinets (refinishing): $3,819
• Ceramic flooring: $2,333
The 20% rule
Experts say to add between 20% and 25% on top of your budget to handle surprises and unexpected costs. Based on the average cost of a Canadian renovation, a healthy buffer would be $5,118 to $6,398 to cover anything that pops out of the woodwork (in our case, it was an old stove pipe lurking behind our kitchen wall — big bucks to get rid of that, and it put us off schedule to boot!).
You don’t have to splurge on everything
Depending on how you use your kitchen, there are some things you can do on the cheap and others where it might be worth spending more. In our case, we splurged on a high-end stove (we cook all the time), but we bought pre-made cabinets from Ikea. Peterson also recommends saving money by refinishing existing cabinets instead of replacing them. Flooring selection can also make a difference – ceramic is a lot cheaper than wood.
You’ll be eating out more
Remember, you are going to be without a kitchen for a month or longer. That means cooking will be limited – and you’ll probably be relying on prepared foods and restaurant meals more than you usually do. Be prepared to spend a bit more to feed yourself and your family while your space is shut down.
When my husband and I first bought our house in Guelph, Ont., 11 years ago, it was something Goldilocks surely would have approved of: not too big, not too small. Just right. Our first-born was still in diapers. Who needed a second bathroom? Then, seemingly overnight, the place felt cramped and entirely impractical. We’ve now got two kids, and our-nine-year-old has outgrown her teeny-tiny bedroom. Weekday mornings mean slapping together breakfasts in the cramped kitchen. And forget inviting more than one family over for dinner unless they don’t mind yelling over the din. (Basement play room? What basement play room?)
Not surprisingly, my husband and I have been discussing our options. Move to a larger, more suitable home in our neighbourhood or stay put and renovate what we have? Finish the basement or build an addition? And most importantly, what would each scenario cost?
I’m hardly the only Canadian faced with the choice between moving or improving to increase usable square footage. Back in 2012, Canada Post released numbers indicating that of the 850,000 people who changed addresses, 37% moved to upgrade their home for family reasons. More recently, Altus Group measured the boom in Canadian residential home renovation spending, valuing it at $68 billion in 2014, roughly $20 billion more than what was spent on new builds.
Families grow, possessions multiply, aging parents move in, or a new job means building a home-office space. Although everybody’s situation is different—and let’s face it, you can’t always buy a great neighbourhood but you can change your home—deciding to love it or list it usually comes down to finances. What will it cost to move versus renovate and stay?
It’s not the house, it’s you
Cut the clutter and uncover valuable unused square footage
First, let’s start with the biggest bang for the least bucks: creating more usable space by simply clearing out the junk and getting your house more organized. That’s been our own family project for the past few weeks. Snowshoes that have never seen powder? Gone. An ill-advised yogurt machine purchase? Ditto. Three boxes of baby shoes? Now that’s just embarrassing.
We decided to take on this Herculean project after chatting on the phone with Elinor Warkentin, a Vancouver-based professional organizer who runs goodbyeclutter.ca. She says some clients have hired her to stage their homes for selling, only to decide to stay put after uncovering unused square footage they never knew they had: “Sometimes people can’t see the forest through the trees. Decluttering and organizing give people a lot of clarity.”
Although the act of breaking up with unwanted belongings is free, tackling chaos can be overwhelming without some help. Hiring a professional organizer can be one of the most cost-effective ways to gain much-needed space—with no jackhammer or moving van required.
In order to command her $85/hour fee, Warkentin spends 15 minutes on the phone with potential clients to suss out their junk issues, then does a two-hour walk-through consultation, giving specific advice based on what she sees. While she may recommend storage solutions—anything from new shelving beneath the stairs, to under-the-sink storage hacks for soap and rags—she also tackles behavioural issues. Toys littering the floor? Maybe it’s time to teach the kids to pitch in and clean up. And yes, like all those clutter consultants on TV, she helps clients separate items into piles: some go to the garbage heap, others will be given away and the last pile are keepers. She’s on-site with bins and garbage bags, picking through items one by one. (Warkentin once spent hours matching up single black and navy socks for a client.)
Between hiring a professional organizer’s services and installing new storage solutions in previously unused spaces, expect to spend $2,000 to $10,000, depending on where you live and whether your new shelves are cheaper prefabs or pricier customs. If that sounds unreasonable, consider that “for every box of clutter you remove from your home, you increase the equity by $500,” Warkentin says. But think hard before building new pricey storage solutions if you don’t like your neighbourhood or hope to move to a new school district someday. There’s no point spending the money if you’re just going to sell anyway.
Luckily, there are a number of options that range from cheap and cheerful to extreme and expensive that could get you a house that works for you. Here we’ll take a look at four scenarios, from least to potentially most costly, to see how each choice adds up.
Building a better house
Renovate the existing space make a house feel more spacious
Earlier this year, Scott Sheppard, an air traffic controller living in the Greater Toronto Area, decided it was time to give his mother, who lives in his basement, a room of her own. A bathroom, that is. “As she’s been getting older, we’ve realized that we needed to build something for her, rather than expect her to walk two flights of stairs to use the shower,” says Sheppard. In the end, it was a relatively easy fix: They simply converted their old attached garage into a laundry and mudroom, and moved the basement’s washer, dryer and deep freezer into it. This freed up space for Grandma’s corner shower, sink and toilet.
David Kloss, co-owner of LoganSienna Design in Toronto, says that, for homeowners like Sheppard, it makes sense to maximize space with the footprint that you have—particularly if living in a semi-detached or row house with restrictive zoning bylaws. Moving a wall to, say, create two bedrooms out of one means you can stay in a home you love, while making it fit your lifestyle. And even if the house doesn’t become physically bigger through these renovations, a little ingenuity can go a long way toward making a house feel more spacious. For instance, at a recent reno job in Toronto’s High Park area, Kloss removed a hall linen closet and knocked down walls to create a bigger, more open washroom.
And don’t forget the attic. It’s a square footage gold mine, particularly in older homes with steeply pitched roofs. To determine if you can turn your attic into a usable loft, shine a flashlight up there. Got W-shaped trusses holding up the roof? The reno will likely be too costly to be worth it. But if you’re looking at a wide open space with ample headroom in the centre, it might be worth building stairs up through a closet, and adding insulation and heating ducts.
Not all spaces are appropriate for renovations, however. Even though adding a room in the basement typically saves you between 25% and 50% of the cost of adding a room to upper floors, some aren’t worth finishing. There are foundation cracks that result in leaks. The furnace is smack in the middle of the room. The ceiling is low. Digging down to gain a few extra feet would cost in the range of $60,000. And to fix everything else? An extra $75,000. That’s before all the fun décor decisions.
All rooms aren’t created equal when it comes to pricing either. Contractors tend to quote in the $90 to $225 per square foot range, but if you’re aiming to add a bathroom to the mix or make your kitchen bigger, expect higher outlays: Plumbing, granite, fixtures and new appliances drive costs way up, while simply drywalling a basement or attic is going to be much cheaper. There are a lot of ways to save money—or blow through cash—so plan carefully before giving any project the green light.
Building a bigger house
Add value and living space to your home with an addition
Michael Berton and Cathie Hurlburt have had 13 years to live with their decision to turn their once small two-bedroom bungalow in North Vancouver into a 2,000-square-foot home by adding a second storey. They couldn’t be happier.
The Vancouver market was just heating up when the couple dragged their kids to open houses looking for a larger home—but eventually they decided to stay put. “We kept looking at houses that were three times more money than ours, were just as old and probably needed renovating anyway. It just didn’t make sense,” says Berton now. Instead, they hired a contractor, convinced the bank to help finance the $200,000 reno, moved into an apartment down the street for five months, and then waited for the plaster dust to settle.
Although hard to fathom today, the couple once worried about owning a half-million dollar home in Vancouver. But the gamble to increase the space paid off. Not only were they able to raise their three girls in a spacious home, but they made their house even more desirable to buyers. Their home—assessed at $320,000 before the reno—is now worth about $1.5 million. “But I don’t know if the math works like that everywhere, because I live in Lotusland where the house prices are nuts,” Berton cautions.
He’s right to question whether building an expensive addition is the best option everywhere. Most house prices don’t appreciate as quickly as they do in hot markets like Vancouver and Toronto. It can take decades before homeowners can recoup costs come selling time. An expensive renovation usually only makes sense if you plan on living in your home for the long haul, says Suzanne Ethier, a realtor in Kitchener, Ont. But for people who aren’t sure if they’ll need to move in five or 10 years? “Without fail, the numbers say sell the house and buy a new one,” she says.
The truth is that building onto a house is expensive. Location, size, finishes and labour costs will vary, says Brennan Waters, owner of Oakwaters Construction Ltd., based in Everton, Ont., but generally speaking, “$200 a square foot will give you options.” But expect to pay more if you’re digging down to expand the basement, or if you’re planning wholesale kitchen moves requiring all new plumbing and wiring.
What’s more, extensions can come with nasty and expensive surprises—from opening a wall to find old knob-and-tube wiring, to having run-ins with neighbours who are fed up with the construction noise and debris. Banks don’t finance the demolition work either, so that’s coming out of pocket, unless you get a construction loan. All of this isn’t to say building an addition can be the right choice, but just be sure you know what you’re getting into before the backhoe arrives.
Making the big move
Upgrade your living space by relocating to a new home
Sometimes you’ve just got to get out of Dodge and find a new place to live. That was Kate Kuok’s story when she moved from her suburban Toronto townhouse to Oakville, Ont., about four years ago with her husband Gabriel and their newborn.
Although their former property had three bedrooms and three bathrooms, soon the baby gear spilled out all over the living areas. Plus, they weren’t enamoured with their neighbourhood, what with drug deals going down on the street. “I always said to myself, ‘I’m going to see how we are with a kid in this place.’ I had my son in June and by August I was saying, ‘We’ve got to get out of here,’” Kuok explains, recalling all the factors that motivated their decision to find a new home.
So what does it cost to move? Put it this way: It ain’t cheap. Even if you clear a cool $100,000 after selling your old home, moving into a larger house will likely cost more than that. Take houses in Halifax’s hot South End neighbourhood. A three-bedroom, one-bathroom home is listed at $465,000. Move up to a similar four-bedroom, two-bathroom house and you’re likely spending about $200,000 more. Plus financing.
And don’t forget the extras. Realtor fees run around 5% to 6% of the final sale price, so count on at least $23,250, while lawyer fees cost $1,200 to $1,500. With the exception of Alberta and Saskatchewan, there are also land transfer taxes, which vary depending on where you live—for instance, you’ll pay $6,475 on a $500,000 home in Ottawa, while Torontonians can expect to pay $12,200 for that same-priced house. Plus, don’t forget moving costs that run additional thousands of dollars.
Despite the financial costs for Kuok’s family, it was a good idea to move. Although the couple spent a little more on the mortgage than they’d budgeted for, they ended up with something money can’t buy: a great low-traffic street with neighbours who look out for each other. You’ll find them on summer nights hanging out in the yard socializing over a beer while the kids whiz around on bikes and scooters. And in the grand scheme of things, that’s just as important as saving a buck.
“I would do anything to stay in this house because we love the street. I would put an addition on it, refinish the basement and make more space for the kids,” Kuok says. “We could never buy neighbours like these again, ever.”
A complete schedule of when to do what … and how much it costs
When I bought my dream home two years ago, I wasn’t imagining myself standing in my basement, holding an umbrella, watching my husband chase streams of water with a flashlight. But that’s where I ended up. It was the first spring thaw and he was trying to figure out where the leaks were coming from.
Clad in his work boots and a rain jacket he would alternate between stepping outside our basement door, where the rain came down in big sheets of cold wetness, and ducking into our basement to inspect various parts of our foundation. It would take three more rainstorms, the installation of a sump pump and a complete overhaul of our plumbing before we were able to correct the problem.
That was a rough introduction to the world of home ownership, but I don’t regret buying the place. It’s a great century-old row house in downtown Toronto in an eclectic and vibrant west-end neighbourhood. Still, as I watched the balance on our line of credit creep up to the $40,000 mark, I started to wonder: How much does it cost to maintain a home anyway?
After a bit of research, I found out that the general rule of thumb is that you should expect to spend 3% to 5% of the value of your home every year, on average. For a 40- year-old home worth $500,000 that means you’ll need to set aside up to $25,000 every year. I ran that figure by my husband, who is—as it happens—a commercial and residential general contractor, and he said that sounded high. But is it? We were savvier home buyers than many, but we still underestimated the cost of fixing our drainage issues and the expense of tearing down the garage (“Give it a year and you won’t have to,” one broker told us when were out shopping for insurance).
So, to get a handle on the real cost of maintaining a home, I decided to price out all of the major maintenance and repairs you can expect to perform on a typical 2,000-square-foot detached house in Canada myself.
To do this I looked at two different kinds of upkeep. The first is the regular annual maintenance that every homeowner should do to keep his or her home running smoothly. Things like changing the furnace filters and patching the driveway. The second kind of upkeep includes those once-a-decade expenses that tend to result in migraines. Here I’m talking about things like replacing your hot water heater because it rusted through, or replacing all of your outdated electrical wiring.
To get an accurate figure, I divided up the typical home into its seven major components and tallied up the costs for both large and small jobs over 25 years. I then annualized that amount, so you can make sure that you’re contributing enough to your household maintenance budget every year. I also include tips on regular maintenance you can do to keep those little problems from turning into expensive headaches. But I didn’t include jobs such as interior painting, or upgrading your kitchen cabinets. I focussed on the bare bones maintenance you need to do to protect your home and keep it from deteriorating. In short, if you’re wondering why your car came with a maintenance guide, but your home didn’t—problem solved. Because here it is: A complete maintenance guide for your home.
When Steve Bedernjak bought his detached fixer-upper bungalow in one of Toronto’s up-and-coming neighbourhoods four years ago, he didn’t bother getting it inspected. Why bother? He already knew the place needed a lot of work, and he had a plan. He’d renovate one of the bathrooms and update the very outdated kitchen. He had $15,000 saved up for the job and a great deal of handyman know-how. But his first winter brought with it a slew of plumbing problems that threw a soggy blanket on his renovation strategy.
After a particularly cold spell, the pipes in the main floor bathroom froze. Swamped with work, Steve plugged a heater into the bathroom, turned on the bathtub faucet and left. Hours later he returned to the sound of running water—but the bathtub was dry. To his dismay, while the heater had helped thaw the frozen plumbing, the extreme temperature change had caused a rupture in the copper joints in the basement. “There was water everywhere.” Worse yet: Steve had to take a sledgehammer to the bathroom’s shower, since the previous homeowner had tiled over the main shut-off valve.
A few simple steps can go a long way towards making sure the same thing doesn’t happen to you. Consider insulating all of your exposed pipes for starters—especially if they run through an unheated garage or unfinished basement. Uninsulated pipes are susceptible to temperature changes and start to sweat. This condensation starts to corrode the pipes, decreasing the life of your plumbing.
Another good habit to develop is to test all the faucets regularly and swap out old washers when taps begin to drip. Once a year top up floor drains with water to prevent sewer gases from entering your home. (A properly installed drain should have a trap—a U-shaped pipe that holds water and prevents sewer gas, such as methane, from seeping into your home.) A trick is to pour a quarter cup of mineral oil down the drain. The mineral oil sits on the water barrier and slows down the rate of evaporation.
Finally, it’s always a good idea to make sure you know where the main shut off valve for your home is located. Test it every year to make sure it’s working—and that you can get at it if you need to.
The outside structure
While curb appeal is important, remember that the primary job of your home’s exterior is to protect your home. Not easy given fluctuating temperatures, changing seasons, and the various protrusions, sharp angles and different materials used in home construction. Your job is to keep that exterior as seamless as possible—a task even Canada’s worst handyman can accomplish.
Every year start by power washing your property. (Don’t do this if you have a brick home as the force of the spray can damage the brick. Instead, consider getting the brick professionally cleaned every few decades.) By cleaning off the dirt and grime—and taking the time to just stare at your home—you’ll get a pretty good idea of necessary repairs and replacements.
For instance if you notice the outside tap (known as a bib) froze during the winter, replace it with an antifreeze model—this $30 do-it-yourself fix could save you thousands in the long run. Consider replacing the weather stripping around windows and doors, as well as the door sweep, that rubber thingie at the bottom of the door that creates an airtight seal. Simple and cheap, these maintenance steps will help increase the energy efficiency in your home and will also prolong the life of the exterior shell.
Many of these jobs can be completed in a few hours or in a weekend, and they don’t require the skills of a professional.
When all the routine maintenance is complete, turn your attention to strategic updates. Replacing old wooden windows with vinyl models will cost between $3,000 and $12,000, but it will eliminate the annual sanding, priming and painting required of old wooden frame windows while increasing the energy efficiency of your home. You’ll enjoy lower electricity bills in the summer, and lower gas bills in the winter. Also, consider replacing old doors, just make sure the door fits the frame snugly or air will seep out.
The roof is an integral part of your home’s defence system. It’s also one of the most expensive components to replace, as my husband Mark and I found out. Swamped with his own contracts, my husband had originally planned to hire a company to re-shingle a small section of our roof. But the quotes he got were shocking: up to $7,000 to replace the plywood and re-shingle just 200 square feet. No joke.
The good news is you can prolong the life of your roof, and reduce the number of cheques you write to Johnny-No-Thumbs Roofing Co., by implementing a few ongoing maintenance routines.
First, pull out a ladder and climb on up there to visually inspect your roof. The best indication of a deteriorating roof is curled and separating shingles. Also examine the amount of grit and gravel that collects in your eaves and gutters. That grit is actually bits of asphalt rolling off the roof during high winds and rainstorms. If you find more than a quarter-inch of sediment, then it’s time to look at a new roof. Finally, look for waves or dips, which are early indicators of rot. If caught early enough, rot can be eliminated with the addition of more roof vents.
Every year you should secure or replace any loose shingles, inspect the chimney and verify the chimney cap is securely fastened. You should also inspect your flashing seals. Flashing is the thin, continuous piece of metal (or other impervious material) that’s installed at every angle or roof joint to prevent water from seeping under the asphalt tiles. Sealant is used to strengthen this barrier and must be re-touched on a regular basis.
Of course, if the thought of standing on a sloped surface 40-feet above the ground terrifies you, then you can always hire a handyman or roofer to do the annual inspection for you.
Have you ever seen a house that leans to one side? Typically this is caused by a damaged foundation. And more often than not, problematic foundations are caused by homeowner neglect.
Maintaining your foundation is an easy way to avoid very costly repairs. For example, you could spend $500 to repair the crack that develops where your driveway meets your home, or you could wait and pay $9,000 to excavate and waterproof a damaged foundation.
The best way to stay on top of foundation issues is to visually inspect your home at the start of each season, explains Bryan Baeumler, a contractor and the host of HGTV’s House of Bryan. Look for signs of settling, such as small hairline cracks. Keep a special lookout for cracks that widen over time, cracks that follow your concrete block foundation in a step pattern, or cracks above windows. These may be an indication of a larger foundation problem.
Also be diligent about snow and debris removal. Snow can melt and cause water damming, while debris can invite pests.
Finally, inspect the base of your home and your basement for mold and mildew. Use your nose and a flashlight to look inside closets, behind stored contents and around fixtures, such as the hot water tank. If you find mold, remove it using one part rubbing alcohol (90% or more) and two parts water. Don’t use bleach. (According to the U.S.-based Environmental Protection Agency, bleach isn’t able to penetrate porous material so it can’t kill mold spores at the root.)
Then look for the cause of the mold: where is the moisture coming from? Ignoring the problem and hoping it will just go away is not a great idea, as a friend of mind discovered when she neglected to address occasional sewer back-ups in her basement. To rectify the cause, she would have had to re-grade the soil outside her basement window and install a sump pump, at a cost of approximately $2,300. Instead, she left it.
A year later those spots of mold grew into a disgusting carpet of spores over a foot high. She ending up paying for pre- and post-air quality tests, professional mold remediation, debris removal, re-grading and a sump pump, at a total cost of $22,000.
Homeowners and unlicensed contractors are legally allowed to do their own electrical work, but you run a big risk if you don’t know what you’re doing, says HGTV’s Bryan Baeumler. “The worst I ever saw was a basement that was built for children and framed with steel studs.” The unlicensed contractors used an electrical wire without grommets, which enabled uninsulated wires to touch the studs. “The walls were actually live,” recalls Baeumler—if someone had touched the walls, they would have been electrocuted.
As with heating and air conditioning, consider hiring professionals when it comes to electrical work. But even if professionals do the bulk of the electrical repairs around your home, there are still steps you can take to ensure things are in proper working order.
For instance, you can make sure each light fixture is fitted with the proper bulb wattage. If you use a 150 watt bulb in a fixture that’s only designed for 100 watts, it can shorten the life of the bulb and the light fixture. You can also check your ground fault outlets by pushing the test/reset buttons. While you’re at it, check outdoor outlets and cords to make sure they aren’t damaged, and replace or repair frayed wires and plug heads.
Finally, schedule annual alarm tests and routine battery replacements in every detector and replace every fire, carbon monoxide and radon detector every 10 years, when the alarms begin to degrade.
Heating, ventilation and air conditioning
Some do-it-yourselfers are comfortable tackling furnace or central air conditioning repairs, but most of us will want to call in the professionals.
That means scheduling an annual inspection and cleaning of your furnace for the early fall. That way, you’re making sure that any potential problems with your furnace are caught well before the bitter cold season. The same diligence doesn’t have to apply to central A/C though, as long as you clean out leaves and debris before turning on the unit in the spring.
There are a few other practical maintenance steps you can do yourself to help your home’s heating and cooling system. Vacuum air grates or electrical baseboard heaters to remove dirt, and cover your A/C unit with a breathable, flexible cover to keep out debris and leaves. (Don’t tightly wrap the unit, as you could create a cozy den for critters or damage the unit’s coils.)
Also, try to change your furnace filter regularly. Not doing so is like forcing your furnace to breathe through a straw. By replacing the filter every three months, you improve both your air quality and the efficiency of your furnace.
You likely don’t have to bother having your ducts professionally cleaned though. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation studied the impact of duct cleaning and found no difference pre- and post-cleaning. They did, however, recommend duct cleaning if you’ve just moved into a brand new home or just underwent major renovations.
Drainage and landscaping
A well-appointed garden can add as much as 20% to the value of your house, but landscaping also has a hidden purpose that’s much more important: to drain water away from your foundation.
To prevent water from seeping into your basement you should pay particular attention to the underside of the eaves (known as the soffits), the material that caps your gutters (known as the fascia), as well as downspouts and drains. Keep these clear of debris, such as leaves and twigs, and check for blockages. Expect to re-attach or fix these components on an annual basis. Remember: the easier it is for water to flow away from your home, the less likelihood of damage.
Now, visually inspect the grade of your foundation and driveway. Examine the ground abutting your home, or, if you’re like me and dimensionally impaired, pour a glass of water on the ground close to your foundation walls. Watch what the water does: Does it roll away from the home? Does it pool in one area? Worse yet, does it roll towards the home and then sit, waiting to be absorbed? The minimum standard for grading is an inch for every foot, with at least eight feet of grade starting at your foundation wall. Any grade that doesn’t move water away from your home should be corrected. If not, you could end up paying for expensive waterproofing remediation—one of the most avoidable, yet costliest repairs to any home.
Also consider removing boxed planters built against your foundation. While these landscaping features can add a splash of colour and enhance curb appeal they can also cause problems, since water has nowhere else to go but into your foundation.
Finally, pay attention to paths and driveways on your property. If they split they can allow water to seep into the earth, which can oversaturate your lawn, promote soil erosion and prevent the garden from keeping water away from your home. Small repairs to such hardscaping features can mean big savings later on.
The final tally
So what’s the total cost of transforming your home into an efficient, water-repelling system that never causes you any sleepless nights? When I tallied up the annual cost of all of the regular maintenance, I found that you could expect to spend somewhere between $900 and $1,000 a year. If you hire professionals, you may spend upwards of $3,000 a year.
But that doesn’t take into consideration the expense of major repairs, replacements and remediation. Those expenses tend to arise much less frequently, but they hit your wallet hard. To make sure you’re prepared, you should set up a “big stuff” home maintenance account, to which you should contribute an extra $3,500 to $7,500 a year, depending on the size and age of your home.
Total annual maintenance cost: $930 – $2,600
Total annual replacement cost: $3,500 – $7,300
The total amount you should budget for home maintenance: $4,500 – $10,000 per year
To double-check my figures, my husband Mark and I went back through our own reno and repair expenses, and we found that the numbers above are accurate. Of course, they don’t reflect the hours and hours of work that you do yourself (not the mention the help from friends and family).
Looking after your home properly is a lot of work—and, yes, it can be expensive. But it’s worth it to have a place you love that’s truly yours. Despite four years of ongoing repairs and renovations, Steve Bedernjak agrees. “At one point I seriously considered only dating people with construction knowledge—because I spent all my time at my house.” But now that Steve can actually see an end to all the construction turmoil, he says it was all worthwhile. “Despite the problems that are inherent of a 100-year-old home I’m glad I became a homeowner. Every night I sit on my back porch and listen to muted bustle of the city, and I’m comforted with the knowledge that it was in my hands that my house became my home.”
Claudette Charron thought she bought her perfect house — a fixer-upper in need of a little TLC, at a good price in a small community — until she discovered there used to be a marijuana grow-op in the basement and the house needed tens of thousands of dollars of work to make it safe to live in.
“It was a foreclosure, so you know it was at a decent price because I couldn’t afford very much,” says Charron, who is a carpenter.
The real estate listing for the bungalow in Limoges, Ont., said ‘with a little bit of love this home can shine bright!’ (CBC)
“But it was a nice fixer-upper … with some work and with my skills, I was going to fix it and resell it in two years. It was an investment.”
Charron, her boyfriend and her 16-year-old son moved into their new home in Limoges, Ont., at the end of June 2016, one year after there had been a drug bust at the house.
A day after moving into the community just east of Ottawa, she talked to a neighbour who asked about damage to the basement.
Claudette Charron’s neighbour, Ethel Manns, is the one who told Charron her newly purchased house had formerly contained a grow-op. (CBC)
“I said, what do you mean how bad is the basement? She’s like ‘What? They didn’t tell you that there was a big drug bust here and that they took 148 [pot] plants out of the basement,'” Charron says.
“It was disbelief. My heart was in my stomach and I was sick.”
Go Public found there is a long list of failed attempts to implement grow-op registries that would publicly identify the locations of drug houses.
Instead, many provinces are left with a mishmash of rules and guidelines around who’s responsible for identifying and disclosing former drug houses in real estate transactions.
Experts say the lack of a workable tracking system and clear rules can leave homebuyers facing health risks, diminished home value and huge cleanup costs.
$30,000+ in cleanup costs
The home inspector Charron hired before buying recorded no evidence of a grow-op, even though home inspectors in Ontario are obligated to look for signs.
After learning of the home’s history, Charron got another inspection done.
Charron’s environmental home inspection noted several sign of grow-op activity, including this taped-off basement window. (Paul Battle)
A report from Enviro Pure First Response says there were “telltale signs” of a former grow-op, including marijuana leaf debris under the stairs and evidence of windows in the basement “being taped off with staples still in place and foil tape.”
The environmental home inspector held a flashlight beam parallel to the walls to reveal mould growth. (Paul Battle)
The company also tested for mould and moisture in the air and behind the walls. “The counts in this house were probably in the top five or six per cent of anything that we have encountered for an indoor spore count directly in the vicinity of the grow operation,” says Richard Sticklee, who works for Enviro Pure First Response.
The environmental home inspection found marijuana leaf debris on the basement floor. (Paul Battle) (Paul Battle)
He estimated the cost to clean up Charron’s home would range from $25,000 to $100,000, depending on what has to be done.
Charron has spent more than $30,000 so far on the house she paid $265,000 for.
Richard Sticklee, a remediation expert who worked on Charron’s house, says the first thing he noticed was the mould odour, then he saw live mould growing on the walls. (CBC)
Sticklee says the system should work like this:
Police notify the city of the location of a grow-op.
The city tags the home.
The homeowner takes specific remediation steps.
The city oversees the cleanup to ensure it’s done safely and properly.
The house can be sold, but the seller needs to disclose its history.
Seller denies knowledge of grow-op
In Charron’s case, Street Capital Bank of Canada was the seller. It took possession of the house after the people who had the grow-op declared bankruptcy.
Street Capital Bank of Canada (Toronto office pictured) sold the house to Claudette Charron in June 2016. She has filed a lawsuit against the company. (CBC)
Charron is now suing Street Capital, its realtor, and the original home inspector she used.
In its statement of defence, Street Capital “denies having knowledge that the property was used as a grow-op” and denies it “was aware and/or failed to disclose any latent defects.”
The mortgage company did not answer Go Public’s questions, but in an email from its lawyer, David Ward, it says circumstances like this are rare and “we always work towards resolving issues amicably which we are working on doing in this case as well.”
The case is now heading toward mediation and Street Capital says it’s “hopeful that all matters can be fairly resolved.”
Tracking systems failing
Go Public found tracking systems that should alert potential buyers of a home’s drug history are either failing or nonexistent.
Ottawa police do list dismantled illegal grow-ops online, but only five locations have been listed over the past five years.
In Ontario, there is a provincial guideline that says police should notify municipalities, in writing, of grow-ops so the municipality can oversee the remediation and ensure it’s done safely and properly. That didn’t happen in Charron’s case.
In some other provinces, like B.C., that’s the rule, not just a guideline.
On a national scale, the RCMP tried to launch a website in 2010 that was supposed to list addresses of homes across Canada where marijuana grow operations and illegal drug labs were found and dismantled. That too went bust.
Go Public also found no provinces require sellers to disclose a home’s history as a former drug house. The closest to it is in B.C. where it’s “strongly recommended” sellers disclose a house’s drug history.
In most provinces, sellers don’t have to mention a marijuana grow-op specifically, as long as it didn’t do damage. If it did, it is considered a material latent defect, which does have to be disclosed.
Barry Lebow has been a real estate broker and agent and now works as an adviser for brokerages and the public.
“I think that a registry makes sense. I really do. I think that withholding information from the public isn’t a good thing and it would make it so much easier,” he says.
Real estate expert Barry Lebow advises prospective home owners to talk to neighbours before buying. (CBC)
Lebow notes that realtors in a lot of provinces are responsible for making their “best efforts” to find out the history of a house.
He says marijuana grow-ops are more common than most people realize, saying buyers need to use different search engines to look up the address and owner’s names of a property they are interested in buying and searching news archives for reports on grow-ops.
He also suggests talking to neighbours. Go Public canvassed Charron’s neighbourhood after she contacted us, asking if anyone, real estate agents or the mortgage company, had come by to ask about the home’s history before or after the sale.
“Nobody. The only person that came over was the new owner,” says Ethel Manns, the neighbour who told Charron about the drug history of her new home.
“I’d be really upset,” she says. “It’s somebody’s fault. It had to be reported. You can’t have a grow-op and not tell anybody.”
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Before buying a fixer-upper, consider these tips to ensure this option is right for you, and planned renovations prove profitable.
1. Consult a real estate agent to find out more about the neighbourhood
The real estate history (recent sales, pricing) of a neighbourhood will tell you if investing in a fixer-upper is worth your time and money. An agent can advise you on community news, including property development, environmental projects and other factors that will have positive and negative effects on your home’s resale value.
2. Schedule an extensive home inspection
Houses that need work may contain structural or cosmetic concerns, so it is important to know what elements need to be fixed in order to work those costs into your budget. Invisible upgrades (electrical, plumbing and heating) can be expensive fixes that don’t always increase a house’s value because they are naked to the eye of a potential homebuyer.
3. Request an estimate from a contractor
Based on an assessment by a certified contractor, determine how much money you’ll need to set aside for desired upgrades.
4. Know what you’re getting yourself into – both financially and personally
When buying any house, it is important to stay afloat and avoid swimming in debt. Fixer-uppers aren’t just hard on your wallet. Renovations can be disruptive, stressful and time-consuming, so it is imperative to have a solid financial plan in place and your family’s lifestyle taken into consideration prior to purchase.
Knowing if and when you plan to buy [?] your house can help you manage your renovation schedule and budget accordingly.
6. Know the law
Contact your local municipality office and request information on your city’s building permit laws before undergoing any renovations. Many large structural changes (additional storeys, extensions, decks) require a building permit. Future buyers might request proof of permits on condition of sale.
7. Don’t over-improve for the market
Once the renovations start rolling, you might not want them to stop. Designing your dream home is tempting, but only if the housing market will reimburse you for your efforts. Finishings (wood, stone, hardware) should be in line with houses in the neighbourhood.
8. Stretch your money
Forgo expensive wooden kitchen cabinets in lieu of higher quality countertops. Prime features of a home (luxury work surfaces, flooring, appliances, lighting) hold their value more than cosmetic fixes (paint, cupboards, carpet). Opt for energy efficient appliances that will save you money during residency and will be an attractive detail on resale.
9. Avoid over-customization
Remember that people’s tastes vary, so pull back on any customization that might discourage potential buyers.
10. Challenge yourself
Renovating is an excellent opportunity to try do-it-yourself projects. Simple changes like paint colour or swapping cabinet hardware are easier ways to be involved in your renovation and can also save you on labour costs.