Jennifer Skingley and her partner—the former an erstwhile project manager and the latter an executive manager—are meticulous planners, so no detail was spared when they planned a home renovation. However, no amount of planning could have prepared them for the aggravations they would subsequently endure.
“We got the keys to our home in February 2018 and before we even took possession of it we had teed up people to do the work. We really researched and organized our renovation,” said Skingley. “There were several false starts trying to get people who were available to commit to doing the work. We interviewed a ton of contractors, got multiple estimates and did as much of the leg work ourselves as humanly possible without actually being construction experts. We tried to hand everything over on a silver platter, but for the work to actually start was like pulling teeth.”
And that was only the beginning, added Skingley.
The basement level needed external waterproofing, upgraded plumbing and a new bathroom was fitted in, while the kitchen and upstairs bathroom also received significant work.
However, because of last minute cancellations by contractors and a seeming deluge of errors, the home renovation took much longer than originally anticipated and cost over $80,000.
“Management was the issue,” said Skingley. “There were some blatant oversights and lossages with the team of people we picked, so we definitely ended up spending more money than we had allocated, even though we budgeted quite thoroughly from the outset, because we know when you tear things apart you find ugly surprises, but we there were things like having to tear floors out a second time because they forgot to get a permit. Silly little things like that took us way over and above. Even sourcing material was challenging.”
Unfortunately, Skingley and her partner’s nightmare renovation is extremely common, and given the exorbitant cost of the work, most homeowners can afford nary a thing to go wrong, says Casper Wong, co-founder and COO of Financeit, a consumer financing platform.
“When most Canadians renovate their homes, they aren’t offered flexible payment plans by their merchants, and while there are more traditional ways of paying, like with cash or using HELOCs [home equity lines of credit], not every Canadian can afford to make cash payments up front,” he said.
“Not everybody has access to HELOCs. Only three million Canadians have access to them, and on average Canadians owe $65,000, and 25% of Canadians with HELOCs just make interest-only payments.”
Financeit, a digital platform, works with thousands of contractors to homeowners make those large renovations in low-installation payments.
“We use our technology—and we own the entire stack, which allows us to manage credit, underwriting, servicing, and we work with multiple lenders and have a mobile app,” said Wong. “Not every Canadian can afford to make cash payments up front and usually when they do, they’re more reliant on credit, but credit cards have high interest.”
Source: Canadian Real Estate Magazine – Neil Sharma 12 Aug 2019
A good fixer-upper home can save you money and become a tremendous source of pride, but choose the wrong one, and you’ll end up with a money pit that sucks in more work and cash than you ever imagined.
Foundation damage, worn-out wiring, hidden mold, and other expensive repair issues are common in older homes, but they’re not always obvious. Before you fall in love, spend some time checking for signs of renovation nightmares that could be lurking in your prospective dream home.
The Foundation is Faulty
A damaged foundation is a clear sign to proceed with caution. Check the foundation for cracks wider than 1/4 inch, especially those at a 45-degree angle to the wall. Look at the house from a distance to see if it leans or bulges in any way. Windows and exterior doors that stick are another sign of foundation trouble.
If you can, have an inspector come out to look at the place after it rains. This will help you find out if rainwater builds up around the foundation, which can lead to leaks over time.
The Basement is a Mess
Basements tend to betray a lack of upkeep before anywhere else in the house. Look for signs of water damage, such as cracks in the walls, water stains, patches of mold, and pooled water. Inspect the floor for heaving and cracks wider than 1/4 inch, which suggest the foundation might have issues.
Check for exposed wires and pipes that aren’t properly secured and insulated. These tell you the house wasn’t optimally maintained.
Concrete that’s honeycombed, meaning it’s pitted and crumbling, might be water-damaged or it might have been mixed or applied incorrectly, making it weaker. A powdery white coating known as efflorescence on concrete is a sure sign of moisture issues.
The Plumbing and Electrical are Out of Date
Replacing a plumbing or wiring system is a costly, time-consuming job and one of the most common problems that turn a house into a money pit.
Galvanized steel pipes aren’t a great sign. These tend to become clogged with sediment, reducing your water pressure. You can clean them, but you’ll need to repeat the process regularly. Ideally, the house’s entire plumbing system should be copper.
If the house was built somewhere between 1965 and 1973, have your inspector check for aluminum wiring. This is a fire hazard and should be replaced. Other signs of an out-dated electrical system are knob and tube wiring (fabric-covered wires connected to white knobs), a fuse box instead of a breaker panel, and a breaker panel with only four or six breakers.
The electrical panel should have a capacity of 150 to 200 amps, and the house should have 220-volt service. Anything less and you won’t be able to run the appliances and electronics common in a modern home.
The Roof is Deteriorating
A bad roof is a classic sign of a money pit. The cost to replace a worn-out roof starts at around $5,000 for a simple 3-tab shingle roof on an average-size home and can rise to $20,000 or more if you want premium materials, and your roof includes dormer windows, skylights or other complex features.
The roof itself isn’t the only thing you need to worry about, though. A deteriorating roof can let water leak into the attic, creating ideal conditions for rot and mold. If left too long, these issues can weaken the wood frame of the house and leave you with major renovation bills.
If the roof shows signs of damage, such as curled shingles or missing gutters, check the attic for water damage.
The Heating and Cooling Features are Lacking
If the home’s heating and cooling system is more than ten years old, chances are you’ll need to replace it soon. It might keep running for another five or ten years, but it will use more energy than a newer system, so either way, it will cost you money.
Also, consider the house’s energy efficiency. Many older homes were constructed with gaps to allow airflow. The modern, energy-efficient solution is to seal these gaps, which is a simple, low-cost job, and install a ventilation system, which is not so low-cost.
What’s more, if the house lacks insulation in the walls and floors, you’ll need to add some or put up with high heating and cooling bills.
The Rooms Smell Funny
It might seem perfectly understandable that an old house would have some funky smells lingering, but don’t write off unpleasant odors too quickly. The smell of sewage often means there’s a problem with the sewer line, septic tank or another part of the waste water disposal system.
Pet urine odor, in addition to being hard to get rid of, suggests there could be rot in the floors where the pets left their marks.
A musty smell means mold is growing somewhere. Rotting wood, particularly around the windows, warped flooring, and stained drywall also indicate moisture problems that can lead to mold growth. Because mold can be hidden inside walls and under floors, you’ll need an inspector to accurately assess the extent of the mold growth.
You Spot Signs of Pests
Insects and rodents can do a lot of damage to a house, but even extensive damage can remain hidden unless you know what you’re looking for. Ultimately, you’ll need to hire a professional to make sure the house is pest-free, but there are a few clear signs that trouble is lurking.
Buckling floorboards and loose floor tiles, pinholes in drywall, and wood that sounds hollow when you knock on it are all signs of a termite infestation. Little brown waste pellets and urine puddles inside cabinets and drawers mean mice or rats. Tiny holes and tunnels in wood suggest woodworms are at work.
The Grounds are Unkempt
If the grounds have been neglected, chances are the house has been, too. An overgrown garden, cracked or crumbling walls, deteriorating fences, and areas of collapsed paving all tell you that the property has been suffering from poor upkeep for several years at least.
Some features, such as swimming pools and decks, can pose a legal liability if they’re not up to code. If the house you’re considering has any major hardscaping features like these, make sure they were built with the proper permits and that you know what it will take to get them back into a safe condition.
You Don’t Like the Floorplan
A floorplan that doesn’t suit your preferences suggests renovating the house could end up costing you more than you expect. Altering a floorplan often involves moving load-bearing walls, which is a tricky and labor-intensive job. In addition to demolishing the old wall and building a new one, the contractor will also need to reinforce the foundation.
All this can easily make moving a wall the most expensive part of your remodeling project. If you’re considering buying a house and then changing the floorplan, first check if the floorplan you want is possible, then get an idea of how much it will cost.
The House is Vulnerable to Floods
A home by the river isn’t so romantic when the river ends up in your living room. Before you set your heart on a house near any body of water, check the location’s flood risk. Water levels can vary dramatically with the seasons and from year to year, so don’t rely on your own estimation.
For an accurate risk assessment, take a look at the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) Flood Maps or check with your state’s Department of Natural Resources, Department of Water Resources or equivalent.
A house that sits lower than the ground around it is also at risk for drainage problems and flooding. If you notice the house is set low, ask your realtor or the local Planning and Zoning Department about the site’s flood risk.
No matter how much you love the view or that charming breakfast nook, don’t let it distract you from the fundamentals of what makes a house a good financial investment. Keep your eyes open for signs neglect, deterioration or outdated building systems.
Before you make an offer, have the house professionally inspected and collect estimates for any major repairs it will need.
Viewing each house with a critical eye before you become emotionally invested is the key to finding a valuable, enjoyable fixer-upper instead of a disappointing money pit.
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.
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.”
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.