Welcome to this month’s edition of Dear Urbaneer, where I share my advice to clients seeking counsel on their housing issues, design dilemmas and real estate endeavours. This month, I address a question from clients – who are considering undertaking some major changes to their residence – regarding whether their place is best-suited to renovate piecemeal over time or if they are better served doing a substantial gut, also known as a ‘to-the-studs’ transformation.
We are in the planning stages of a major renovation project, which will involve adding a third floor to our two-storey semi-detached Edwardian in Playter Estates. We are just wondering if it is smarter to do a full gut when one is taking on such a large project like this, or if it’s ok if we approach renovating the house over time as piece-by-piece according-to-our-finances projects?
Better to Start Small or go for the Gut?
Here’s my reply:
Dear Start Small:
Taking on renovations of any kind can be stressful. Generally, the larger a project is, the higher the potential for problems and the more complicated the process. This is why it’s critical to engage in some serious planning before you embark on making changings to your dwelling. This includes prioritizing everything you hope to undertake during your ownership; start with the immediate ‘must-do’s’ , like repairs, before moving to ongoing maintenance and possible upgrades in the near future, and finishing with the ‘dream objectives’ that will see your transform the property into your ideal shelter. By outlining everything first and marrying it to your overall time frame of ownership and finances (are you moving in 3-5 years, 7-12 years, or after 20+ years?), you can create a timeline to realize your objectives. Here’s my post called Dear Urbaneer: We’ve Moved In To Our New Home. Now What? that will start you with the basics to owning property.
Now, if you’re looking to renovate your existing residence whereby you’re not changing the footprint of the dwelling, the process is far less complicated than if you’re expanding the dwelling. You may still require permits from the City, such as plumbing and/or electrical permits, or one if you’re removing a load-bearing wall, or if you’re underpinning your basement to create a higher ceiling (which, if you’re attached to a neighbour also requires a Party Wall Agreement – here’s Understanding Party Wall Agreements In The City Of Toronto) but it’s far less onerous than if you’re adding more square footage. Here’s my past post called Dear Urbaneer: What Are The Steps To Home Renovation? that offers you some guidance, and, if you’re looking for more information on what requires a permit in the City of Toronto, here’s a guide to Toronto Building Permits.
Now, in your case, adding a third floor (and potentially a family room addition on the ground floor) is a much more complicated process because it requires navigating the bureaucracy of city hall for approvals plus permits, appeasing any neighbours who may be impacted directly or indirectly, and engaging a significant list of shelter professionals. Embarking on this will realistically add 6 to 18 months to your time line (I promise you there will be hiccups, says I, after it took me 2 years to get approvals and building permits after a comedy of errors) and likely cost you one dollar more than you have. I’ve been sharing my own journey in my Tales From Tennis Crescent blog (which I began four years ago) where I’m imminently adding a second floor extension and a third floor addition totaling about 1000 square feet on an existing 1550 square foot semi-detached purpose-built duplex in Riverdale. This endeavour has, to date, required my hiring a surveyor, an arborist (we have Tree Protection bylaws in Toronto), an urban planner, an architect, a structural engineer, a firm who do soil testing (to ensure the ground was suitable for helical piles to support the 2 storey extension, which also included breaking the concrete in the basement to confirm the existing footings were adequate for the third floor addition) a general contractor, a mechanical engineer, a lighting consultant, an interior designer, and a landscape designer. My journey thus far has resulted in blogs throughout my process including Navigating The Committee Of Adjustment For Toronto Real Estate, My Obstacles To Securing A City Of Toronto Building Permit, Dear Urbaneer: I Need Help With Architects, Builders And Toronto’s Committee Of Adjustment and, Dear Urbaneer: What Are The Steps To Add Onto A House In Toronto?.
Is It Cosmetic Or Are Major Building Components Involved?
Before I delve deeper into answering your question on whether to renovate piece-meal or as one significant undertaking, I want to explain some of the factors that influence the paths that any homeowners should consider. In my post Understanding The Six Essential Layers Of Property I address the overall framework of a property. For those whose properties are newer but dated (say 20-30 years), one might only need to undertake cosmetic upgrades, which is when you change interior surfaces and fixtures and fittings. Think flooring, crown moldings, adding recessed lighting, kitchen cabinets, bath fixtures, closet organizers, built-in cabinetry. These are the ‘fun renovations’ which we often see on HGTV where there’s a reveal at the end of 30 minutes, but any regular viewer knows that even on the 24 hour loop of television houseporn (not to be confused with my other website Houseporn.ca) there’s always a problem that potentially unravels to the horror of the homeowner. (Sidebar – I’ve written a blog about The HGTV Effect On Toronto Real Estate – which, in my opinion, has significantly contributed to Toronto real estate prices escalating – as well as a blog about a client who confessed: “My Obsession With Design Media Is Hampering My House Hunt!“).
What’s both critical and realistic for those who own houses in the original City of Toronto – where the housing stock is typically 100 years old at least – is that when addressing your cosmetic changes, you run the high risk you’ll be opening the proverbial ‘can of worms’. Think foundation issues like water leakage, mold, or structural problems; failing major building components like heating/cooling systems, knob and tube wiring, kitec plumbing, having Vermiculite insulation (or none in your walls) or asbestos; or discovering radon gas, termites or lead paint or pipes, many which are not covered in a Home Inspection. If your dwelling is of an age where you’re going to have to – out of necessity – replace major building components or address the structure of your home (which is necessary when adding a third floor), it may make more sense to go full gut direction, for a number of reasons including cost-effectiveness, boosting resale profitability, and aesthetic continuity.
Here’s some examples.
In the case of your heating system – which comprises hot water radiators dating from when your house was built in 1924 – it’s highly probable that the boiler accommodates the current size of your house. But, if building a third storey, you’ll need to add either a supplementary system (like electric baseboard heating), or upgrade the existing furnace to a larger unit and integrating new pipes up from the basement to the top floor to connect with new hot water radiators. This, in itself, will be rather onerous to execute if you’re not gutting the house. But there’s an added complication: as our summers are getting hotter, you may want to consider installing central air conditioning instead of your existing slim jim where you currently have to leave the interior doors open at night for air flow. Taking the ‘gut route’ would better allow you to install new ductwork throughout to create an HVAC system. There’s no question this is also costly, but doing this as a “start from scratch” rather than adding to existing systems makes sense logistically and is more cost efficient. Also, given I wear a realtor’s hat, I can tell you this: even though there is cost at the outset to upgrade something like the HVAC unit, upon resale, buyers will pay a premium for a residence with a central heating/cooling system, rather than one which has had its major building components addressed in a piecemeal manner (with what may appear as multiple ‘bandaid’ solutions).
This may also be the case for electrical and plumbing. If you need a new panel to accommodate new electrical lines, an electrician may find some existing knob and tube wiring. Similarly, if you require a larger water intake pipe from the street for an additional washroom, a plumber might discover old lead pipes instead of copper or pex. If this occurs, rather than trying to fix all these deficiencies as they appear (time consuming and labour intensive), consider that it’s likely more cost efficient to install all new components within a gutted shell (and while it’s gutted they can add insulation to all your exterior walls which houses that age lack). Yes all of this will cost more at the outset, but, again, it will translate into a higher resale value, provide more comfort, and potentially be more economically and environmentally efficient.
This is why you should determine if your reno will include major building components, and analyze their state before proceeding.
A further note regarding a third storey in particular: As you expand the third floor you’ll need to alter the roof by installing dormers at the front, and rebuilding it at the back and sides to gain more ceiling height. Depending on the age of your roof, this might be a good time to replace it all, along with any impacted windows. There would be cost efficiency if you replace all the existing windows in your dwelling when you add the new ones in your addition, as it will cost less than having an installer come back and forth multiple times. And it will also create more design cohesiveness and an aesthetic continuity to your home.
One of the other considerations in the full gut versus a piecemeal approach to the renovation debate is aesthetic continuity for your home, both inside and out. Think of a patchwork quilt; individual pieces which are gorgeous won’t necessarily complement each other, especially when added over time in different styles. Yes, a patchwork quilt can be unique, and reek of individuality, but when it’s property and you have the intention of making a return on your investment it’s critical you be consistent and harmonious with your material aesthetic. Keep your finishes classic rather than trendy, and stick to neutrals, to get the greatest stylistic longevity to your renovation.
If the house has a similar quality of finishes and fittings throughout that are timeless rather than trendy – so that when walking from top to bottom the place is visually cohesive and complementary – you’ll get a significantly higher premium on resale than the house which was renovated floor by floor during different times using different materials. Think about it…. if you renovate a washroom using the latest trendy tiles and fixtures, it may look amazing but it will also make the rest of the house look tired and dated. I always counsel my clients to keep any item permanently attached to the walls (like tiles and cabinetry) neutral so that it can weather changing styles and trends. I also suggest keeping most every material used in the renovation mid-grade and then add one bling item in every room that can be the showstopper (a dining room light fixture, a garland gas range, a gorgeous soaking tub, etc.). This is the only way to keep costs reasonable while keeping the house cohesive. If you channel too much of your budget into one room or area of the house – such that you have to cut corners or use cheaper materials elsewhere – overall the house will be a fail because people will see the compromises. At the same time, the one risk that accompanies doing a total gut is when the homeowner chooses finishes and fittings which are heavily on trend such that five to ten years later they already look dated. In the case of your house, which is Edwardian, I’d encourage you stick to classics like subway tiles in the washrooms, natural stone floors which have greater longevity, or higher baseboards and trim that reflect the architectural integrity of the original house.
Without question, the most critical question is whether you have the finances, and a substantial budget (and contigency fund) to tackle a transformation, or if your cash flow is limited to having to embrace a more systematic gradual piecemeal program? Really, your budget should be the ultimate guide for your project. If your budget doesn’t permit a large scale undertaking, then consult with all of your building professionals for advice on the most sensible and cost effective path forward. This is my reality, where I’ll be building a 1000 square feet of additional living space in the Upper Level Suite of my existing second and imminently new third floor, and then squirreling away savings to be able to complete the interior to the standard I desire. Fortunately I’ve got the Main Level Suite of my legal duplex already renovated (here’s a peak at My Perfect Efficient Swell Dwell Kitchen) which, although I’ll move out during the periods of demolition to being weather tight, I will be able to occupy through the interior finishing process without much issue, until such time the Upper Level Suite is habitable.
While doing a total gut is a great idea on paper, what if you ran out of money mid-project? Gasp! That would be extremely disruptive and even financially disastrous. A house that goes on the market which is unfinished reeks of financial problems and will sell at a discount. My most essential advice here is to not put yourself in this situation.
Which brings me to ask “Are you living onsite during your renovations, or are you intending to live offsite?”. If you are planning on staying put, realize that living through (like as right in the middle of) a renovation zone during a total gut is extremely stressful, even for the most stalwart DIY enthusiasts. Projects invariably run into roadblocks and often take longer than anticipated. How will you manage that? What about living without a kitchen/bathroom/privacy etc. for an extended period of time? Don’t kid yourself: there are sacrifices to be made through a renovation project, both personally and financially. Are you realistic about managing them? Here’s a post that I wrote about the side of home renovations that is often not discussed: “How To Survive Home Renovations”. It is a good idea to live offsite, if feasible, but don’t forget that that might require more expense as well, especially if you are doing a full overhaul of your home. Are these costs balanced by all the benefits that I’ve listed about approaching a project as a whole gut?
Ways To Make A Project-By-Project Renovation Work
If you do decide to take on renovations in a patchwork fashion, there are some additional considerations to ensure that your projects go smoothly. Read Brick Underground’s piece, “Can’t Upgrade All At Once? How To Plan A Piece-By-Piece Renovation”, for a good summary, and “6 Home Renovation Mistakes That Could Cost You” by USNews for some tips on what not to do. Here are two biggies:
–> Rely Heavily On The Professionals
Staying on time for multiple, smaller projects is even more important than on a big job. It’s best to rely on the expertise of professional contractors, architects and designers. Not only will work likely get done more quickly, they can lend their knowledge to help you see the “big picture” with smaller steps. Going DIY may save you some money on labour, but will cost you in other areas.
–> Be Able To Prioritize
List your projects in order of importance, logical sequence (bigger, messier jobs first) and budget capacity. This may depend on what you are actually doing (i.e. structural work would need to be done first), but list your top jobs and a time frame for each.
With a lot of Toronto housing at the age where they require renovation – here’s Why Are So Many Downtown Houses Being Renovated?, Exploring Toronto Real Estate Property Values, How Toronto Real Estate Near Queen Street – East & West – Is Climbing In Value, Gentrification, Densification, And The History Of Toronto Real Estate and Ten Toronto New Builds That Recently Sold For Between $2M And $10M) which each explore the forces which are fueling the reinvention of Toronto domiciles – a home purchase isn’t just about buying a home anymore. In many cases, you’ve got to have a wish list, budget, timeline and plan around how you can renovate that existing structure to suit your needs. With that in mind, whether your plans are to renovate the existing structure or add on to the building, the above guidelines should help you choose the correct path for renovation.
In addition to having decades of experience navigating Toronto real estate, I have lots of personal experience in home renovations, so can lend a real-life, unique point of view. Check out my adventures in these projects:
On elevating my brick and beam loft in Little Italy –> Rejuvenating The Button Factory Loft
On transforming an 1880s manse in Charlottetown, PEI –> The Tales Of Upper Hillsborough
A summary of my –> Best Of Urbaneer: Style And Design
Or peruse my blog category called House And Home!
Are you apprehensively about to embark on home renovations, but unsure where to start? Are you daunted by the time, money and relationship pressures that can come with such a project? At urbaneer.com, we consider all parts of your homeowner experience – from all dimensions and vantage points. Our experience and success means that we have sage, prudent and practical advice to dispense, to assist you to achieve housing harmony.
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Steven Fudge, Sales Representative
& The Innovative Urbaneer Team
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*Love Canadian Housing? Check out Steve’s Student Mentorship site called Houseporn.ca which focuses on architecture, landscape, design, product and real estate in Canada!