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Reno Tips to Save Your Sanity, Money and Relationship, Part 2

This is part two of our new advice series called Tips from the Pros, where we ask the city’s top architects, interior designers and developers to share their renovation secrets, horror stories and most memorable ‘make it work’ moments

By Tory Healy


This week, we hear from three superstar architects: Vanessa Fong, whose own home Little Portugal is a beautiful union of the old and the new, Robert Kastelic – one half of the celebrated firm AKB – whose restyling of a Bennington Heights bungalow made it flat-out modern, and Luc Bouliane, who transformed a brownstone in Leslieville from boring to impressive from every angle. Here are their top tips on keeping cool during one of life’s most trying of times: the dreaded home renovation.  

What is the most overlooked aspect of a renovation, or something that always seems to surprise homeowners?

Vanessa Fong: The term “open concept” and the misunderstanding of how much structural work must be done to an existing house to achieve “open concept”. There is also the ‘snowball’ effect that homeowners often overlook. Removing a wall isn’t simply removing a wall….it also means all the surfaces adjacent to that wall are effected.

Robert Kastelic: We find that clients are often surprised by the cost of the “invisible” elements of a reno, such as foundations, underpinning, drain work, electrical and mechanical – the big-ticket items that happen behind the walls and between the floors.

Luc Bouliane: In my experience, the aspect of a renovation that is most overlooked by homeowners is the stairs. Particularly in older homes in Toronto, stairs often need to be replaced, which can have serious implications on the surrounding structure and often involves reframing surrounding spaces. If the original stairs no longer comply with current building code, you can run into issues of head height clearance between floors, and new code-compliant stairs often take up much more space than anticipated.


What part of the home should a homeowner never, ever treat as a DIY? 

VF: The more permanent aspects of the house, such as structural work. If you are going to DIY, talk to professionals for advice. Home and Garden shows don’t show you how to do things!

RK: Specialized work such as plumbing and electrical are components that you don’t want to attempt to do on your own. Major damage can result from a leak, or a potential fire can result from unregulated work.

LB: Homeowners should never try to DIY any of the infrastructure of their home. Cosmetic finishes like tiles and flooring are fine to do yourself, but leave the structure and systems to the pros. This will ensure that your home is sound, safe and properly protected from all the elements.


What is permit or building rule is worth knowing about before committing to a reno?

VF: In Toronto, many existing homes – especially in the downtown core – are already non-conforming to current city by-laws. Doing an addition or a major renovation could trigger variances, even if they are existing conditions to your house. This can add 5+ months to the municipal approvals process, which can make a difference as to when construction starts. That Fall reno could really mean a Spring start after all the approvals.

RK: Homeowners should be aware that you can’t apply for a new permit if a previous permit for your home has not been signed off by an inspector and officially closed. We have seen this happen when a client has purchased a new home and did not realize that the previous owner had an “open permit” on the house. The onus is then on the new owner to complete the work of the original permit before being issued a permit for any new work.

LB: We’ve shocked homeowners with the city’s regulations surrounding tree protection, removal and replacement. A Tree Protection deposit can reach upwards of $15,000 and a permit is often required to remove trees. Permits can take months to be approved, and could even be denied or require that a tree be placed elsewhere on the property. This could ultimately effect the design and is costly both in time and money.


What should homeowners always, always bank extra time and/or money for?

VF: Scope creep! With renos, there is always the factor of the ‘unknown’. There is always a surprise waiting behind 100-year-old walls. Have a little extra money on hand to allow for scope creep. Also, once you have the walls opened and you are under construction, it’s much easier to put in an extra pantry/faucet, sink, linen closet, etc. as trades are already mobilized. We have clients who always want that extra thing once under construction.

RK: Landscaping normally occurs near the end of a project when the construction schedule is compressed and the budget is often exhausted. We recommend keeping a good amount of money set aside and accounting for the extra time needed to ensure that the landscaping is done properly.

LB: Homeowners should always bank extra time and money for basement underpinning. The thinking is often, “We’re already doing a major renovation, let’s increase the basement ceiling height while we’re at it”, but the work required is timely, costly and complex. After excavation, adding all the required drainage and pumps, shoring, waterproofing and inspections, the cost can be high and add months to the construction timeline. We find that homeowners often underestimate the complexity of the process.


What is your advice to homeowners having difficulty deciding where to spend and where to save? 

VF: Splurge on windows and doors – they are the weakest parts of the building envelope. Having great energy efficient windows and doors can make a big difference on your energy bill as well as how comfortable you are in your space. Save on millwork – it can be replaced (or, with proper planning, be phased in) later more easily without being too invasive to the home.

RK: Spend money on the functional items that are used daily such as kitchens and plumbing fixtures. These are the type of things that will cost more in the long run to replace if you don’t buy good quality upfront. When looking for savings, we recommend not over doing it on light fixtures, the cost of which can quickly get out of hand.

LB: If homeowners are working with a tight budget and are looking to save some cash, they should consider shopping early and keeping an eye out for sales on appliances and plumbing fixtures. There’s huge opportunity for savings there if they’re diligent in their search and are willing to compromise slightly on brand or finish. Our recommendations for splurging is always on quality millwork. Millwork makes up a significant part of the design concept and, on top of being difficult and costly to replace, you really notice when, functionally, it doesn’t meet your needs.


What is the most hellish moment you’ve had during a home reno? 

VF: The worst: Dealing with crazy un-level floors, where the client did not want to level the floor joists. Everything (millwork, doors, trim, etc.) had to be MacGyver-ed around an unlevel floor. It was a PAIN!

RK: Having to cut open a roof to help an exterminator clear out a nest of carpenter ants.

LB: Our most hellish renovation moment was during a project where we were underpinning the basement. Pre-construction review of the existing conditions couldn’t determine the quality of the soil below the existing basement slab and unfortunately when we opened it up the water below the slab entered the basement. As it turns out, the house is built on a creek and removing the slab breached the water supply. Only after weeks of testing, and back-and-forth with the engineers, were we finally able to devise a solution to deal with the water and finish the foundations.


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