Setting the Priorities

We almost bought a two-storey 1,200-sq-foot brick house in a decent neighbourhood, fairly close to downtown, fairly close to a park, and Lake Ontario. But we didn’t do it. Why? Because, even though we realized that we would get more house for the neighbourhood, we realized that we would also need at least one car.

First rule of real estate is location. Now there is a handy way of gauging locations called WalkScore. More and more people are realizing the benefits of living in a walkable neighbourhood. A more active lifestyle means that you will be more likely to run errands by foot, and that will result in a lower body weight and fresher food in your pantry.

So we ended up hanging on for the worst house on one of the best streets in one of the best neighbourhoods in Toronto. The 850-sq-foot house was empty, the walls in the living room were peach. The bathroom and kitchen had unevenly laid second-rate terracotta tile flooring. The hardwood was the stuff that a splinter-removing maniac would dream of. There were hand-drawn still life paintings on the kitchen. The ceramic tile on the countertop was glossy white with thick wide grout lines in black. The worst was the finish  on long powder-coated farm sink was gone and left the sink unsealed. I did dishes in that unsealed disgusting sink for over five years.

Not many people saw the beauty behind the the first impressions, but we did. We looked into the zoning by-laws and density and had sketches done of the potential renovation before we even put in an offer on the property.

There were some major problems with the house but we knew most of what we were getting into. Most would have taken one look at the structural issues alone and would have torn the house down. But the location was fantastic. There was even a reasonably new furnace, windows and roof.

The house was built in 1907 for $200. It was flipped right after it was built. We share a driveway with the house next door. The foundation was built by digging a deep trench in the ground and filling it with concrete and stones and broken brick and bits of wood. It was a partially balloon-framed house with vinyl siding over insulbrick.

The house would have originally been heated by coal. We found the old coal shoot in the basement, and we found the old wood stove connection in the kitchen. Then the oil man came and the house was switched to an oil furnace and we found the remnants of the support for the old oil tank in the basement as well. Eventually a mid-efficiency natural gas forced-air furnace was installed in the late 1980’s.

There was some insulation in kitchen which had been renovated in the 1950’s, probably when the oil furnace was brought in and the coal furnace and wood stove was disposed of.

The first renovations that we did had nothing to do with energy efficiency. The main beam supporting the front and back halves of the house had been cut in order to bring a main heating duct up from the basement to the kitchen. We had to brace that beam with jackpoles on new foundations in the basement. The framing around the opening in the ground floor for the basement stairs was also connected to this main beam, and needed work as well. We also replaced the stairs between the first and second floor. This was an opportunity to build a strong foundation from which we can build on.

What happened next was a combination of hard work and luck. I had built a habit of looking on Craiglist and eBay for items that we needed instead of going to buy retail. One day I determined that I would look for a kitchen (because I was sick of doing dishes in the Tupperware container in the sink and trying to sterilize the black porous grout on the countertop). I went through over fifty listings on Craigslist that night even after I had narrowed down the search. A listing came up that blew mind mind. I went speechless and grabbed my husband. It was a fabulous model suite kitchen that was about to be demolished and it had dark-stained wood veneer lowers, stainless steel countertop, marble backsplash, and  aluminum-framed frosted glass uppers. There were two rows of uppers and above that a wood veneer valence and more marble. I screen-captured the floor plan from the website for the condos, drew up the plan in CAD, looked up the dimensions of the appliances, drew the elevations. When we went to see the cabinets a few days later we knew that they would fit in our existing kitchen without modification on overall length. The second row of uppers were relocated onto the other wall, and still await some custom pieces in order to complete the arrangement.

While we were renovating the kitchen we pulled out the plaster and lath, and the existing insulation. We furred out the walls and put in new mineral wool insulation, a new vapour barrier, and covered the walls in plywood to support the cabinetry. If I were to do it again, I would insulate and vapour barrier the original studs and then I would run the plumbing and electrical in the furred out areas. It would have minimized the air leakage around electrical outlets and the thermal bridging between the interior and exterior.

I know that you will distracted by the condition of more tactile areas like the paint colour and the floor finishes. You will also be concerned about the kitchen and bath, but that can be changed later.

Check the orientation of your building. For passive solar the north and south faces of the building should have higher areas of glazing, while glazing in the east and west should mostly be avoided.

When you are purchasing you should have your agent or architect check the zoning bylaw and find out if the lot is zoned residential. What is the zoning for the adjacent lots? Lot density and setbacks can restrict your own development and affect what your neighbours would be allowed to build. (Imagine a twenty-storey building being built next door and you living in it’s shadow.

Look for good orientation, structure, and location. Try and buy the best potential that you can afford.

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