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Planning to do a renovation on a fixer-upper is a very savvy way to get the house you want in a neighborhood that might ordinarily be out of your price range. In this interview, you’ll hear how my neighbor, James, wanted to buy a house in a good neighborhood that was a fixer-upper, so they would get exactly their choice of fixtures and finishes, as well as being able to get something that looked like they wanted.

The other benefit of doing their own renovation was getting to see the construction quality and workmanship used on what was behind the walls. Wait until you hear about what he has to say about the amount of work and complexity in his renovation, and why in retrospect, using an architect to help them manage the entire process would have helped them actually save money and time. Let’s have a listen.

 Jeffrey:             I’m talking with my neighbour, James, about his renovation that he completed approximately four years ago. Welcome, James.

 James:             Hi, Jeff. How are you?

 Jeffrey:             Great. Thank you. James, I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about your renovation and some of the things which led up to it.

 James:             We were living in a condo in the Toronto area. We always wanted to buy a house in a good neighbourhood with plenty of good schools. We also wanted to buy a house that needed a lot of work, basically a fixer-upper. That way, we had full choice on what to do inside the house, how it would look, and the products we chose. That’s exactly what we did. It was a lot of work, but in the end, I think it was well worth it.

Jeffrey:             Fantastic. Now, did you ever consider alternatives to renovating a property?

James:             I guess we could have bought a place that was fully renovated, but then we wouldn’t have control over the entire process, the products chosen. Plus, if you’re buying a place that’s already renovated, to a certain degree, you’re getting a cat in the bag. You don’t know what’s been done to it, the quality of the workmanship, the products used behind the walls, electrical installation, and stuff like that. Really, that wasn’t a choice for us.

                        Doing it in stages, because of the size of the undertaking, was a full renovation, top to bottom. It was plumbing, structural, electrical, windows, stairs. Doing it stage-by-stage, living in the house wasn’t an option. In fact, the only thing we left that was original was the front door.

Jeffrey:             I remember that you guys spent quite a lot of time going in and taking out pretty much all of the existing finishes in the house. That was because the house was pretty much in its original condition to the 1920’s, 1930’s house. Is that correct?

James:             It was. It was kind of a shame to take all that stuff out. It had been, I hate to use the word neglected, but it had been neglected for about 60 years. The previous gentleman didn’t really put much money into the house. It was almost beyond livable conditions, at least for us. We wanted to start a family in a couple years. The house had no insulation, original windows, no air conditioning. That wasn’t an option of living in its current state.

Jeffrey:             What were some of your sources of information which helped you understand what was going to be involved in a renovation?

 James:             I’ve always been familiar with renovations. My family was in the business, sort of. I thought I knew what to expect in a reno, but I was wrong. It’s much more challenging than I thought. Coordinating with contractors, estimates on products, product research, dealing with the city for a permit, stuff like that. It was a bit of an awakening.

                        We did the typical research for products, which baseboards to which bathtubs and stuff like that. Online, we used homestars.com and other sources. It really wasn’t enough. I think having the benefit of hindsight right now, we needed somebody like a general contractor or architect to oversee the whole process for a seamless transition between stages of the reno.

                        An architect or a general contractor has that working relationship with various contractors, which a homeowner doesn’t. An architect can provide you with the benefit of understanding the entire process, and also getting you the better price, because of the working relationship.

Jeffrey:             Fantastic. Leading into the next question, did you work with any design professionals, like an interior designer, that helped you kind of get your thoughts together?

James:             We had an interior decorator, which helped us choose the colors and maybe some of the products. That was about it. With regards to the entire process, I oversaw the whole thing. It was a mistake. I can say that now. I think we originally thought the entire renovation was going to take about five months. It ended up, I think, eight and a half, with several costs overruns.

Jeffrey:             That being said, you must have had trades involved with it. How did you find your trades that worked on the project?

James:             We used Home Stars, I believe. A lot of it was word of mouth as well. I think that was our primary source. Having said that, whoever was recommended to us by other contractors and family members, we still tried to get a quote from at least three people or three tradesmen per job. That took a long time because you have to source them, find them, make an appointment, have three estimates, choose one and make sure their time schedule works for you as well. It was a lot of work, a lot of time as well.

Jeffrey:             I see. Now, what was important to you in a contractor?

James:             I think the most important thing in a contractor would be understanding our needs and understanding current technology or current products that are available out there, which was really surprising.

                        We had talked to a gentleman who was going to put in some tiles for us. I was telling him about these products that are available that are sort of cutting edge, and a lot of contractors are using it. He didn’t know what I was talking about. I was like, “If you’ve been in the business for so long, how come you’re not up to the current standards that are being used out there?”

                        It was really surprising for me. When I mentioned some of the new stuff that’s out there, he said, “Well, I’ve been doing this for 20 years. It will work fine.” That’s not an attitude I looked for. I wanted somebody who was professional, who showed up on time, and who understood the current trends and possibilities of working outside his limits.

Jeffrey:             Interesting. That is a good segue into the next question. What were your priorities going into the renovation?

James:             I think our priorities were using top quality products within our budget and maximizing livable space. Our house is very small. We wanted to maximize livable space by using a smart layout and products that can maximize livable space, and of course, allow both for efficient living and green living.

Jeffrey:             Nice. I recall that you did a few things which helped you increase the green content or green technologies in your house. Can you talk a bit about a couple of those?

James:             We decided to use very efficient windows, high efficiency furnace, and as well, spray foam insulation. There are various types of spray foam insulation. We did a lot of research on this. I don’t remember the specifics anymore, but we went with the more expensive option, which was sort of good for the environment.

Jeffrey:             Was it was soy based?

James:             That’s right. That’s the word I was looking for. It was a soy based spray foam insulation.

Jeffrey:             That was good. We’ve talked about the priorities. Were you happy with the outcome? Now that it’s been a couple of years and you’ve had a chance to live with the renovation.

James:             The overall product at the end, we were very happy with it. Certain things I think I would have done differently, but I’m happy with it. It was a lot of work, much, much more than I thought. I would have gone with a professional, if I were to do it again. Overall, we’re very happy. Everything is the way we like it. Nothing breaks down. It’s all new. We can just enjoy the benefit now.

Jeffrey:             Nice. The final question is: What was your biggest frustration about the whole process? I think you’ve touched on that a little bit, but maybe you could elaborate a little bit about what your biggest frustration was.

James:             Sadly, it was a lack of professionalism from some of the contractors. Not showing up for an appointment, poor quality workmanship, not understanding the products that are available out there. We saw that from a number of people.

Jeffrey:            That’s given us a really good sense of the size and the scope of your renovation In terms of when you’re contemplating something that’s so large, like you say, engaging a professional to help you manage the whole process would definitely save you a lot of time, because of the size and scope of what’s going on and how many moving pieces there are. It’s a very complicated process.

James:             Exactly. The scope is enormous and coordinating everything. I think a homeowner just doesn’t have the understanding of the time for it and the working relationships with the contractors. In the long run, you might pay more for a professional, but you’ll save in the long run by just paying somebody a little more to help you out.

Jeffrey:             That’s fantastic. Okay, James. Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. And best of luck on your current project that you’re working on.

James:             Thanks, Jeff.

Jeffrey:             For more helpful tips on negotiating the construction jungle, visit www.incited.ca/signup, where you can sign up for our newsletter. Thanks for listening.

So, what do you think ?