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In this interview, I want to find out how someone looking for a house realized that a renovation was the only way to get into Toronto’s hyper-competitive real estate market. In 2004, Meredith Low was looking for a house in the Trinity-Bellwoods area of Toronto. She and her partner quickly saw that in order to get into their desired area, they were going to have to renovate smartly to get what they wanted. Along the way, she said that she was able to do a few simple things to get the renovation results that they wanted. In this interview, you can hear the story of what happened, and some of her tips for making it through the renovation jungle.

I’m speaking with Meredith Low, who’s a management consultant helping businesses and organizations identify and act on growth opportunities. Her recent consulting projects include clients in professional associations, media (both digital and offline), software, business information services, logistics, construction, and healthcare. Welcome, Meredith.

Meredith:            Thanks, Jeff.

Jeffrey:            Meredith, I wanted to ask you about renovation that you did in the past. One of the first questions that I wanted to ask you is, how did you realize that you were ready to do a renovation?

Meredith:            Well, in our case, we weren’t already living somewhere where it dawned on us that we needed to renovate. What we were doing was we were on a house hunt, and it was really important to us for various reasons to be in a particular neighborhood of Toronto, which meant definitely no new construction. In many, many cases, for all of the houses that we looked at, it was pretty rare that we saw something that had already been recently updated, so there were a lot of places that had old knob and tube wiring that were un-insurable, and certainly a lot of places were you just walked through and you said, oh yeah, anybody who buys this house is going to redo the kitchen set, or this bathroom has got to go, or whatever. So it was pretty rare in that house hunt for us to go through a house and say, yeah, this is in move-in condition. It was a pretty competitive market, so we were often walking through houses with other potential buyers. It was pretty clear that everybody was kind of measuring it and asking about load-bearing walls and that kind of thing. It was pretty clear from the get-go in our house hunt for our first home that we were going to wind up renovating.

Jeffrey:            In that house hunt, did you consider alternatives to renovating? I guess what I mean here is, maybe purchase something which suited your needs a bit more, maybe you have to spend a little bit more money?

Meredith:            What was interesting was that I think we would have had to change neighborhoods for that, just because we were looking in sort of the Little Italy, Little Portugal area of Toronto, which is where we wound up buying. Really there was almost nothing, I can think of maybe one or two homes that were listed as already renovated and move-in condition. Just to put it in perspective, when we looked at the house that we wound up buying, the listing real estate agent stood on the floor in the living room and bounced up and down on it and said, yeah, you’re going to have to replace this. We saw lots of places that had leaks in the basement that nobody had even mopped up that day. The most memorable place that we saw actually was a place that had no sink in the bathroom. That was quite something, that place was quite a dump. Also to put in perspective, we looked at and seriously considered one house that I don’t know if it got demolished. I mean, it was completely uninhabitable when we looked at it. There was a bathtub in the hallway that they’d sort of removed and never taken down the stairs. So we were really game for a pretty big renovation, but it was just really clear given the housing stock that we were looking at, there were a lot of places that just to have a functional kitchen for instance, you need to do some serious repairs, and given how long it had been since anything had been done to that house, you might as well redo the kitchen, if you’re going to have to redo the cabinets.

Jeffrey:            Absolutely. That’s a good segue to our next question. What were your sources of information that helped you to understand what was going to be involved, and did you do anything online that helped you understand what the potential scope or time and budget items were going to be?

Meredith:            Yeah you know, it’s an interesting question. I was thinking about, how did I know anything about anything? Certainly I talked to a lot of people. I had a good friend who’d renovated a house. He bought a big house, lived in it with roommates, and then renovated it and split it into suites. So he stayed in the house I was living at while that was happening, and then once he had the place split into suites, he moved into one, and then I rented a suite from him. So I’d sort of had a ride in the passenger’s seat for a big renovation that somebody did by themselves, and I had a really good sense of where he got his information. Every so often I’d go with him to a tile store or something like that. So, I had more of that hands-on experience than I would have had otherwise, which was really, really handy. This was eight years ago now, so there wasn’t that much available online, and that wasn’t a really huge source, What I did do though was I read a lot of decor magazines. I’m not so much an architectural digest kind of gal. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do anything quite that exciting, but certainly a lot of the other magazines like Canadian House and Home and Style at Home and so on, and any renovation issue that a magazine like that was going to put out, you can be sure I was going to buy it to get a sense of how that all worked. I think it was the culmination of seeking all of that information and having that friend go through that, where I saw first hand how he made trade-offs around the budget, and how he really hid decision fatigue. You know at a certain point, you’re looking at all of this tile and you’re just like, I don’t know. What color should the hardwood be? Oh god, I don’t know. Running into that kind of exhaustion level was really instructive for me, so I was really interested in smart renovation, low-cost renovation, and fairly simple renovation. That’s the kind of information that I sought out, but it was mostly hard copy. I think now I’d be online a lot, but at that time it was very much hard copy.

Jeffrey:            I see, and that is interesting because it sounds like some of your priorities were, like you said, low-cost and smart. Were there any other priorities in terms of what you were looking for to get out of your renovation that you sized up right at the onset of the process

Meredith:            Well it turned out that what we were really looking for was really good quality in the renovation. That came up a little bit when we were house hunting. There were a few places that had had some renovation done, but not fully. In a lot of cases even I could tell that it was kind of slap-dash, right? They sort of slap on a little drywall in order to list the house. So one of the benefits, one of the things that I loved about us doing the renovation ourselves, contracting it out, let’s be clear here, but getting to renovate the house as opposed to buying it already renovated was really being able to see into the guts and make sure it was really high-quality renovation that we were making smart decisions. So that was important, it was important to me to be fairly energy-efficient. To do it over again, I would make that more of a priority. If I were going to do another renovation, I’d want to do a really green reno, partly because I found it so horrifying how much stuff got thrown out in my renovation, how much stuff got hauled away from my house. There’d been some really bizarre choices made in this house. We’d bought a house that was built in 1895, and some just truly strange things had been done to it. I would say that just a set of really wise choices. I think also the fact that we looked at a lot of houses before we bought and then renovated made us smarter about some of those choices. I mean, some people put in some really neat bathrooms, really cool stuff, but only really cool for them. Decisions made were I guess these particular people don’t really care about taking showers, so there’s no shower in the main bathroom, things like that. That really stirred me away from quirky. I was really interested in something that was going to be really functional. Even though we’re still in the house eight years later, it’s not like we were looking to flip it, but not so much resell value, but sort of ongoing overtime usability of the house, whether it’s us or somebody else living in it, is more how I would put that. So I was really interested in functionality.

Jeffrey:            OK, fantastic. Next question, did you work with a design professional, either interior designer or architect? Related to that, how did you find your contractor, and what was an important aspect of the relationship between you and the contractor?

Meredith:            Well no, we didn’t work with a designer or an architect. It’s entirely possible that the next person who buys this house and takes apart our renovation walls will do exactly the kind of head-shaking that we did when we did it, but no, we got away without using a designer or an architect. We used a contractor who had been a contractor for my in-laws over the last few decades, and we were really lucky that he was available. It was just turned out that he was able to sort of slot us in. I think his team was maybe pulling double shifts while they were doing our renovation, because our renovation was small for the kind of work that they do, so that was great. The nice thing about that in terms of that working relationship is that this guy has got 30 years of experience, he’s done a lot of renovation from this size on up, and he really brought that all to bear. He gave us really, really good advice. He did things like, for instance, at one point we took a bedroom and turned it into a bathroom, and we wound up with this sort of box with no existing plumbing in it of course, and we had to figure out how the layout of the bathroom was going to work. The contractor basically said, well I have a bathroom that’s just about the same dimensions. Why don’t you come to my house and take a look at it? So that kind of thing was incredibly useful, really, really a great working relationship. So we were predisposed to trust him because of the working relationship that he’d had with my in-laws over the years. They’d done multiple renovations with him of varying sizes, and they knew that he really stood by his work and would come back later to deal with any changes or issues or anything that arose, not that they did because of quality, but just as things happened. We were very, very lucky to have that trust, that working relationship with our contractor. That said, we were there every day pretty much, just to say hi and check in and make sure that we weren’t holding anything up. Certainly with a contractor that I didn’t know, I’d be comfortable doing that just to make sure that they were there.

Jeffrey:            Yes, I understand. So the last thing that I want to ask is, what was your biggest frustration about the whole process? If you have one, what would it be?

Meredith:            That’s a good question. I think in retrospect, the biggest frustration I have is with a couple of decisions that I made that seemed like good decisions at the time, because we threw in quite a few things that were kind of may-as-wells, as one does, but we were pretty on-budget the whole renovation. We ripped out our whole main floor except for the kitchen, oddly. In this neighborhood a lot of people move in, and the one thing that they have to do is the kitchen. In our case it was kind of the other way around, although the kitchen floor still gives me nightmares from time to time, and maybe we should just do that. But anyway, we ripped out the whole first floor and much of the second floor and did things like put closets into rooms that had never had closets before, and created this bathroom and so on. We had one of the houses that they said some knob and tube wiring, and really they had one plug-in that wasn’t knob and tube, and everything else was knob and tube, so we had to rewire the whole house and things like that. So we got a few surprises, but considering we did all of that, it was still under six figures, which was kind of amazing in retrospect. There were just a couple of points where we just pulled back, a couple of walls that we didn’t replace, and given that we put in the only insulation that’s ever been put into this house, I do wish we’d done that. I think I overestimated our ability to go back into renovation projects later, to say, oh yeah, we can do that later, that’s not such a big job. Really, anything that involves ripping out a wall and moving out of a room even for a couple of days, that’s a big job once you’re living in a house. So were a few things that honestly my frustration is that I wish we’d just spent a couple of extra grand and just gotten a couple more things done.

Jeffrey:            Yes I see, because once you’re not in the renovation mindset anymore, it’s very difficult to get back in there and think about the dust and the disruption.

Meredith:            Oh yeah, absolutely, and taking things down and all of that kind of thing. So honestly, we haven’t touched any of those things, and that’s exactly the kind of thing that somebody in 10 years is just going to roll their eyes at, like what do you mean they didn’t do this wall? But overall, we wound up quite happy. I think we made quite good decisions, and it was completed pretty much at the budget we expected and pretty much around the time we expected, if I remember correctly, although it’s been eight years, maybe I’m sugar-coating it a bit.

Jeffrey:            Well, fantastic. It’s great to hear about your experiences, and that’s really helpful for other people planning a renovation, trying to understand really what’s involved with the process. Those little things, time and budget, are still some of the primary things which our clients have concerns about that we try to take all steps to provide some certainty around that and have them get the end result which they really expect. Meredith, I’d really like to thank you for your time, and I really appreciate it. Hopefully if you ever have to do another renovation, you’ll have as good luck as you had on the last one.

Meredith:            Thanks, I really hope so. I think we were lucky.

Jeffrey:            Fantastic. All right, thank you.

Meredith:            Thanks, Jeff.

Jeffrey:            Thanks for listening, and for more helpful tips on negotiating the renovation jungle, sign up for our newsletter at www.incited.ca/contact-us or at the bottom of this page.


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