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Let the demolition begin Follow along as one family lives through the ultimate home adventure -- full-scale renovation

1,096 words
11 April 2003
The Globe and Mail
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This is the first instalment of a weekly series chronicling the major renovation of a home in the Old Mill area of west Toronto. Homeowner Catherine Erdle will be giving us weekly updates until the job is completed sometime in July -- she hopes!

'I know lots of couples who have split up because of the stress of renovating," says my friend Hannah. "Be careful."

We've just started a major renovation on a 1936 home we bought last year in the west end of Toronto.

I'll tell you the secret to a stress-free renovation. First, you need loads of money -- like the high-powered executives I know of who made millions in stock options. They simply hired one of the top -- and most expensive -- contractors in the city to completely gut a midtown mansion. They left all design decisions to a high-society interior designer. They told her to have everything in place -- new furniture, dishes in the cupboards, linens in the closets -- when they moved in.

Unfortunately, we can't afford that stress-free route. But we can afford -- just barely, thanks to low interest rates -- to stay in our existing home until the work on our new place is done.

We thought we were so clever asking for a six-month closing when we bought the home last June. We figured that would give us plenty of time to plan the renovation. After our closing on Dec. 30, a contractor would start in January, and we'd move in by the summer, so the kids could enjoy the pool in the backyard.

Well, it's April and we're just starting now -- four months behind schedule. Rule No. 1: Everything takes much longer than you expect.

Our delay was caused by an architect whom we ultimately fired. "Don't hire an architect to do your plans," warned our real estate agent, who's done many renovations. "They cost a fortune. You can have plans drawn up much cheaper by an architectural technologist."

But we wanted a beautiful design, and we'd admired the work of this architect. With his wavy, shoulder-length hair, sock-less loafers, white linen pants and shirt, and an ascot, he certainly looked the part of The Artiste. We hired him last July, and got the first preliminary design in mid-September. We told him our budget was $300,000. His fee would be 10 per cent of the construction costs, paid at various stages of the project.

The house is a wreck. Virtually nothing has been done to it since it was built almost 70 years ago, with the exception of an ugly two-storey solarium stuck like a boil onto the back of this lovely stone and stucco home. The dining room and kitchen smell like cat pee. The windows barely close. The kitchen had a blue shag carpet and ghastly blue and green hand-painted, wonky cabinets.

But it's on a quiet street we love, has four bedrooms (our three daughters will each have their own room now), a pool, and a beautiful ravine. We will make the house beautiful.

Each week, the architect returned with a new drawing, based on our suggestions. He decided we had to add five feet to the back of the house -- the maximum because of the pool -- to get the extra space we needed. Those five feet would give us space for an island in the kitchen, a larger family room, and an en suite in the master bedroom.

As the drawings became increasingly elaborate, I became increasingly alarmed. "Are you sure this is still within our budget?" I'd ask. He'd throw his hands into the air and say, "Leave that to the contractors." I started to worry. After all, we were moving interior walls, putting plumbing where plumbing had never been, changing the roofline. I thought of friends whose renovations had hit the $500,000 mark -- and it seemed as if this was about the same level of work.

With the drawings in hand, I contacted five recommended contractors about how much this would cost. This was a month before Christmas -- a horrible time for these overworked men. We never heard from two of them. But the estimates from the others came in at around $500,000 -- a whopping $200,000 over budget. We fired the architect.

Rule No. 2: When you check an architect's references, ask if the final design came within budget. (The one question we didn't think to ask.)

I found an architectural technologist to take over the project. The goal: eliminate $200,000 from our plans. This took weeks, with lots of discussion about our priorities.

Ultimately, we eliminated about $100,000 from our costs -- mostly by simplifying the elaborate design of the rear wall and eliminating a turret.

With the working drawings complete, we went to three contractors for pricing. I know it takes days to prepare the quotes -- and I feel sorry for those we didn't choose, but it all came down to price.

The contractor we chose simply gave us the most reasonable price. The two partners have known each other since they were kids building sand castles in kindergarten. They've been great friends ever since -- and have built houses together for the past 17 years. We hope we've made the right choice.

The next steps were all bureaucratic. Apply for preliminary zoning. Go to the committee of adjustment to get approval for two minor zoning variances: the addition is about one foot too close to the property line; and we need permission to use some of the too-small garage for living space. Get approval from the Conservation Authority, because our property backs onto a ravine. Apply for a building permit -- as well as a plumbing permit.

And approval from the city arborist -- we can't hurt any trees on the property. These steps added months -- and many trips to the photocopy shop, including one memorable visit when they lost the main floor.

We finally applied for the building permit on Valentine's Day. It's mid-April, and we're still waiting for it.

But we're told we can start tearing out non-structural elements. Let the demolition begin. Every week I'll report on our progress. Wish us luck -- and I hope our marriage lasts.