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Globe Real Estate

Up on the roof

Slate roofs are beautiful and last generations. But cedar is natural, has a classic look and costs a lot less

August 29, 2003
All material copyright Thomson Canada Limited or its licensors. All rights reserved.

David, a lawyer I know in England, has one of those centuries-old manor houses one drools over in design magazines. Rolling hills, a dining room larger than the entire main floor of our house, and a carriage house with several Rolls Royces.

One of his favourite topics of conversation is the slate roof of his sprawling house. The slate tiles have been on the roof for hundreds of years, and they're covered with moss. He loves the look of the moss-covered roof, and will do anything he can to preserve it.

From time to time, a slate tile cracks and has to be replaced. It's hard to find newly quarried stones in the size and thickness he needs. So he scours the countryside looking for old buildings that have collapsed under the weight of these heavy stone slabs -- and buys and stores them for future use. Best of all, the stones that have been on roofs for hundreds of years already have a lovely patina of old age.

But the patina isn't enough for him. Once he replaces a slate tile, it looks out of place because it isn't covered with moss like the rest of the roof. So he climbs up a ladder with a pail of milk, pours it on the new tile, and within weeks it too is gloriously moss-covered.

Slate is becoming increasingly popular as a roofing material on this side of the pond, but is prohibitively expensive for most homeowners. The material is costly, it takes skill to install and repair, and often roof rafters need to be reinforced to carry the weight. However, it's a beautiful-looking roof that can easily last more than 100 years. Even in our harsh Canadian climate, it can last several generations. In fact, the Globe Real Estate section recently ran a feature on a 137-year-old mansion in Stratford -- known as the White House, for its similarity to that other White House in Washington -- which is undergoing a large-scale renovation; the only part of the house that didn't need updating was the original slate roof.

Here's why most people don't choose slate: A slate roof costs up to $30 a square foot to install. Compare that with a standard three-tab strip shingle ($4 to $5), a fancier architectural shingle ($5 to $7.50) and cedar ($11).

David Tong of Avenue Road Roofing says slate roofs are popping up on many homes in Toronto, especially in Forest Hill and Rosedale. He says they look especially good on Victorian-style homes, or "any roof lines that are steep that show prominently to the curb. Most people don't purchase it for the longevity. They purchase it for the look."

I would have loved a slate roof for the stone home we're renovating, but our budget didn't allow for it. Patrick, our contractor, said this is one area where we could definitely save thousands of dollars, by choosing a designer-series architectural shingle instead of a natural material. I considered this option for several days -- and drove around looking at many different shingle styles. But when builder John told me that they discovered -- under three layers of shingles -- that the original roof was cedar, my mind was made up. I love the look of cedar, and decided it was worth it to splurge to get the look I want.

"The roof line is part of the architectural design of the house, so you don't want to put up a crappy shingle," says Jay O'Neill, owner of Superior Roofing, the roofing company used by our contractors. He selected the top-grade cedar shingle, and hand-nailed each piece in place rather than using a nail gun. "Pressure is very important when you install a cedar roof. If the nail goes in too far, it might not settle properly. It could warp or crack. If the nail doesn't go in far enough, overlapping cedar won't stay flat."

Mr. Tong says he sees a lot of improperly installed cedar roofs that look terrible -- with excessive buckling and curling -- after only five or six years. He says to get 20 years out of a cedar shingle, it's important to create an air cavity between the roof deck and the cedar, by either cross-strapping the roof or applying corrugated plastic sheeting called Cedar Breather to create a ½-inch air space. "The whole key to cedar is breathability."

Our new cedar roof is going up now -- and it's beautiful. There's just one problem. It's very orange. I know it will eventually weather to a lovely shade of grey, which will look perfect with the stone façade. But for now, it's shockingly bright.

I call my friend Debbie, who was the first on her block to get a cedar roof just over 10 years ago, to find out how long I have to wait for the cedar to weather. "It's bright for months and months," she says. I moan. "Don't worry. It's one of the things in nature that remedy itself. You just have to be patient."

She tells me when her roof was first installed, she too was shocked at how orange it looked -- especially against her red brick house. "Every time I drove down the street and saw the house with the glaring orange roof, I kept praying for bad weather to age it. I even wished the tree out front would grow faster to cover the roof top. It was dazzling in the sunlight, requiring sunglasses to look at it. Total strangers would ask me, 'What have you done? How long is it going to look like that? Are you going to cover it with anything?' "

So I have to be patient, and eventually the roof will have the look I want. At least I don't have to climb on top of the house with a pail of milk


Globe Real Estate

Decisions, decisions

A ravine lot is peaceful and offers lots of wildlife, things that help take your mind off construction problems. But those red scribbles on the design drawings keep nagging. They can't be good

September 5, 2003
All material copyright Thomson Canada Limited or its licensors. All rights reserved.

Stressed out by months of rising costs, construction delays, and daily calls from contractors, I'm a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. So a friend and I decided to escape to a cottage for several days with our children. Just to show you how stressful a home renovation is, being in a cottage with five extremely boisterous children was the most restful time I've had since we bought the house.

I returned to a flurry of activity. The heating contractors are working furiously, installing shiny ductwork everywhere. One room in the basement looks like the mechanical room of the Starship Enterprise, with eight rows of ducts running side by side, and then veering off in different directions. The builders are working right behind them, framing in the ductwork in preparation for drywall.

The plumber is installing the bath drains and getting ready to add the shower and bath controls. He asked where I want the outside tap. All the workers laughed when I pointed to the southwest corner of the house.

"Of course, it's nowhere near any plumbing," chuckled builder John. So the plumber has to run about 40 feet of copper piping through the basement ceiling to get to my selected spot.

Contractor Jerry asked me to meet with him to go over the electrical plans. I figured it would take about 30 minutes. Five-and-a-half hours later we were done. "Finished so soon?" I asked, looking at my watch. "Actually, that was pretty quick. I spent a lot of time yesterday going over everything," he said.

Why did it take so long? Well, we had to discuss the placement of light switches, plugs and the location and type of lighting in every room and hallway in the house. In some cases, we need two-, three- or four-way switches, meaning the lights can be turned on and off from that many locations. I learned that the building code calls for plugs to be placed a maximum six feet from every corner, and along every 12 feet -- whether you need one there or not. "That's because they don't want you using extension cords. A fire hazard," said Jerry. Deciding where to put plugs meant figuring out where furniture would go, something I haven't thought much about while fixating on construction worries. In the kids' rooms, for instance, that meant figuring out where the beds, night tables and desks would go. In the kitchen, it meant thinking about things like where I'd put my food processor.

The family room had its own electrical challenges. Because it's one large, open space, some furniture will be away from walls, so we'll need floor plugs. And figuring out where to put them involved some immediate design decisions about where I'd have tables and lamps. (I'm not even sure how long my sofa is, so this wasn't easy.) I also immediately had to decide whether to use pot lights or standard fixtures in each location. That's because each requires a different kind of box.

Do I want lighting over the bathroom mirror, or sconces beside it? I don't know. I haven't looked for lighting yet. I'm told I have to find something quickly, as the electrician will start soon.

Then we move outside. Do I want a doorbell? Do I want to keep the old fixture by the front door? If so, it needs a new box to bring it up to code. Motion sensor lights? Garden lights? Other outdoor lights? Where do I want the switch for the outdoor lights? Should the switch be both upstairs and downstairs? Should all the lights work on one switch, or should we have different switches for different areas?

I showed him where I'd like coach lights on the rear wall. Will they be pointing up or down? That affects the positioning of the box that contains the wiring. So I raced out to Canadian Tire and grabbed four boxes of coach lights I like (why can't all decisions be this quick?) and took them back to the house.

It's a good thing I had that break at the cottage. Otherwise, having to make so many decisions all at once would definitely have driven me bonkers.


Globe Real Estate

Connecting with the wired world 

Hiding lots of wires behind the drywall is a way of 'future-proofing' a home. The electronic possibilities after you've done that are endless

September 12, 2003
All material copyright Thomson Canada Limited or its licensors. All rights reserved.

My children are endlessly amused by my complete ineptitude on the computer. They have to help me constantly. It took me months to learn how to send e-mail attachments, and I still can't copy documents. But I'm learning.

I know even less when it comes to electronic equipment like stereos, DVDs and high-tech TVs. I'll never figure out the difference between a woofer and a tweeter, and the technology behind plasma and LCD televisions, frankly, doesn't interest me in the slightest. As long as it works well and looks good, I'm happy. I'll never be a high-tech junkie.

Needless to say, I'm the last person on earth who should be entrusted with making high-tech wiring decisions for the house we're renovating.

So our contractors, Patrick and Jerry, suggested I speak to Paul Cosentino, a custom installation co-ordinator at Trutone Electronics in Mississauga. When Patrick and Jerry recently renovated their own homes, they called in Mr. Cosentino to prepare wiring diagrams for computer lines and surround sound for home theatres.

Mr. Cosentino said the first thing he does is "talk about what you use now versus what you'd like to have in the future." I explained our wiring needs: computers in each of the bedrooms, as well as in the library and basement recreation room; a TV and stereo system in the family room with speakers in the adjoining kitchen; and possibly a home theatre setup in the basement.

Even though we're not planning to buy all the computers, TVs and stereo equipment for many years, he said now's the time to wire for the future. He calls it future-proofing. "Before the drywall goes up, we need to get our wires in place," he said. "Wire's cheap. After the fact, it just makes doing it harder."

He said that wiring a house for things like computers and surround sound will increase its value. Even if a homeowner hasn't gotten around to installing that theatre system, when it comes time to sell, the fact that the room is wired is a definite plus, he said. The wires stay hidden behind drywall, and can be accessed in the future by referring to wiring diagrams or using a wire-finding gadget.

Walking through our under-construction family room and basement rec room, he asked me about furniture placement, and then suggested the ideal location for TVs, speakers (some freestanding, others in the walls and ceiling) and stereo equipment.

As soon as he saw our the rec room, he immediately pointed to one wall and said, "That's where the TV should go. A 92-inch fixed screen with a ceiling projector, or a 50- to 65-inch TV," he said. Because the largest big-screen TV available is 65 inches diagonal, he said many homeowners who want a true theatre experience are choosing larger screens -- either fixed to the wall or lowered electronically from the ceiling -- and ceiling projectors instead. He said most people choose wall screens that are about eight feet wide and five feet high. Although the sky's the limit when it comes to creating a home theatre (some projectors alone cost $100,000), he said most homeowners spend about $15,000 to $20,000, which includes either a big-screen TV or wall screen and projector, receiver, DVD player and six speakers for surround sound.

But wiring for computers and home theatres is just a small part of a 21st-century smart house. Mr. Cosentino said one customer recently spent $240,000 to create three theatre rooms, and interconnect computers, music, TVs, security and lighting at his Rosedale mansion.

Pull into the driveway, and the outdoor lights automatically come on at a predetermined setting. Press the doorbell, and all music and the eight TVs throughout the house are muted instantly. Turn on the TV or go to a photo-sized touch screen on any floor, and you can see who's at the door. From a touch pad in each room, you can control the music and lighting anywhere in the house. You can even play a different song in each of the 22 speaker-equipped rooms.

From anywhere in the home, you can adjust the heating and air-conditioning room by room. And, using his computer at work, the owner can turn on lights at home, or do a security check.

Mr. Cosentino said he worked on this house for 1½years, while it was being renovated. One room in the house, about the size of a large closet, is devoted entirely to wiring.

Although the wiring possibilities are fascinating, we're not ready for a Jetsons lifestyle. But we'll have lots of wires in the walls to meet our electronic needs for the foreseeable future. And I now know some nifty electronic jargon -- like CAT5e (computer wire), RG6 (wires for cable TV and satellite) and routers (for multiple computer connections) -- that I can use to impress my children.


Globe Real Estate

Playing the waiting game

Unforeseen problems and design changes at the start have had a domino effect, and made a mess of the construction schedule

September 19, 2003
All material copyright Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. or its licensors. All rights reserved.

'Oh!" said my friend Pat in surprise as we stepped in the front door of the home I'm renovating. "You're nowhere near done."

Sadly she's right, I thought, as we looked around at the framed-in walls, plywood floors and unfinished ceiling. This project is taking forever, and I can't imagine the day when it will all be done. This house has completely taken over my life, and I must admit I resent how much of my time it has consumed. After all, it's just a house, and in the grand scheme of things is pretty insignificant.

Yet the work must go on, and hopefully will end in the not too distant future.

All the electrical wiring and boxes for fixtures and plugs are going in now (with the added surprise that we need a new $750 electric panel). The house will start to look somewhat habitable in the next couple of weeks as the drywall goes up. So I figured we could probably plan to move in next month.

Not so, said contractor Jerry, who added up the remaining weeks on an exposed wooden column. After the drywall -- which will take a couple of weeks -- there's the installation of wood flooring, the tiling, the painting, building in the bookcases, installing the fireplace and mantel, finishing the bathrooms, the trim work -- not to mention the kitchen.

"You'll be in by Christmas," he said.

My first thought was that it's lucky we didn't list the home we're currently living in last spring, with a late summer closing. The original contract with the contractors said, "Construction time is 12 to 16 weeks." By that calculation, we should've been done by June 24 or July 22.

But everyone knows the maxim in home renovations: It always takes longer than you think it will (and it always costs a lot more, as well). So, fortunately, we decided to hold off on our plans to sell, even though that meant carrying two properties for even longer. Still, we decided that was a better option than being homeless.

Why is it taking so long? Friends assume it's because the contractors have abandoned the project for days or weeks at a time to work elsewhere. But that's not the case. There's been someone working at the house for all but one or two days ever since we started in April. In fact, one of the main reasons we chose these contractors is that they only work on one major project at a time.

So why isn't it finished by now? Well, there were many weeks at the beginning when we had to wait for a building permit. Then there were lots of costly, time-consuming surprises along the way -- like the septic system in the back yard and various structural problems throughout the house. Changes we've made to our design along the way have also added weeks. And now we're playing the waiting game with various tradesmen.

As many people probably know, specialists like plumbers, electricians, stone masons and painters work for lots of different builders. The builder lets them know weeks ahead of time when they'll be needed.

If you're not ready for them when they're ready to start, you lose your place in line. This has happened to us a couple of times.

For instance, the contractors had to turn away the stone mason when he was ready to start -- and then wait weeks until he could return. This delay has resulted in other scheduling problems: namely, the stucco guy can't start until the stone mason is done.

Fortunately, the masons arrived this past week and finished the stone wall at the back of the house. I had to order about five tons of varying shades of limestone for a mere 190 square feet of wall space. It was interesting watching stone masons Renado Moreal, Steve McDougall and Steve's brother Chris piece together the stone wall like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

First, they laid the stones out on the ground, carefully mixing grey, yellow, black and rust-coloured ones to get the right combination. The stones -- ranging from two to 35 kilograms each -- had to be hand-chiselled or cut with a diamond blade power saw so they would fit just so. Then they mortared them in place.

They added some black colouring to the mortar to give it an aged look, similar to the mortar elsewhere on the 1936 home. "Now you just have to wait for pollution to darken the stones like the front of the house," said mason Steve.

One more step done. Many more to go.


Globe Real Estate

Sometimes changing plans late in game makes sense

Move the furnace at this stage of the job? It turned out to be a surprisingly easy way to deal with an off-centre fireplace

September 26, 2003
All material copyright Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. or its licensors. All rights reserved.

Okay, I know we're not supposed to make design changes this late in the game. Everyone understands that changes cost money and delay completion. But sometimes a plan that looks good on paper suddenly doesn't make so much sense when you see it taking shape.

It all started with the fireplace in the basement rec room. Before we built the addition, this modest-sized room had an original 1936 stone fireplace centred along one wall. Once the addition made the room five feet longer, the fireplace was no longer centred. This drove me crazy, yet the cost of removing it and replacing it with something new would have been thousands of dollars.

Trying to keep costs down, I figured I'd have to learn to live with it being off-centre. I consoled myself by deciding I would balance the weight of the fireplace with a large piece of furniture or the piano along the longer stretch of wall, so it would look like we'd always intended the off-centred look.

For months, I asked every single visitor to the house the same thing: "Do you think the fireplace looks weird being off-centre?" Either they didn't have the same obsession with balance that I do, or they were trying to spare my feelings and pocketbook, but everyone agreed it looked fine just the way it was. Also, no one thought it was a good idea to tear down a 67-year-old wood-burning fireplace. Still, it continued to bother me every single time I stepped in the room. Would I ever get over this?

Then contractor Jerry called me with a brilliant suggestion. He said they'd discovered that one wall in the rec room (pretty much the only wall in the entire house that hasn't been touched yet) was rotten, and would have to be replaced. "I was thinking that we could rebuild the wall five feet into the furnace room, and then the fireplace would be centred. I know how important that is to you, and you'd get a bigger room," he said.

"But won't that be expensive? Besides, the furnace is in the way," I said.

"We have to replace the wall anyway. And it's easy to move the furnace," he said.

Who knew it was easy to move a furnace? Originally built to accommodate a monster-sized oil furnace and tank, the furnace room -- now with a compact, high-efficiency unit -- was much too large. So this idea made perfect sense, and I gave Jerry the go-ahead.

What a difference those extra five feet make to the room! The fireplace now looks absolutely perfect centred along the wall. And the room has now become a very comfortable 20 by 22 feet -- a great space for our kids and their friends.

The other major design change -- also suggested by Jerry, and also in the basement -- involved the laundry room. Ever since day one, we've kept the laundry room in its original location, at the back of the house in the basement (which is at ground level). The addition simply made it a larger room.

As this room started to take shape -- with its French doors overlooking the pool -- Jerry said what we'd been thinking. "This room is much too nice for a laundry room," he said. He suggested we put the washer and dryer in a basement storage room instead -- a better location, anyway, since it's closer to the stairs.

The bright room at the back can now become either an exercise room or a guest bedroom. Much better use of the space.

So I know I'm not supposed to change my mind at this stage. After all, changes mean more "extras" to pay for, and more construction time. But how could I resist when the changes are unquestionably for the better?


Globe Real Estate

Big chiller

At the size of most bathrooms, a walk-in fridge can hold just about anything, including a side of beef, but it doesn't come cheap

Unsigned Freelance
October 13 2003
All material copyright Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. or its licensors. All rights reserved.

After weeks of searching, I have found the perfect fridge. It holds everything. And I mean everything. Cases of pop, bottled water and beer. Huge platters of fruits and vegetables. It's even big enough to hang a side of beef.

This dream fridge is actually a refrigerated room, about the size of a typical bathroom. It's located in a new home near Edwards Gardens in Toronto.

Although most fridges have a capacity of about 20 cubic feet, this one is a whopping 245 cubic feet. Step into the refrigerated room through an insulated door, and food is within easy reach on spacious floor-to-ceiling wire shelving. No more hidden, mouldy surprises lurking at the back of a crammed fridge. No more tightly packed vegetable compartments.

Instead, the homeowners have the luxury of devoting an entire shelf to, say, a large basket of eggs, a cheese board, or a stainless-steel box filled with yogurt.

The owners -- he's an architect, she's an interior decorator, who asked not to be identified -- knew they wanted a very large fridge when they designed their new home. But the largest refrigerators on the market -- even two of them -- wouldn't have been big enough to meet their needs.

The couple entertains a lot. "There was never enough room in our old fridge for a big serving dish or a decent-sized serving platter," the architect said.

Now they have so much space that neighbours regularly bring over drinks and food that need to be kept cold before parties. Several friends are already redesigning their kitchens to accommodate a room-sized fridge. I bet this will become the next must-have feature in high-end homes.

"It works so well it's unbelievable," said the decorator. "I can put my food on big platters. I can keep anything cold. I've always got cold drinks. I can marinate things. When it comes to the holiday season, I've got space for everything, and I've got space for all my friends' things."

The architect said it is really just an extension of the cold cellar, a concept brought to Canada by European immigrants in the first half of the 20th century.

The fridge walls and ceiling are made of three-inch-thick insulated panels, made by Norbec Inc. in Quebec. A small fan on the ceiling circulates the air, which is kept at a suitably chilly 5 degrees. The motor, condenser and control panel -- together about the size of a few toolboxes -- sit on a table in the furnace room below.

The limestone floor is insulated, and has a floor drain to handle any spills.

The insulated door will soon be finished, once the owners agree on the material. He wants stainless steel. She wants a chalkboard finish. "We're still arguing about it," the decorator laughed.

"As long as you've got the space for it, it's way cheaper" than the largest, top-of-the-line, built-in fridge, the architect said.

The total cost was about $8,500. Although one can't buy a walk-in refrigerator from an appliance store, the necessary components can be purchased from various refrigeration suppliers.

Because the kitchen was designed around the walk-in fridge, you don't realize that a refrigerated room is tucked behind the walls. For frozen items, they have a freezer the size of a typical fridge in an alcove off the kitchen. Besides having the ideal fridge, the kitchen itself is well-suited for entertaining with its large Thermador gas stove, two Miele dishwashers, an undercounter Whirlpool ice maker and a 13-foot granite-topped island.

"It's my dream kitchen," the decorator said.

When I got home from seeing this spectacular fridge, I immediately pulled out our floor plans for the home we're renovating. Was there any way we too could have a walk-in refrigerator?

Unfortunately, not a chance. We simply don't have the space to spare. Too bad.

Now I have to choose a more mundane fridge.

I've already decided that I must have one with a freezer at the bottom (called a bottom-mount). We have a bottom-mount in our current home; with the fridge portion at eye-level, it's much easier to find the things you use most often, and it's easier on the back, too.

Rather than select a standard-depth fridge, which juts out considerably from the counter and cabinets, I want a built-in look, with custom-made doors to match the kitchen cabinets. Here I have two choices: Either a "built-in" fridge, which is virtually flush with counters and cabinets; or a "cabinet-depth" fridge (which usually measures 27 to 28 inches deep -- slightly more than a 24-inch cabinet). There's a huge difference in price. Built-ins start at around $6,000, while the "cabinet-depth" fridges cost around $3,500.

"Homeowners redesigning a kitchen often want a built-in refrigerator that fits flush with cabinetry," according to the July issue of Consumer Reports magazine. "For that they pay top dollar...A less costly option is increasingly in demand: a cabinet-depth, freestanding fridge made to look like a built-in. . . Once installed, 'cabinet depth' models will be almost flush with your cabinetry. It's the 'built-in' pro look for less." In its Quick Picks section, Consumer Reports recommends the Amana cabinet-depth, bottom-freezer.

It'll never hold cases of pop, huge platters, or a side of beef, but I think it'll be just fine.


Globe Real Estate

Basement blues

Ground water seeping into a house's foundation can rot the concrete block and wreck new drywall. Dealing with it adds to renovation costs but, if ignored, it will get progressively worse

October 10, 2003
All material copyright Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. or its licensors. All rights reserved.

One step forward, two steps back. That's how it feels this week, as my elation at seeing the drywall go up (at last!) is considerably tempered by yet another problem with the house.

We need to waterproof the home -- and this involves digging a deep trench around the perimeter.

We've known we had a problem with the basement for quite some time. In fact, from day one, the basement smelled very damp. In areas where the concrete block foundation was exposed, there were signs of efflorescence -- the white flaky powder caused by mineral-rich ground water making its way through the porous blocks. In some rooms, the walls looked and felt damp.

In other spots, we discovered that entire walls were rotten due to moisture.

Initially, we thought the problem was with the eavestrough downpipes, which went straight into the ground. We repositioned them to flow away from the house. Although this helped dry the wall somewhat, the dampness remained.

While digging the foundation for the addition, the contractors found that the home's original weeping tiles were no longer working. The tiles, which actually aren't tiles but hollow clay pipes, were completely filled with wet sand.

So, even though I wasn't exactly overjoyed with the idea of spending even more money on the house, I realized this was a problem that couldn't be ignored.

I called in several waterproofing companies, and was surprised that each one had such different opinions on how to solve the problem. One suggested waterproofing from the inside, so we wouldn't have to disturb the garden or stone walkway. (But is that such a great idea? The water will still come through the foundation walls.)

Another fellow, whose price was $6,000 less than our highest quote, said we should just dig out and waterproof those areas where the walls look the wettest. (But won't that just make the water go elsewhere?)

Angelo Garaci, owner of Watertite Waterproofers, made the most sense with his solution. He explained that houses are under constant hydrostatic pressure -- which means water's always trying to get in. He said it's like wearing a rubber glove and sticking your arm in a bucket of water; the pressure will make the glove cling to your hand.

So the secret to waterproofing is to relieve that pressure, ideally by eliminating all soil contact with the walls. He said they'd dig a trench around the house (except the addition, which has already been waterproofed) and repair, coat and then protect the walls with a polymer plastic membrane so that no soil would touch the walls. Any water that reached the new membrane would collect in PVC weeping tiles, encased in a filter, at the gravel-bedded footing and drain into the storm system of the house.

Mr. Garaci, 37, who started working for his brother's contracting company as a teenager, realized a good business opportunity when he started Watertite Waterproofers eight years ago. The home renovation boom was well underway, and he saw that homeowners were unwittingly creating water problems by fixing up their basements.

In an uninsulated or poorly insulated basement, enough heat escapes through the foundation walls to keep the soil adjacent to the walls frost-free throughout the winter. However, once that basement is insulated, the soil is more likely to freeze. With the spring thaw, minor movement along the foundation walls can create hairline cracks. Water starts to make its way through those cracks. That water builds up throughout the year, and there's an even greater freezing problem the following winter. "It's a problem that's progressively worse when left unchecked," said Mr. Garaci.

He said he's seen countless cases where new drywall, insulation and framing had to be torn out because of mould. With a renovated basement, homeowners "created the perfect environment for mould to grow -- dampness, limited light, limited air circulation. And they're feeding the mould growth with the cellulose-based products that they used to finish the walls with, like insulation and two-by-fours."

He said most homes in the city have water problems. "It doesn't matter whether it's a $180,000 bungalow or a $3-million mansion. They all leak. It's a problem everybody shares," he said. "It's an endless market."

Mr. Garaci said we're lucky that our contractors recognized that our moisture problem had to be fixed, rather than just hurrying to get the house completed. So, although it's one step forward and two steps back, at least we know we've taken the right steps.


Globe Real Estate

Heated floor feels just toasty

A thin electric mat under the ceramic tile quickly turns a bathroom into an inviting spot, but it can be tough to install the separate circuit the system requires

1,024 words
October 17, 2003
All material copyright Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. or its licensors. All rights reserved.

At a recent cocktail party with some neighbours, we discussed housing prices (Can you believe how much they got for THAT?) and our various home improvement projects.

"You HAVE to see our bathroom," said our hosts, Wally and Shirley. They said there was something in their recently renovated bathroom we'd love.

We stood in the hallway and gazed into the lovely white-tiled bathroom with a beautiful pedestal sink, when Wally said, "You have to step right INTO the bathroom."

A bunch of us stepped on to the white ceramic floor and collectively moaned in pleasure. The floor is heated, and I decided right then that we have to install heated floors in our new home as well.

"We absolutely love it," said Shirley. When they retiled their bathroom floor, the installer added a thin (less than one-quarter inch) electric mat under the tiles, which heats the floor. At a cost of less than $600, Wally and Shirley agree it was money well spent. The floor temperature is controlled by a wall-mounted thermostat. They leave it on six months of the year. Although not designed to be a primary source of heat, because the room is small -- about 8 feet by 8 feet -- Wally said "it keeps the bathroom a couple of degrees warmer than the rest of the house, which is good."

Wally said the only drawback is that the tile installation took a day longer. As for their hydro bills, he figures it costs only about $35 a year to keep the floor toasty warm.

Besides having that pleasurable sensation of stepping on to a warm floor, Shirley has experienced other unexpected benefits. "After I wash my sweaters, I lay them on the floor to dry overnight." She added that, with her husband and two young sons using that bathroom, she's careful not to lay her sweaters anywhere near the toilet.

During a recent bout with the flu, she also enjoyed the comfort of the heated floor. "I was lying on the floor and had to be close to the toilet because I was vomiting. It was that little bit of comfort as everyone slept soundly."

Although electric radiant heating units have been available for about a decade, the market has recently expanded significantly as homeowners increasingly use stone surfaces rather than carpeting for flooring, according to Janice Smith, marketing manager for Nuheat, a Canadian company based in Delta, B.C. Although heated flooring in bathrooms has been popular for many years, she said homeowners are increasingly heating floors of larger areas such as kitchens, laundry rooms and mudrooms.

In fact, a friend of mine told me she loves the heated floor in her mudroom, because the puddles created by winter boots dry quickly. Besides, it's so nice to step on to a warm floor when coming in from the bitter cold, she said.

Ms. Smith said some homeowners are even installing units under the edge of granite countertops, so that the surface doesn't feel cool when you lean on it. "It's an affordable luxury," she said.

Electric floor warming systems can only be used under ceramic or stone floors, not under wood, wood laminates or sheet flooring. They're made by several different companies, and are available at building centres and tiling stores.

Although there are design differences from model to model, the concept remains the same: spaghettini-thin heated wires sit between either plastic mesh, plastic strapping or paper-thin gauzy fabric (the kind of fabric you find under your sofa). Some come in various standard mat sizes. Custom-sized mats can also be ordered. Other kits are designed so you can lay the wire anywhere you like.

Professional installation is strongly recommended. And -- here's the part I wish I'd known sooner -- the floor heating system must have its own circuit in the electric panel box. In other words, you can't just connect the wiring to a plug in the room. Nothing else can run off that electrical circuit.

The problem is, our drywall is all done now. Although our plans called for electric radiant floor-heating in our master bathroom -- which is above an unheated garage -- we didn't request it anywhere else. Now, after stepping on Wally and Shirley's bathroom floor, I'm convinced it would be perfect for our mudroom and kids' bathroom. But it's too late. With the drywall already up -- and the electric panel box far away -- it's not an easy feed. We'd have to knock holes in lots of walls, something I'm not prepared to do now.

At least we'll have a heated floor in the master en suite. And we'll be able to tantalize our friends by having them step on our floor too.


Globe Real Estate

Building in lots of chat time

Be warned: For those who might be contemplating a major home renovation, constant consultation is essential

859 words
October 24 2003
All material copyright Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. or its licensors. All rights reserved.

'This is just like a Seinfeld episode," said my 15-year-old daughter, who sat in the kitchen as I took an endless stream of phone calls about our renovation. "You know the one where Jerry's renovating his kitchen, and the guy asks him questions every two minutes."

"Now you know why I'm so stressed out these days," I told her. "Imagine this over seven months."

As a public service for those who might be contemplating a major home renovation, be forewarned. Here's what you have to look forward to: 9 a.m. Contractor Patrick called, asking when the wood flooring I've ordered will be delivered. I'm not sure. I'll call them.

9:05 a.m. "I have good news and bad news," said the woman at the sawmill, which is making my cherry floor. Most of the order is ready -- about 1,800 square feet -- but the rest is still in the kiln. When it comes out in a few days, it still needs to be turned into flooring. The balance will be ready next week. (They would've had the entire order ready, if I'd selected a lower-grade flooring. However, because I've ordered the top-grade cherry -- without any sap marks -- she said they need to make some more flooring to get the quantity I need.) They could deliver what they've got now, and we can pick up the rest next week. I told her I'd call the contractor and figure out what's best for him.

9:12 a.m. Called Patrick. Got his answering machine. Left message.

9:15 a.m. Called the tiler. Got his answering machine. I realized I'd never selected the rounded top tile pieces for our bathrooms. Can they order these for me?

9:22 a.m. Patrick called back. He spoke to the wood floor installer, and he can delay starting on our project until the flooring is ready. He said the stucco will be finished today. That's good news, because the waterproofers weren't able to finish their work last week because the stucco guy's scaffolding was in the way.

So can I call them and get them back right away? No, not yet, said Patrick. Patrick's guys still have to finish up some work on a concrete block wall in the garage. (This was the subject of many, many phone calls yesterday.) The waterproofing guys should be able to come back and finish the job next Tuesday or Wednesday.

9:35 a.m. I called the waterproofing company and let them know the schedule. They'll tentatively book the time next week.

9:45 a.m. Patrick called. "We need a hotline," he laughed. He has two quotes to put flagstones on a concrete landing and steps in the back yard. Surprisingly, the quotes are $3,000 apart! How is this possible? I had hoped to get a third quote, and had arranged to meet a stone mason I'd used years ago at the house yesterday; I'd waited an hour, but he never showed up. Patrick's lower quote came from the mason who'd done the stonework on our back wall. He said if we want the work done this fall, we'd better line him up. So I give him the go-ahead.

9:53 a.m. I called Patrick back. "I just had a horrible thought," I said. "In the original working drawings, the plans called for broadloom rather than wood flooring in the master bedroom. Now we're going with wood in the bedroom, but I'm not sure if that area was included in the flooring we'd ordered." He said he wasn't sure either, but he'd check the figures.

10:06 a.m. He called back and said it looks like we've ordered the right quantity.

10:10 a.m. I called my friend Cliff, who we've hired to do the painting. When I first spoke to Cliff about this job last April, I told him we'd probably be ready for him to paint in July. I said I'd keep him posted. In the summer, I told him to count on September. Now I'm saying the end of October. He wondered if he could start priming, before the wood floor is installed. I said I'd let him know.

10:18 a.m. Yet another call to Patrick. He said Cliff can begin.

The calls continued. In fact, there are so many calls every day that I actually wince now whenever the phone rings. When I get home and see the message light flashing, I invariably think, "What NOW?"

Consider yourself warned.


Globe Real Estate

Flooring: A step by step

Choosing unfinished wood over pre-finished appears to be the right move

974 words
October 31, 2003
All material copyright Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. or its licensors. All rights reserved.

I should've known it was too good to be true. I visited a wood flooring store, and immediately spotted the perfect floor for our new house. I've never made a decision this quickly in my life.

Despite being distracted by dozens of different kinds of woods -- from exotic ones like bamboo, Brazilian cherry and African perdauk to more familiar woods like oak, maple and beech -- I instantly fell in love with American cherry. It will go perfectly with our antique pine and cherry Canadiana furniture. It starts out honey-coloured and gradually darkens to a warm golden-red brown -- about the same shade as 100-year-old pine.

Best of all, the store offered me a huge discount because the quantity I needed was exactly what it had left over from an old shipment.

Before plunking down my well-used Visa card, I excitedly called contractor Patrick to let him know about the pre-finished flooring I'd discovered.

"I'd never install pre-finished flooring in my own house," he said, instantly deflating my enthusiasm. "It just doesn't look as good as flooring that's finished on site. It doesn't have as smooth a finish. The micro-bevels between each plank collect dust and are uncomfortable to walk on."

He said if we were already living in the house, and wanted to quickly install a new wood floor, without the mess and smell of sanding and finishing, then a pre-finished product might be worth considering. But since our house is empty, why not go with what looks best, even if it might cost a bit more to install?

I decided to investigate this further, since it's pretty hard for me to turn down a bargain. I called my friend, Louise, who recently installed pre-finished cherry and oak flooring in her home.

"It's one of my regrets with this house. I wish we would've put in unfinished flooring," she said.

She said they'd decided on the pre-finished product "purely for scheduling," because it could be installed quickly rather than over several days.

"What they don't tell you is that when you do scratch it, it's much more obvious," she said. She explained that the super-heavy-duty finish on pre-finished flooring means the finish doesn't gradually wear down like other wood flooring. That means that any damage to the floor stands out like a sore thumb.

"When you gouge it or scratch it, the surrounding area hasn't worn down," she said. "It's a scratch on an otherwise perfect surface, rather than another mar on a weathered surface."

She said there's also an entirely different feeling of ease between the two types of flooring. "I personally like the weathered look of wood floors," she said. "There's a sense of relaxation when you know it isn't a big deal if something scratches or gouges the floor. I personally don't like living in a perfect environment, because it makes me nervous."

Okay, I'm convinced. Patrick's right. I'll go with unfinished flooring.

Next decision: Decide which width -- either 2¼," 3¼" or 4¼"; and which grade (ranging from select, to select and better, and sap-free; the higher the grade, the fewer the imperfections). All are ¾" thick.

Cost and aesthetics made the first choice easy. The wider the planks, the more expensive the floor. The 2¼"-wide flooring ranged from about $5 to $5.75 a square foot, depending on the grade. By comparison, the 4¼"-wide boards started at $6 a square foot. That may not sound like a huge difference, until you start pricing out thousands of square feet. Besides making sense economically, I decided to go with the 2¼" because I think the narrower boards are more in keeping with the older home.

I decided to splurge on the highest-grade flooring -- the clearest boards with the fewest imperfections, without any sap marks. The sap marks are creamy white splotches on the odd board, which I'd rather not have.

Most of the flooring was delivered this week. The rest is still in the kiln. Maureen Quick of the Herwynen Saw Mill in Rockwood, Ont., said the cherry they used to make my floor came from Pennsylvania and Michigan. They used to get some cherry logs from Ontario, but no longer.

She told me the owner of the saw mill used the same 2¼"-wide cherry flooring in his own home. So I guess I've made the right decision. And for once I'm glad I didn't grab the first bargain I saw.