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Renovating a condo differs vastly from renovating a single-family home.
According to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., 58,665 highrise condominium units were built in Toronto in the decade starting in 1984.
Now, 20-plus years later, those condos might be starting to look a little old. A little tired. In other words, they need a reno.
Renovating a condo is not the same as renovating a single-family home. There are big differences that can trip you up if one undertakes the process unprepared.
So why would someone buy one of these old, tired units that needs to be renovated as opposed to a brand spanking new unit with all the bells and whistles?
Condo buyer Judy Wingham has the answer to that one – and it, of course, starts with location, location, location.
“We really wanted to be in the St. Lawrence Market area, and there weren’t any new projects in the area when we were looking,” she explains. But, equally important to Judy and her husband, Brian Smith, was the size of the unit itself.
“How do you find a place big enough when you’re downsizing from a four-bedroom house? We only looked at older units because they’re generally larger than the new ones,” says Wingham about the 1,300-square-foot, two-bedroom condo they purchased.
Condominium lawyer and Toronto Star columnist Gerry Hyman says buyers (or owners) who are considering a condo renovation need to be very cognizant of the rules that govern renovations in that particular building or risk finding out too late that they can’t do what they were planning.
“Condo buyers should make their agreement of purchase and sale conditional on the examination of the status certificate,” explains Hyman. “This will include a copy of the declaration and the rules. If you sign an agreement of purchase and sale without taking that step, you may be too late.”
The declaration outlines what is owned jointly by all the owners in the building (called common elements) and what is owned by the unit owner. As a general rule, you can change what you own, but can’t change any of the common elements without the express permission of the corporation.
This is where what is or isn’t a common element becomes important, because things like windows, balconies and unit front doors are almost always common elements, and many declarations prohibit any structural, plumbing or electrical renovations.
“People may have carried out renos they shouldn’t have and the corporation can require them to put it back the way it was,” says Hyman. “It’s rare, but it does happen.”
The condominium rules may also contain additional guidelines regarding how the work is to be carried out. Things like parking for tradespeople, the hours they are allowed to work and disposal of garbage may be spelled out in the rules.
Because of the added complications involved in renovating a condo, there are contractors who won’t even consider doing that kind of work. Others, like Sandra Baldwin, president and owner of Lifetime Contracting in Toronto, find it’s not that difficult if you have the right approach. She’s completed a couple dozen condo renos in recent years and says the key is to involve the condominium corporation from the beginning.
“If you approach the condominium corporation right up front, they are usually very helpful and try to accommodate you,” explains Baldwin.
She gives condo clients a detailed written estimate that they can give to the corporation, along with a covering letter, so they can seek approval long before the work begins.
For her, the biggest difference in condo vs. single-family home renos is the time factor.
“Getting materials and debris to and from the unit – that’s a big hassle,” she explains. But, on the plus side, building permits are often not necessary, as they are often not doing work that involves plumbing, electrical or structural elements.
I, too, have found that the timing issue is the most difficult to manage when renovating a condo. Many corporations will have set hours that tradespeople can work – usually from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. – which means that I can’t just schedule trades to work a few extra hours if the job gets behind. Parking can also be a pain as many buildings only have one or two (if any) service parking spaces and these are snapped up early. Most experienced contractors will build an allowance for parking fees into the original quote or contract.
While Brian Smith and Judy Wingham did their homework before purchasing, there were still a few surprises along the way.
“We couldn’t do pot lights because the ceiling above is a cement slab,” explains Smith. “Of course, that makes sense, but it’s not something you necessarily think about right away. And, all the structural walls in our unit are concrete slab as well, so you can’t even put in a new plug. It made planning more challenging.”
Waste removal was also a big challenge. During the renovation process, Smith negotiated bringing in a dumpster, but the corporation would only allow it to be on site for one day – meaning all the waste had to be stored in the unit and carted out all at once.
“You can’t dirty the hallways or the elevators either,” explains Smith. “An awful lot of care had to be taken at every step of the process.”
Every room of the couple’s condo was tackled, with new trim work and painting throughout, new hardwood floors in the main living areas, new tile in the entry, kitchen and bathrooms. Both bathrooms and the kitchen were also completely renovated and a den was created where there was a solarium. The price of the reno ran about $120,000.
Another big challenge is trying to change the location of things like sinks and toilets when you can’t touch the plumbing behind the walls. In Judy and Brian’s kitchen, for example, the pipes were extended behind the cabinets to move the sink and dishwasher to their new location.
The ensuite bathroom was more challenging. To move the toilet, a step up was built so that the new drain could slope properly to the old drain location. To minimize the visual impact of this step, a half-height wall was added between the toilet area and the rest of the bathroom, adding more privacy in the process.
To replace the bathtub with a built-in shower, the new shower was located so that the existing drain from the bathtub could be used without raising the floor level or drilling for a new drain.
The costs for these kinds of changes is comparable to those incurred in a traditional renovation, it’s just the methodology that differs. (Of course, the condominium management was consulted before proceeding.)
Smith and Wingham have some words of advice for those considering a condo reno: Be flexible, work with a contractor you can trust and make your decisions on time.
“That was what really surprised me, how quickly we had to make decisions,” said Smith.
“We were on a tight timeline (two months) and we had to get out there and choose the tile, granite and fireplace surround on time, or it would have held up the whole project,”says Smith.
Condo owners considering a renovation need to make sure they hire a professional who has done condo work in the past, says Baldwin.
David Males is president of Northern Edge Construction Services, a residential renovation company, and chairman of the BILD Renovators Green Committee. For more information, go to www.noredge.com.
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