The Froogle Scott Chronicles: Mortgaging Our Souls In Paradise – Part 9a: So You Want to Buy a House and Fix It Up? Thirty Suggestions for Survival

Market participants, bull and bear, are all running around like chickens without heads. Folks who sold out are changing their minds and frantically buying back in. Even those taking profits are freaked out by the sums they are realizing. In this hectic environment, where do we turn for focus, for measure, for calming effect?… Who you gonna call?…
Well, he’s back: Froogle Scott has re-emerged bearing a comprehensive guide to being sensible about a vital aspect of Vancouver housing: ‘Fixing-It-Up’. Amidst the helicopters, the lawsuits, the line-ups, the panic-buying, it’s precisely what we all need to set our feet on the ground again. Those of you who don’t know Froogle, we recommend you put aside the better part of an evening and read through his Chronicles… the remarkable story of a Vancouver couple buying and renovating a Vancouver house. That’ll put the current episode into context, even though it also stands extremely well on its own. We’ll be posting ‘Part 9’ in 10 (yes, ten) sub-parts, over 5 weeks. It’ll also be available as a pdf download thereafter.

Froogle’s perspective stands in stark contrast to the prevailing fast-and-loose Vancouver RE ethos. He approaches houses as artefacts that matter to us as humans. He cares for quality, and is aware of history; he pays attention to the bones of houses and the souls of the people who use them.
We are grateful to him for sharing this all with us. We’re also very pleased that he continues to use this blog as a conduit for publishing his work. Here’s the first of the ten sub-episodes, Part 9a.
Careful with those powertools…  – vreaa

Part 9a: So You Want to Buy a House and Fix It Up? Thirty Suggestions for Survival

Those fateful words . . .

My wife and I learned a lot of things the hard way during the renovation of our house. If we had to do it again, there are definitely some things we’d do differently.

Let’s assume there is a significant correction in Vancouver real estate prices over the next few years, or even a crash — similar to what’s happened in a number of American cities, and in a number of other countries. Let’s say it’s on the order of 35 to 50 percent, which would be huge, and catastrophic for a certain segment of those who currently own houses and condos. And yet, even with an event of this magnitude, the fixer uppers pictured above would still be in the $200K to $300K range. Add a 50 or 75 percent premium for a similar place on the West Side, like the Kitsilano house above — the cheapest house in Kits on the 31st of August, 2010, the day I gathered this sample of properties from RealtyLink. In other words, still expensive by national standards, assuming price deflation in Vancouver would be accompanied by some degree of price deflation in other large Canadian centers. In a comment on a local real estate bear blog, ‘Renting’ put it succinctly: “A million dollar home in Vancouver is a piece of shit. At 60% to 70% off it will still be a POS and will still be priced higher than buying a POS anywhere else in the world.” (“NYC Condos for 80% off,” Vancouver Condo Info, November 11th, 2010 at 1:57 pm. While I agree with the key point Renting is making about pricing, I don’t completely agree with his assessment of quality, and have more to say about it later.) The majority of new houses, or houses with good quality renovations, would still be in the $300K to $800K range, depending on the size and quality of the house, and the location. Still beyond the means of many people, especially if lending is tightened because of societal debt problems (Credit Crisis II), and wages stagnate because we’re in a recession. In the City of Vancouver, and the more expensive surrounding suburbs, the notion that prospective buyers currently sitting on the sidelines will just waltz into perfect houses in the aftermath of a crash probably isn’t very realistic. There would be a few, with large amounts of cash, for whom this could be the case. But for many, home ownership would still entail buying something sub-optimal and fixing it up — those fateful words…

Regardless of what happens with the local housing market, the character of Metro Vancouver’s housing stock is what it is. There are large numbers of older, smaller, tired, even dilapidated houses, with outdated décor and finishings. They were built in an era of more rudimentary building codes, in a time when basements weren’t designed to be lived in, when heating a house was relatively cheap, so building envelopes were less critical. Many of these houses have been ‘remuddled’ — made worse, and often ugly, by amateurish renovation and remodeling. Occupying the next rung up the property ladder are 1970s Vancouver Specials, but even these houses are now 30 to 40 years old, and will be starting to have the problems associated with age. Many people will find themselves considering houses that require a lot of work, not because they really want these particular houses, but because they want to own rather than rent, and it’s what they can afford.

With that in mind, I’ve compiled thirty suggestions for survival. (I wish there were fewer…) I’m not a renovation expert, but I am someone who, along with my wife, lived through a difficult renovation, and I have thought quite a bit about the process. I’m also drawing upon the experience of friends and neighbours who’ve undertaken majors renovations, and kindly shared a range of information, from practical matters to financial details.

I’m not trying to persuade people one way or another when it comes to buying or renovating a house. I’m sharing some insights that may make the process less fraught if you do embark on a renovation, or confirm you in your decision to avoid renovating, or perhaps even ownership, altogether. If you’re someone who intends to own a house eventually, in Vancouver or elsewhere, but you’re waiting until prices make more sense to you personally, you can treat the waiting period as a great time to learn at your own pace about houses and fixing them up, rather than acquiring information piecemeal in the panicky fashion I was forced into because I was doing it on the fly, mid-renovation. (Note to self: plan better next time. If there is a next time…)

First, some of the positives

When I look over the suggestions I’ve compiled here, it occurs to me that any sane person might run screaming from the prospect of undertaking a major renovation. It isn’t my purpose to scare people or turn them off. I’m trying to provide a realistic account of what it takes. And what it takes runs completely counter to the magic-wand renovations that happen in the space of a week on reality TV shows. Most of these TV projects are a combination of redecorating and light renovation, which is fine for what it is, but it distorts the true nature of major renovation — applying makeup versus major internal surgery.

My neighbour ‘M’, a renovation veteran along with his wife ‘S’, thought I should mention some of the positives, the reasons why some people are willing to undergo the difficulty of a major reno, and suggested some of these positives himself:

•    You’re preserving a piece of your city’s architectural heritage in an age of disposability, in which a knock-it-down, throw-it-up ethos, and bigger and newer, mask the often cheap and shoddy.
•    You’re preventing older and often superior materials, such as the dense, strong Douglas fir in the frames of older Vancouver houses, from being needlessly destroyed and dumped in a landfill.
•    You have the opportunity to control exactly what happens with your house, and you can ensure that everything is done to your specifications, and done right.

To which I would add:
•    Incremental renovation may allow you to afford the size and type of house you want, in the area you want. Even if house prices come down dramatically, a good quality new or fully renovated house may still be beyond your reach in the areas you favour. With a fixer upper, you may be able to at least gain entrance to specific neighbourhoods.
•    You’re going to learn a lot about houses, depending on the extent of a renovation and your involvement with it, knowledge that will serve you very well as a homeowner and home maintainer in the years ahead. If at some point you sell and buy a different house, you’ll really know what to look for the second time around.
•    You’re going to feel the satisfaction of creating something good, a feeling from which too many have become disconnected in a profit-driven world.

A word about condos and townhouses

My experience is primarily with detached houses, so that’s what I write about here. However, Vancouver is a city that has been rapidly and aggressively condo-izing — in the core, and in various pockets across the metropolitan area. For many Vancouverites, real estate prices, with or without a crash, dictate that home ownership means condo or townhouse ownership, at least as an entry point to the market, and often beyond. Although a number of my suggestions apply fairly exclusively to resale houses, some of them are also applicable to condos and townhouses.

1. Think about the renovation before you buy the house, not after

If you’re planning to buy a house, and your budget puts you solidly in fixer-up territory, prior to making an offer, you should think about the particular renovation possibilities and constraints that apply to any house you’re considering. If you’re planning a major renovation, you should find out what zoning and building code regulations apply, and how these might affect your plans. Over the years, many houses have had unpermitted extensions, additions, and large decks added, which increase the square footage of the house beyond the maximum allowable, or extend the structure too close to the property line. You don’t want to buy a house only to find out that your local building and development department requires you tear down a third of it as part of making any improvements.

Your forward thinking at this stage need only be general. Is the house easily and legally expandable? Is the interior layout reasonably close to one that suits your lifestyle, or will it require extensive, and expensive, changes? Are the house’s various systems — drainage, plumbing, electrical, heating, and so on — near the end of their life, requiring tens of thousands of dollars to bring them up to modern standards? More subtle and detailed renovation requirements will only emerge after you’ve lived in a house for a year or more, during all four seasons, and discovered the shortcomings that most affect you.

Thinking in vague terms about ‘fixing it up’ is risking disappointment, frustration, and expense. Much better to know in broad terms how you’re going to renovate the fixer upper you’re about to purchase, what the municipality will allow you to do, and roughly how much the renovation will cost. That kind of knowledge requires educating yourself, which you can do well in advance of entering the market, and probably getting expert help, which I discuss in more detail below.

2. Look for the lines

Houses are basically boxes, or assemblages of boxes, with roofs, if they aren’t flat, that are typically some version of a pyramid or triangular prism. Some assemblages are more pleasing to the eye than others. Learn about the most common styles of houses in Metro Vancouver — the Edwardian box, the Edwardian builder, the Craftsman, the California bungalow (Craftsman bungalow), the Voyseyesque cottage, 1920s and 30s builders specials, post-war and 1950s bungalows, 1970s Vancouver Specials, on so on. Go for walks in the neighbourhoods you’re considering and look at lots of houses — both fixer uppers and nicely renovated houses that appeal to you. Over time, your eye for the lines of a house, and for the lines of a particular style of house, will develop. You’ll be able to more easily distinguish the lumpish, the ugly, and houses with the distorted lines of poorly designed additions, from those with aesthetically pleasing lines, even if the lines have been somewhat obscured by the subsequent application of stucco, or vinyl or asphalt siding. Ideally, you want to get good at spotting the fixer upper with good lines, and good potential. This skill will allow you to quickly work your way through long lists of houses on real estate sites, and spot which houses may be modest diamonds in the rough, and which aren’t worth the bother. I say modest, because according to my architect neighbour, all the true diamonds in Vancouver have already been plucked, and fully renovated, and command full price.

An example of a modest diamond could be the builders special in the Willingdon Heights neighbourhood of Burnaby, the first house in the picture above. It holds good possibilities and would probably be a good candidate for raising, and pouring a new foundation, because in addition to creating a full-height lower level, raising would make it look more elegant, rather than top heavy. Our neighbours M and S raised their 1922 builders special, a house almost identical to the one pictured, and the result is very good. A rear addition can also be easily integrated with the existing roof lines of this style of house — as people on our block recently did with their builders special, again, with good results.

Compare these possibilities with the remuddled Lynn Valley house above, which would be hard to do much with, without significant alteration of the existing lines. Here’s a good example from another major reno that recently kicked off in our neighbourhood, a similarly proportioned house that’s hard to expand without radical alteration of the existing lines. In this case, the entire second storey had to be lopped off.

Altering a house’s lines

And then there are the outright bad lines. The East Vancouver house pictured below was listed in the fall of 2010 at $649K. The original house may have been a small cottage, forming the center portion of the current structure, with poorly integrated front and rear additions added later. The net result is a messy jumble with an unappealing roof line. Although it’s priced $50K higher than the Willingdon Heights house, it’s probably a tear-down (although the original center section may hold some heritage value), whereas the Willingdon Heights house isn’t necessarily.

Old house with additions

New houses can also have bad lines. For example, this Burnaby horror show looks like it was conceived by a first-year architecture student after a heavy night out at the campus pub.

New house, Burnaby

Paying for the gigantic twin pillars perhaps didn’t leave enough for twin stair railings. Might it be possible that, coming home drunk, one could fall from either the left or the right side of a set of stairs?

You can change the lines of a house, but it costs money — often lots of it — that could be spent on other renovation items, like systems replacement. Why not start with good lines, or easily expandable lines, to begin with?

3. Consider various styles of house

At different points growing up, I lived in a couple of hundred-year-old character houses in Victoria — one, a beautiful, half-timbered Craftsman (rented), the other Italianate. I always felt that if I eventually bought a house, it would be a character house that I’d fix up. I hated post-war bungalows, the kind that were covered with pinky-brown, beer-bottle stucco. Whenever I pictured one of these houses, it was raining, and the stucco was sodden.

Now the thought of renovating a character house, the ongoing maintenance burden, the heating bills for a large space, fills me with dread. I like looking at beautiful character renovations on the street, but I don’t want to own one. Or at least, I don’t think I do. Occasionally, when I go inside one, I’m struck by the sense of serenity and comfort.

My wife grew up in an early model Vancouver Special, probably built in the 1960s. Growing up, she hated Vancouver Specials — their depressing uniformity, their raw, immature, unadorned feel, the utilitarian approach to home ownership taken by their occupants, in her Trout Lake neighbourhood primarily other members of the Chinese community. Ironically, she felt these houses expressed a lack of community. In contrast to my feelings about stucco bungalows, my wife loved them. The Italians and Portuguese — around Trout Lake, more settled, earlier waves of immigrants — lived in the bungalows. With mature gardens, lower profiles, and less obvious uniformity, these houses felt cozy to her, more like comfortable homes.

In 2003, my wife and I bought a post-war, stucco bungalow. During our house hunting period I underwent some kind of conversion. I wanted a character house, quickly realized they were well out of our range, but also realized that I now liked 1950s bungalows. I’d come to appreciate their solidity, their low, horizontal lines, their quiet practicality. The one we bought is an early model, built immediately post-war, in 1946. I prefer the more generous, more spacious versions that evolved with increasing North American prosperity in the 1950s. However, I’m reasonably content.

The one type of house my wife and I agreed we hated, and wouldn’t consider, was a 1970s Vancouver Special, or any of the more recent variants. Now, seven years later, and in the aftermath of battling headroom issues in our basement suite during the renovation, the wheel has turned again. We might consider a Vancouver Special, were we ever to move. (I do have one reservation, which I explain in the section on seismic upgrading below.) The characteristics that originally made Vancouver Specials attractive to working class and immigrant families on the East Side, and elsewhere in the city, are still attractive today to an even more diverse demographic: maximum, or close to maximum, square footage for the lot size; open layouts; big rear decks, often covered; a full-height lower level, making installation of a rental suite, or setting up a separate area for teenagers, much easier; and a minimum of architectural adornment, which although bland, means less maintenance and upkeep. Add to these original enticements a price point that can be significantly lower than a renovated character house or a new house. For these reasons, Vancouver Specials remain popular, are shedding some of the stigma long associated with their utilitarian nature and prosaic form, and renovating them in interesting or unexpected ways has become somewhat trendy.

Lance Berelowitz, in Dream City, had this to say about Vancouver Specials:

“There is a certain irony in the fact that while the Vancouver Special has long been an affront to the Vancouver architectural establishment, that same establishment frequently finds itself designing and living in equally kitsch architectural clichés and is increasingly involved in replicating a new pseudo ‘Heritage’ aesthetic for housing. The pitched roofs, cutesy wood detailing and fake-traditional architectural geegaws are now the de rigueur language of contemporary residential design. It almost makes the Vancouver Special seem refreshingly honest in comparison.”

Classic 1970s Vancouver Special in the Renfrew neighbourhood, East Vancouver

The houses don’t change, it’s we who change. The way we see things evolves. The more you expose yourself to a full range of house styles, and analyze their benefits and drawbacks in relation to your particular situation, the more options and flexibility you’ll have. Most of us have emotional responses to different styles of houses, unanalyzed, probably rooted in childhood experience, and it’s often these emotional responses that drive our purchasing decisions, rather than a careful weighing of the appropriateness of this functional object we’re buying.

Some common Vancouver house styles, 1900 to 1980

[Further resources/reading]

To read more about Vancouver house styles throughout the 20th century, see the following:

Exploring Vancouver, by Harold Kalman (later with Ron Phillips and Robin Ward). Vancouver: UBC Press, 1974, 1978, 1993 (three editions).

British Columbia Houses: Guide to the Styles of Domestic Architecture in British Columbia, by Graeme Chalmers and Frances Moorcroft. Vancouver: UBC, 1981.

Vancouver and Its Region, edited by Graeme Wynn and Timothy Oke. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1992.

Dream City: Vancouver and the Global Imagination, by Lance Berelowitz. Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 2005.

The Story of Dunbar: Voices of a Vancouver Neighbourhood, edited by Peggy Schofield. Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2007.

“House Special”, The Vancouver Courier, 11 Sep, 2009. Story related to Vancouver Heritage Foundation 2009 tour of renovated Vancouver Specials.

“Heritage tour of Vancouver Specials shows why they are special”, The Vancouver Sun, 5 Oct, 2010. Story related to Vancouver Heritage Foundation 2010 tour of renovated Vancouver Specials.

“Your Old House Encyclopedia”, Vancouver Heritage Foundation. Once it goes live, this will be a fantastic online resource for identifying and learning about specific styles of Vancouver residential architecture. The advertised launch date of summer 2010 has obviously come and gone. I sent the Vancouver Heritage Foundation an email asking when they expected the online encyclopedia to be available, and they told me Spring 2011. Nothing yet. If you’re interested, I guess the best advice is to bookmark the link, and periodically check back.

Coming soon: Part 9b: So You Want to Buy a House and Fix It Up? Thirty Suggestions for Survival – Suggestions 4, 5, 6, & 7
Stay tuned. -ed.

4 responses to “The Froogle Scott Chronicles: Mortgaging Our Souls In Paradise – Part 9a: So You Want to Buy a House and Fix It Up? Thirty Suggestions for Survival

  1. Why people insist on paying for good media content I will never know; vreaa gives it away for free (and I don’t mean “free” like Google). Thanks for this.

    It is interesting to think that in about ten years’ time many of the ’70s era structures will be due for major overhauls.

    • jesse -> Thanks for the appreciation; will convey to Froogle.

      Yeah, it’s interesting to think that through the boom we’ve been building the fixer-uppers of 2025-2030+. Built-in obsolescence. Somewhere a construction industry strategist is proud; and European builders are, of course, puzzled.


      “You could stick your finger right into the roof where the ceiling meets the east wall.”

      ‘Under’ Construction – The Mouldy Shoe-Box Knockdowns of 2050-2060

      Replace Roof Once Every 120 Years – But Not In Vancouver

  2. Excellent stuff Scott, thank you.

    Perhaps Jesse can pen a parallel article that editorializes the multi-family landlords kit, as per Old house with additions above.

  3. Hurray for more Froogle Scott!

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