It’s spring– traditionally house hunting season! Time for Toronto’s already busy real estate market to swing into overdrive. This can be exciting and nerve-wracking, as it requires fast decisions on big commitments. People are afforded more time to buy shoes than houses! Knowing what you are looking for and preparing in advance is key.

If you want to live in urban Toronto, working with what you can afford and what the market offers increasingly means shopping for older houses “with potential”, that you intend to transform into your dream home. My husband and I did this – we tore down the entire home and rebuilt from scratch. Learn why.

Many real estate agents advise clients to prepare for a real estate hunt by having things like financing in order and a home inspector on speed dial. Here are some additional pre-hunt tips to keep in mind when looking for homes to renovate or rebuild.

Know the Zoning By-laws

Transforming an old house into a dream home usually requires permits. In this process your plans are reviewed by city officials to ensure they comply with applicable laws, including zoning by-laws which dictate things like the permitted setbacks, maximum floor space and building heights for each property. This is important to understand because it restricts what you can build on a given property, and it can vary from property to property. Not all properties will permit rear additions or third floor additions by right. Homeowners can seek variances (i.e.: special considerations) to move forward with these projects, but be aware that they are not always granted. It’s best to understand the limitations of the property’s zoning before proceeding with a purchase if you have your heart set on adding a third floor.

To add another layer of complexity, many older Toronto homes pre-date the current zoning by-laws and are legally non-conforming. For example, some detached homes that are located within inches of a neighbouring property do not conform with the current setback requirements. As a result, homeowners interested in building an addition to their home, or even rebuilding it with the same setbacks will not be able to do so by right. Both require variances and they are not always granted.

Connecting with someone who can help you understand these realities, especially in a particular area before you hit the open houses could be really useful when making fast decisions to bid.

Some Homes are Subject to Heritage Preservation

Heritage homes or homes in heritage districts can be very appealing to many buyers. However, a heritage designation can have substantial implications where renovations are concerned because it can add additional limitations to the changes that can be made to the home.  These limitations typically relate to the facade of the home and can require a homeowner to restore existing elements, instead of replacing them with materials that are more readily available. While the restoration of the existing facade may be fine if you love the look of the heritage home, the elevated cost of restoration may be harder to swallow.

It is often much faster and less costly to remove and replace building elements than to restore older existing materials. As a result, the purchase and transformation of a heritage home may not be for everyone’s pocketbook.

If you intend to look at heritage homes or districts, it would be useful to learn about these special restrictions in advance.  This way you will know what you can and can’t do if you purchase one.

Homes with Common Walls

Semis and townhouses are prevalent in urban Toronto. For years they have been a real estate stepping stone to a detached home. In the current market, however, they are more likely to be a long-term investment. These homes are seeing more and more renovations to meet the needs of growing families that continue to live in them.  What’s important to know here is that the existence of common walls adds additional complications when homeowners want to renovate elements of these homes that involve the common wall; like basement underpinning, third floor additions and rear additions. The shared quality of this wall means that the neighbouring homeowner must be engaged in the process as permits are required for both properties. Tearing down and rebuilding a semi, while possible, is also much more complicated.

If making a semi work means a large transformation, you might be better off buying an old detached home to tear-down and rebuild, than renovating a semi from top to bottom.

If you’re planning to shop for a house to transform, and interested in learning more about the various considerations of a major renovation or rebuild project in advance, we’re happy to help.