When Leni was just four days new–as my sister was lovingly positioning her little body in the light of our front window for her first of many “pro bono” professional photos–we received a knock at our door. It was from a City of Toronto worker with a Notice to Comply. Unbeknownst to us when we bought our house a year-and-a-half prior, the back portion (essentially 50% of our usable space) had been built illegally (15 years and a couple owner’s before). In the haze of fresh parenthood, we barely registered what this would mean for us and I’m not sure we could have at the time. In fact, it probably took us another year or more to fully understand what that even meant.
There was a lot of disbelief. Surely we can’t be penalized! Isn’t there a statute of limitations? This was done over a decade ago and two or more owners ago. There was discussion over suing the former owners, maybe even our real estate lawyer. We concluded that would require capital we didn’t actually have and at this point (although we got into the housing market before it was completely unfathomable) we were still quite house poor. We were both unsure if we were up for some kind of drawn out litigation anyway.
Although we had not done a title inspection of our property (please do a title inspection when you buy a house!), we did, thankfully, get title insurance. The insurance company took a full year to complete its assessment of our predicament and tell us what they were willing to offer. The insurer dug up our backyard to check the foundation, leaving a dusty hole in the stones for much of the year (including the summer, rendering it unsafe for the little miss L play), and cut out squares of drywall throughout the house to check the wiring and construction (which they never did seal up, come to think of it).
During that time, our charming beachy little fixer upper began to further decline and that new home honeymoon haze wore off like the glaze on our kitchen cabinets. When the porch began to show more wear (squirrels literally started eating it and portions of the stairs fell right off), we simply put off repairing it. Who knew if we could even stay in the house? The walls that needed a fresh coat of paint became sadder with each passing month. The washroom we’d always intended to update no longer seemed like a cost worth investing in so we resorted to bleaching it often to keep the mould at bay and taping down the tiles that popped off. What if we simply have to tear down the house? Or worse, knock down the offending half and sell at a loss? Our home, already a tiny two bedroom, would shrink to a one bedroom and lose about half the square footage and who knows what state it would be in?
We never could’ve predicted this limbo would continue for another three years.
When the assessment finally came back from the insurer, it came to light that we could not simply get retroactive permits for the offending space. Not only was it not built to code, but to get it there would be (massively) cost prohibitive. And arguably, we’d be building good on–if not bad–definitely questionable foundation. The insurer offered to cover the tear down of the addition or pay us out the equivalent. Better than nothing, but by no means covering the bill to make our house livable for our growing family.
At this point, the Toronto housing market had really gone insane and were we to sell–even if we somehow made a profit–there was no chance we could own again in the city. Not the end of the world, but disappointing. We had hoped to settle in our little home for the long haul and had grown quite fond of the neighbourhood. Thankfully, through most of this process, we did our best to just give ourselves over to the fates. If we had to sell at a loss, maybe it was a sign we should consider an international secondment through Jose’s work or try a new city. Shake things up.
In the background of all these revelations, a glimmering of an idea started to take shape. My husband’s cousin and his wife, Roberto and Cinthya– one a big commercial builder and one currently working in commercial interior design–agreed to help us dream up a new home design for our small plot of land. Cinthya wanted experience in home design and an opportunity to foster her dream of one day starting her own business. The concept felt very hypothetical and we would go through extremes of excitement and the sinking feeling that we were setting ourselves up for major disappointment. We can never afford this! We’re wasting everyone’s time and energy!
Still we kept consulting with them (from the side of their desks). Both have full-time jobs and two busy boys, but carved out time late at night and on their down time to help us. Essentially, we are forever indebted to them–particularly Cinthya who took very special care to consider our needs in dreaming up the design.
They also hooked us up with an architect, who helped us modify the drawings to apply for permits. I’m pretty sure they cashed in a huge favour there. It’s hard to explain, but even at this point, it all seemed very far-fetched. We certainly didn’t have the financing–getting a construction loan is more complicated than you might imagine given how much goes on in this city–and we didn’t have a builder nor could we find one until the scope of work was complete.
The permitting process was a whole other lesson in paper politics. From posting our intention to get permits on our home to making sure every detail was just so in regards to the application. Thankfully we had a lot of help from Cinthya, the architect and a lawyer.
Once the plans were ready for submission there is a waiting period before the hearing. Our neighbour, Angel, who recently rebuilt her own home–and has been an amazing source of support and advice–gave us some invaluable tips. One such tip was to go door-to-door to any neighbours who may be affected by the rebuild, explain our situation and ask them to sign letters of support. We learned very quickly at the hearing that the primary concern for any construction project–at least in Toronto–is neighbourhood support, so this really tipped the scales in our favour. We hired a lawyer to plead our case and just like that we had our permits.
Well sort of, we still had a waiting period of a few weeks to allow neighbours to protest, which thankfully they did not. Our permits were also subject to us paying Urban Forestry a hefty fee to plant a tree and we were required to hire an arborist to assess our neighbour’s maple, which had been encroaching on our house for some time. Before the build we would need to have the tree pruned or “injured” by an arborist and a small fence would be required to protect the tree.
It’s the stuff they never show you in those addictive renovation shows. Or if they do, you barely notice because it’s rectified in about 2 minutes, TV time.
This time last year, we started thinking this whole building-a-new-house thing wasn’t so entirely impossible. It felt like we were always one correspondence away from getting financing or scoring the right builder until ultimately being disappointed when the former or latter fell through again. At one point we had everything lined up: the bank, the builder, my parents were set for us to move in. Then we found out our builder needed a certification that was virtually obsolete, but required him to jump through all kinds of hoops that proved too time-consuming (for him).
Back to the drawing board.
This had become the norm and we considered letting go of this little dream on numerous occasions. Even if it all panned out, the monthly carry could prove crippling.
Then at the beginning of June, we were given the green light for financing and we even had a builder ready to go. After 3 years and 2 months, suddenly this thing was happening and we had about 3 weeks to pack up and move into my parents house.
Having been burned before, Jose and I went through all the possible scenarios. We concluded that even if everything fell through, we were done living in limbo and no longer felt safe in our home. Worse case scenario, we’d sell our home at a possible loss (as a tear down) and move on to something new.
I won’t bore you with any more details because there was and there continue to be all sorts of paperwork and coordination involved. The main takeaway here is that we moved in with my folks at the end of July (the basis for a few sitcoms right there) and the demo started about a month later. Our little home is now a little lot awaiting foundation.
Now there is still the whole process of BUILDING, but it’s real now. It’s happening. Will we be able to get every detail on our list? Well it all comes down to cost and creativity. Having said that, we are building a home with all the space we will ever really need in the city we call home. We get to have a home we would not be able to afford in the current market and it is designed specifically for us. That is insane. This was never on my radar as a possibility and now it’s our current reality. Holy shit, right?
It’s been a long drawn out process (as you know if you made it through this post). I felt very reluctant to share in any detail until we had come to some conclusion (positive or not). Writing this all out has been a bit cathartic so I hope you’ll forgive the segue way from my typical subject matter. And perhaps you’ll also forgive my long absence.
Even since construction started, we’ve already nearly blown through our contingency with surprises like hydro disconnection/reconnection fees, permit amendments and shoring. It’ll likely have the most basic finishes if this trend continues, but it’ll be ours. It’s the biggest investment of our lives and it’s not always easy to accept that even still it may not be enough money to get many of the details we imagined. Still, it will be light years better than our old home.
My friend Katie and I were talking about getting comfortable with our stories. Are we still saying first world problems? Cause this is obviously a clear case of that. I know I am extremely privileged to own a home in this city. There was never a fear we would be destitute. We have loving and supportive families who are in positions to help us.
Having said that, it’s played a big role in my life the past three years and it felt like the right time to share it here. If for nothing else, take it as a cautionary tale.
On the flip side, I strongly believe (if for sanity’s sake alone) we have to make the best with what we are given. And this is obviously an enormously positive outcome. When life gives you lemons and all that. And, hey, our little house served as our HQ for 4.5 years.
Our builder actually told us the average project of this magnitude typically takes 3-5 years from start to finish.
So really, we’re right on schedule.
Patience Iago. And gratitude gratitude gratitude. Always.