How to survive a reno (with kids!)

Real estate guru Scott McGillivray shares his best renovation tips. Plus, we've rounded up the best advice to save you time and money.

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It’s one of  the biggest decisions you can make for your family. A home renovation will upend your relationship, your finances and your peace of mind (but it will totally be worth it). We’ll guide you through the mess to the other side.

5 pro reno tips

Real estate guru Scott McGillivray—realtor, investor, contractor, HGTV star and dad—shares his best tips for finding calm in the chaos.

1. Take it one room at a time
“Don’t go for a whole-house reno with kids; focus on specific rooms,” McGillivray says. The best spots to tackle—especially if you have a second loo or can set up a makeshift kitchen elsewhere in the house—are kitchen and bathroom. Return on investment is the greatest with these two rooms—and they won’t be as easily destroyed by little kids. Skip the renos on what McGillivray calls “sacrifice rooms”—bedrooms and play rooms where “the kids can run wild, bump the walls, dent the floors.”

2. Invest in maintenance
A gleaming stone floor or chic herringbone backsplash doesn’t mean much if the structure behind it isn’t sound. “The best return on investment is a well-maintained home,” McGillivray says. “Sure, potential buyers fall in love with a beautiful kitchen or bathroom, but one of the most popular requests is a home with good bones.” Ignore one problem and it can lead to bigger ones like mould, rot, foundation and structural issues, which are huge deterrents to buyers—not to mention the neglect will cost you.

3. Don’t count on your timeline
It’s a well-worn cliché—along with “expect the unexpected”—that your reno will inevitably go overtime (and likely over budget). “A lot of people are unrealistic with their timelines, and that’s when they get stressed out,” McGillivray says. “You’re going to go over by 20 to 30 percent—so if you estimate two months, it may take almost three.”

4. Hire a family-friendly contractor
Workers with family experience are more likely to anticipate your needs and concerns. They should seal off reno areas to minimize dust and keep curious little ones from exploring, and put away tools and supplies at the end of every day. “You also want to chat with them about the products being used,” McGillivray says. “Some of them, including paint, glue and caulking, can be harmful even to adults.” They should also mix grout and mortar outdoors or use a ventilator to reduce fine dust.

5. Keep talking
While reno timelines are fluid things, you should still ask your contractor for a schedule to get a sense of when the big jobs will happen, McGillivray says. “We always check with homeowners when we need to turn off power, the heating or the water—otherwise it turns into a complete nightmare,” he says. “It’s also good to know when we’re soundproofing, as it can be noisy; when we’re drywalling, since it’s dusty; and when painting will start, so that windows can be opened or the family can get out of the house for a bit.”

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How to prep for a reno—what no one tells you

1. Make a play space
With all the upheaval and off-limits construction areas, it’s important (and safer) to give kids spots to call their own.

2. Take down wall art
Even in the room next to the one you’re working on—banging may cause things to fall.

3. Create a backup kitchen
If you’ve got an extra sink and electrical outlets close by, set up a dish rack, microwave/toaster oven and electric kettle. Cook everything on the BBQ if you can.

4. Set out supplies
Leave out rags, a broom, mop, basic cleaning supplies and even painter’s tape. Some workers don’t bring their own and may grab something you don’t want them to use (hide your fancy vacuum!).

5. Cover your furniture and stairs
Don’t assume workers will cover them for you. Get plenty of plastic or cloth drop sheets and drape them over everything you don’t want (too) dirty or damaged.

6. Talk to your neighbours
Before work begins, let neighbours know what’s happening, the work hours and your timeline. Also, a bottle of wine goes a long way.

7. Have an escape plan
It’s crucial to have a place—friend or relative’s home—to hide out when you’re sick of restaurants or need some quiet time.

8. Talk materials
Is your contractor buying or are you? Chat early and decide in advance so you aren’t running to the hardware store to order drywall at 6 a.m. before going to work.

9. Agree on communication
Does your contractor prefer text or emails or a whiteboard in a central place at home?

10. Don’t forget your pets
Workers are in and out often, so leave a sign with a picture of your skittish cat on your door to remind them to keep it closed.

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3 ways to bankroll a reno

Romana King, senior editor at Moneysense magazine (and married to a contractor), lists the three best ways to bankroll a reno.

1. Home equity line of credit (HELOC)

What it is: A line of credit that uses the equity in your home up to 65 percent of its value. On a $500,000 home, this would be $325,000. With a $300,000 mortgage, you could qualify for a $25,000 loan. It gives ongoing access to funds at a low interest rate (between two and three percent).

How it works: Like a typical line of credit, you can borrow from a HELOC up to the limit, repay and borrow back again. You only pay interest on the funds you use. You have to apply to see if you qualify for a HELOC, and once you do, a home appraisal is done to calculate its current value so that you can get the maximum line of credit. Processing fees can run as high as $1,000.

2. Mortgage refinance

What it is: Are you near the end of your mortgage term? Is the current interest rate lower than what you’re paying? This option allows you to start a new mortgage at a lower interest rate while topping it up—essentially adding money to the home’s original price as a loan, up to 80 percent of its appraised value. Like a HELOC, you’re borrowing against the equity in your home.

How it works: If your existing mortgage isn’t at term, you pay the penalty to break it (typically three months’ interest for variable rate, more for fixed) before taking out a new one. Like the HELOC, you have to apply and complete an appraisal. The penalty and fees add up, but it can be worth the trouble for a lower interest rate on your loan.

3. Energy audit rebates

What they are: If you’re doing extensive renos with energy efficiency in mind, like insulating the basement or upgrading windows and furnace, you may qualify for municipal, provincial and federal tax breaks.

How they work: First, you need to complete a home-energy audit—a test that will tell you how energy efficient your home is (or isn’t) and then provide a list of upgrades. The audit can cost anywhere from $100 to $800, depending on your city, your home and the company you use. Once you’ve completed and paid for these improvements, you can submit receipts and paperwork to various rebate programs. It may take up to a year for the money to come in, but if you had to make upgrades anyway, it’s nice to get a little cash back for them.

8 tricks to save you money

1. Paying a painter to do ceilings and sanding/primer coats on walls only—ceilings are worth having done by someone else, while you could easily tackle walls and trim.

2. Asking your contractor or designer for their trade discount on supplies and fixtures.

3. Shopping big-box stores—they offer great selection at competitive prices.

4. Keeping plumbing and electrical outlets in the same spot, if you can help it—moving them means paying for labour.

5. Doing some of the demo work yourself.

6. Considering floor models for discounts on appliances, lighting and fixtures; checking the clearance area for marked-down tiles for floor and backsplash; looking at remnants for small-space carpeting.

7. Getting at least three quotes for the work and asking for cash discounts.

8. Waiting for sale cycles—many stores have kitchen and bathroom events, or promotions on categories like doors, windows and appliances that offer great savings.

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Buying a house in Canada

Who’s paying the most, plus how much you need to earn to afford it.

1. Vancouver: avg. cost: $819,336; income: $147,023

2. Calgary: avg. cost: $465,047; income: $88,578

3. Edmonton: avg. cost: $365,520; income: $72,617

4. Regina: avg. cost: $331,161; income: $72,028

5. Saskatoon: avg. cost: $349,322; income: $74,546

6. Winnipeg: avg. cost: $270,605; income: $58,235

7. Ottawa: avg. cost: $357,887; income: $74,820

8. Toronto: avg. cost: $587,505; income: $113,009

9. Montreal: avg. cost: $344,273; income: $68,884

10. Halifax: avg. cost: $264,447; income: $56,929

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A version of this article was featured in our March 2015 issue, under headline “How to survive a reno (with kids!)”, p.69.

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