home renovation toronto

The unofficial guide to home renovations in Toronto

A home renovation in Toronto can be a daunting task if you've got a house that needs some work. Where do you start?

The following guide summarizes insights from experienced home renovators into an number of important steps, including permit applications, the do's and don'ts of working with a contractor, prioritizing your work, and purchasing the right materials.

You will learn so much more on your path to completing your project, but you can avoid some common mistakes by starting your journey here.

Here's an unofficial guide to renovating your home in Toronto.

Are you renovating a heritage property?

Toronto has been around for about 229 years, and at least 4,500 homes in the city fall under the designated heritage category while hundreds more have been listed for consideration.

The city requires owners of heritage properties to obtain a Heritage Permit before performing any work that entails altering, demolishing, or building on them.

In order to determine whether the property you are looking to renovate falls under any of these categories, the city provides a searchable database.

Thousands of homes in Toronto are listed under the city's heritage register. Others are heritage-designated under the Ontario Heritage Act, and others may form part of a heritage conservation district.

While renovating a heritage property is not entirely impossible, legislation at both the provincial and municipal levels serve to preserve the architecture, specifically, the exterior of the property.

In terms of the interior, one of the most common problems with homes that fall under the heritage category is energy efficiency.

Within the last two centuries, homebuilding technology has changed drastically. For example, modern insulation is manufactured into sheets that fit perfectly into joist and stud cavities.

In the 1950s, builders would blow cellulose into walls without ensuring full coverage of the cavities. Consequently, this left thermal leaks where cold drafts could enter a property in the winter and allow cool air to escape in the summer.

To know and understand which features of a designated heritage property must be conserved, you can search the address using the city's Heritage Property Search Tool and find the applicable by-law.

Establish a list of work to be done in order of priority

Once you've established an ordered list of the work you'd like to accomplish, just stick with it no matter what. This will help you conserve time and resources in the long run.

Use this opportunity to establish a budget for the materials you will require and the cost of renting or purchasing new tools and equipment. Your budget should incorporate quotes from licenced contractors.

If applicable, add transportation and hotel stays to your budget as some types of work require properties to be vacant for extended periods.

Priority means attending to health and safety hazards such as asbestos removal or mould remediation immediately.

Anything to do with the foundation of a house, like excavation or concrete pouring, must be done first. Once the foundation is cured, you and or your contractors can work on framing the house or section to be reconstructed.

When it comes to the interior mechanics of your home, it's best to prioritize the work according to the rigidity of the materials used. For example, because HVAC duct work requires larger and the least flexible of materials, it is important to do this work first as it will take up the most space.

After this, you may go ahead with the plumbing as drains and water pipes are typically smaller than those materials used for HVAC. Leave electrical work for last as electrical wires are very flexible. They are naturally malleable and can be adjusted around other systems within the walls.

Who is your crew?

Determine how much of the renovation you can rely on your own personal skills, energy and time to complete.

Maybe you've switched a P-trap under a sink or installed a few light switches in your time, or maybe not. Whatever your level of expertise may be, knowing and respecting which jobs should be left to licensed professionals will be your way of saving time, money and even lives.

If you are bringing plumbing to a region of the house where there was none before, you will most certainly require a plumber to perform the work for you.

The same would apply to major electrical work such as changing your panel from a 100 amp to a 200 amp service.

You might not have any trade skills to offer your home renovation, and yet there is still something you can do. Toronto's rich coffee culture means you are most likely a short drive or a brisk walk away from sourcing some godly nectar of the finest beans to keep your crew caffeinated and even fed!

Construction jobs are physically taxing, so thoughtful gestures can go a long way and should never be spared.

Permit Application

Toronto's home renovations require a Building Permit. If your completed application satisfies the city's requirements, this process should not take more than 10 business days.

The baseline fee for any building permit is $198.59 as of 2022, and there is an hourly rate of $85.79 for any inspection of the property.

To calculate the fee for a building permit, the city multiplies the applicable value for the work to be done as found in the service index by the total floor area in m2.

For example, the fees for residential spaces are categorized under construction group "C" of this service index, which indicates a fee of $52.08 per unit included in an application.

You can find information relating to fees for other types of work including demolition, zoning certificates and miscellaneous work in this service index as well.

For convenience, the city enables online payments for some permit fees through its website.

How to avoid permit application delays

This topic is probably a universe unto itself, but let's start with some tried and true basics.

The city of Toronto provides a detailed guide on building permit applications, which also delineates the types of work that require permits.

In this same section you will find permit application guides for interior alterations, small residential additions, and residential underpinning.

Take the time to read this guide.

While permit applications may feel like a nerve-racking nuisance, try to appreciate the city's measures to ensure your building process will not become hazardous to yourself or anyone else during or post-construction.

Moreover, take time to appreciate the penalties for getting caught working on your house without a permit. If you do choose to skip this process altogether, know that it only takes one phone call to the city from a nosy neighbour for an inspector to show up at your door unannounced.

The fine for work without a permit is equal to 50 per cent of the applicable permit fees up to $27,234.64 as of 2021. If caught, the city will most likely require you to stop all work on the property, and in some cases, demand that you disassemble some of the work already completed.

For your application to be processed as rapidly as possible, any building or floor plans must be prepared by a structural engineer and contain their official seal. With this criteria in place, the city does not need to further scrutinize your application. The structural engineer will assume full liability for any builds they've approved.

Got approved? Great! Here's what's next…

Once you've got the green light to create the home of your dreams, you have entered the "open permit" building stage and can start hacking away at that work list.

Every bit of work to be done on your home will require a set of tools and materials that you may or may not have accounted for in your budget, and that's the name of the game.

Renovating what someone else built means not knowing exactly what or how much of something you will need until you’re covered in dust, sweating under your hard hat and standing face-to-face with some culprit-build that made sense in another time.

At every new obstacle, DO take the time to fully assess the materials that you may require for your solution. This will minimize the number of trips you make to your local hardware store and help you save time and energy.

DO take the time to get to know the service staff at your local hardware store. You'd be surprised how many of the people working the shop floors are retired contractors or people with decades of experience in the distribution or manufacturing areas of the construction industry. They will have all kinds of helpful insights to offer you on your journey.

DO invest in quality materials. This is a no-brainer; however, buying products manufactured in Canada is the best rule of thumb to follow for ensuring your builds are made with integrity.

Do's and Don'ts of working with a contractor

In Toronto's hot real estate market, many people will claim to be general contractors. In other words, they will claim to be among those at the top of the construction hierarchy regardless of their skill level and experience.

DO vet them out by asking a lot of questions. You may want to start out by asking for simple details like the length of their career as a contractor.

If you're looking to hire someone for a tiling job in your kitchen for instance, ask to view samples of previous work.

If someone claims to be experienced in framing, ask what sort of structures they have framed and for how many years. Maybe they’ve only ever framed a few individual units within a home, but never an entire property.

Many contractors advertise their work on social media, so take the time to view some of their before and after pics to help you make your decision.

Keep in mind that the better the contractor, the higher the fees and the longer it may take them to start work on your property. You may be waiting a year in the current market.

DON'T pay a contractor outright before the job is done. In Toronto's high volume construction market, contractors might cut corners as they rush to take on the next job. Some might commit to taking on more work than they actually intend to finish, accepting retainers that clients must pay upfront before disappearing.

DON'T rely on contractors to pick up materials for you as they may charge for quality materials but may instead provide you with sub-par materials to turn a profit. Ensure that you select, purchase and pick up your materials on your own or through someone you trust and leave them onsite for contractors to use.

DO maintain some level of supervision. If you cannot be there physically for the duration of the renovation, ask for progress pictures. Many contractors in today's construction economy use social media to advertise their brand and quality of work through images, so asking for pictures shouldn't be an issue.

The inspection process

At various stages of your renovation, you will be required to contact the city and book an inspection.

If your home renovation involves excavating and pouring concrete for the foundation, you should expect to have an inspection before and after this process.

The city specifically provides details of the underpinning process for permit applications, inspections, and necessary documents.

When all of your framing, electrical, HVAC, and plumbing are completed, you will have reached the "rough-in" stage of your renovation. At this point, someone from the city will conduct a rough-in inspection to ensure proper integration of all mechanics in the home before the installation of walls and subfloors.

After you have installed fixtures, lighting, and doors, your property will be ready for a final inspection.

If your property successfully passes this final inspection, the city will close all of the outstanding permits. The whole building phase is now complete.

DON'T keep outstanding permits on file as they can create complications when you try to sell your home in the future or refinance your mortgage.

Additionally, outstanding permits can give potential homebuyers leverage over your sale, making low ball offers and ultimately bringing down the value of your property.

Final thoughts

I hope some part of this guide will prove useful to your home renovation adventure. I'm rooting for you!

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