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Buying a house in need of TLC

Welcome to Angela, Bradley and Caitlin’s excellent renovation adventure. At least, we hope it turns out that way. We bought our home in Oak Bay in 2004.

Welcome to Angela, Bradley and Caitlin’s excellent renovation adventure. At least, we hope it turns out that way.

We bought our home in Oak Bay in 2004. When we went to the open house, my daughter Caitlin, then 10, liked the swing hanging from the tree in the front yard. My husband Brad saw the house’s potential right away. I had to be convinced. We bought our home in Oak Bay in 2004. When we went to the open house, my daughter Caitlin, then 10, liked the swing hanging from the tree in the front yard. My husband Brad saw the house’s potential right away. I had to be convinced.

The house made an underwhelming first impression. It was obvious it had been less than well-cared-for.

At the open house, the realtor caught me staring at the shards hanging from the ceiling in the kitchen where there should have been a globe-shaped light fixture. “The boys were playing basketball in the kitchen this morning and the light fixture broke,” he said.  “We haven’t had time to replace it.”

Ah yes, the boys were playing basketball in the kitchen. That would be the teenaged boys of the family who lived in the house. Mostly, the boys lived downstairs. At the bottom of the stairs was the rec room. When Brad opened the door, a wall of unpleasant odour smacked us in the face.

I didn’t go in; Brad did. He insisted I come take a look. Holding my nose, I took in the scene: A large room with a big screen TV, sofas stacked bleacher-style, various types of sports equipment times four (not recently washed), shag carpet and the dog’s bed. Hiding behind the bleachers was a lovely, though neglected, fireplace. The room, with its built-in ironing-board cupboard and the fireplace, is original to the house.

A fellow from Edmonton put a conditional offer in on the house that day, which I thought would save me an argument. I went off to visit family in Toronto. A few days later, Brad called me to say the Edmonton man’s wife had seen the house, didn’t like it and the deal was off.

Did we want to make an offer?

Brad argued that the house was the size we wanted — four bedrooms, an office/den, three full bathrooms, a living room, a dining room, a family room and a rec room. It’s 1,800 square feet upstairs and 1,200 square feet downstairs. If anyone in our family came to visit — they all live a long way away — they’d be staying more than a night or two and this house could accommodate them.

“What’s wrong with the house is all cosmetic,” Brad said. “It’s cheap to fix it. At least we won’t have to knock out any walls to add space.”

We made an offer and they accepted — on the condition we could close the deal in a week. They were in a hurry because they had bought another house and wanted out. So, after their cleaners left, our cleaner went in for three days. An electrician fixed all the wall plugs and baseboard heaters. All but two of the light fixtures inside and outside the house were replaced. The dark wood floors were sanded down and given a light finish. The refinisher who did the work was very excited to discover the floors were thin-strip, top-nailed maple. Going to a light finish made a huge difference.

The dining/living room had seemed so dark, we thought we might need a skylight. Not after redoing the floor. The corner windows in the living room and the picture window in the dining room provided lots of light. Then, our painter went in and it took him more than three weeks to clean, patch and paint every wall in the place.

Seven weeks after we bought it, we moved into a clean, freshly painted house that served our needs, but we knew some day we’d have to fix the mistakes that had been made in previous attempts to “update” the place.

The original house was built in 1946 on a lot that is 67.5 feet wide by 125 feet deep. An addition built in 1991 took off the back end of the house, adding a family room, three steps down from the kitchen, an adjoining master bedroom and ensuite. The extension was built over a crawlspace.

At some point in the late 1990s, the basement had also had a makeover, adding a bathroom and two bedrooms. This was all done, apparently, without a permit. That’s what the Oak Bay building inspector told me when he came to look at the house after we submitted our renovation plans to the municipality.

“No kidding,” I said. “When you look at what they did, you’ll see why.” The pipes in the bathroom hang down from the ceiling. Anyone taller than five-foot-nine would hit their head if they didn’t duck. The windows in the bedrooms were much smaller than required by the building code. The venting for the dryer takes a circuitous route around two walls to get to the outdoors. The updated electrical panel was hidden in the back of a closet under two hinged pieces of wood.

After six years, we decided we had had enough of living with windows often wet with condensation, heavy sliding doors that leaked, a harvest gold stove that didn’t always work properly, an awkward fridge that also didn’t work well and a front door that’s almost impossible to unlock from the outdoors — judging by the damage to the frame, the teenage boys must have taken to kicking it in when they forgot their keys.

We talked to a designer about making our home live up to the potential Brad always knew it had. Just the talking and planning would take a full year.