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How much are you spending?

The most common question we've been asked about our renovation is: "How much are you guys spending?" My usual answer is: "I don't like to say the number out loud." It's true ­– I don't – but not because I'm worried about what we're spending.

The most common question we've been asked about our renovation is: "How much are you guys spending?"

My usual answer is: "I don't like to say the number out loud."  It's true ­– I don't – but not because I'm worried about what we're spending. (My husband’s preferred answer is: “I’ll tell you, if you are in for 10 per cent.” Yes, he is a funny guy. In so many ways.)

We bought our house almost seven years ago for a good price. There were a lot items in the house I would have loved to change – the harvest gold, 1970s stove that had several large chips in the paint, the awkward, cracked 1980s fridge that didn't always work properly and the kitchen's ugly vinyl flooring that had several gouges in it, just to name a few. We lived with these things because we knew we would renovate at some point. It would have been a waste of time and money to replace individual items that might not have later fit into our reno plans.

Because our reno plans are extensive, a lot of people asked whether it would not have made more sense to sell the house and buy elsewhere.  Well, “elsewhere” is the problem.  Brad’s poor eyesight makes him dependent upon public transit and our neighbourhood is well serviced by Victoria’s bus system.  We live in a great area – a quick walk to Caitlin’s high school, the beach, several parks, good coffee shops and grocery stores. And we have good neighbours – the type you only really appreciate when you have moved away for a while, as we have.

Others – who might think themselves “money smart” – cautioned us to make sure we did not become the most expensive house in the neighbourhood because “we wouldn’t get our money out.”  Well, we don’t plan on “getting our money out” for a couple of decades – and looking at the recent trend in both renovations and new construction on our block, it is likely that our home will be an average home in 20 years’ time.

There are economies of scale to “doing it once, doing it all, and doing it right.”  I don't like to talk about the overall cost of the project because it’s like looking at a forest without appreciating the individual trees. The overall number sounds vast and extravagant, but it isn't if you consider all the elements that are going into our reno –  a seemingly endless list that includes new plumbing, new electrical and new fixtures.

Besides, what we're doing is not just about money. We often say that it’s more about value. Over the next two decades, we will get lots of value out of the improvements we are currently making.

Yes, we did set a budget and we are trying to stick to it.  Brad, who works in financial services, has spreadsheets that track spending versus budget – and one even shows what our debt load will look like when the work is completed.  I don't speak spreadsheet, but I have a fairly good sense of the numbers. The total will be nowhere near the stratospheric amounts that some people have spent on the elegant, oceanside retreats profiled in our Homes section. By comparison, ours is modest.

Instead of talking about the "big number," I like to talk about individual chunks: Take

the three fireplaces, for example. Two are gas inserts to replace the current wood-burning fireplaces in the house – ones we never used.   The third is a new two-way fireplace between the family room and the master bedroom. At $11,500 – including installation – they will cost more than we had budgeted, and just saying that we’re installing three gas fireplaces sounds so extravagant.  But these are not "decorative" additions. They are energy-efficient heating appliances that mean we won't have to install the heat pump we were considering – a heat pump that would have cost more than $15,000. Instead, we will install a heat recovery ventilator, a few electric “blowers” and baseboards, at a cost $5,000 to $6,000. That difference in cost more than makes up for the extra we spent on fireplaces. Also, the fireplaces give us greater control over heating the three major areas of the home where they are located. That’s an advantage over a heat pump which cannot be adjusted to direct extra heat to just one area.

Then there's the electrical work. Before the renovation, the main electrical panel had been installed sideways, along with a sub-panel, inside a bedroom closet in the basement – definitely a building code violation. When the drywall came down John, our electrician, could only shake his head at the rat's nest of old, ungrounded and new wires connected to countless hidden junction boxes dotted around the basement. Upstairs, John found that some plugs were grounded and some were not. Discovering all the electrical problems made it feel like an episode from a Mike Holmes TV show.

The electrician filled a garbage bin with the old, black, ungrounded wire that was probably original to the house. He also pulled out lots of white, grounded wire that he was able to reuse. He also reused the old panel – which he turned right side up and moved to an easily accessible spot that meets the building code. The sub-panel was also reused – and placed in a different location to simply the wire runs back to the main panel.  Overall, the electrical work will likely cost about $10,000 – and we see it as money well-spent. On completion, we will have an up-to-date and well-organized electrical system – one that is readily expandable if required and where any future problems can be easily traced.  So spending money now should save us money later.  And I no longer have to worry about why the old panel was installed sideways, in a closet – and what that might mean for our safety.

Speaking of problems, we knew we’d run into a few, given the age of the house and the poorly executed previous renovations. The one major surprise was discovering there was there was moisture in the basement and that we had to redo the drainage around the foundation. That meant taking off the drywall in areas of the basement we hadn’t intended to touch, bringing in an excavator to dig down eight feet around the foundation, waterproofing the exterior and laying new drains.  All of that work will probably cost us $20,000 that we had not planned.

But we are more relieved than we are upset. Imagine if we had not discovered the moisture problem and, in a few years, it became so mouldy that we had to get our contractor back to rip out the work that had been completed as well as the landscaping around the house. It would have been more disruptive and cost more. So again, by getting this fixed now, we add value and save money later.

When the excavator was on the property and the soil and broken concrete of the front walk was piled so high that you could barely see the house from the street, friends and neighbours looked on with some concern. One day, I ran into our neighbour, Terry. “So, do you wish now you’d just torn the whole thing down and started from scratch?”

In fact, we don’t. Imagine all the material that would have had to go to the landfill. And we probably wouldn’t have gotten as much as we will for the same price.

How much is that?  It’s a number we can afford, a number that will give us a great home for many, many years – and a number I still don’t like to say out loud.  But, if you really want to know, Brad will tell you – if you're in for 10 per cent.