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A few questions to ask before knocking down walls

Renovation season is upon us. This year, with the economy recovering and optimism again blooming, many more people are undertaking extensive overhauls of their homes. As a result, I've recently found myself discussing a range of renovation options with homeowners. In ascending order of cost, they are: re-jigging floor plans, adding new rooms, and top-to-bottom renovations.

Potential clients often walk through my door with developed ideas about how they want the renovated space to look and feel. That's where I stop them. Nobody benefits from talking about marital bliss on the first date, especially if you're the person who'll be paying the bills in tears and treasure.

Before we get to the design, direct questions need asking. Too often, the homeowners haven't given them any thought. Why? Lack of experience. Most people renovating their home are doing it for the first time. Having done it scores of times myself, I can help you avoid a hex from the gods of money, time, and stress.

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Don't think about engaging an architect or designer until you have answers for these four questions.

What is the real estate potential of your home?

Who was it that said "Context is everything"? Perhaps it's the same sage as gave us "Location, location, location." However you look at it, you need to have an accurate picture of your environs before you commit to a renovation.

The first step is to take a look yourself and try to assess how your neighbourhood is evolving. Are small bungalows becoming two-story homes? Are single-family dwellings being converted to duplexes or townhouses?

Next, get in touch with a good real estate agent working in the area. He'll assist you in strategic decisions related to what's happening in the next five years – changes in zoning and the like. You may find that it pays to do a modest renovation now and an ambitious one later – or vice versa.

Take my friend Natalie, who bought a sweet little 1940s two-story on the west side three years ago for $1.1-million. The house sits on a large lot, and today is worth $1.8-million. Natalie told me she and her husband had been thinking of selling until she learned from an agent that a number of people in the area were adding an upper floor to their homes. A $750,000 renovation would raise her resale value from $1.8-million to $2.3-million. She decided to stay.

The lesson: Understanding the long-term potential value of your home and neighbourhood is crucial to deciding how, whether, and when to invest in it.

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What level of quality do you require?

This can be a slippery calculation. In addition to considering your own needs and tastes, you'll want to take your neighbours' homes into account. I'm not one to counsel keeping up with the Joneses, but it's good to know how your renovated home rates against its peers. Does the average new home in your neighborhood have marble countertops? Top-flight appliances? In-floor heating? If so, you'll want to consider comparable items or risk losing a step on your neighbours. A couple of weekends of open houses will give you the correct perspective.

Where are your blueprints?

It might seem an obvious question, but it stops many people in their tracks. Are the drawings necessary? For any renovation that doesn't involve Craigslist and a crew that comes under cover of night, absolutely. Plus, having them in order will light a fire under the designer or architect's proposal process.

If you didn't receive an original set when you purchased your home, you have two options. The first is to go to the municipality. As the owner on title, the city will (for a fee) give you a copy of whatever is in its files. The information may be on microfiche – not optimal, but better than nothing – but in most cases you'll get a full set of drawings.

If you don't, you'll need to have them made, which will cost up to $5,000. The money goes to measuring your house from scratch and producing "as-built drawings" – your design starting point.

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What kind of heating system do you have? How old is it? Can you afford to upgrade if you must?

Heating systems really affect a home's functionality and appearance. A recent site visit to a 1950s Tudor-style home in West Vancouver set off alarm bells. A previous renovation of the home had added raised floors to the living room, family room, and master bedroom, reducing the room height to seven feet in these critical areas. I asked to see the furnace right away. The client showed me to the mechanical room.

There I found my – soon to be our – worst fear. An enormous furnace from the 1980s, over six feet wide, with gigantic ducts branching off everywhere. (The floors above had been raised to accommodate them.) We'd come to a fork in the road. The client could scrap his grand vision, which called for high ceilings and open floors. Or he could rip out the entire heating system and replace it with in-floor heat or a slim, high velocity furnace, a job that would cost an unexpected $12,000 to $30,000. As a designer, when you have to deliver news like that, it's best to speak in a soft, sympathetic voice, and then stand with the client and the shock sets in.

There you have it – four questions I hope will sharpen your mental and financial preparations for home renovations in 2011 and beyond. The tip I'll leave you with is existential: If your planned overhaul is anything but minor, don't put yourself through the hell of living at home. The expense of secondary accommodations pales beside the torment of a home turned upside down.

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