There’s a reason basement apartments suffer from the stigma that they do. With vacancy rates so low and the Toronto market so hot, homeowners are able to offer some pretty grim ‘"features": ceiling heights of less than seven feet (one I recall from a “worse apartments” list on the web a few years ago was five-foot, six-inches); one or two tiny windows that offer little light; weird bathroom placement; and cold ceramic tile floors … to name but a few.
But there are those among us who would be willing to live in basements … if only they didn’t look like a basement.
“If you can get just enough natural light, and a little bit of view,” architect Tom Knezic says, “you forget; and I know, because I lived in Dufferin Grove for almost a year.”
By “Dufferin Grove,” Mr. Knezic means the house with a basement apartment he owns in that Toronto neighbourhood – one of four houses in his real estate portfolio. While by no means a wealthy man, he, along with life-partner, Christine Lolley – also an architect and co-founder of Solares Architecture – have jumped on opportunities to purchase investment houses over the years (and, as Ms. Lolley says with a laugh, they have “millions of dollars in mortgages” to show for it). Their first house, a typical Toronto bay-and-gable in the Dufferin Grove neighbourhood near the corner of College and Dufferin streets, was purchased during the recession of 2008.
After getting their architectural office set up on the main floor and setting themselves up on the second floor, they turned to the “quite depressing basement apartment” they had inherited. Not only was it not legal (no windows in the bedroom among other things), it was dirty, dark, mouldy and “kind of scary,” Mr. Knezic says. Instead of fixing it, however, the couple “implusively just gutted it” and left it empty. Soon, however, they were faced with a major decision after learning their building had been “fake underpinned” and was sitting on soil that was gradually washing away. Since a great deal of money needed to be spent to stabilize the foundation, they wondered whether they should also create a new, not-scary apartment at the same time.
“It’s not going to cost much more,” Mr. Knezic remembers thinking. “You’re doing a lot of the work anyways.” Once it was done, it was so light-filled and comfortable, the couple moved down there to allow for a renovation of the second floor. And photographs bare it out: Creamy-white walls, glossy white kitchen cabinets, ample storage and a small window in the bedroom with a sill wide enough for a cascading plant all make for a welcoming space.
The key to really sticking it to the common basement apartment stigma, Mr. Knezic says, is to create a wide and deep light-well rather than the typical, “minimally-sized” staircase to the apartment’s front door; while this may eat up some of the backyard, the dividends it pays back in photons are priceless. “That, I think, is one of the main moves,” he says. “That gives you an opportunity to put a huge window right off that stairwell … and of course the door would be a door with a glazed panel.”
In three of Mr. Knezic’s and Ms. Lolley’s properties, including Dufferin Grove, the couple has been fortunate enough to situate the light-well facing south, which provides constant, all-day light; the other, which he calls “Brockton Village 2,” faces east but provides “tons” of light in any case. Indeed, what was a heavily tiled, popcorn-ceilinged, dark basement fit for illicit card games or crying jags is now a bright, white, happy flat with views of trees and the textured brick walls of neighbouring homes.
Which brings us to Solares Architecture’s newest initiative. After working on so many basements for themselves, it seemed logical to offer a packaged, “permits-to-paying-tenants” service to others. Since they’d already launched a service to help qualified homeowners with building separate laneway houses (lnwy.ca), they tweaked that site to deal with basement apartments (bsmnt.ca).
It’s ironic for a firm that had in the past turned away basement-only projects, preferring to take on only whole-house projects that fit with their holistic approach to architecture. “We always wanted to stay away from partial renovations because of what we do with sustainability,” Mr. Knezic says. “Insulating everything and air-sealing everything and replacing all the systems.” But, he continues, as Solares took calls about laneway houses, Mr. Knezic says his “natural reaction” was to ask, “how’s your basement?
“You have to tie in, for all your servicing, through the basement, so I realized, you’ve got to do something with the basement before you build the laneway house because once you build the laneway house you’re not going to have access [any more], so let’s talk about that first.”
So, doing basements became a thing Solares was able to fold into their offerings and feel good about. And, even better, a full basement doesn’t cost all that much, relatively speaking, even with features such as eight-foot ceilings, better fire separation (which also helps with sound separation), an independent ventilation system, minimal bulkheads, a light-well staircase, and windows in (almost) every room.
“Where we’re doing the full Monty, like the projects you see [on our website], they’re probably starting at $200,000 and probably go up to $250,000," Mr. Knezic says. “If you can do a laneway house, it’s going to be more … we’re telling people they’re in the middle-$400,000s … so I think you’re getting more bang for the buck.” And, with rents being what they are in this market, it’s likely a homeowner can expect payback in about 10 to 15 years.
Your house is your most valuable asset. We have a weekly Real Estate newsletter to help you stay on top of news on the housing market, mortgages, the latest closings and more. Sign up today.