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Toronto Real Estate Home of the Week: An Annex rooming house turned single-family space

Home of the Week, 170 Howland Ave., Toronto

Rob Holowka/Birdhouse Media

The listing: 170 Howland Ave., Toronto

Asking Price: $1,795,000

Taxes: $6,914.30 (2018)

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Lot Size: 19 by 197 feet

Agents: Carol Lome and Brayden Irwin, Royal LePage Real Estate Services Ltd., Johnston & Daniel Division

The backstory

Like many in the area, the house was previously divided into apartments.

Rob Holowka/Birdhouse Media

Michel Vulpe has had an affection for the Annex since he was a graduate student at the University of Toronto.

During the 1970s, the area north of campus was popular with academics and literati who lived in the grand Victorian-era mansions on tree-lined streets, while students gravitated to the many large dwellings converted into apartments and rooming houses.

Mr. Vulpe enjoyed the cultural diversity, the arts scene and the freedom to walk everywhere he needed to go.

After finishing university, Mr. Vulpe’s career in the technology sector took him on a peripatetic journey through various cities. In 1991 he decided to return from Los Angeles to Toronto.

His real estate search led to a three-storey semi-detached Victorian on Howland Avenue in the Annex.

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Similar to many neighbouring houses, number 170 had been divided into apartments and the streets near Bathurst Street and Dupont Street had become a tad run down.

“It was a bit more dodgy back then,” Mr. Vulpe says.

The kitchen was stained to mesh with the exposed brick of the dining area.

Rob Holowka/Birdhouse Media

But the area still provided good access to downtown culture and Mr. Vulpe enjoyed the ability to be a pedestrian again after living in the car culture of Los Angeles.

At the time, Mr. Vulpe was an entrepreneur consumed with launching his own software start-up, called i4i. He couldn’t spare the time to take on the renovation of a circa-1890 house.

Mr. Vulpe hastily removed makeshift kitchens and other remnants of the rooming house to create a comfortable single-family dwelling for him and his two children.

“I pulled it apart and turned it into a more reasonable family home.”

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As Mr. Vulpe’s business grew, he took a pragmatic approach to home maintenance. When plaster crumbled, he bought acoustic tiles at the hardware store and hammered them onto the ceiling.

The entrepreneur gained fame in the tech sector when, in 2007, i4i took on juggernaut Microsoft Corp. for patent infringement. The legal battle wound its way through the court system and a U.S. jury awarded i4i US$290-million)

The house today

Contemporary features like this open staircase were added in a renovation.

Rob Holowka/Birdhouse Media

Mr. Vulpe’s laid-back approach to home maintenance changed after he and partner, Julia Pelenyi, consolidated households in 2005.

He and Ms. Pelenyi decided to undertake a major transformation.

“Being in business you quickly learn to recognize non-negotiable propositions,” Mr. Vulpe jokes.

The couple hired an engineer to talk about opening up the main floor. When they started to take apart some walls, they found one very spindly wood post in the middle of the building.

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“That old post was holding up the entire second floor,” Mr. Vulpe says.

The upstairs bathtub also appeared to be in a precarious position.

“You find a lot of things when you open up an old house,” Ms. Pelenyi says.

The owners say they played host to large gatherings around the holidays in the house.

Rob Holowka/Birdhouse Media

The pair and the engineer worked out a plan to rebuild much of the house. The plan included redoing the foundations in the basement and taking down walls to bring more light through the main level.

Two furnaces and two air conditioning units were installed to bring heat and cooling to the four levels without the need for ducts running through the house.

The renovation kept some of the original elements – such as a Victorian-era stained glass window in the living room – while adding contemporary fixtures such as an open staircase and stainless steel pillars.

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The kitchen was moved to the centre of the main floor, where it is open to the living and dining areas.

Rob Holowka/Birdhouse Media

The kitchen was relocated from the rear of the house to the centre. It’s now open to the living room at the front and the dining area at the rear.

The kitchen was custom-designed and stained to harmonize with the exposed brick in the dining area.

Ms. Pelenyi says the pair both love to cook so the kitchen was designed to accommodate two chefs at the same time. A built-in buffet adds more storage and countertop space.

“It’s not uncommon for me during the holidays to make feasts for 40,” she says.

Large sliding doors open to the deep backyard.

Rob Holowka/Birdhouse Media

The couple installed very large sliding doors across the rear of the home to create an indoor/outdoor feel overlooking the very deep backyard.

The basement’s floor was lowered to create eight-foot high ceilings.

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The basement has eight-foot ceilings, thanks to a lowered floor.

Rob Holowka/Birdhouse Media

On the second floor, previous owners had turned the rear bedroom into a kitchen and bricked in the window. The couple restored the window and returned the space to a bedroom.

There is a bathroom on that floor and two additional bedrooms.

The best feature

The master bedroom has a gas fireplace and Juliet balcony.

Rob Holowka/Birdhouse Media

The third floor has been turned into a master retreat. The bedroom has a gas fireplace and a Juliet balcony overlooking the backyard.

There’s a bathroom with his-and-hers sinks and a bathtub.

A room overlooking the street can be used as a study or a sitting room.

The master suite's bathroom has his-and-her sinks.

Rob Holowka/Birdhouse Media

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