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Vancouver Real Estate A Kitsilano couple opts for gentle density, turning heritage home to multiunit property

Lee and Graham Laxton are converting their Vancouver home to a multiunit property.

Rafal Gerszak

Realtors and developers had been knocking on their door, trying to tempt them to sell their home at an attractive price, but a downsizing west side couple decided to maximize the potential of their land and pocket the profits themselves.

Graham and Lee Laxton had run one of the city’s most popular bed and breakfasts since Graham retired from his job as manager of Vancouver Lawn Tennis & Badminton Club. After 18 years running the Greystone Bed & Breakfast, they’d seen 12,000 guests pass through their doors. But Graham no longer wanted to flip pancakes and cater to guests with an increasing litany of food sensitivities.

Also, the couple wanted to downsize. They’d raised their kids and didn’t need the 4,000-square-foot character house on the corner lot at 2006 W. 14th Ave. Their house is in Kitsilano, east of Arbutus near Shaughnessy, on a street lined with character houses, large trees and gardens. The area is highly walkable, with stores along Arbutus and Broadway and it is centrally located to downtown.

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It’s also zoned RT-8, which encourages retention and renovation of existing buildings as long as they maintain the architectural style of the old neighbourhood. To retain the houses, homeowners are allowed to convert them to multiunit properties, with infill. As a result of the long-established zoning, Kitsilano is generally praised as one of Vancouver’s most successful examples of gentle density and livability.

The Laxton's home, prior to the start of redevelopment.

Courtesy Graham and Lee Laxton

The Laxtons decided to capitalize on the opportunity that gave them the ability stay in their neighbourhood by developing their 50-foot-by-125-foot lot into three large strata units and a 1,200-square-foot laneway house for themselves.

On a sunny afternoon, they stand in the shell of their old house, of which only some of the original structure and fireplace remain. It’s an emotional experience. Graham says there were tears when they first saw their beautiful and pristine character home gutted and sitting on blocks. In order to meet the building code, they had to gut it down to the studs and rebuild a lot of it, but they intend to return the exterior to its original 1910 craftsman glory.

“We came to the conclusion eventually that the area we wanted to live in was here and the City had been encouraging people to do away with single family homes of this size and go into strata units, that sort of thing, so we looked at the possibilities and it made sense,” Graham says. “The zoning was correct here.”

Adds Lee: “We have 40 years of neighbours, so we know everyone.”

Graham says the two two-level units will pay for construction costs and they’ll likely rent the basement suite to generate income. Their laneway house will be mortgage free and if all goes according to plan, they could have around $1-million profit after spending more than $2.4-million in development costs.

The Laxtons had to gut their down to the studs and rebuild a lot of it to meet the local building code.

Courtesy Graham and Lee Laxton

It means they can age in place, with the community they know, without having to move into an apartment. They are currently renting an apartment nearby and are counting the months until they can return.

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“We had so many friends who had sold the family home and they would say to us, ‘We moved to an apartment and regret it. Don’t do it. Whatever you do, don’t do it,’” says Lee, who works at VanDusen Botanical Garden. “They bought something, and for their own reasons didn’t like it, it was too small, or whatever.”

However, it’s not an easy process, they agree. Graham says they could have sold it sold for around $4-million when the market was at its peak. The house has probably decreased in value to about $3.5-million, he estimates.

Their builder Jim Perkins, of FairTradeWorks, says it’s daunting to take on such a four-year project and it needs proper know-how and a lot of planning. It took more than two years just to get the development permit from the City and the Laxtons experienced unexpected costs, such as a recent $50,000 bill from BC Hydro. The undertaking works best for people who’ve benefited from the equity of long-term ownership.

“The Laxtons are people who bought a long time ago and have a ton of equity in the home and the house is mortgage free and they can comfortably manage the development,” says Mr. Perkins, who is also a developer in Ontario, but only does construction in B.C., where he’s based. He started out working for his father’s large construction firm in Britain and has restored and renovated many west side Vancouver homes. On the Laxton project, he is working with architect Jim Bussey of Formwerks. Mr. Perkins is making it part of his business model to help homeowners such as the Laxtons develop their own properties.

Lee, left, and Graham, middle, Laxton speak with builder Jim Perkins, owner and founder of FairTradeWorks.

Rafal Gerszak

Mr. Perkins believes that homeowners will develop higher quality homes than a lot of builder-developers who pay top dollar and are forced to cut corners in order to achieve any profit.

Long-time homeowners have equity, but are also emotionally invested in the neighbourhood.

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“There is always developer demand on the west side and they know what the homeowner paid for the home years ago, so they make big offers that sound enticing,” Mr. Perkins says.

“But where are you going to go? You spend your entire life paying off the mortgage, looking after the property, so it makes sense that that the homeowner should maximize the profits in their estate, right? Rather than unloading for what seems like an attractive price, you say, ‘Hold on, let’s look at development opportunities,’ keep the homeowner in the deal, let them make the money and reap the benefits that they’ve put into the neighbourhood for decades.

“It’s not for the faint-hearted – it’s a long road, it’s emotional, it’s stressful and there’s a huge amount of money involved,” he adds. “There’s risk involved, because even when they started the market has changed. So I think it’s great that these guys at this age have taken this on to make sure they can come home again, right? I think it’s a great example of someone being a maverick and a pioneer.”

Because the Laxtons involved their neighbours, there weren’t any objections.

“When we first put the development sign up, we had all the neighbours over with our architect and they could ask any questions they wanted, so there were no surprises,” Lee says. “They were all very supportive because they knew we weren’t going to destroy the neighbourhood. They knew we loved it here.

They were emotional about the gutting of their beloved house, which was stripped of almost all of its old features in order to be moved 12 feet forward, brought up to code and divided into two two-level units and a basement unit.

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Market conditions are always changing, but they hope to sell each of the units in the main house for about $1.5-million. Lee is more optimistic than her husband that they should be able to get around $1,200 a square foot. They’ve even had friends that have shown interest in buying in.

“We have faith in where we are – location, location, location,” she says. “We are 15 minutes from downtown, so for working people it’s a great neighbourhood. I think it will appeal to a broad spectrum.

“It’s definitely not for the faint of heart. But at the end of the day, we’re pretty sure we’ll be able to say that it was all worthwhile.”

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