Here is my unsolicited advice to those who build infills and laneway houses for us amateur developers.
There should be prenatal classes before construction starts.
A class where someone teaches you how to keep breathing deeply and staying calm when the budget-prep person at your builder tells you your project will now cost $100,000 or so more than you thought. Or when drugs are an acceptable option in the event that you get called out into the backyard to hear the construction supervisor say they’ll have to chop down a favourite tree to put in some new piece of required-by-the-city-for-the-first-time-ever plumbing infrastructure that will, by the way, cost an additional $10,000.
Also, that class should spell out some of the basic precautions.
Accept the fact that all the utilities currently serving your house (electrical, gas, water, sewer), which seemed to be working fine for the past 50 or so years will be in fact judged as not fine, out of date and absolutely necessary to be replaced.
Come up with a plan well in advance for how to salvage your trees, bushes and smaller plants anywhere near the construction zone. Bigger plants might need a professional gardener to move. Little things: Put them in pots, so they won’t be mistaken for weeds and have shovelfuls of dirt dumped on them at some point.
Get ready to fight over unexpected stuff, like whether you can use stone blocks for your required new walkway to the infill when the city insists it be concrete (I won). Or whether you have to obey the city order that a swath of ugly asphalt span the entire back of the house, not just the garage entry (I lost).
Oh, and be prepared for, say, a global epidemic arriving in the middle of your project.
I experienced all those and many more angst-causing moments that I didn’t think about during the four-plus years of waiting to get permits. I’d entered a fugue state where I’d forgotten about the reality of money, dirt, concrete, wood and all the rest.
That hit when we got the revised bill for construction in January, 2020, a month before construction was to start.
I had remembered that the original contract from October, 2015, said about $350,000. (It was actually $342,400, with a note at the end about having to cover any disbursements the company might have to incur, which appeared to be under $10,000. And some language about how these were “preliminary estimates only.”)
What we heard in January, 2020: $510,631.18.
The unexpected, additional two years of waiting had added a straight $34,000 to the original $232,000 for the actual house (separate from site work, landscaping, preconstruction design work and municipal permits).
A note to city councillors everywhere: When you decide to slow down all development in order to have robust engagement about new zoning plans, this is one of the direct effects.
It turned out the laneway was going to be near an electrical transformer in the alley, so there was an additional $16,000 for fire-rated wall assemblies and another $12,000 for a metal, rather than shingle, roof.
Municipal permits had increased from $19,000 to $33,268. The bill for site preparation had gone from $40,000 to $58,300 because our yard was “so difficult to work with,” according to the budget guy. Plus, tearing down the existing studio/garage hadn’t been factored into the original estimate.
I’d left my step-daughter in charge of making all the decisions about interior finishes, including any upgrades and built-ins (useful for putting what would turn out to be five people in 1,040 square feet). Those added almost $46,000 to the total, so that increase was on us.
Little did I know then that there’d be another $20,000 or so in surprises and extras before the end.
At that point, though, whatever the bill, we didn’t have a choice. Housing costs had continued to escalate, making it ever more unlikely that our kids could get anything like this space in the city for the same price. So I started writing cheques.
The bulldozer arrived Feb. 18, just after we’d returned from a three-week trip. It demolished our studio/garage in a day, crunching up the concrete floor, the walls, a giant bookcase I hadn’t been able to give away, the toilet, a gas stove and much more into one giant container load.
The first weeks were the worst, when a lot of the bad news got sprung.
Did I know, I was asked the first day, that my fence was in the wrong place – it was actually slanted slightly away from the real property line and should go 18 inches over into my neighbour’s yard by the laneway end.
No, I didn’t know that, because all the little lines on the plans I’d been sent were hieroglyphics to me and I didn’t spot the divergence between actual fence and legal property line among 500 other little lines. And no one had mentioned it when the surveying work was done three years earlier.
I was also told the first week that a beautiful Japanese maple would have to removed in order to meet the city’s new requirement for a larger sump pump. That’s also when I was scrambling to move plants to get them out of the way of the latest bulldozer foray as more and more of the yard needed to be dug up to replace utilities.
In the end, the worst problems got settled.
The sump-pump location was moved and the tree was saved. The neighbour next door offered to pay for half of the fence replacement that ended up being necessary and was gracious about the loss of part of his yard. (As it turned out, I had to replace fences on both sides, because the grade at the back of the yard ended up significantly higher than it had been previously. That meant dirt had to be piled up, which means fences had to be replaced or the dirt would just make the old ones rot.)
There was a couple of weeks where we just had a giant expanding hole, another month where we had the outline of a concrete bunker. Then the house frame went up in essentially five days. After that, it looked more home-like with every passing week. I have to admit, as truckloads of material arrived day after day and crews of up to 20 swarmed the place, $500,000 started to feel reasonable.
Our construction supervisor, Cory Sayers (an on-the-ground hero who had to deal with my occasional Karen-ing moments and sometimes used to bike over to our place at night to make sure everything was locked up), did some kind of Rubik’s Cube magic to keep everything going under pandemic rules. Those rules meant you couldn’t have two trades working in the same area at the same time.
Almost unbelievably, the house passed its final inspections Sept. 29, 2020, 225 days after the bulldozer arrived – only two weeks later than our designer Smallworks Inc.’s original estimate – in spite of the pandemic. City inspectors, despite our fears that they wouldn’t be able to work, continued to show up when needed, an essential part of keeping the project going.
Our kids moved in Oct. 4, almost five years to the day after we signed the original contract.
It’s all been worth it. They have a home. We love having them so close, seeing the diorama of their fun family life through the windows, kids jumping on the sofa, across the way. But I still wish we could have done this all in the original two years we imagined. Not five.
This is the third of a four part series. Next week: Thoughts in hind-sight