The plan had been years in the making. Graham and Lee Laxton would redevelop their lovely 4,000-square-foot character house in Kitsilano and end up with four strata housing units.
The house where they’d raised a family at 2006 W. 14th Ave., at the corner of Maple Street, would be converted into three new units and they’d live in a coach house to the rear of the property. They began the process in 2017. After a frustrating two years of waiting, they finally obtained a development permit and began construction. In 2019, they spoke to The Globe and Mail about the emotional turmoil of seeing their beloved house stripped of all its character features, down to the studs. But in order to comply with building code requirements to upgrade to the four strata units, complete with sprinkler system, they had no choice.
They soldiered on, dealing with unexpected costs and headaches, including a four-month wait just to get a sprinkler permit. And they lived in a nearby rented condo, Graham walking by the site most days to check on progress. He’d retired from running the popular Greystone Bed & Breakfast for 18 years, while Lee continued to work at VanDusen Botanical Garden.
The project was set for a spring completion this year, but then Graham was hospitalized for a heart stent procedure. He developed an allergy to one of the medications and his lungs failed. Graham passed away in February, before he was able to see their project realized. He’d been the one who’d overseen most of it.
Lee was left reeling by her husband’s sudden death, dealing with an unfinished construction site and bills that couldn’t be paid until she sold off the first unit. There have been many sleepless nights, she says.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, what have we done?’ But I’m sitting here, telling you the story without breaking down into tears.”
When he was in the hospital, Graham had told her to move into the coach house as soon as she could, because she needed to be on-site to make sure construction moved ahead. After he died, she followed her husband’s advice, and she moved into the coach house in April.
“I moved and suddenly I have to deal with strata, I’m dealing with lawyers, I’m dealing with an estate all of a sudden as well. It was a ton, and it still is a lot. And also I’m trying to sell.
“I had all this stuff thrown at me,” says Ms. Laxton, standing behind her new kitchen island in the coach house. The house is mostly finished, but there are still things to be done. There are exposed wires in one corner of the ceiling. But all the rooms are filled with her furniture and belongings, including a den where she salvaged the house’s built-in dining cabinet doors.
When she was at the peak of feeling overwhelmed, a mountain of boxes became her inspiration. She remembers looking at their lifetime of belongings stacked inside a rented garage, a pile that was 10-feet high.
“I just looked at it, and said, ‘I am going to take it one box at a time.’ Same thing with the, with the lawyers, with [the builder]. One problem at a time. I just had to deal with it. And here I am.
“Every day was a bit of a push. You just never know what’s going to happen.”
The biggest frustration, she says, was dealing with the City. The next big frustration was the length of time it has taken to sell the units. Although the market was busy in the spring, and there isn’t much inventory in the area, they took several months to sell. The units went on the market when still unfinished.
She sold the two main-floor units in the house for about $1.6-million each, so she can’t complain, she says. Graham had always said he’d be happy to get $1.2-million. But he couldn’t have expected the price hikes seen during the pandemic. The three-bedroom, 980-square-foot lower-level unit is on the market for $1,075,000, and she’s received offers, but the buyers wanted to rent the unit out, which isn’t allowed in their new strata bylaws. So that unit is taking a little longer to sell.
But the sale of the two units has covered the cost of the project. That’s about $600,000 higher than they’d originally planned, she says. The rental of a condo during the build was $2,800 a month, and there were storage costs, an unforeseen B.C. Hydro bill of $50,000, consultant fees and extra construction and labour costs due to permit delays and the pandemic, to name a few of the added costs.
The sale of the basement unit will be her future retirement savings.
And she has the coach house, which is paid off, so Graham would be pleased with how it’s turned out, she says. Another fortunate event was when she sold the rear main-floor unit to an accountant who had past experience setting up strata corporations, and so he offered to help set up their new one.
“I thought to myself, ‘Thank you Graham.’”
Ms. Laxton is also thankful to her former neighbour Ray Spaxman, the city’s director of planning from 1973 to 1989, who briefly lived across the street many years ago. Mr. Spaxman and others pushed for infill and “missing middle” style density for the 50-foot-lots in the neighbourhood in the 1980s. The Laxtons’ property is near Shaughnessy, and the lots are large, with generous backyards and side yards, ideal for infill.
“I think there was a general feeling in the community that putting infill amongst the big houses was the perfect thing to do,” Mr. Spaxman says. “We had laneway houses there too. And I guess [new] laneway housing is a derivative of that.”
Architect Sean McEwen, who lives near to Ms. Laxton, and grew up in the neighbourhood, had also pushed for more density, while retaining the heritage character. However, he’s not a fan of the zoning, which has retained only the form of the old houses without preserving the original character. As well, the zoning has resulted in gentrification and the loss of rental units, and lacks a social component.
“I think there is just so much more opportunity to create better neighbourhoods with the zonings that we have, if we tweak them to provide for opportunities for lower income households to remain in the neighbourhood,” Mr. McEwen said. “Kits is just a shadow of what it was. It used to be a vital, interesting place. The upside is people actually do live here, as opposed to First Shaughnessy. That place is a ghost town.”
Originally, Mr. Laxton wanted the basement unit to be a rental suite, but now that she’s on her own, Ms. Laxton didn’t want to become a landlord. She says she has enough on her plate.
Builder Jim Perkins of FairTradeWorks said the project is at the stage where people are moving and going through the standard deficiencies lists. There isn’t much more to be done, other than to sell the remaining lower unit. He’s not surprised that Ms. Laxton sold the main-floor units for around $3.2-million total.
“Remember it was a single-family home prior to, so turning a single-family house into three units, and they weren’t huge, so an efficient use of space, I think the price tag [tells you] there is a market for it, and they are in demand.
“There’s just a lack of inventory on the market.”
A homeowner turned developer is not an easy journey, and before embarking on such a major project, he recommends that homeowners educate themselves first.
“Be clear on what the road ahead is. Be prepared and very educated exactly on what you are in for. I think there’s a great upside. Just have a great business plan, and make sure you assemble the right team. We hear from everybody that city hall is challenging to navigate, especially if you do a multi-family project.
“City hall can throw a lot of curveballs, huge delays and costs, dealing with any bureaucracy is a challenge. But it is what it is, and it’s part of the process, and everybody needs to understand that. Realize you can’t change it.”
As for Ms. Laxton, she says that despite everything, she’s sure Graham would be pleased. Because she remained in her community, she’s received a lot of support from her long-time neighbours. She’s extremely pleased with the quality of the build and the design, which is by Jim Bussey of Formwerks. As well, she looks forward to her new neighbours moving in.
“I mean, would I do it again? Yeah, even though it’s been a hell of a four-years, and needless to say, it didn’t end the way it should have,” Ms. Laxton. “But I am living in a neighbourhood I love, I have a fabulous place, and I am going to end up with some nice neighbours. He kept saying to me, ‘just get the place sold and get on with your life.’
“Everything in the old house was more than 100 years old. Now, I’m living in something that I shouldn’t have to worry about for at least 10 years … it’s good.”
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.