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the way home

Nicole and Kevin Lefebvre bought a home in Stratford, Ont., that was built in 1877.

The Way Home is a series looking at the issues and challenges for people who are in the market for a home.

Heritage homes offer soul, character and good bones. But owning and renovating one comes with caveats. A heritage designation, bestowed by federal, provincial or municipal governments, protects the features of a property that are of special heritage interest.

What that means for owners of heritage homes is that any plans for repair or alterations must be approved by a committee, generally at the city level.

Heritage restrictions don't create huge barriers, says Rory McDonnell, general contractor and principal of Build, a construction firm in Stratford, Ont., that does restoration and heritage work. But necessary approvals can take a couple of months.

Each designation lists the architectural features of the house that are protected, Mr. McDonnell says. "Often it's just the doors or windows, the trim detailing in the eaves, or the stonework. And the permits are hundreds of dollars, not thousands."

Still, a renovation can cost up to 50 per cent more with a heritage home, he cautions. It's important that his clients share his appreciation for heritage features, he says, and can budget enough money to do things the right way.

Those considering a heritage home should have an inspection conducted before buying; that way they will know if something is going to cost $40,000 to bring up to par, he says. Second, buyers shouldn't be in a rush to throw things away.

"Don't rip all your windows out and put in vinyl windows," Mr. McDonnell says. "Bring somebody in who can fix those wood windows and keep them. They're part of the house. There are a lot of ways you can fix things for a reasonable cost."

When architectural designer David Sheldon and his wife Trish Van Boekel bought their 1888 home in Stratford seven years ago, the house had already been designated as heritage. They loved the windows, quality of light and the downtown location. (Stratford has more than 180 designated heritage buildings.)

Since their heritage designation is based only on exterior features, they had no restrictions on interior renovations. They say they have, however, tried to preserve much of what was original, such as the ornate grates on the radiators.

"On top of being such a beautiful house, it's a comfortable house," says Mr. Sheldon.

Mr. Sheldon says they've been lucky because the house was well maintained, though they have renovated to make it their own.

"Heritage wise, we haven't done too much to it," he says. "The rules are that if you have to replace something like a double hung window, we would have to get approval for it from Heritage Stratford and have something built that looks exactly the same. It would have to be wood with the same nice curve to it. That's very expensive to do. You just can't replace it with a vinyl window."

When it comes to heritage rules, not being able to do what you want with your own house is a sticking point for Nicole Lefebvre and her husband Kevin. Although their 1877 Stratford home would likely qualify, she's undecided about whether they should apply for heritage designation.

In their city, Heritage Stratford either approaches the property owner or the property owner approaches Heritage Stratford about designation before conducting an assessment and beginning the designation process. If the property owner doesn't support heritage designation, he or she can appeal.

When the Lefebvres bought their house in 2010, they felt it was home as soon as they walked in. Despite the large amount of work the house needed, they committed to the project. They've since worked with Build to meticulously restore their home's elaborate Italianate front porch to its former glory.

"We bought a piece of history and you have to honour that," says Ms. Lefebvre. "The porch is really like a work of art, but it was literally falling off the front of the home. It would have been cheaper to tear it all down and put up a modern facade.

"When people in the neighbourhood saw us working on it, they were worried we were tearing the house down or changing it. We had to assure them we were rebuilding."

With a budget of $60,000 for the porch restoration, the Lefebvres have had to make some choices. A new master bathroom and family vacation were put on hold because they realized if they didn't fix the porch quickly, they'd never be able to restore it.

"Once the rotting starts, it's exponential," says Ms. Lefebvre. "We had to do something."

She feels that having a young family – three children under 10 years of age – in an old house works well since the home is so solid and the principal rooms are grand. They also splurged for a bigger kitchen and an addition with a mudroom and a playroom for the kids.

"It just took some creativity and vision," says Ms. Lefebvre. "The stone basements from that era weren't designed for movie nights or for having a man cave. The hockey bags are down there."

Tips for potential heritage homeowners

  • Tour the house with a contractor to help you understand how much renovation and reconstruction is going to cost, and a designer who can help you visualize what the house could look like. Often, surfaces have been covered over so many times that you don’t know what’s underneath.
  • Choose contractors who have the same feel and passion for old homes that you do, especially for the outside. You need someone who understands how these houses were built.
  • If you’re going to construct an addition, it needs to be sympathetic to the house without being overwhelming. You want it to look like it’s always been there.
  • Check to see whether the home is designated or on a list to be considered for heritage designation. See whether municipal programs are available to help pay for rehabilitation.
  • There are no restrictions on buying or selling a heritage home. The heritage designation is registered on the title of the property.

Editor's note: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said that the Lefebvre's porch was restored by both Build and David Sheldon.  Only Build worked on the porch.

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