Welcome to this month’s installment of Dear Urbaneer, where I put aside time each month to share real estate queries from my clients and my advice. This month, I am helping a client who has lived in their home for many years. While she doesn’t’ plan to sell immediately, she does plan to downsize within the next few years and is pondering what approach she should take regarding upgrades or renovations to increase her return when selling her Toronto house.
I’m intending to downsize in a few years and am thinking ahead to when I plan to sell. I’ve put some money into my house located in Toronto's Riverdale neighbourhood over the years that I’ve owned it, but to be honest much of it was for general maintenance and repairs - like replacing the roof and waterproofing the basement. I feel that, given the high standard of the properties that have recently sold on my street, I would need to do extensive upgrades just to be competitive and not be considered a 'fixer-upper'.
I’m looking at a number of specific improvements, including redoing the floors, windows, kitchen, washrooms, porch & exterior, roof, and possibly more. I was also thinking about putting on a two-storey addition to increase living space.
The question is - do I sell my house as-is, upgraded, or elevated - especially in the context of the other homes in my neighbourhood?
Signed, Renovating For Best ROI
Dear 'Best ROI':
Great question - and one I receive often from homeowners who are weighing their options on whether or not to undertake some improvements or upgrades in advance of selling their property.
In fact, having dedicated almost a decade to furthering my post-secondary education and three decades of experience working in the 'real estate trenches' as a top-producing realtor, I've been guiding both Buyers and Sellers on all matters of real estate including design, renovation, space planning, urban planning, redevelopment, and how the psychology of housing and home shapes consumer's wishes, wants and needs.
For Sellers, especially in the original City of Toronto where much of the housing stock was constructed over 100 years ago, it's important to understand who their future Buyer is in advance of selling, as well as the opportunities and constraints of the property based on its site, neighbourhood and location in the city, the age, condition and size of the dwelling, and how close or far it is from its highest and best use in the context of our current real estate market.
Here is some of my guidance that should steer you in the right direction, though please know I always welcome your calls and emails.
Is Your House Considered Obsolete & Mostly Land Value?
In one of my past Dear Urbaneer posts - Should I Replace My Vintage Windows When My House Is Considered A Teardown? - a homeowner wondered about the value of replacing an aging vintage bow window with a more modern option, worrying that it would detract from the overall character of the home. Furthermore, compounding the matter was their reconciling that when they did sell the property it would most likely be bought for land value or at the very least be substantially renovated or rebuilt. The challenge here, as is often the case, is determining whether it's worth making changes in the shorter term that might improve your comfort and liveability during your remaining time in residence, versus the potential to recoup those costs when you sell? When should prudence prevail?
There are three particular nuggets of gold in this post that may prompt you to link to it and read further. First, I analyze the percentage of value associated with each of The Six Essential Layers Of Property as it relates to the total value of a dwelling. After all, it's important to understand how the Site, Structure, Skin, Services, Space Plan, and Stuff (the furnishings) each contribute to a property's overall value. And while the percentage of values I subscribe to each layer does not reflect the value of all Toronto real estate, I do believe it serves as a guide in establishing how the different layers each factor into the price you'll garner when the time comes to sell. (P.S. It's quite surprising!).
Second, if the property is in a coveted location such that its highest and best use is for its redevelopment potential (ie. you're seeing older homes being replaced with larger executive residences), I still believe the dwelling that is habitable rather than derelict will garner a commiserate premium. Why? Because if the dwelling can be occupied by the Buyers - or rented to tenants - while taking the property through the planning/design, approvals/permitting, material/sourcing, and costing stages, at least it is generating some cash flow. After all, the process can take at least a year or two for a developer, and typically longer for the end-user (usually 4 to 10 years while they save the capital necessary) – before undertaking the renovation/rebuild. So if the acquisition cost can be offset by an income supplement, or provide personal albeit temporary shelter, it becomes a more attractive purchase. Furthermore, dwellings that are deemed uninhabitable either require substantial down payments or must be purchased fully in cash. That, in itself, reduces the potential pool of Buyers.
Third, in this instance, the Seller shared they might live in their house for another 15 years which is the lifespan of most new building components, meaning that if they lived there that entire time the replacement window in question would soon need to be replaced at the time of sale anyway. Second, the original bow window that was failing was at the rear of the property where there was a sundeck that overlooked their property which was perched on a lush ravine with mature trees. In the post, I suggest they consider removing the window and installing an expansive wall of sliding glass doors. Why? Because it would improve the indoor/outdoor circulation, increase the amount of natural light into the house, and elevate the view of their wooded ravine from inside which was a huge asset for the property. In fact, I felt this expense would enhance the resale value of their home, ensuring they would not only recover the cost to install the sliding doors but potentially convert more prospective purchasers into Buyers when they eventually did list the house for sale. After all, if land value constitutes the greater percentage of a property's value, shouldn't one invest in drawing attention to it in order to optimize resale value?
The lesson here? Sometimes it's important to look at the big picture of resale value - and what the best features of your property are overall - rather than get attached to what is familiar to your self as the property owner (in this case loving the character of the old bow window when replacing it to take advantage of the view would realize more money on resale).
Selling As-Is, Refreshed With Upgrades, Or Fully Elevated - When It's A Bungalow
Similarly, I recently helped the owner of a dated bungalow suffering from water damage about upgrading his investment property prior to selling. It's all laid out in, Dear Urbaneer: What Do I Do With My Dated Bungalow? (Plus A Brief History On This Housing Type).
In this situation, I counseled this seller by looking at bungalows in his neighbourhood that had recently sold nearby that were in original condition, those which had been upgraded, and those which had been expanded either up or out, and then analyzed which approach would be the most profitable (weighing out the variables of time and cost) which, in turn, would provide him with some information on which direction was best-suited for him.
Basically, as with most property owners, the general options are to sell the home in 'as-is condition' (leaving the buyer to tear down or to do renovations on their own), executing a 'refresh' of the dwelling (i.e. complete minor value-added cosmetic changes) or doing a comprehensive total overhaul to sell it at its highest and best use.
My advice? Sometimes - as in this case - a property has deteriorated to such an extent that it needs more than just a few upgrades. In fact, the property needed a significant cash injection just to make the tiny bungalow habitable which wasn't a cost-effective investment given the property was more valuable as a brick shell that could then be substantially expanded up, out, and down to its highest and best use as a larger dwelling. In this instance, I recommended selling the bungalow 'as-is' to a builder and extracting the capital to invest in other ways, because the cost to make it presentable was costly due to how extensive the repairs required were.
This is typically the case when the dwelling is small and in poor condition - with issues that may be dangerous like having mold, asbestos, vermiculite insulation, or are structurally compromised - and/or the lot it is situated on is generous, desirable, and either surrounded by expensive residences or in an area subject to redevelopment (like tearing it down to build two semi-detached houses, or townhomes, or part of a land assembly).
Incidentally, if you own a property that is likely to be torn down or topped up or have a family room addition put on by the next buyer, I think there is an opportunity for that homeowner to go through the urban planning process and secure approvals to expand the dwelling to the largest size possible. This doesn't require construction drawings but it does necessitate having preliminary design drawings prepared, and you will require the services of an urban planner and an architect. Whatever these expenses might be (and there are more --> check out this Dear Urbaneer: I Need Help With Architects, Builders And Toronto’s Committee Of Adjustment) these costs will generally come back to you in the form of a quicker sale. Any property owner who can expedite the redevelopment process is creating a much more saleable product. Every so often I'll see a listing come up that has planning approvals, construction drawings, tree protection certificates, and all the required building permits issued so that it can immediately be transformed into a new higher and best use. There are a lot of companies that redevelop properties that are often looking for projects so they can keep their construction crew working, and these are exactly the kinds of opportunities they're looking for. A long-time property owner who systematically prepares and plans their exit strategy in this manner can line their pockets with some additional dollars. But only do this if it interests you because it involves engaging in the bureaucratic process which many consider tedious.
Fixer-Uppers Are The Unicorns Of Toronto Real Estate
If the dwelling hasn't tipped into the 'sad and forlorn' zone - to the point where it is precariously worth just land value - even if it needs work and has a smidge of utility, as long as it presents as 'livable' it will have its audience. Especially when the property is in a location where prices are affordable to first-time and second-time Buyers. In fact, given the rise of the shelter media, it's not unusual for this group to desire a house that has utility and function while offering the opportunity to increase its value with intelligent upgrades and their personal stamp. This is because the 24-hour loop of television home makeover shows – Behold The HGTV Effect On Toronto Real Estate - have convinced Buyers renovation is really fun, and an easy way to personalize your home, and profitable to do in the process.
(However, if you are renovating please read my piece called, Help! We Want to Renovate And Keep Our Relationship Intact).
I wrote about this extensively in my post called The Affordability Conundrum For Toronto House Buyers: Livability, Condition & Costs. In this piece, I share the tale of a Fixer-Upper we had listed that needed a lot of work. However, the house was large, featured a huge garage workshop, and it was located in an 'up and coming neighbourhood' so the price point was on the low end of value for downtown Toronto. Furthermore, despite the home inspection revealing the entire house had knob and tube wiring, and most of the major building components required replacement in less than five years, our Sellers - a couple with a toddler and an infant - had invested many hours making their home present as 'livable'. In fact, while we often tout the merits on Why Home Staging Is Important When Selling Real Estate if the dwelling is at a more affordable price point I often counsel the Sellers to bypass the staging. Why? Personally, I think a fixer-upper containing highly aspirational contents from a staging firm can read as 'overtly contrived' and 'mutton dressed as lamb'. It also is as likely to annoy its target audience than appeal to them. Why? At the lower end of the price point, many first-time and second-time Buyers can identify and relate to a dwelling that is honest and true in its representation, and they're less likely to feel like they're being manipulated through the artifice of real estate marketing.
Listed at $799,000 - Spring Blooms Fresh Beginnings On Symington Avenue - received 10 offers and spiked to the stratospheric sale price of $1,250,000 this past month. The lesson here? The lower the value of the property, the more Buyers there are, such that the final sale price may drive up in competition to land at a sum that realizes you more money in your pocket than if you had invested additional capital into upgrades in an attempt to target a more affluent buyer pool. In fact, a house similar in size but substantially rebuilt with permits by a flipper just sold this week for $92,000 more than this listing, and yet it had at least $300,000 more in upgrades. With this recent experience, I'm inclined to say that 'livable fixer-uppers' on the lower end of the price point garner the highest returns in our market right now.
My Sage Advice For The In-Between House
In any real estate market, the cheaper the habitable dwelling, the larger the pool of Buyers there will be seeking to secure it. And the more Buyers there are actively in pursuit of those less expensive properties, the higher their acquisition costs relative to their size or condition. In other words, there are a whole lotta Buyers who can drop $1,7mil on a house in a family-friendly neighbourhood, and a lot fewer who can spend $3mil for the executive residence. This also means that because competition is greater for the less expensive product, Buyers are often forced to pay sums that are more likely at their top end of affordability. And given location, location, location often trumps the size and condition of a property in terms of desirability or perceived necessity (the price of admission to buy in a certain school catchment area, for example), although every Buyer would ideally like to purchase a house that is completely redone, most Buyers have to reconcile buying a dwelling that comes with existing deficiencies.
When a dwelling isn't a fully-transformed media-worthy showcase, and yet it doesn't fall into the category of being a 'fixer-upper' - for example when the major building components (roof, wiring, windows, plumbing, heating/cooling aka the expensive stuff) are in fair condition - but the house is aesthetically dated or portions are unfinished (like the basement or attic), then it's worth investing money into selective cosmetic upgrades. I call this the 'value of potential', whereby you present your property with some fresh upgrades while leaving others for the Buyer to add their 'own personal stamp'. (A couple of tips. I like to ensure every room has one bling element to serve up some appeal. Always ensure that the final spaces a prospective purchaser might tour have something special and unexpected so the viewing doesn't end on a flat note. For example, a new garage door opening system with remotes in an older dwelling, a top-end washer/dryer in a fixer-upper, or a new central air unit with an extended warranty as summer arrives).
Last Autumn we were called in to guide Sellers on a house that was looking really tired and forlorn. In fact, the couple had made the decision to split and in the process of tackling what to do to prepare the house for sale, they individually packed up and then abandoned ship. This house was a bit unusual in that the owners had upgraded a lot of the major building components during their ownership but they hadn't bothered doing many cosmetic improvements, mostly because they weren't consumed with aesthetics and presentation (rare birds, indeed). But like a lot of downtown houses that have been upgraded piece-meal over time, it had newer (but well worn) wood floors on the main level and original 'cannot be sanded one more time' wood floors on the second. If this is your situation, be aware it's too much of a contrast. Basically, if there is no design or material continuity between floors, or there is a jarring difference in the level of finishes, it can backfire on a Seller. In this case, we were concerned Buyers would tour the house and leave with the impression that the entire second floor needed to be gutted because the old floors were shot (there's lots of this sort of gold to reconcile in my post, Should I Renovate My House In Stages Or Do A Full Gut?).
Along with our Sellers agreeing to hire our handyman to complete a laundry list of little annoying-to-a-buyer deficiencies- while avoiding the expense of installing new floors on the second level and refinishing the ones of the first floor to make it cohesive (at a cost of around $15,000), we convinced them to spend the money having the entire second floor (walls, doors, trim, ceilings, and floors) painted the same shade of white - so we could position the property as a 'blank canvas that's ready for you to make it yours'.
And yes, the house got snapped up in competition. The lesson here? Do not underestimate the value of a cosmetic refresh, where you funnel your dollars into the surfaces you see in a dwelling, whether that be paint, broadloom, countertops, fixtures, and fittings including lighting, handles, and window coverings (or simply remove the tired ones). Oh, and start with paint. It's the most economical way to transform a space, and it covers the largest surfaces in a property, so, 'value for dollar', you get the greatest bang for your buck. And, yes, Buyers respond to a space that smells of fresh paint!
For Those Who Own The Property Showcase Showdowns
It's worth mentioning that if your property was substantially renovated or newly constructed within the past ten years, it's important to take off your rose-coloured glasses and swallow your pride when your realtor delicately tries to tell you that some of it may appear a bit 'dated'. Why? Because we live in a consumer culture where housing is as much a status symbol as it is shelter and, today, the 'fashion of housing' has accelerated at such speed that I frequently see 7-year-new kitchens being ridiculed by prospective purchasers as being oh-so-2010', and the property subsequently discounted $100,000 because that's the sum the Buyer anticipates having to spend replacing it.
Instead, heed the advice and spend the $30,000 having your espresso kitchen cabinet doors spray-painted on-trend duo-tone colours and replace your black granite counters in white Caesarstone with a waterfall embellishment.
As I wrote earlier, Buyers are heavily influenced by design media like HGTV, such that for some their choice of property is to enhance or elevate their lifestyle or to express themselves creatively and reflect their personalities. I wrote about this in Dear Urbaneer: My Obsession With Design Media Is Hampering My House Hunt!
This paradigm shift in shelter began with the rise of consumer culture in the 1980s when the influence of the media and subsequent growth of the internet commodified the shelter industry. The practicality and essential function of shelter - as in a place we stay warm and dry - became subjugated by a new emerging culture of domesticity rooted in desire and focused on display.
That's when the term conspicuous consumption got introduced, which was the intellectual's word for describing the 'self-absorbed show off', and also coincided with the term 'Yuppie' being coined, used as a derogatory title for young upwardly mobile people who were considered arrogant and obnoxious. I clearly remember reading a 1980s bestseller called The Official Preppy Handbook that derided these Yuppies. It cracked me up, mostly because it also mocked me. As an early adopter of shelter consumption who became educated on the many facets of Housing & Home - including How Our Housing Is A Symbol Of Self & The Psychographic MakeUp Of Loft Dwellers - and applied it to my career path. I acknowledge I have played a role in reshaping the urban housing landscape we see today, some of it intentionally, and some of it unwittingly. And I'm genuinely sorry if it means you're now required to refresh your dated 10-year-old house.
But the truth is, for those who own Toronto real estate which is at the top end of their respective markets (the most expensive dwellings in their building, in their neighbourhood, or in the price range of their target market), there is no room for error if you want to get top dollar. This is where you have to hit the nail on the head and if you don't, then you must reconcile that the Buyer is not going to pony up the dollars without adjusting the cost on correcting their perceived flaws. The more contemporary the dwelling, the more unforgiving the Buyer.
Renovating To Stay Versus Renovating to Sell & The Buyers' Perspective
While renovating a home to put one’s personal stamp is very common these days (especially given the age of much of the housing stock in Toronto, along with a hyper-awareness to home décor and design that I alluded to above that ultimately has reset the bar for what people consider habitable), it is wise to remember that your property is ultimately both your Home and an investment. The objective is to love where you live while growing its value as an asset so that you can secure your financial future.
In this respect, the scope of your home improvements should reflect both how long you intend to live there prior to selling (such that you're renovating for personal enjoyment) and your objective of realizing a profit on resale. Typically, I counsel my clients to complete renovations in a classic contemporary style that tends to be more timeless, and therefore holds their value longer, than buying too much into the latest trends and styles that can date quickly. I often recommend fixtures and finishes which are mid-grade + for most dwelling types and locations, with each room having one bling item to be memorable.
When planning your projects and allocating your budget, it can be helpful to try to view your residence from the target market most likely to purchase your property. If comparable dwellings in your neighbourhood have particular finishes or features, it bears considering ensuring your property has aspects that complement those, depending on the complexity and cost to execute along with the timeline to do so. For example, if a lot of the houses in your area are getting family-room additions constructed, if you're short on funds you may be well-served getting the planning approvals, construction drawings, and permits in order and available when you list the property for sale. This 'value-added potential' is more time-consuming than capital intensive and is a clever way to realize a greater return on your property.
Also, generally speaking, when I help Buyers search for their next freehold property purchase, I advise them that unless the house has been substantially renovated within the past 5 years, we're at best going to find a dwelling where three of the five major building components (heating/cooling, windows, plumbing, wiring, roofing) are in fair condition. In fact, in terms of the condition of building components, Buyers prioritize an upgraded panel and wiring (no knob and tube) at the top of the list followed by heating/cooling systems, copper plumbing (no lead) & ABS drains (no clay sewage drains), and a roof that has five years + as most desirable. Buyers, by and large, are willing to accept older windows and doors, in part because they can be replaced individually over time.
Are you planning to sell your home- today or down the road? With my finger on the pulse of the market today, as well as a shrewd and strategic of profitably real estate ownership for the future, we are here to help!
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Thanks for reading!
-The Urbaneer Team
Steven Fudge, Sales Representative
& The Innovative Urbaneer Team
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