The good, bad and ugly of older home renovation

Part of Victoria’s charm lies in the older homes that grace our character neighbourhoods.

Part of Victoria’s charm lies in the older homes that grace our character neighbourhoods. In some cases these homes date back more than 100 years and, while they are certainly charming, renovations can be a challenge.

According to the experts, anyone considering the purchase of an older home to update should be aware of the realities of renovation.

Debra Wilson knows all about older home renovations. She and her partner purchased their Fairfield home in 1997 and in 2013 decided it was time for some renovations. That’s when the surprises began.

“Our contractor took down a wall, only to find that our bay window was not structurally attached to the house…it was just sort of floating there,” explained Wilson. “Then there was the time when we were doing renovations on the upstairs bathroom. The floor had always been a little bouncy, but we were surprised to find out that the floor joists were not actually attached to the beams at both ends. Effectively, they were functioning like a diving board.”

Wilson added while she had some surprises, she has no regrets for undertaking the renovations.

“We knew that there would be some problems, there almost always are in older homes.”

One common problem (also experienced by Wilson) arises from antiquated electrical wiring. Systems at the turn of the last century were never designed to accommodate modern appliances and, when combined with the fact wiring was frequently not grounded and may have become brittle with age, the recipe for short circuits and fire is complete. The need to rewire your home is a real possibility.

Plumbing is also a common issue with properties where galvanized pipes have become clogged or corroded. The concern may extend beyond the house to include sewer lines as well, all of which should be replaced with copper or plastic.

If the thought is to redesign the floor plan — moving from the segmented room design of the last century and embracing the great room of open area concept so popular today — one should be aware those interior walls may have served a purpose in terms of seismic stability and removing them entirely may not be an option, according to Casey Edge, executive director of the Victoria Residential Builders Association (VRBA).

But Edge maintains older home renovation still makes sense, given that we live in a community of high land prices and older homes of which the community is justifiably proud.

“I love the fact that we are preserving and updating our older homes…giving them new life. But our environment does present some challenges,” said Edge. He warned that prior to purchasing a home with renovations, a thorough inspection should be done since our wet climate contributes to problems like wood rot and powder post beetles.

“These are fixable problems, but it can certainly impact the budget so it’s important to know what you’re heading into before making the decision to start,” he said.

The most important factor to home renovation of any kind, and especially in the case of older homes, is to find a qualified, professional contractor. Edge warns that in B.C. there are no licencing requirements for home renovators and anyone can “hang out a shingle” and call themselves a professional.

“The worst examples of unqualified renovation contractors that I’ve seen are generally someone’s well-meaning relative, or perhaps a friend of a friend who promises to do the work on the cheap. Things can go sideways very quickly,” said Edge, adding it’s not uncommon for unqualified contractors to find themselves out of their depth when renovation challenges surface.

Edge stressed it’s important to solicit a number of bids for any renovation job and ensure the bids are nailed down with a professional contract. Any changes required in the contract as a result of unforeseen situations should only be authorized with a written change order outlining the specifics of the change and costs related to the change.