Diary of a Renovator, Part 1: A Painful Design Process

Whether you’re renovating to sell, or buying a fixer-upper, this series on REALTOR® Lindsie Tomlinson’s real-life renovation journey will offer valuable lessons
Lindsie Tomlinson
October 6, 2017

I live in a house built in 1929 with my husband and our two young kids in Vancouver’s Grandview Woodland neighbourhood. While there are many things I adore about the house – like the original oak hardwood floors with the beautiful inlay details – there are certain disadvantages to living in a heritage house.

As a character house lover and avid volunteer for the Vancouver Heritage Foundation, I knew what we were getting into when we purchased our home. “Charming” details included a total lack of insulation (I spent our first winter huddled under blankets to escape the drafts, even with the furnace cranked) and super-slopey ceilings in our upstairs bedrooms and bathroom that make us duck our heads several times a day.

We bought based on location – as a REALTOR®, I always tell my clients that you can make changes to the property, but you can’t change the location. And we seriously love our Commercial Drive neighbourhood, which comes with awesome neighbours included.

So when it came time to decide whether to renovate our small house or move to a bigger house that would better suit our growing family, the answer was pretty clear: renovate!

Easier said than done.

At first, we just wanted to renovate our upper floor (currently two bedrooms and a bathroom, all with restricted headroom) to bring it up to three bedrooms and two bathrooms with full ceiling height.

Then we found out that the City of Vancouver limits our house to two and a half stories, based on a convoluted formula about what percentage of the basement is a certain height above ground. This meant that if we wanted to add any square footage to our top floor, we would have to add square footage to both our basement and main floor first.

Tomlinson Home 2

And suddenly our “little” renovation project had turned into something much bigger than either of us had anticipated.

We had to ask ourselves many questions about what would make the most sense, especially financially. We briefly considered the possibility of demolishing the house and starting over, but neither of us wanted to do this. We wanted to preserve as much of our character home as we could, and hated the thought of the waste created by tearing it down. And on a more practical note, the City allows more FSR (floor space ratio) in our neighbourhood if you preserve a house built before 1940 and add to it, rather than tearing it down. By keeping our existing house, we could add about 1,000 square feet to it, giving us an almost 3,000-square-foot house in the end. If we chose to tear down and build new, it would mean ending up with a house only half as large, which would defeat the purpose of the entire exercise.

Deciding to proceed with a large-scale renovation, we hired a designer based on the recommendation of neighbours who had recently finished a major addition to their own home.

The design process took us a full year. In our initial meeting with Minh, our designer, we laid out our “must have” list. We weren’t going to do this if we couldn’t end up with three bedrooms (so that our boys wouldn’t have to share a room forever) and a design that made sense for our family.

After many hours of us pondering layouts, stairs, hallways, laundry facilities, walls, closets, and space for my dream bathtub – and after five rounds of design revisions from the ever-patient Minh – we finally had a design we were excited about.

Tomlinson Home 3

Along the way, we had to have our property surveyed. We had to hire a structural engineer to make sure our design was viable. We even had to hire an arborist to study two overgrown shrubs in the back yard that had been identified as “trees” on the survey and explain why they needed to be removed. (The City of Vancouver is very, very serious about maintaining a healthy urban forest.) And we’re almost finished drafting the landscape plan to accompany our permit submission.

Armed with architectural and structural drawings, our arborist’s report and a landscaping plan, we are eagerly awaiting our permit submission date with the City, currently set for the end of October.

Stay tuned to find out what happens...


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Lindsie Tomlinson
Lindsie Tomlinson is a Vancouver-based REALTOR® who specializes in helping first-time home buyers and sellers, and growing families find the right home in the right neighbourhood. A Certified Negotiation Expert and regular contributor to REW.ca, Lindsie is a proud supporter of Backpack Buddies and the Children's Miracle Network. Her passion for real estate, and for building lifelong relationships with her clients, has put her in the top 10% of Greater Vancouver Realtors®.