Many Vancouver homeowners who renovate are making room for an extra generation or two instead of focusing on upgrades, say builders
Janet Féirín has a home in East Vancouver. What she needs are options.
Her son Kris and his wife, Mandy, are ready to start a family, but like many wage earners in Greater Vancouver, their combined income isn’t going to get them a single-family home.
“I asked Kris what he wanted for Christmas and he said, ‘A house,’” recalled Féirín. “I made him a gingerbread house in the form of a laneway home and said here it is.”
Now she is making it real. In exchange for retaining the character elements of her 1912 home near Commercial Drive, Féirín has permission from the city to build a 1,000-square-foot infill home in her backyard where Kris and Mandy can live and raise children.
They are not alone. Builders say nearly every renovation client they meet wants to accommodate an extra generation — or two — on the property they already own.
Renovation has become a form of succession planning as people look for ways to help their adult children as well as to age in place.
Féirín’s main house will get some updates and fire-protection sprinklers installed and she will continue to live in the main living area. Downstairs is a two-bedroom revenue suite with seven-foothigh ceilings.
Under the City’s character home retention plan, one, two, or all three living units can be rented or sold as strata-titled dwellings.
TALK ABOUT OPTIONS
“I used to think I would downsize to the basement suite, but I can see myself living in the laneway home and the kids taking over the house eventually,” she said. “We will see how Kris and Mandy like the (infill) house when their kids are teenagers.”
For a half-century after the end of the Second World War, it was expected that each successive generation in a Canadian family could and would strike out on their own.
Not any more. Building permits for single-family homes have been in steep decline since 2004, by around 50 per cent, according to Statistics Canada.
“Our expectations have to shift,” said Laurel James, co-owner of Novell Design Build. “There are trade-offs we can make to live in Greater Vancouver.”
When James founded the Vancouver-based company with her husband, Angelito Camaclang, 14 years ago, clients wanted open-plan esthetic upgrades to their main living areas and dream kitchens.
“People wanted to improve their homes to self-actualize, or for the benefit of their immediate family and to fit everyone around the table on special occasions,” she said.
“That has shifted,” she said. “Over 90 per cent of the potential clients that we meet now want to accommodate three-plus generations.”
Multi-generational households are the fastest-growing household type in Canada, according to the most recent federal census. The number of households with at least three generations under the same roof grew by 37.5 per cent between 2001 and 2016.
The number of renovations worth at least $20,000 on the Lower Mainland has actually dropped slightly from a peak of almost 2,900 projects in 2008 to about 2,657 in 2018, according to the Canadian Homebuilders’ Association.
But as homeowners turned from interior upgrades to big multi-generational overhauls between 2008 and 2017, the amount Canadians spend on renovations has increased by 46 per cent to $57 billion annually, according to Statistics Canada. That’s as much as Canadians spend on new dwellings.
In Vancouver, the traditional single-family home is a vanishing breed.
In 2018, the City issued 730 building permits for laneway homes and 24 permits for infill buildings, both of which are secondary dwellings built in backyards.
More than 1,440 permits were issued for interior renovations, which include an unknown number of secondary suite and second kitchen installations.
Of the 741 permits issued for new homes, 423 included a secondary suite, leaving just 318 permits for single family homes and duplexes without a suite.
HOUSES DON’T MEET NEED
The Lower Mainland is home to a vast stock of single-family homes and a massive affordability gap. The benchmark price of a detached home in Greater Vancouver is $1.4 million, according to the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver, well beyond the means of ordinary wage earners.
That means the majority of homes no longer suit families that are increasingly living in multi-generational situations out of economic necessity.
“These houses don’t meet our current needs,” said James.
Unsurprisingly, more Vancouver homeowners are planning renovations this year than in the recent past, according to Altus Group data.
About one in three homeowners responding to Altus Group’s FIRM Survey completely or somewhat agreed that they are planning renovations of $5,000 or more in 2019 — up from about one in four in 2018, and one in five in 2 0 1 7 ,” s a i d e x e c u t i v e vice-president Patricia Arsenault.
Prewar homes are often chopped up into all kinds of small rooms, with tiny kitchens. But many of the region’s signature home styles lend themselves to the creation of distinct living areas that can do triple duty over decades — as revenue suites, independent living spaces for adult children — and their children — and then retirement suites for downsizing seniors.
In a Novell project just getting underway, the adult children of the owners are taking over their parents’ home and reincorporating the existing revenue suite to create a large, shared living environment for everyone.
“The kids are amalgamating it into one with the option of splitting it again,” said James.
“They are de-suite-ing and they can re-suite again in the future.”
Even the much-maligned Vancouver Special oozes with potential, because its unique “house on top of a house” design with eight-foot ceilings naturally separates into two distinct living spaces.
“I have a love-hate relationship with them,” she said. “They are notoriously ugly to some people, but they offer such opportunity, especially from a multi-generational perspective. Their layout is really accommodating to two full kitchens. It’s a housing form that has a lot of value now.” BACKYARD LIVING
Nearly half of new houses built in Vancouver include a laneway dwelling, which can rent for as much as $3,000 a month, the kind of cash flow that can make the decision to take out a mortgage easier to swallow.
These modestly sized homes are built on the same lot as a new or existing home, usually facing the back lane.
David and Mary Amos built a laneway house behind their family home in Point Grey based on a design by Smallworks Studios and Laneway Housing.
“The main house is a 1930s family home and that’s where we raised our family,” said David. “Two boys,” Mary adds.
“When our boys grew up and moved out, we thought about downsizing, but we thought we would like to stay in the neighbourhood,” he said.
“We went looking for a small house with a garden and there aren’t any. They’ve all been bashed flat.”
After shopping the area for a laneway house and finding mainly two-storey versions with interior space wasted on stairs, they decided to build their own single-storey home.
“We really liked that it didn’t look down over our neighbours and wasn’t intrusive,” said Mary. “We liked the homes that Smallworks had built but we wanted to customize, so we got an extra bedroom and an office,” she said.
After cleaning a lifetime of possessions from the main — a very “freeing” experience itself — they now rent their former family home to visiting professors, “which pays for our travels,” she said.
“They stay a year and it’s a very simple thing to do,” said David. “You can easily check out academics online, they are fairly public figures, so we don’t have to worry about the house.”
Whether their boys will take over the main house is a conversation they can have in the future. “It doesn’t suit their lifestyle right now, but you never know what will happen,” he said.
Laneway homes cost $250,000 to $300,000 to build. But you’ll also need a building permit costing nearly $30,000, plus design, landscaping and servicing, so expect to pay $350,000 or more for a highend product.
That’s still a lot cheaper than buying a single-family home.
The laneway building program in Vancouver was conceived as a way to create more rental housing, said Jake Fry of Smallworks Studios and Laneway Housing.
“Most are rentals, but we find that about two thirds of our clients intend to live in the laneway home themselves eventually,” he said.
Sometimes that means their kids and grandchildren are in the main house, or it is rented out to create the largest possible revenue stream for retirees.
A laneway home can also act as a starter home for your children, said Fry, a pioneer of the laneway home movement. “You can accommodate your extended family’s needs and get better use from a property that you already own.”
There are close to 4,000 laneway homes already built in Vancouver, a number the City expects to double in the next decade.
“These homes range from 500 to 600 square feet up to about 1,000 square feet and two bedrooms,” he said. “What’s special is that you are creating new single family ground-oriented housing where there was none before.”
Where you can put in a single storey, they are very easy to make accessible to people with mobility issues, which is attractive to seniors who want to age in place.
“We often see grown kids going into the main house and the parents live in the laneway,” said Cheri Stefanucci, co-owner of Abstract Homes and Renovations. “A lack of affordability means you are seeing the whole family all on one lot in one form or another.” THINK OF THE FUTURE
Before you undertake a renovation, be sure that you are committed to living in that location for the long term, advises Stefanucci. It won’t necessarily pay off if you try to sell.
“If you renovate rather than rebuild, you still have an older home at the end of the day, even if the interior looks spectacular,” she said.
Think about how your needs will change over time. What will I be doing in 10 years? Will it accommodate the growth of the family?
People are thinking longer and harder about what they are doing when they renovate. Unlike a kitchen update, a renovation intended to combine three or four generations of your family in one space must anticipate change.
“If you have more people in closer quarters there are more preferences and sensitivities to consider,” said James, of Novell Design Build. “You have people of different ages, with different bedtimes. You need to be realistic about quiet space, somewhere to retreat and pursue your own thing.”
When choosing a contractor it pays to check with professional associations such as the Homebuilders Association of Vancouver. The Better Business Bureau is also a good place to look for unresolved complaints, which may be a red flag. A contractor that is a member of both the Homebuilders Association and the BBB is the gold standard.
Make sure your contractor puts everything you agree to in writing and schedule faceto-face updates to work through any issues that arise, she said.
“Every contractor is good before the work starts,” said James. “But things always get challenging. Every renovation is a puzzle, so you need to be confident that you have a contractor that you know you can talk to and have those hard conversations.”