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Luxe condo renovation transforms suite into a home for a busy family

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When Kevin Huang and Nita Chen’s daughter was accepted into the prestigious University of Toronto Schools for Gr. 7, the couple didn’t think twice about changing the way they lived.

Their 6,300-square-foot home in Thornhill, with backyard swimming pool, five bedrooms and a six-car garage, was too far from the downtown Toronto school for a comfortable commute. They knew Isabella, 11, and daughter Emilia, 8, would be active in academics and extracurriculars, and didn’t want transportation to be an obstacle to their success — or to their time together as a family.

NOW: Kevin Huang and Nita Chen with daughters Isabella, 13, and Emilia, 8, in their renovated living-room area with a custom entertainment unit.
NOW: Kevin Huang and Nita Chen with daughters Isabella, 13, and Emilia, 8, in their renovated living-room area with a custom entertainment unit.  (Rene Johnston / Toronto Star)

They rented a condo near the UTS campus at Bloor St. and Spadina Ave., for Monday to Friday living, returning to their Thornhill home on weekends.

“That was too much work. It got exhausting,” said Huang, 47, an insurance risk analyst who runs Huang & Associates Analytics.

In September 2017, they began to search for a condo downtown where the family could live full-time. A central location was vital for easy access to the girls’ schools. As well, Huang wanted a unit that could be easily sold when the girls finished high school.

“We had two main criteria for a condo: three bedrooms and plenty of space for storage,” said Huang. “We looked at four or five places, including penthouses, but I didn’t feel I could justify the space for the price.”

Chen, 42, was also reluctant to make a home too high in the sky. The compromise was an 18th-floor unit in the Shangri-La Residences on University Ave. Although the two-bedroom, 1,833-square-foot condo didn’t have everything on their wish list, Huang saw its potential. “The three considerations I used when I bought it were size, configuration and value.

“I could see that it could be converted into three bedrooms and that it was sizable enough that it would accommodate our lifestyle. It’s definitely not as big as the house, but it’s livable and family-friendly,” said Huang.

With no third bedroom, an awkward master bedroom design, worn hardwood flooring and heavy carpets, the condo needed to be renovated before they moved in. Isabella has serious environmental and food allergies that require a hypoallergenic living space with no drapes or rugs, and separate dishes and cooking implements.

Huang reached out to Andrea Gray, owner of Andrea Gray Design to help bring his vision to life. “The bones of the condo were good. It was the finishes that were very old-fashioned,” she said.

When it came to reconfiguring for the family’s needs, Huang zeroed in on an open area off the kitchen as a potential third bedroom. Pocket doors and built-in shelving around the existing fireplace create a private sanctuary for Isabella. With the addition of desks and built-in book cases, a basic hallway outside the room blossomed into the girls’ study area.

“The biggest thing we did was define the open spaces,” said Gray. “We wanted to make it modern and take full advantage of the openness of the living area, but functional so there’s a clear flow and definition of zones.”

The living room and dining room are separated with dramatic light fixtures from Royal Lighting and Gray commissioned a custom entertainment unit that anchors the TV-watching and relaxing area. New pot lights line the perimeter of the room and were also added to the bedrooms. “The lighting before was OK, but my wife is used to bright lights in our old house. She needs to be able to read everywhere,” said Huang.

When it came to decor, they started by sourcing a white oak floor from Spain at Stone Tile, which served as inspiration for every other design decision in the home, from the light grey wall colour to the white quartz island to the custom-made grey sofa to the complementary blue art pieces.

“Every time we met to pick out finishings, Andrea would be carrying the floor sample to make sure everything would match,” said Huang.

The kitchen had plenty of cabinetry but the dark wood felt gloomy, so they had cabinets resurfaced and repainted an off-white by Cabinet, which also did all the built-ins and finishes, including a custom-built console table.

Huang didn’t like the flow of the master bedroom, which plunked a large closet in the centre of the room. A reconfiguration provided easier access to the ensuite and more space for precious storage.

This was important because transitioning their belongings from a large house to a condo proved to be the biggest challenge. The girls’ collection of books could fill a room — Huang estimates they have 350 in the condo and another 700 in their rented storage unit.

Chen worked with House Coach Anja Lavigne to help organize and release the things that wouldn’t fit into the condo. “It was very difficult for me to let go of things because everything has meaning. But Anja talked me through whether I really needed something and taught me to categorize and organize in a smaller space,” said Chen.

The family was pleasantly surprised by the relatively smooth construction process, especially considering the scope of the renovation — and in a residence that shares space with a hotel with strict specifications. Huang credits the expedience to general contractor Flavio Di Benedetto. “I was pleased that we were able to stay on time and on budget, despite the coordination required with building management,” said Huang.

THE NUMBERS

$1.558 million: Cost of condo in 2017

$275,000: Cost of renovation

6: Months of renovation

5: New built-in book cases

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Renovating your home? Ask yourself these 8 questions first.

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(NC) You might be surprised to learn there are many health hazards around the home, particularly when taking on any kind of renovation project— even for something as easy as painting a room. But by educating yourself and taking the right precautions, you’ll help keep you and your family safe.

Here are eight important safety questions that Health Canada encourages you to ask yourself before starting your project:

  1. Could the products I am using be harmful? Be sure to follow all use and safety instructions on the label, including how to store and dispose of any leftover products. Remember to look for hazard symbols.
  2. Should I be worried about lead-based paint? Your home probably contains lead-based paint if it was built before 1960. If the paint is in good condition and is not on a surface that a child might chew or that is subject to wear and tear, it’s best to leave it alone or cover it with paint or wallpaper. But if the paint is cracking, chipping, flaking or peeling, or is on a surface that a child might chew or that is subject to wear and tear, you’ll need to remove it carefully to avoid kicking up lead dust.
  3. Could my house contain asbestos? Before 1990, asbestos was commonly used for fireproofing and insulating against cold weather and noise. You can reduce your risk of exposure by hiring a professional to test for asbestos before doing any renovations or remodelling. Avoid disturbing asbestos materials yourself.
  4. Are low-emission products available? Paints and renovation products, like flooring and particleboard, often have a noticeable smell. This odour can indicate that the product contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Some chemical products are labelled as “low emission,” which means they give off fewer VOCs and are safer for your health.
  5. Should I ventilate while I renovate? Yes – ventilation can help improve indoor air quality by removing pollutants from the home and by bringing in fresh air from outside. This is especially important when renovating or when using chemical products in the home.
  6. How should I dress? Labels on products used for renovations will include information about what to wear and precautions to take. This could include using gloves, safety goggles or masks and keeping the products away from other hazardous materials.
  7. Can my family take part? It’s best to keep children and pets safely away from the renovation area. Pregnant women should also avoid taking part in renovation projects.
  8. How do I dispose of leftover materials safely? As your project wraps up, continue to keep safety in mind. Read the label or contact your municipality for advice on how to dispose of any leftover chemical products.

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Here’s How Halton Real Estate Patterns Have Changed Over the Years

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We’ve said it once and we’ll say it again, the real estate market is constantly fluctuating. In a recent inhalton article, it was noted that the Toronto Real Estate Board (TREB) called 2018 “a volatile year” for the housing market.

Although 2019 is expected to a little bit better in terms of sales and average selling prices in Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), we still have some 2018 statistics and facts that may come as a shock to some Halton residents.

According to a recent RE/MAX Ontario-Atlantic Canada press release, migration patterns of residential homebuyers in the GTA have shifted west. This, according to the release, is due to the Halton Region’s and Toronto west’s market shares rising between 2013 and 2018.

The release notes that the Halton Region captured 10.1 per cent of total market share in 2018, leading with a 2.3-per-cent increase over 2013. On the other hand, Toronto West climbed almost one per cent to 10.5 per cent. The release also looked at market sales in the Peel Region, Toronto Central, Toronto East, York Region, Durham Region, Dufferin County, and Simcoe County.

Over the past five years, there have been many factors that have contributed to Halton’s increase market shares.

“Growing demand for affordable housing buoyed new construction and contributed to rising market share in Halton Region over the five-year period,” Christopher Alexander, Executive Vice President, RE/MAX of Ontario-Atlantic Canada, said in the release. “Product was coming on-stream at a time when the GTA reported its lowest inventory in years and skyrocketing housing values were raising red flags. Freehold properties in the suburbs farther afield spoke to affordability.”

As a result of people flocking to the Halton Region in order to avoid these skyrocketing housing values, an increase of construction and development has become quite common for the region.

According to the release, new housing starts in Halton was averaged to be around 3,100 annually between 2013 and 2016. Between 2013 and 2017, almost 39,000 residential units came on-stream in Toronto’s Downtown and Central Waterfront areas.

Another real estate pattern that has changed, that may not come as a shock, is the average price to buy a house.

The average price for a home sold in Toronto’s west end in 2018 hovered near $755,658. The ever-increasing prices, as noted by Alexander, will have an impact on what type of properties will be more popular in the future.

“Freehold properties remain the choice of most purchasers in Halton Region and Toronto West,” Alexander said. “The same is true to a lesser extent in Toronto Central, but condominiums continue to gain ground. Just over one in three properties sold in the GTA was a condominium in 2018 and that figure is higher in the core. As prices climb in both the city and suburbs, the shift toward higher-density housing will continue, with fewer single-detached developments coming to pass.”

In recent years, as a result of increasing prices, many buyers, including younger buyers, empty nesters, and retirees have shifted towards Simcoe County where the average price ranges from $528,942 to $746.

“As the millennials move into their homebuying years, they will displace baby boomers as the dominant force in the GTA’s real estate market,” Alexander said. “Their impact on housing will have a serious ripple effect on infrastructure in the coming years, placing pressure on transit systems, roadways, local economies and their abilities to attract investors and new businesses, parks and greenspace development.”

However, there has been a demand for condominium apartments and townhouses areas like City Place, King West Village, and Liberty Village. There has also been gentrification in many Toronto neighbourhoods such as Oakwood-Vaughan and Dufferin Grove as they offer smaller freehold properties at more affordable prices.

Over the next 10 years, the increase in demand is projected to re-ignite homebuying activity in Toronto East, York, Peel, and Durham Regions regardless of the affordability, lack of available housing, and fewer transit options that may be apparent now.

What do you think of these shifting real estate patterns in Halton and the surrounding areas?

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How sweat equity and a little home DIY can help you avoid a down payment on mortgage loan

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Saving a down payment is challenging for many first-time home buyers, and even if they manage it, more obstacles lie ahead.

After choosing a lender and getting approved, buyers still have to find a good house that fits their budget. Looking at fixer-uppers can expand their options, but not everyone can afford major improvements after such a big purchase.

Buyers could find a solution in Home Possible, a low-down-payment conventional mortgage from Freddie Mac. These loans offer an attractive option for borrowers willing to apply a little elbow grease: a sweat equity provision that can eliminate the need for a cash down payment.

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Sweat equity allows buyers to “earn” their entire down payment by improving a home before purchase, says Danny Gardner, senior vice president of affordable lending at Freddie Mac. Buyers do the work themselves, and the change in appraised value after the renovations becomes a credit they can apply to the purchase.

Some conditions apply: Using the sweat equity feature requires home improvement know-how and money to purchase materials. The sellers also must be willing to let someone work on their house before buying it.

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But in the right situation, this feature gives first-time home buyers more bang for their buck, particularly in markets where move-in ready starter homes are hard to come by.

Young homeowners love to DIY

America’s desire to bootstrap home improvements could be attributed in part to something known as the “HGTV effect,” which refers to a recent surge of popular home improvement reality shows and YouTube channels featuring do-it-yourself experts.

Thirty-eight percent of all home renovation projects are DIY, according to NerdWallet’s 2018 Home Improvement Report.

Younger homeowners are especially eager to roll up their sleeves – those under age 35 complete more than half of all their own home repair and improvement projects instead of hiring a professional. As a result, they spend several hundred dollars less on a typical project, the report found.

With sweat equity, DIY-obsessed home buyers may be able to channel that energy into a more affordable home.

Who can use the sweat equity feature?

Buyers interested in the sweat equity feature should talk with a lender that offers Home Possible loans. The option is open to any borrower who meets general financial guidelines.

“Home Possible is a great loan program,” says Keith Kampe, vice president of sales at Flagstar Bank. “The only challenge is getting people into it, because there are income limits.”

The program sets household income limits by census tract, an area that’s usually similar to a neighborhood in size. Freddie Mac has an eligibility tool that lets users see the limits by property address.

No matter how you slice it, buying a house requires some money upfront. For sweat equity borrowers, each dollar spent improving the property before purchase pulls double duty as a credit toward their down payment.

But before they can break out the power tools, sweat equity borrowers have to find the right house and a seller who’s comfortable with the unique arrangement.

“There has to be a lot of trust there between buyer and seller,” says Joe Zucht, a loan originator at NBKC Bank. Those looking to buy from a friend, family member or their current landlord may already have that trusting relationship, he says.

If both parties are on board with a sweat equity arrangement, the buyer’s real estate agent will draft an offer that describes all planned improvements and explains what will happen if the deal falls through. Once the agreement is signed, the work must be completed by the buyer before the loan closes – in other words, before he or she owns the house.

Sweat equity borrowers should also be ready for an appraiser to look over their shoulder throughout the process. The appraiser will estimate the value of the remodel and verify that the materials and workmanship match what was promised in the contract.

It’s important for sweat equity borrowers to choose their presale improvements strategically, weighing the money and effort required against the down payment credit they’ll earn. Buyers should also be realistic about their DIY skills and avoid biting off more than they can chew.

While some changes are merely cosmetic, others are capital improvements that can significantly increase the property’s value, extend its useful life or adapt it for new uses. These are typically bigger projects that could include installing a new roof, renovating the kitchen or adding a garage.

Even though it’s a more intense commitment, Gardner says buyers who hope to capture the full benefit of their sweat equity should “focus on capital improvements because once you become the owner of that home, you can always make the cosmetic improvements.”

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