Engaging A Designer

In order to satisfy ourselves on the financing requirements for the house, Dianne and I want to get a sense of what we are looking at in terms of renovations on the new property.

For the sake of convenience (and budget), we’re staging the modifications that we make. The first plan is to get the house itself in order, which largely involves renovating the kitchen and two bathrooms, and making some minor changes to the basement to accommodate a media room and wine cellar. Later, we’ll worry about the office and coach house, and still later we’ll tackle storage for the motorcycles and a workshop. Somewhere along the way, we will also build a wall.

A designer and contractor that we referred to quite early on in the process was a woodworker and designer who lives, quite literally, down the road. Even better, he had done all of the previous major renovations on the house, including building the coach house, construction of the addition and renovation of the kitchen. A fairly obvious place to start, then, in terms of talking about what we planned on doing.

Dianne and I scheduled an appointment for yesterday in order to meet with him, find out more about his work and approach, and walk through the house with him to discuss our planned changes. We met him at his workshop, which is also his house, to review some of his previous portfolio, get a sense of how he works, and have a general conversation before walking through the house.

Simply based upon what we had seen in the past, we were impressed with his work. The great room in the new addition is post-and-beam construction, and not just beautiful but breathtakingly well built. The joints and seams are, well, seam-less, even after 17 years. Seeing his own house provided similar reassurance of his craftsmanship. He is in the process of building an additional sunroom and deck on his house, and currently has the posts and beams up and the framing for the overhead roofing in place. Looking at the construction, he is clearly someone that is painstaking in the details.

Even better, he also has the original drawings from the construction of the addition and the coach house to work from. He knows the house well, likes working there, and is really pleased with the changes that we want to make (which basically address previous shortcomings, or finally tackle challenges that were ignored in earlier renovations – simply because you have to draw the line somewhere).

Both Dianne and I were extremely comfortable talking with Gene from the outset. His process is solid, he wants to work collaboratively, he appears entirely fair and objective in his pricing and and his work is both quality and in keeping with our own tastes. So, despite saying that for any professional you should call around, review qualifications and check experience, our process of finding a designer and general contractor pretty much came down to one meeting, a handshake and a glass of wine. Or two.

In fact, we left five hours after we had arrived. An hour meeting had stretched considerably, and had evolved from a discussion with a potential supplier to a conversation over wine with our future neighbours, telling stories and relaxing in the quiet of a country evening. I suspect we’ll have a few more evenings like that.

Finding An Inspector

With a conditional offer in hand, our next challenge was lifting said conditions. A rural property is fairly similar to an urban one in terms of offering: they are usually conditional on finance, insurability and an inspection. Additional conditions are added that require the septic to be pumped and testing of the well water, and that pretty much covers things off.

An inspection of a 150 year old property, however, is not the same as the inspection of a new house in a subdivision that was built a few years ago. They didn't have building codes in the 19th century. There were conventions, to be certain, but there have been good builders and bad builders since the dawn of time. And 'caveat emptor' has been a commonplace expression since Latin was in regular use.

Given that we were making a significant investment in a building that had aspects constructed in several different periods, I wanted someone that knew what they were doing. Finding that someone, however, is much easier said then done.

Home inspections is an industry that is rife with abuses. Not that this is exactly a unique situation, mind you. But pretty much anyone can put out there shingle and call themselves a home inspector. And many apparently do. This, in fact, is one of the reasons for the popularity of the show 'Holmes Inspection' on HGTV. We get to watch episode after episode of disasters uncovered post-inspection, inevitably followed by Mike Holmes' crew gleefully ripping down drywall.

The problem if qualifications is apparently particularly rife in Ontario, where the provincial association responsible for the development of standards was pretty much ignoring this responsibility. A good summary of the issue is summarized in this article. While there is now a national certification body, however, and an active provincial organization, distinguishing the really good from the merely competent is a struggle.

Early in my research I found one inspector that I really, really wanted to inspect the house. Cam Allen has a great deal of experience in inspections, particularly in terms of heritage properties, and writes a regular column on the subject for the Kingston Whig Standard. Sadly, he's based in Kingston, and our house isn't; hiring him for the job wasn't going to happen, but he does provide a huge array of resources in his columns and web site for anyone looking to buy a heritage property.

Following on the success of the television program, Mike Holmes actually has his own inspection company, Mike Holmes Inspections. If you watch his show, he reinforces time and again the importance of checking qualifications. Making sure the person you hire is experienced. Checking references. Great advice that I would reinforce to anyone hiring a professional, regardless of discipline.

Given the apparent credibility (and the significant premium his company charges) I decided to check them out. And I have to say that while the show is great, and Holmes has written a really solid book on home inspections that I would recommend to anyone, I am less than impressed with the company and their approach to customer service. Calling for more information, I first got a recording that said to wait on the line to book an inspection, and otherwise go to their website for more information. For someone who had read the web site and had more questions, there wasn't another option offered.

Waiting anyway, I got a call centre agent that was happy to book an inspection, but had minimal information by which to qualify who the person would be that would do our inspection if we chose to proceed with them. Inspectors aren't assigned until after an inspection is booked. While there are general qualifications for their inspectors, they don't share individual names, qualifications or references. Do they have inspectors qualified in the inspection of heritage properties? No. Right, then. Time to keep looking.

I did call around, and talked to several different people. Questions I recommend asking: What is your experience? What are your qualifications? What is your professional background prior to becoming a home inspector? What is your process for conducting an inspection? What tools do you use? What is your experience in inspecting heritage properties? Can I have references for inspections that you have done in the past at heritage properties? The range of detail, and the range of willingness to even answer the questions, was telling unto itself.

A big point of dissension currently is the use of thermographic imaging. Anyone who has seen an inspection on Holmes Inspection has seen Mike pull out his trusty camera, and show an area with massively varying levels of surface temperature. Which is exactly what (and only what) these devices measure. I talked to inspectors that dismissed their use as irrelevant (and didn't have them, relying on their eyes, nose, screwdriver and ladder to do the job). I talked to inspectors that didn't have them, but were certified in their use, and were willing to subcontract someone to do a thermographic inspection if that is what I wanted (and that planned on getting a camera eventually, when prices came down a bit more, provided customers would pay more for its use). I talked to inspectors that said that they had value, in specific contexts, to probe for more information where the presence and source of a problem wasn't obvious.

I finally talked to one company (after calling nearly 10) that exuded confidence and competence. And, probably as a result, was booked for at least a week solid. The partners had done nearly 10,000 inspections each. Both were engineers. They had significant experience in heritage homes. They don't try to compare heritage homes to current building standards; they ask whether the property was in the condition that it should be for when and how it was actually built. They call a spade a spade, and aren't afraid to highlight a major problem if they find one. They have a thermographic camera, they use it in situations where it is required, and they don't charge extra for bringing one along.

And so, finally, we had a house inspector. Unfortunately, their availability and mine meant that our appointment isn't for another week, and it will only give us a few days afterwards to satisfy any concerns about the property. But I would rather wait longer for a good inspection, rather than getting a shoddy one done quickly. We'll see where we are in another week.

Noise, Noise, Noise

While we were at a short list of one, there was still a question of whether the other property would work for us. The space was great, the buildings seemed to be in good condition, and the grounds were gorgeous. But, in keeping with typical farmhouse construction, where travel by horse meant keeping distances short, the house is closer to the road than we would desire.

While the road isn’t a major secondary road (it doesn’t really go from anywhere to anywhere) it is certainly the main road from town through to the main highway, which means it gets its share of traffic. And visiting the house the previous day highlighted the amount of road noise while standing outside. So, while everything else about the property worked, the noise was a major sticking point.

Boo Manor – From the street

We currently live in downtown Toronto. Noise is an ever-present reality, but one that you just have to expect if you choose to live in the thick of things.  It’s a bonus to be so close to pretty much everything, but you have to  learn to accept the noise – and to largely ignore it. It had become quickly clear to Dianne, however, that for our place in the country, silence (with the possible exeption of crickets) was to be much preferred.

This meant that, for all that we loved the house, if we couldn’t figure out something to do with it, it was going to drop off the list. We briefly settled on a plan: go back to the house and listen again, and meet with a landscaper to figure out what we could do.

Dianne, resident queen of the Internet, also did some searching, and found some great resources. In particular, an episode of ‘This Old House’ had actually dealt with a problem very similar to ours, of an old farmhouse right on a road, and explored in detail what they had done to alleviate the noise. In essence, there are two options: abatement and mitigation. Figure out a way to reduce the actual noise, or find a way to hide it.

In terms of abatement, the optimal option is a wall. A tall, thick, solid wall. This can come in a number of forms – there are custom solutions involving two panels stuffed with insulation, and various different types of fencing. What these options must have in common, however, is a solid structure with no gaps. Cracks, holes and spaces let noise through. A four foot high solid wall can reduce noice by 6dB (or in practical terms, it cuts noise in half; every increase of 6dB is a doubling of noise). A five foot wall will reduce noise by 10dB, or almost 75%.

Mitigation means, essentially, fighting fire with fire. Making noise to reduce the noise. In particular, water features are great for creating a constant background level of white noise that masks the more intermittent (and therefore more annoying) road noise of cars and trucks passing on the street.

Certainly, a wall would be in keeping with the character of the house. Particularly a stone wall, with periodic columns and maybe some ornate light fixtures. In fact, they would make an already pretty impressive entrance lined with yew trees that much more spectacular. The downside, however, is expense. By our estimate, we’re looking at somewhere between $40 and $50 per square foot for a wall. At 5 feet high, and about 200 feet long, that could be an impressive number.

The result of our investigations, however, meant that we had a solution that we could live with, even if it would be a couple of years or so before we implemented all of it. Given how much else worked for us about the property, we had found enough information to be confident that we could make the space work for us. It was time to make an offer which, after a relatively straightforward negotiation, was accepted.

Boo Manor – Facing the entrance and great room

The One That Got Away (Well, Got Let Go…)

Faced with trying to make an objective selection, we considered the usual decision making techniques. We made plans to list the likes and the dislikes, to highlight the concerns and to summarize everything that we would want to change. Then we invited my mother along to do an objective review of both properties, and to check whether we were being completely insane about our choices.

There are probably many who would consider inviting their mother (or their mother-in-law) on a house hunting trip to be an activity normally confined to one of the outer circles of hell. We both actually quite like my mother, however, and she’s bought, renovated and sold many a house in her time – so we were quite happy and grateful to have her along.

The properties on our shortlist had a lot going for each of them. They were both acreages, they both had three car garages, they both had the potential for office space over the garage (and one was in fact finished) and they had both started life as stone farmhouses in the mid-1800s.

From there, the similarities began to diverge fairly quickly. The one with the finished office above the garage had an absolutely fantastic great room (that is arguably larger than our condo downtown) and a kitchen that could be made to work with a minimal amount of fuss; it might not be an optimal layout, but we could both at least live with it. There was space for a decent size pantry, a formal dining room and a den for me. Upstairs, though, was more of a challenge. The house was a 1.5 bungalow, which meant angled rooms where walls met roof, and little space for bookshelves or a canopy bed. Moreover, the en suite bath was quite small, as was the master bedroom. Some storage issues could be accommodated by taking over one bedroom as a walk-in-closet, and two additional bedrooms meant that we would be able to either have a guest room and a den for Dianne, or two guest rooms.

The other property had a lot going for it, although there would still need to be some work. The space above the garage was only partly finished, and would need a good deal of work before it could ultimately be used as an office. Dianne was not a fan of the kitchen, neither of us were overwhelmed by the master bathroom, and the guest bathroom needed a complete overhaul. On the other hand, it also had a large great room (not as big as house 1, but still spacious), a very nice sun porch, enough rooms that we could each have a den, there would still be two guest bedrooms, and we could build a very nice and quite large master suite. And the dining room was spectacular. There was also room for a media room downstairs, and space to consider building a wine cellar. On the downside, the house is close to a busy road, and traffic noise had the potential to be a show stopper.

So how to decide? One the one hand, there was property with a great great room and a number of other compromises. On the other hand, a property that ticked most of the boxes, but certainly would need renovations to make it ultimately work for us. Or there simply recognizing that we had just started our search, and we might want to find out what is behind Door No. 3.

On the drive home, however, we came to the difficult realization that the one with the finished office and the awesome great room simply wasn’t going to work for us. For all that we loved the great room (and Dianne really, really loved the great room) there were simply too many compromises to make it work. There was very little storage. The lawn needed significant work. Half the property was given over to a paddock and horse barn that we would never use (although there was brief consideration of storing the motorcycles in the barn, one per stall). And most importantly, the bedroom spaces would have been a significant compromise in terms of space, not to mention furniture.

And so, we were down to a shortlist of one. But one with some noise issues. We weren’t down to a decision yet.