March 4, 2015

Lessons from my laneway house

 

BY JANE MUNDY

Four years after buying my house on Vancouver’s Wall Street, I finally decided the time was right to build a laneway house. It was something that had been in the back of my mind since I first saw the 160-foot-long lot, which had ample room for a second home at the back.

My vision was for a laneway house that fit my lifestyle so that I could move into it and rent out both suites in my existing home. I walked around laneway homes in my neighbourhood and took the Vancouver Heritage Foundation’s laneway house tour, which convinced me I’d need at least 900 square feet to live in — the maximum then allowed by the city — without feeling claustrophobic.

However, the one property I loved that was about that size had a price tag of almost $500,000, and most laneway houses half that big were about $300,000. I learned the latter figure is about average for laneway houses in Vancouver, including permits, sewer and utilities hookups.

My neighbour recommended a contractor who had done extensive renovations for her and for several other people in the neighbourhood. In July 2013, he quoted me a price of just over $200,000, plus a 15 percent mark-up on materials. The architect he works with listened to my needs and came up with an open-plan design that I liked. I was told I would be able to move into my new home in six months.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Friends laughingly told me that a house build invariably takes twice as long and costs twice as much as you think. Unfortunately for me, they were almost right.

After add-ons, upgrades and unforeseen circumstances, my 950-square-foot laneway house cost more than $300,000, not including landscaping. The six-month time frame stretched into more than a year, and since I had foolishly rented out the top-floor suite I had been occupying in my original home, my dog and I ended up living with a friend for more than a month until I was finally able to move into my new home in August 2014. Thank heavens my bank was cooperative — I had to call three times for more financing.

It’s fair to say that I’ve had a love-hate relationship with my laneway house.

The permit process

The good thing about the city of Vancouver is that from the person who reviews the plans to the building inspector, it is making sure that laneway homes are safe, soundproof and waterproof.

But the city doesn’t do a lot to make laneway houses affordable. “We aren’t making a ton of money off the permits because our staff is putting in a lot of work,” said Jane Pickering, deputy director of planning. I consider more than $40,000 for permits and an unexpected new sewage line quite a lot of money.

Vancouver councilor Kerry Jang told me the city is making it easier for homeowners to build laneway houses by changing bylaws. “We’re trying to reduce the costs of having them built by allowing the sewer from the laneway house to attach to the main-house sewer as opposed to separate ones — things like that to make it a little bit more affordable and a little easier for people to build.”

But according to Pickering, the city’s going rate is currently $14,000 for a sewer and water line, whether you run a new line or tie into the existing one. And I incurred additional costs because we discovered that trees had damaged my existing sewer line, which had to be repaired; that also meant that I had to run a new, separate line to the street.

The city also wiped out all my greenery in the front garden. They threw a handful of grass seed on the dirt and said, “sorry.” So add in more costs for landscaping.

It typically takes five or six months from the time a survey is done to the time the city issues a building permit. A pair of French doors with a deck off my second-floor bedroom ran afoul of a bylaw that says your laneway home can’t overlook your neighbour’s backyard. After a few months of fine-tuning the floor plan with the architect, my plans were submitted in September 2013. My revised plans were finally approved at the end of February 2014. And then my neighbour threw a wrench into the works.

The neighbours

Something you really have to factor in when you build a laneway house is your neighbours, because they can really impact the building process.

One of my neighbours opposed pushing the house back from the lane a few feet, which would allow a car to park parallel to the lane, along with another space for parking on the side. To accommodate her concerns about me overlooking her garden, we replaced the French doors with large windows, but she didn’t like that either.

I was told that she phoned city hall dozens of times complaining. She called the police and shut down the crew digging the sewer trench in my front yard because it was a holiday — she was within her rights, but I would have sent the crew home myself if she had just asked me. And then we settled into a routine — as soon as the work crew arrived at 8 a.m. and started unloading their tools, she’d be in the back lane barking at them to park somewhere else.

She complained that my proposed fence would be on her property. After yet another $600 survey, it turns out that she had structures built on my property. More time, more money.

Another neighbour across the lane didn’t object to the laneway house during the consultation period the city mandates before plans are approved, but she was reduced to tears when she saw a second floor being framed. She said she had no idea the house would be so high — she was concerned that it would block her mountain view and that I would be able to see into her house from my second storey.

I promised her that I would forgo a balcony on the side facing her home and that the windows would be opaque — I couldn’t see out, no one could see in. There wasn’t much else I could do, but it was several months before she would speak to me.

I almost started smoking again.

“We had neighbor complaints regarding the height and overlooking their yards,” said Jane Pickering. “Single-storey dwellings do not require a development planner to review the plans, so it’s faster through the system. However, your neighbour sought some design changes to your project to minimize impacts.”

The things I should have known before the build

If I wasn’t so naive, the project wouldn’t have been so stressful. In retrospect, I should have done a lot more research on all aspects of home construction before building started. I should have taken time off work during the build, but I was working on a cookbook and had to meet a September deadline.

I’d never heard of soffits or nosing. I had no idea that I would have to make so many decisions, such as whether to get an over-counter or under-counter sink, what type of fixtures and door handles to use and what kind of finish to put on my concrete floor. I almost had a stroke at Ikea one morning trying to get anyone to help me decide what kitchen cabinets I needed. And what the heck is a tankless water system?

I also should have understood that the price my contractor quoted me was for standard finishes, such as laminate floors and countertops, hardware-store cabinets and bargain-priced appliances. But my philosophy is, “in for a penny, in for a pound” so I opted for granite countertops, hardwood floors upstairs and dog-friendly polished concrete floors downstairs. I cook a lot, so I also chose high-end appliances — a quality gas stove and fridge and an ultra-quiet dishwasher were necessities, not luxuries, in my book.

The concrete floors turned out to be my biggest headache. I had in-floor heating installed at an additional cost of about $12,000, but it has been a problem since day one — if I crank up the thermostat enough that my feet are warm, the house feels like a sauna. I haven’t been able to get a good answer from my contractor or my plumber as to why that’s happening. And the finish on the concrete floors was not up to snuff — I had to bring in someone else to have them restained and resealed.

The gas fireplace in the living room also still annoys me. It’s partly my fault — when I saw it in the showroom, it was flush with the wall. But when the work crew installed it, they said they had to bump it out into the living space because they couldn’t push out the side wall of the house, since that would impinge on the three-metre-wide walkway required from the side of the house to the property line. If I’d known that, I might have opted not to have a fireplace.

And in the master bathroom, every time I turned on the bathtub faucet, water would pour down from the showerhead above the tub. That took four months to fix.

I discovered the hard way that my contractor hadn’t worked with the drywaller before — even the contractor admitted he did a sloppy job. His young employee ended up doing most of the finishing and grouting. It looks like he was in a hurry.

Neighbours Chloe and Tyler Filteau are living in a 510-square-foot laneway built by another contractor. “Every inch counts in a small space, so we chose multi-use furnishings,” said Chloe. “Everything has to be used in more than one way or it can’t live here. And we had to be creative to fit into our budget.” Their price tag was about the same as mine, $300,000, but I think I traded space for finishing work.

My laneway house is great, as long as you don’t look at it too closely. I love the open design and the amount of light in the house, and the fact that I now have to walk only a few steps to get to the car or take out the garbage. And I do have a sense of accomplishment — I built my own home.

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