Learning Curve

For most people finding your home is an exciting process. Some people start by calling a realtor, some people go out for a drive and see what’s out there to be had, and some people sit down at their computer and start their search online. Regardless of how you start your property search, unless you belong to the portion of the population that is involved in construction, trades, professional consulting or the engineering fields, you may know a minimal amount about the physical property you are about to invest in. Sure you can research the market, find what houses are going for in the area, explore the financial aspects of the deal, make sure you get all the tax credits you qualify for, and be ‘smart’ about one of the biggest purchases of your life – but how much can a person really know about the important issues in buying a house.

As a recent homebuyer myself I can remember discussing the purchase of our home with the bank, our family, our friends and our realtor. We talked about what we liked about certain homes and what we didn’t like, what area we would like to live in, and what features in a home we wanted such as square footage, an updated kitchen, three bedrooms and a large enough backyard for our growing boxer puppy. Touring through houses we discussed whether we liked the finishes, the flooring, the layout, and what changes we would have to make to allow the house to feel more like our home.

When we finally settled on a house we took all of the usual steps. We had a home inspection, got our finances in order, and when they accepted the offer – we had purchased our first home! We felt that we had done our homework, been diligent, and made an informed decision.

For most people this is how they go about researching and purchasing a property.

After all – what else is there to know?

The answer is there is A LOT more to know.

Ok, so admittedly I am still learning all the things there are to know about a property. But I’ll start by sharing a few things I found most shocking recently through my work at John MacDonald Architect, as I participated with the principal and staff in a house-hunting exercise: (laugh, but I bet you didn’t know some of this either)

  • when you buy a property, whether its a $100,000 fixer-upper or a million dollar mansion, you may own it but you can’t do whatever you want with it. You heard me right: if you happened to buy a house in a heritage district, or a heritage designated house itself, your ability to alter, add, change, paint, or demolish, are – hold your breath- not completely up to you. Permissions are needed, and they aren’t always predictable. Some properties are designated, but sit on a list of properties of special interest that you might not know of.
  • Next, if your property is in a floodplain – wait for it – yes, you guessed it! It’s also not under your total control. Want to build that three car garage you’ve been dreaming of since you bought the place? Think again if the GRCA flood lines say otherwise. And those floodlines show up in the most unlikely places, adjacent the tiniest of streams. You’d never think to check until it’s too late!
  • Zoning. Yes zoning! Dont chuckle and think I hadn’t heard of zoning before, we all have. But who knew there were these binders and binders of rules, and subrules of subrules!? Did you know that you can buy a house in a residential area that might not even be zoned residential? What on earth is “legal nonconforming” anyway? Well, it’s a status that can jump up and bite you.
As if these weren’t enough things to think about, some other points of consideration include:
  • is your house located on a road that is subject to a road widening? Either now, or coming soon? That might cause you to lose a chunk of your front property, and all its trees. In five years your house might be 10 feet closer to the road. Who knew?
  • is your house located in an area that has significant changes planned for it in the near future (hint- find the Region or City Official Plan for your area). Your plans are only some of the plans at work.
  • what are the variances on the property, and what are your chances of getting some too, if you want to make changes?
  • what shape are the structural, plumbing and heating systems in? Does the house have enough electrical services to support your families needs? The architects kept talking about houses with “good bones”. I’m not sure I ever looked at the bones.
  • Did you know that the Region of Waterloo did a study of properties on septic systems, only to discover that about a third of the owners didn’t even know they weren’t connected to the municipal sewers? That they even HAD a septic system?
  • did you know that houses are full of designated and hazardous substances that we don’t even think about? What’s in those old kitchen floor tiles? If they’re 8 inches square, it’s might be asbestos.
All of these things can amount to frustration and disappointment. But don’t be discouraged. Just like you call for investment and legal advice before you leap, there are people who are knowledgeable and happy to help, often for little or no charge,

so that your dream home with the three bedrooms, updated kitchen and large enough backyard for the growing boxer puppy can be just that.
Your dream home.

Some helpful resources include:
  •  local architect offices like ours
  •  city planning departments
  •  building permit offices
  • registry offices
  •  city or regional websites
  •  zoning (usually available online)
  • the GRCA  (their website here) under “map your property”
Happy house hunting!

Cailin Radcliffe

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