A Don Mills bungalow gets the designer touch.
Let’s face it, house hunting has never been easy, but these days it’s become an extreme sport.
Despite shaky situations south of the border and a slowing market in some Canadian cities, in many Toronto neighbourhoods bidding wars still prevail and split-second decision-making is required to score a hot property.
At least that’s the case if you are looking to find a fixer-upper in a prime neighbourhood with plenty of potential. The raw gems are few and far between, and finding a property that hasn’t already had a handyman’s facelift is tough.
I tackled this challenge last year and shared my experience on my TV series, Sarah’s House. Turns out that everyone enjoyed watching me fritter away my reno budget so much that they cried out for another season. Never one to disappoint, I jumped at the chance to share my house hunt and ensuing renovation again.
Signing up for the adventure was the easy part … finding just the right property oozing with potential, untouched by a renovation, at just the right price in a secure neighbourhood was … not so easy.
I’m a city girl; I grew up in midtown Toronto and never strayed far beyond the central core. When I rented my first post-university home just west of Bathurst I thought I was entering a new frontier! But before long I had fallen in love with the Seaton Village/South Annex/Queen West area and proceeded to buy my first and second homes there.
There was an abundance of roomy old Victorian homes at bargain prices just begging for a cool reno to bring them up to date. But that was the late 1990s and times have changed. Finding a deal on a rambling old fixer-upper isn’t easy today.
The rampant interest in shelter magazines and the domestic arts has created a market where it is nearly impossible to find a listing that doesn’t say "renovated."
Problem is, I don’t want someone else’s renovation, and if I’m going to invest in a property I want to be sure I’m not paying to redo someone else’s improvements.
I started my search for hidden treasure early this year. Of course I cast my net in all the familiar spots and ‘hoods where I felt relatively secure investing my dollars.
(Don’t ask me why, but I had the brilliant idea that for this to be a truly inspiring and honest TV series, it should be my dollars on the line and my gamble to lose — what on earth was I thinking?)
When I set out to buy the house for the first season of the show, it was easy to find about 100 properties that fit my search criteria, but this time round it was slim pickings. Shocked by the increase in prices and the decrease in options, I had no choice but to reconsider my search area, broaden my horizons, and hit the highways.
After a couple of weeks of diligent house hunting through snowstorms and subzero conditions, I was forced to take my pampered city-girl attitude to new boundaries: I was heading for the suburbs!
I scouted for gems from east to west to north. Each time I called my agent, Kara Reed, and asked her what frontier I should consider next, she cheerily indulged me with the best she could find.
But as much as I tried to see the potential that lay beyond their lacklustre facades, I began to get discouraged. The fact that I had committed to delivering 13 episodes of my show to HGTV wasn’t making the selection process any easier.
And then I discovered Don Mills.
If I had to head to the ‘burbs I wasn’t going to mess around: I was going direct to North America’s original suburb; many subsequent neighbourhoods have been planned on the Don Mills model, which started in 1953 and saw the conversion of 2,100 acres of farmland into a contemporary residential neighbourhood.
Now, after more than 50 years, the neighbourhood streets are lined with towering trees reminiscent of a stately old neighbourhood.
I’m a believer in gut instinct and first impressions. Thanks to modern innovations and online real-estate listings, we have the luxury of viewing properties before we trek out to see them in person (sort of like seeing a photo of a potential suitor before heading out on a blind date).
Each day Kara sent me all the new listings she could find and I clicked through them uninspired, but the second I saw the little thumbnail-sized image of one house, I had a feeling my search was over.
It looked a little bit Brady (I’m a child of the ’70s and The Brady Bunch was de-rigueur entertainment for kids my age), and a whole lot different than anything I’d tackled in the past.
As a designer, I like a challenge and I don’t care for repeat performances — I take a "been there, done that" approach to my work and am fuelled by new explorations rather than the comfort of familiar territory. By the time we’d pulled into the driveway for a first viewing I knew I’d found my house.
It was full of original charm, 1960s details, and came with an electric organ that made me laugh. I always say that houses have a distinct personality and this one seemed cheery and bright, just waiting to be reimagined as a contemporary family home.
By leaving my old, familiar stomping grounds and heading just 15 minutes from downtown I was able to trade up my housing budget from an attached row house to a fully detached, 60- by 120-foot back split with a pool-sized yard and room to ramble.
Within days there was a SOLD sign on the lawn. I found myself loving the cul-de-sacs and crescents of my newfound neighbourhood.
It took me a few months, a healthy reno budget, and plenty of long days to turn it into what it is now. I hope you’ll follow the transformation with me.