Canadian Woodworking

9 things to look for when buying or renovating

Author: Ron North
Photos: Ron North; Lead Photo: Seanlockephotography |
Published: April May 2019

Here are a few of the most critical points to consider when buying a home or deciding to take on a major renovation. There are so many aspects involved in taking on any of these projects, but this list will at least get you starting thinking in the right direction, and pave the way for a great long-term home investment or a successful renovation.


After many years of inspecting buildings of all types and sizes, I have learnt why some projects go smoothly and others not so much. It isn’t possible to point to specific building code requirements. However, general procedures on how to approach a contemplated purchase or renovation can be helpful and prevent or diminish costly errors.

Bigger Problems
 This foundation crack is a problem. Notice it is wider at the top. This indicates the ground has subsided at one end of the wall. The reason for that settlement should be investigated.

Not So Bad
 Cracks are never a good thing, but this one is less worrisome from a structural point of view. The width of the crack is not too large, is consistent top to bottom, and the wall is not out of alignment. The issue of possible water penetration should be addressed, though.

Minor Differences Can Be Bad
It doesn’t take much of an elevation difference to cause problems between properties. The house on the left had water entering the crawlspace. The home on the right did not, even though the floor level is only about a meter higher.

Looking for Trouble
 A severely sloped driveway such as this should be avoided. The drainage system would need to be well thought out and professionally installed to avoid a flooded basement.  

Keep the Water Away
 A 3-diameter PVC pipe has been installed to collect roof water and direct it away from the foundation, greatly reducing the likelihood of basement water problems.

Plan Accordingly
 The steps needed for this addition are definitely not in the correct sequence. The existing roof should have been removed before installing floor joists, building walls, and then starting work on construction of the new roof.

1. Review the Property File

Prospective buyers should review the property file of the home. The municipal building inspector’s office will have records regarding the building. Depending on the age of the building, there may be plans showing the layout of the building that can be compared to what the buyer has seen on site. It should be a red flag if there are large discrepancies between the two. The municipality will be able to tell you what permits have been issued over the age of the building. Building inspectors will be happy to help with this information gathering. If there is no record of a permit for changes that you know have been made, be careful. At the very least, the issue should be explained by the seller. For example, the name of the contractor (if there was one) and invoices describing the work performed. The buyer can then decide whether to proceed and if so, make allowances in the bid price to carry out necessary corrections.

2. How Old Is the Building?

If it was built before 1990, there is a strong possibility hazardous materials may have been incorporated in the construction of the building. This may not be an issue if a renovation is not contemplated. However, if a renovation is to be carried out, testing of material will likely be required by either work safe or municipal regulations. There will be the cost of testing, but also the removal of any hazardous materials (asbestos, for example), which could be significant.

3. Cracks!

It may seem obvious, but cracks are not a good thing. If you see a crack, something has moved and might still be moving. Remember, a crack is just the symptom of a bigger problem. Some small hairline cracks are probably not an issue, but it would be worthwhile to have a knowledgeable person look at them with you. Cracks in the foundation, especially ones that open up wider at the top or bottom of a wall, can speak to a larger problem. Also, foundation cracks that become out of alignment are concerning. Cracks in other locations such as floor slabs, brick facing or sidewalks running alongside the building should be investigated as they are a result of deficiencies that may need repair.

4. The Lay of the Land

The inspection before the inspection starts. While walking up to the home from the street, look at the ground around the building. Perfect is a house that sits on a lot where the land gently slopes away from the structure in all directions.  Worst is the building sitting in a hollow that will channel all the rain on the yard and even the neighbourhood towards the house. Usually it’s something between these two extremes. So if there is part of the property that slopes and may direct water towards the house, at least make sure the two or three meters of the ground abutting the foundation wall slopes away from the house. Consider also the type of foundation. If it is a slab on grade, there is less of a chance for water problems. If there is a crawlspace, there could be issues. In the basement be even more wary and check for signs of water damage that may have already taken place. Regardless of foundation type, if the downspouts are connected to the foundation perimeter drain, they should be disconnected and re-assigned to a separate drain (usually 75 mm diameter) connected to the storm sewer downstream of the foundation drain connection.

5. Don't Underestimate Planning

If you are planning a renovation, focus on the most important issue – planning. Not just where a wall is to be removed, or a bathroom added, but also when these are to take place. Consider the order in which specific parts of the project will be performed. It is obvious that a foundation needs to be in place before the roof is constructed. The timing of other items may not be so apparent. For example, you may need to order the roof trusses early enough so that they are on site when needed, to get your new addition weather-tight. This would be true for other products such as windows and cabinets as well. You should also consider the timing and availability of sub-trades you may be hiring. There is no point in arranging for the counter top to be measured if the cabinet installer isn’t available. Larger commercial projects produce a project timeline with dates and estimates on how long each aspect of the work will take. Your addition or renovation project doesn’t need to use such a detailed document, but a page or two of the major steps will help you to stay on track and avoid unnecessary delays, or heaven forbid, undoing work to allow items to be completed or corrected.

6. Have Good Plans Made Up

Good plans and drawings help everyone. Better for bidding by contractors; more accurate drawings result in a more accurate bid. Vague plans force the contractor to give higher bids to cover the unknowns on the plans. The building permit process also goes smoother and faster. If the contractor can build the home from the plans without asking any questions (not including colours and finishes), then there is enough information included.

7. Be Realistic

Do a realistic assessment of your abilities. I am always amazed when a homeowner (friend, relative or co-worker) with little to no construction experience takes on a renovation project. I guess one has to admire their fearlessness, but their wisdom is in question. Even a person with reasonable knowledge should hire qualified sub trades such as plumbers and electricians when the project scope grows. Generally, if the work involves changing an old plumbing or electrical fixture, most people can handle the job. Reconfiguring pipes and wires can quickly get complicated. Homeowners can do this work on their own house. However, if you are going to tackle the project, do your homework. Further, some work may actually be cheaper to contract out. You pay retail for supplies, possibly buy tools for a specific purpose that will never come up again, and you may be taking time off work. All these factor into the actual cost of the project. It will also likely take you much longer to finish the job than a professional would take.

8. Ask Questions

Don’t be afraid to ask the building inspector questions. Remember, inspectors like building things. They were very likely involved in the construction industry in some capacity before they became building inspectors. The issue you may have on your project may be new to you, but the building inspector may have dealt with it many times before and seen a variety of solutions from different contractors.

9. Ask More Questions

You may not always like the answer, but knowing what is required in advance is preferable to a surprise halfway through a project. The building inspector would rather solve an issue at the counter or over the phone than on site after the mistake is already made.

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