There are two groups of people in Calgary; those that work in the oil industry and those that renovate their homes. Sure, there are thousands of others who work in service industries and the civil service, but in two years’ time when the NDP is obliterated in the provincial election and the “new” conservatives dial things back to 1954, we’ll all know just how important they are to Calgarians (hint … not very).
Contrary to panicked Facebook memes and hyperbolic bleating by politicians, the oil industry does, in fact, still exist in Alberta. The past three years have undoubtedly been difficult, as most hangovers are. When you’ve been drunk for nearly fifteen straight years, first on a natural gas boom followed almost immediately by an oil boom, a sudden sobriety is going to hurt. Hard. But for the lucky majority of people who kept their jobs, or quickly found new ones, those juicy paycheques, gaudy bonuses, and precious perks kept flowing like a keg at a fraternity beer pong tournament.
So despite the price of oil “crashing”, no pipelines getting built, and oilsands megaproject investment all but drying up like the weathered teat of an aged cow, a lot of people continue to earn a great living. And what these Calgarians are doing with that money now is the same thing they were doing with that money before; they’re moving on up and they’re renovating. Which is why, despite the supposed apocalypse, Calgary’s real estate market has shown no signs of collapse or even a bump, unless you consider holding steady an abomination.
Anecdotal evidence from my own neighbourhood confirms a steady supply of homes coming to the market and all being purchased in relatively short order, unless a ridiculously optimistic price was first listed on the property. Eventually those sellers rein in their gluttony to more acceptable standards of greed and unload their homes as well. And the first thing to show up after the sold sticker gets plastered on the realtor sign in the front lawn, is a big ole metal dumpster, the tell-tale indicator that major renovations are about to commence.
I live in a late 60s/early 70s neighbourhood so upgrading interiors isn’t exactly a surprise. Some of these homes haven’t been touched since initial construction. Even the most diligent couple will wear a house out after forty years of raising a family. I enjoy tormenting myself by visiting open houses, and I’ve seen a few gut jobs waiting to be put out of their misery. Still, unless the home has already been refurbished from basement to attic by a developer, those dumpsters keep appearing even if the house in question is perfectly livable. Dated floor coverings or passé cabinetry are unlikely to be tolerated by the new owners.
We’re kind of funny about our homes, that way. We don’t see them like we do cars, where old but well maintained eventually becomes exceptionally collectable. There are no Barrett Jackson auctions for vintage homes. Generation Xers and Millennials aren’t dropping stunning amounts of money on “all original” sixties ranchers. No, they’re dropping stunning amounts of money for location and they’ll then pony up an additional stunning amount of money to completely modernize whatever home happens to be sitting there.
Which brings me back to my neighbourhood, now considered almost inner city by Calgary’s sprawling standards. Homes here are in high demand and prices continue to inch up with even the most slovenly of places selling in excess of half a million. Modest homes on the right cul de sac can easily creep towards three quarters of a million. And venture into the estates area surrounding the manmade lakes and those prices quickly rise over a million dollars; multiples of that for ones backing onto the lake. Every one of them gets its dumpster. Buy an all original gut job for $650,000 and promptly plunk down an additional $250,000 or more for renovations. I’ve witnessed a gorgeous, original two-storey with attached garage located on a pie lot backing onto the lake sell for a touch under two million dollars and not only did the dumpsters show up but so did an excavator to tear it down so that a lurid McMansion could be built in its place.
It’s an incredible expenditure of money and a wonder to behold for a cheapskate like me who is still quaking with disbelief at spending what we did to get into this damn hood. My first house, bought in 1998, cost $150,000 and I thought that was ridiculous. Never did I imagine I’d one day spend four times that just so that we could walk to the train station rather than bus to it.
Purchasing this house was a concerted, scientific endeavour for us. We established specific needs that must be met (walk to French Immersion school, walk to C Train station, two-storeys with garage) which significantly narrowed our hunting grounds. And yet within the first days of looking it was already obvious that our budget was wildly out of whack with what our needs cost in this city. Eventually we willed ourselves to pry open our wallets a little bit more and found a suitable place. Neither a gut job nor a remodelled show home, our new abode was a middling compromise of décor and condition that would enable us to live comfortably for a few years while we recovered from sticker shock. Eventually, though, renovations would be needed. I may be cheap but even I have a limited tolerance for stained, emerald green carpets and self-closing kitchen cabinets that no longer stay closed. That was five years ago, and with our mortgage now retired, this past spring we timidly ventured forth from our secure hole of frugality and investigated the potential of renovating our home. It did not go well.
Despite simmering unease with the designer we had hired, the renovation plans we approved were significant though by no means the most elaborate one we could have chosen. It was a major renovation, one that would require us to move out of our home for five months. It included a dramatic transformation of the second floor, with the current four bedrooms becoming only three, the two bathrooms increasing in size, and laundry moving upstairs. The main floor would be updated completely but retain most of the existing layout. The basement, currently finished in a less than appealing arrangement, would be left in tatters as the plumbing, electrical, and HVAC throughout the entire house would be replaced requiring much of the basement to be scrapped for access. We would have gotten new doors and a couple new windows but the remainder of the exterior would not have been touched nor the garage, a disintegrating mess, or any landscaping. Basically it was a two storey remodel that would have rendered a third floor an empty vessel.
Everything about this proposal was well out of our comfort zone, but we had grown tired of our cowardice so we pushed forward. Besides, everyone else in the neighbourhood was doing it with seemingly no qualms, so why should we be any less bold? We committed to rent a neighbour’s home which had conveniently just become available and braced ourselves for the pending five months of persistent stress.
How Much to Renovate My House?
Then we go our first cost estimate; $350,000. Three hundred and fifty thousand dollars! You can buy a brand new home in Calgary for that much money. Granted, you would be closer to Airdrie or Okotoks than downtown and you’d be able to shake hands with your neighbour out your bathroom windows but it’d be a whole home and brand new. Furthermore, that estimate didn’t include kitchen appliances or the cost of living elsewhere for half a year. Ultimately, we were looking at a $400,000 renovation when all was said and done. All the chutzpa we had willed into being over the previous weeks evaporated like melted snow on a wood stove.
Our chosen contractor was someone whom we’d met through our kids’ hockey. He is someone I consider a friend and to be an honest person and businessman. Having had peculiar experiences with contractors in the past, we explicitly hired him hoping that our existing relationship and the fact he’d see us several times a week every hockey season would result in a far superior renovation experience. That being said, we were also aware that our chosen contractor wasn’t cheap. He was very up front about this. He invited me to visit him at his current worksite and toured me through a similarly extensive renovation to the one we were planning and showed me all the areas where his company goes beyond the typical contractor standards. I bought in. I’ve spent a lifetime buying cheap shit at the Zellers/Kmarts/Walmarts of the retail world and used merchandise on Kijiji, so I’m well aware of the compromises such purchases implicitly make. When it came to a comprehensive home renovation, one we hoped to enjoy for decades to come, I finally accepted that the cheapest option was no longer the bestest option.
I just never thought for an instant that so much money could buy so little work. Perhaps I was naïve? If someone had told me I’d spend $400,000 on this renovation before a pencil had ever touched a designer’s sketch pad, I would have assumed we would be getting an entirely new estate. The entire house from top to bottom, the garage, and the yard would be upgraded and remodelled to the highest specifications for that kind of money, surely. Instead, I received an eye-opening of Clockwork Orange proportions.
As the reality of our renovation situation set in, the conversations my wife and I had seemed inextricably headed to one demoralizing conclusion. There was just no way we were comfortable spending that kind of money on a renovation, especially one that would leave so many of the things we dislike untouched. With relief, but also a distinct sense of shame, we informed our contractor that we would not be moving forward with this renovation. He was more congenial than our designer and I suspect he was prepared for this answer from us. Perhaps he knew us better than we knew ourselves.
It’s been over six months since our decision and we are still struggling with the aftermath of it. I, personally, continue to internally debate that philosophical issue that the designer found so funny. How much is nice worth? For that matter, how important is “nice”? I see a world that is addicted to growth. Everything requires more, more, more. The very basis of our economics is that there is more in the future to cover our over-expenditure today. The government does it. People do it. Debt is not something to fear but something to embrace seems to be our new societal motto. Don’t worry, growth will take care of the interest. We are habituated to continual consumption. We want more stuff. We want nicer stuff. We want cooler stuff. We want fancier stuff.
While talking with our contractor, he told me a renovation can be expected to last fifteen years. That’s it. In the summer, a landscaper I invited over to discuss a sidewalk issue proceeded to talk my ear off for forty-five minutes about the virtues of outdoor entertainment spaces. He indicated that the decision to pay for a $50,000 landscaping job should be based on how long you wish to live in the place. That made sense to me until he candidly stated that “long term” amounted to seven to ten years. My parents live in the same house they built in 1968! I can only infer that the entire home renovation industry views their work as disposable. Spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and relish it for a decade. Move, rinse, repeat. I’m of the mind that $400,000 worth of renovations is something you only say goodbye to when you’re hauled out of said house in a black bag on a gurney.
But really, I shouldn’t be surprised that they say these things. Why wouldn’t they? They are making a comfortable living thanks to people doing exactly this. It’s the Canadian dream, or at least the Albertan one. And it all makes me very uncomfortable. Part of me wants it, sure, but not at these dollar amounts. But I can’t stop thinking it’s obnoxious. People who consider themselves middle class, average Canadians spending this kind of money (and often debt dollars) on bigger, flashier homes all the while bitching about the entitlement of millennials and too much taxation and myriad more first world “problems”. They spend more on their precious plumbing fixtures than some people make in a year.
Yet what do I do that is so noble? Nothing. I don’t resist the desire to renovate (or buy new cars or clothes or any number of gadgets) because I strive to use the money for good, to help others. Nope, we just save it; hoard it. I judge everyone else’s superficiality but is my hypocrisy any less hollow or repugnant?
I don’t know what the ultimate answer to my existential conundrum, my midlife crisis of conscience, will be. I’m pretty sure the way our species lives is screwed, but I’m also pretty sure I’m not the one to lead a revolution or even live by my convictions. It’s fascinating, in a sad way, how easily we can feel the need to compete with those we denounce. That, perhaps more than anything else, is what bothers me most. It probably says a lot about me and not much of it flattering. Trapped between wanting to change the world and wishing I didn’t care.
In the meantime, as my brain unceasingly devolves into absurdity, I’ve started puttering around on some projects myself. Will I renovate our entire estate myself? Ha! This can’t possibly end well, but for now it feels like I’m at least making some progress and saving some money. I may even need to rent a dumpster soon.