Renovate or Tear Down?

A cute, unprotected heritage house in Hammond. If you spent $1 million on it, would you tear it down?
A cute, unprotected heritage house in Hammond. If you spent $1 million on it, would you tear it down?

I told you about Walter’s house and how he built it as sustainable as possible. In his article for the ASQ Newsletter in 2010, Walter sums up a major housing dilemma that everyone knows about but nobody seems to be addressing. He writes:

Due to the high value of the property in West Vancouver, the decision was made to remove the old house rather than remodel. The old house was worn, leaking and poorly insulated. Any work would have required basically lifting the entire house and adding a whole new basement. In this part of the city, it was also likely that any renovations or additions would have depreciated to zero over the next 20 years as new owners would only have been willing to pay for the land value in preparation for tearing the renovated home down.

He is absolutely right.

Around here these days, the land a house sits on is worth far more than the house itself. You can see this on your property assessment every year. Walter’s house is an interesting example. A search for Walter’s address led me to the page for Property Insight which compares it to the local average.

There you see that Walter’s property is worth the same as the average property in the area: CAD$1.5 million. However, the house itself is worth about double the houses around it. Why? Because it is new, super-efficient and just generally awesome.

Will a potential buyer value its efficiency or will they prefer something more conventional? The thinking goes that if you have 1.5 million to spend on a property, look for the oldest, most run-down house you can find so you can build a new one the way you like it.

It’s right there on your property assessment: land has value, houses do not.

For those who can afford these prices, tearing down and building new is common practice these days. New homes are often bigger, have fewer problems and all the modern conveniences and are more energy-efficient. Weirdly, it is often the case that it costs less (in dollars) to build new than renovate the existing house!

This is the little yellow house that Carl bought in 1922 as we found it when we bought the property in 2006. A building inspector from the municipality suggested we knock it down
This is the little yellow house that Carl bought in 1922 as we found it when we bought the property in 2006. A building inspector from the municipality suggested we knock it down

There is another side to the coin, however.

1. The new homes are usually built to the maximum size allowed by municipal zoning, not because this is being demanded by home-buyers, but to maximize profits of builders, banks and the real estate industry.

2. All the energy and resources that went into building the existing home will be wasted.

3. The increase in energy-efficiency of the new home will never recover the energy wasted in demolishing the old one.

It would seem to me that attempts to mitigate  environmental concerns, such as reclaiming materials, using recycled materials from other sites, and insulating beyond code, all of which Walter did and more, must soon eliminate the savings that tearing down and building new brought.

A passive house, for example, is too expensive to fit into this tear-down and build-new model. Passive houses are built to last decades, not the five years it takes for us to get bored and feel like moving.

Everyone will tell you it doesn’t make economic sense to renovate. I’ve come to the conclusion that the way we think of the economy doesn’t make sense. There is so much not included in our assignment of value.

The market puts pressure on builders to use the cheapest possible building methods to the bare minimum standards that building codes allow. Builders are not evil, they are following the rules to make a living. We say we want cheaper, not better. We say we want granite countertops, not insulation.

So here’s what we do:

take all the existing houses and retrofit them until they are super efficient.

Can’t afford it?

Make it cheaper.




Published by

James Rowley

James lives in Maple Ridge, BC, Canada with his amazing partner, Leanne Koehn, and their two amazing kids in their beautiful house. He studied Science and English Literature at the University of British Columbia where he met Leanne. He also studied acting for a while at Studio 58 in Vancouver. He works as a teacher of English and curriculum writer for new Canadians.

4 thoughts on “Renovate or Tear Down?”

  1. Kudos to you & your partner for living the green life. As i mentioned last evening at the SPEC Solar Tour, there are many ways to live in an old house, while using the best eco building supplies to renovate. My home is one of 4 built by someone from Ireland. He built mine in 1908, then the other 3 one by one in ’09, ’10, ’11 & ’12.
    12 yrs. ago, a rebuilt my back stairs using composite wood (recycled wood pulp & recycled plastic). Back then, there was only one place to buy it in Surrey. Now, Northern Building Supply, 1640 East Kent Ave., Vancouver, carries lots of composite wood. This place is family-owned, & serves individuals as well as builders. they are very knowledgeable about all the products.
    There are several brands of composite wood, but i’ve always used Trex. It comes in different colours. i prefer the grey, as it looks like old cedar.
    It’s only a bit more expensive than cedar, but the savings are huge – no staining needed, no splintering, cracking or warping, slip-resistant wet or dry, & it never rots!
    The Tufflex urethane coating i was telling you about is from Drytech Construction Products, 1230 W. 75th Ave., 604-222-8453. i used it atop my rebuilt balcony floor. i plan on putting the rest of my composite wood pieces on top of it. One can walk right on top of the Tufflex, & it apparently will outlast all the chemically laden products by 2-to-1.

    1. Thanks so much for the detailed note. We will look into composite when the time comes.
      If you want to follow our story, I think you can check a box and get alerts for new posts. I’m posting at least 3 times a week. Otherwise, just check back when you have time.
      Take care!

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