Condo renos 101: what you need to know about renovating

Condo renos 101: what you need to know about renovating

Renovating a house is one thing, but condo renos—with building rules, permits, elevator bookings, building access for trades, parking permits, noise limits, and more —add a whole other layer of complexity to an upgrade. But it IS possible to make your condo renovation a positive experience. It just has to be managed well.

We talked to some experienced contractors (and condo owners who have gone through the learning curve) for some condo renovation guidelines to help you make sound choices and ensure your experience is as stress-free as possible.

Q: What kinds of renovations are allowed in a GTA condo? Do I need a permit to renovate?

A: What’s allowed is up to your condo board. They will have a published list of what’s allowed and what you need to ask permission for: you can request it from your property manager or board rep, or find it on the condo board’s website. Err on the side of caution here: there’s nothing worse than starting a project only to have it grind to a halt because you failed to do your due diligence.

In cases of major renovations, building permits may be required. You can often do cosmetic work without a building permit (like upgrading your laminate countertop to quartz or changing out a kitchen sink or bathroom vanity), but you may still require an okay from the condo board or property manager to proceed.

If you’re doing more extensive work like changing your bathroom layout or moving your kitchen sink, you’ll need a certified plumber to relocate plumbing lines, and they’ll need to provide their credentials (liability insurance, license info, etc.) to the condo board. Sounds like a pain, but it’s all about risk management and protecting condo owners. After all, you don’t want a DIY plumber in the unit above yours going rogue with a bathroom reno that could leak down into your unit.

The same goes for electrical upgrades. If you want to add pot lights, for example, you’ll need a licensed Ontario electrical contractor to take out a permit, do the work and then get it inspected to close that permit.

Worth noting: All reno work (big or small) will also likely require a pre-inspection and/or post-work completion inspection by your condo’s property manager to ensure it was done right. Again, each condo board has its own unique set of rules.

Q: Do I need a contractor or can I manage a reno project on my own?

A: Whether you’re upgrading a condo or a house, contractors offer significant benefits, especially on larger projects. They have access to preferred, best-in-class trades, quality materials, better pricing and discounts, and they understand the ins and outs of building permits. If you don't have any experience managing a renovation project or if you don't have time to be there every day to make sure things are happening on time and on budget, you’ll want a reputable contractor.

Worth noting: Choose a contractor who’s experienced with condos and knows how to navigate all the extra complexities that come with working on a unit within a larger building.

Q: Is renovating a condo any different than renovating a house?

A: Oh, let us count the ways. For one, you've got neighbours on all sides, above and below, who don’t want to hear jackhammering at 7:00 on a Tuesday night or at 9:00 on a Saturday morning. Demolition and construction are LOUD. Noise bylaws in Toronto residential neighbourhoods aren’t nearly as strict (or as heavily enforced) as they are in condos. In most buildings, work is usually only allowed 8-5, Monday to Friday. That means no Skilsaw noise or drilling at 5:01 PM or on the weekend. Period.

There are also rules around bringing in new materials and removing demo materials. Hallways and elevators have to stay clean and damage-free. If the crew gets hallway carpets dirty, for example, you could be fined, and damaging the marble in an elevator or lobby could really cost you. Best to discuss all of this with your contractor upfront and have a clear agreement of responsibility and liability.

And let’s not forget things like elevator bookings, parking arrangements for trades and inspectors, and coordination of deliveries. It all adds to the complexity.

Worth noting: Most condos won’t accept renovation debris in their dumpsters, though some may let you put a bin in a parking spot for a few days. You or your contractor will need to make arrangements for proper debris disposal.

Q: What’s the best bang for my buck in terms of better livability and resale value?

A: That depends. What have comparable units sold for and what work was done to them? Use those as a benchmark.

Also, are you looking to flip the unit or keep it for a long time? If you’re flipping a moderately priced unit, you’ll want to go with a porcelain backsplash instead of a marble one, for example. The opposite would apply to a higher-end unit.

If you’re on a tight budget, simple cosmetic changes like swapping out cabinet hardware, changing a backsplash or upgrading from a laminate to a quartz countertop can make a world of difference in a kitchen. And installing a nice vanity and shower door in the bathroom can change the look of a bathroom without breaking the bank.

Worth noting: If you have two bathrooms, keep at least one bathtub: even if long, hot soaks aren’t your thing, not having a tub could be a deal-breaker for a potential buyer.

Looking for a fixer-upper condo in Toronto? Start your search here.

Q: What’s better, buying an older unit and renovating or going with something new?

A: New condos can be bright and modern… and sometimes a little tight on space. Older units tend to be more spacious but can look dated (think beige bathroom tile and popcorn ceilings). If you’re up for a project, going with an older unit can be a great way to get more space.

Another very important thing to consider with older units is plumbing. Were Kitec water pipes used in the building? If so, have they been replaced? Kitec was used in Canada between 1995 and 2007 but was found to corrode quickly, which could lead to pipe failure.

These pipes are no longer manufactured, and most buildings have been giving owners a deadline to retrofit their units with new pipes. Each owner is on the hook to pay for the swapping out of pipes, and that can add up to thousands of dollars. Walls, ceilings and tiles could all be affected. It’s best to know upfront what the situation is and to have the unit checked by a plumber. (Kitec is recognizable by its bright orange hot water supply and bright blue cold water supply, identifiable by the KITEC or KTC stamp.)

Red and Blue KITEC pipes inside drywall

Q: When’s the best time to do renovations on my condo?

A: Short answer? Before you move in. Here’s why:

Renovations by two contractors causing a dust storm

Long answer: renovate before you’ve moved in or once you’ve found another place to stay while the work is being done. It’s always easier to drywall, tile, remove textured ceilings, replace countertops, sand or paint without having to worry about furniture, electronics or clothes. Even minor renovations can be messy.

That said, it’s not impossible to renovate if you’ve already moved in. It just requires more planning, time, drop cloths, plastic sheeting and tape. But it IS doable.

Trying to decide if you should buy a fixer-upper or a newer unit?

Talk to an agent: our Condo Pros can give you the info you need about specific buildings and units that will help you make the right choice. Get in touch today.

Join over 71,000 subscribers and get market news, insights & expert advice delivered straight to your inbox