Renovate or Relocate – Which is Better?


renovateAfter about ten years of living in our current abode, my husband and I realized we were really annoyed with it. It was time for us to either renovate or move.

There were some fairly “real” issues.

The kitchen was configured in such a way that you couldn’t open the dishwasher door while reaching the glasses’ cupboard at the same time, necessitating a two-step setting-them-on-the-counter-first kind of process. Opening the fridge door was impossible while someone was standing at the sink, making it very challenging to cook a meal together. We’d repeatedly stub our toes on the cracked white ceramic tiles in the master ensuite bathroom. (By the way, never get pure white tiles on any floor in your house unless you’re Martha Stewart’s daughter and your housekeeper lives in the house with you, if you value your sanity.) And finally, finding out that the fifties-era hardwood strip floors were so worn down that if we’d tried to re-stain them, the sanding would have exposed hundreds of poking-out nails so that walking across the living room would have been like a trip across a porcupine’s back.

There were also some “nice-to-haves” we wanted if we decided to renovate…We fantasized about bumping out our L-shaped kitchen into a nice spacious rectangle, the staircase was more junky than beautiful, so I envisioned a gracious arts-and-crafts style replacement, and we thought it would be nice to do dinner preparation in the kitchen while being able to surreptitiously keep an eye on the kids’ Xbox activity, by removing a wall and opening up the family room to the kitchen.

Then the estimates to renovate started to come in. Gulp. 

So we thought, why not move? Why not buy a place that already looked like the house we wanted? We explored options with our real estate agents. What a rude awakening that was.

Since I work with mortgages and people buying real estate all over Toronto, I thought I knew the market fairly well. As it turns out, the problem was our neighbourhood. A deal-breaker for us was that we had to stay here. Our neighbours are terrific, the kids love their school and participate in many local programs, and we really can’t imagine living anywhere else. (Once the kids move out, that will be a different story. We intend to be in a condo near the subway faster than you can spit.) Unfortunately, we’re not the only people to like our area, so demand is high and prices are, too.

Once we accounted for real estate fees and land transfer tax and moving costs, as well as the high price of local homes, we realized we weren’t willing to pay the price of moving.   

Let’s face it. We couldn’t afford to move. Bigger gulp.

So back to the drawing board we went. Literally. Stripping out the fancy things like squaring off the kitchen and removing the kitchen wall dropped the price of the renovations considerably. We also went through the quotes line by line, figuring out what we could live without and what we really had to have. Beautiful hardwood floors, yep. Built-in refrigerator concealed by attractive wood molding, no. Pot lights in living room, actually controlled by a wall switch, yep. New sliding door from kitchen to yard, no.

It was a bit painful to let go of the idea of “doing it all”. We steadfastly ignored the home decorating magazines in the supermarket, and reminded ourselves of the fact that our parents’ generation would have thought it was totally insane to spend so much of their earnings bumping out a kitchen for a few extra square feet, or knocking out a wall to bond with their kids a little more.

In the midst of all the planning (aka “procrastination”), the reno suddenly became urgent. Poking around to checking out what was behind the walls yielded some unpleasant surprises. We couldn’t hold off any longer.

What we learned when we decided to renovate:

  1. It would be better if you loved renovating. We now know that we hate it with a passion. If we were to do it over again, and if money was no object, we would move.
  2. No matter how highly recommended your contractor is, you will run into problems and there will be times when you want him to disappear in a somewhat painful manner, and never come back. Be ready for stress. Buying a new house and moving is stressful too, but it’s over quickly – like ripping off a Band-Aid.
  3. Plan, plan, plan. If you’re renovating, it pays to know exactly what you’re going to do – complete with drawings, notes, product specifications, and measurements. This is enormously valuable. Then when the contractor surprises you with a question like, “Where should I position the shower fixtures, I need to know immediately if you want them on the wall stud or if I need to build a new support?” you can quickly respond with, “Let’s just review the drawings, shall we?”
  4. Decide whether you’re renovating for lifestyle or for resale value. If you’re staying in the house five years or more, your renos are for you. Pick what you want and like. By the time you sell your home, much of what you do to the house will be dated and people won’t pay a premium for it. If you think you might sell earlier than that, bring in a design pro who can advise you on what will sell.
  5. Figure out your finances. If you’re renovating, setting up a HELOC or knowing that the cash is in your account if you suddenly have to write a cheque for a delivery or payment of an invoice, gives you one less thing to worry about. If you’re thinking about moving instead, work with a mortgage professional or a financial planner so you can understand how the two scenarios compare, and whether you can afford the mortgage that comes with each option.

So where are we at?  

Our reno is almost done. We took a break after it was about 80% done so we could catch our breath and have a clean house for a while. The ensuite bathroom was out of commission for a looong time. Finally the hubby and I got tired of sharing a bathroom with pre-teen boys and we embarked on this last stage. I can’t wait to clean all the dust of the walls and remove the protective cardboard on the stairs, put away my toiletries in my nice new vanity drawers, and enjoy a shower while standing on my pretty new pebble tiles.

But now I’m starting to look at the basement bathroom with a somewhat critical eye. Hmmm….

Image: Courtesy of


About Author

Ingrid Bjel McGaughey, AMP is a full-time mortgage broker at Invis, which sounds boring but actually isn’t! In addition to helping her clients save time and money in financing and re-financing their properties, Ingrid speaks at real estate seminars and blogs about financial topics.  Between work commitments, Ingrid attempts to corral a household of males - boys, dog and husband – into some semblance of order, squeezes in volunteer work with the Rotary Club, coaches baseball, and does long distance running in the hope of maintaining her sanity. You can visit Ingrid on the web at

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