Photo: James Bomables

Renovating a detached home and renovating a condo are two very different things. While you may need to apply for a building permit, chances are your neighbors won’t have a say in what type of flooring material you can choose for your living room or whether or not your plumber can park on the street. In a condominium, however, there are all sorts of rules and regulations that dictate how you can update your shoebox in the sky.

For advice on planning a condo reno we turned to interior designer Rebecca Hay of Rebecca Hay Designs. As a Toronto-based design professional, she’s worked on numerous condo renovation projects, both older condos and new construction. From start to finish, find out everything you need to know about the condo renovation process.

1. Consult your condo board well in advance

“You need to know what the rules and regulations are surrounding any form of construction in your building,” says Hay. “Unfortunately there is not a standard — every building is different in how they operate, and their expectations can vary.” Reach out to the property or building manager first as they’ll be able to put you in touch with the condo board or hand over any relevant materials and forms. “There should be a basic guideline about what can and can’t be done for renovations. The older and more established the building is, the more detailed that list is going to be. Condo boards tend to learn as they go,” explains Hay.

2. Know that newly-constructed buildings may not yet have rules in place

“I just completed a project where our clients had purchased the condo pre-construction, they had taken ownership and we went in to do the reno, but there was no board in place,” says Hay. “The property manager had basic rules about work hours, but in a way, it’s really a good time to be doing renovations.” Typically other trades are still onsite finishing up the amenity spaces and the hallway carpeting is still covered in plastic. “You can get away with a little bit more and the building will be more flexible than once those rules are firmly in place.”

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Hay

3. Find a contractor that is willing to work in a condo

“The first question you should ask a prospective contractor is ‘Are you willing to work in a condo?’” says Hay. “Working in a condo is more logistically challenging — you have to coordinate elevator bookings, you have to find parking, you have to book loading zones. You want to make sure the contractor is comfortable and familiar with working in a condo building.” Another important question to ask? “You’ll also want to find out if the contractor will have a project manager who will be on site managing all the trades that are coming and going.”

4. Understand that every condo building is different when it comes to restrictions

“Most buildings won’t let you do any work that involves sound after work hours. The condo building I just finished a project in wouldn’t even let us book the elevator until 10am, which was a huge hindrance,” notes Hay. Work hours are typically between 9am and 5pm, but again, it varies. “Another restriction we encountered was technology — this new condo building would only let you book an elevator using their app, which you had to download to your phone.” Occasionally, condo boards will restrict building materials such as hardwood flooring. “Some older buildings will say it’s prohibited because of sound transfer, however, if it’s installed properly with the proper underlays and as a floating floor, there should be no sound transfer,” says Hay.

Photo: Jeff Hitchcock/Flickr

5. Offer up your parking space or be willing to pay

“Parking is an unfortunate add-on when you’re renovating a condo because usually the homeowner has only one parking space, if any,” says Hay. “Most of your trades, including your design team, will have to pay for parking, which is so expensive. They’re not going to eat the cost of parking when it’s $20 a day for most downtown garages. Make sure you budget that extra amount for anyone working in your condo,” adds Hay.

6. Identify common elements within the unit that cannot be altered

You may think you own your condo, but beware of exclusive-use common elements like windows, balconies and front doors. “You’ll also encounter immovable objects like posts, pillars and concrete walls.” Electrical and plumbing obstacles are likely to arise, but according to Hay there are ways to work around them. “You can’t drill into a concrete ceiling to install pot lights, but you can create a drop ceiling and then run the electrical through that.” While she has moved the location of a toilet in a past condo renovation project, she warns that plumbing can be restrictive. “Water lines are easier because they’re just tubes, but it’s the drains that are the issue.”

Photo: James Bombales

7. Your kitchen island is not a workbench

“When it comes to condos, there’s just not enough frickin’ space!” laughs Hay. “The best thing you can do is stagger your trades so not everyone is working in the unit at once, but there’s only so much you can control with that.” You’ll also need space for storing building materials and construction tools, which can be problematic in a cramped studio or one-bedroom. “When there’s nowhere to put that stuff out of the way, it can cause damage to the unit.” A dropped hammer can chip your granite countertop or dent the hardwood floor, so be wary.

8. Maximize storage for the best return on investment

“Obviously, kitchens and bathrooms are always top of the list for ROI, but storage is probably the most important feature for people living in condos,” says Hay. Consider spending your reno dollars on custom shelving for a walk-in closet or building out a space-savvy pantry. “Make sure you maximize that storage because it’s such a premium that adds value,” notes Hay.

Photo: James Bombales

9. Expect the worst and hope for the best

“I always try to educate my clients that the reno process will not be perfect,” says Hay. “It’s almost guaranteed that something will go wrong or there will be a delay.” Build these hypothetical delays into your timeline to prevent headaches down the road. “You could end up waiting three-and-a-half weeks for a city inspector to come because they’re so busy — it’s not a delay you can foresee because it’s out of your control.”

10. Don’t rely on your contractor to do the cleanup

“Make sure you hire a professional cleaning company when you’re done the reno and before you move in,” insists Hay. “Don’t attempt to clean it yourself, don’t rely on your contractor to clean it — be sure to hire an outside cleaning company to take care of all the dust because it’s the last thing you want to do after any reno.”

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