For many of us on the west coast, the cost of owning a home is unaffordable. The choices generally fall between something really small and making use of every square-foot of closet space, or moving far enough away from the city to require a traffic-packed commute.
But what if you were willing to do things a little differently? To see opportunities where others just see a lot of work.
After spending a month looking for something to buy, my friends Tom and Claire ran into another friend at an open house. It wasn’t the sort of house that either of them could afford to buy on their own, and they mostly were there out of curiosity. Who wouldn’t want to tour a 1970s mansion of an eccentric real estate developer with most of the original decor still intact?
The house had been on the market for over two years. It was weird, expensive and not on a particularly large piece of property, so not a good contender for redevelopment. When the two families ran into each other at the open house it didn’t take long for them to realize that they could divide the 7 bedroom house into a duplex, making it more affordable than most houses in that neighbourhood.
The house had already been converted into several smaller apartments and had 2 full kitchens and 2 kitchenettes. Several entrances and a natural divide between the entertaining wing and bedroom wing of the house. Turning it into a duplex was adventurous, though not an impossible option for two families with 5 kids, two cats and a dog between them.
The technicalities of dividing a mansion into a duplex
Dividing the mansion into a duplex wasn’t exactly easy. They divided the cost of the house based on the floor space and managed to get financing in place.
Here are a few pieces of advice for anyone considering doing something like this.
- Given that the space wasn’t completely separate in the beginning, and the nature of the building required a lot of shared renovation, the relationship between the two families was more roommate than the neighbour. Luckily both families are really relaxed and easy-going.
- They set out the details of the shared property in writing before buying the house together. This included how to divide shared expenses, like taxes, property improvements, etc. And what happens if one of them decides to sell their half of the house.
- To make a legal strata they would have to do a number of upgrades, so it’s not something they’re considering at the moment. Some of those upgrades include:
- Fully separating the two halves of the house.
- Separating the electrical panel.
- Bringing certain parts of the building up to code.
- It’s not always sunshine and rainbows within a close-knit community of neighbours. However, the benefits of having a strong relationship with your neighbours far outweigh the difficulties of negotiating around differences.
Anyone buying an older home knows that they’re committing to a certain amount of work. Buildings age and pretty important things, like electrical systems, have a lifetime of about 40 years.
However, subdividing a mansion means removing extra staircases and figuring out whether to keep or alter the unusual decor elements.
Tom and Claire took the entertaining wing of the building, so they had fewer bedrooms and needed to convert the dining room into a guest room/office. That meant removing the giant table that was built into the foundation of the house. And figuring out how they felt about tiled floors, a wall of marble and plenty of wood panelling.
They also didn’t have a decent downstairs bathroom, had an extra kitchenette in one of the bedrooms, and needed to remove a ton of dead ivy from the exterior of the building.
However, the first thing they dealt with was how to keep their enormous living room warm. They started by replacing about half of the inefficient single-pane windows (they’ll deal with the unusual and large windows at a later point). And added two heat pumps.
Ten months in to their new home and there’s still plenty to do.