Jun 2016 22

Renovating a heritage home in Vancouver vs building from scratch

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The high cost of buying a home in Vancouver has been well documented. A new trend of refurbishing heritage homes has been developing among would-be homeowners. But is the cost of fixing up an older home competitive to building a brand new home?

There are regulations to be considered whether you build a new home or are fixing up an older building however they are not as strict when simply making some changes to an already-existing home. Yet, it could be easier to start from scratch rather than open up an old building and the potential problems you could find inside, which can raise the cost of the work.

Cass Sclauzero who sits on the Vancouver Heritage Commission said homeowners needed to consider the merits of each project.

It depends on why you are doing the restoration and why you would consider building a new home. If you are going to restore the home because it is old and you don’t want to tear it down that is great.

The Crescent Vancouver by Gord McKennaThe Crescent Vancouver by Gord McKenna


When beginning to plan changes to your heritage home you will need to apply for a permit from the City of Vancouver, which is free however building or development permit fees may apply.

One example looks at a 1,030 square foot home in the Strathcona community in Vancouver. Although not registered as a heritage home it was originally build in 1892. The owners drew up plans to add 1,300 square feet. The total cost of the renovations were about $600,000.

If the costs of the changes exceed $50,000 the building needs to be retrofit for energy efficiency. In this case, the owners were required to make the changes required by the City. The biggest work included insulating the walls, ceilings and foundations.

The most economical choice would have been to use cellulose insulation, although the couple choose a different type, the cost for using cellulose would be between $0.81 to $1.80 per square foot. That would put the cost of the insulation at $1,863 to $4,140.

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One important consideration when planning to upgrade your older home is that there may be some unexpected work that comes up. For example, behind the walls you may find rodents, nesting animals or other unwanted elements that need to be addressed. Some homeowners find it is just easier to start over.

Home interior1Home interior

Sclauzero said it was crucial to have the right people on the project.

You want to get someone in to evaluate what your plans are to make sure that you are not going to damage anything structurally or compromise the integrity of the house. If you do want to preserve Heritage elements you want to be sure to get somebody in who is a Heritage consultant who can guide you through the process.


There are a number of programs and grants available to help ease the financial cost of upgrading your heritage home. They include:

  • Restore it Grant: helps to repair or restore the original exterior fabric of a heritage building (wood windows, exterior trims, siding, etc)
  • True Colours Grant: up to $1,000 and paint from Benjamin Moore to restore the exterior paint colours of heritage building. A Heritage Consultant will assess the home to determine a colour scheme based on the original colour of the home.
  • House Call Grant: helps pay for on site consultation and creation of a conservation report.
  • Get it On the Register Grant: helps cover the costs of applying to put the home on the Vancouver Heritage Register list.
Vancouver Skyline by Kyle PearceVancouver Skyline by Kyle Pearce


Insurance companies must replace your home with a similar house. That can prove a challenged for them. Special craftsmen must be brought in to the project, there are more layers of bureaucracy and temporary living arrangements may be for a longer time period. Need to work with qualified professionals with expertise in evaluating heritage homes.

When looking for insurance be sure to shop around to find the best policy at the best price. Keep in mind claims settlement process and the amount of the deductible. The cost of insurance is directly related to risk so you may want to update your home. Keep good records and buy enough – don’t reduce the coverage to save a few dollars. This could mean there won’t be enough insurance to replace your possessions.

2078 West 6th Ave by Heritage Vancouver Society2078 West 6th Ave by Heritage Vancouver Society


When considering building your home you will need to decide whether you want a custom home, which will give you more control over the details of the home. You could also choose a tract home, which is one that has similar floor plans as other homes in the area.

The average price of building a custom home is about $200 per square foot but can go as high as $350 per square foot.

Our example, from Strathcona area in Vancouver, is a 2,300 square foot home, which would cost between $460,000 to $805,000 to build. On top of that cost you must consider the cost of the land you will be building on, it would not be unrealistic for a lot to cost $1 million in the Vancouver area but may be higher or lower depending on the neighbourhood you plan to build in.

Although on the surface it appears that refurbishing a Heritage Home is the more affordable option, it is important to keep in mind that is not always the case.


Planners need to be aware of regulations that the City imposes, extra fees to change zoning or other fees the City may charge. As well, anyone considering changing an already-existing home should keep in mind that potential problems that are found behind the walls may add to the costs. It is best to do some research into your project before you decide to go ahead. That way you can be sure you are prepared to handle any problems that may arise during construction and building.

Having fixed up two Heritage Homes Sclauzero said she supported those who wanted to "restore the grandeur" of their older home. She said, in her experience it was more affordable to fix up a Heritage Home over building a new one.

However, Sclauzero said she was also very supportive of restorations that would help to solve housing issues in the city.

"I am definitely a supporter of renovating to add density. I don’t necessarily agree with tearing it down just for the sake of having a new and modern house."

Home interiorHome interior


4 Responses to “Renovating a heritage home in Vancouver vs building from scratch”

  1. ManOfWords

    Oh well, it would be great if Vancouver buyers could actually see the value in old homes but I’m afraid all most of them actually see is lucrative land in the current housing bubble. Sad but true…

  2. MyHomebuilder.ca

    City of Vancouver demanding tougher building standards which raise the cost of renovations, but I like to keep heritage!

  3. Dave Boulanger

    Sadly, most clients who approach our design firm are only interested in finding ways to build a new home. We see so many wonderful mid century houses being demolished weekly on the North Shore and nobody is standing in the way. Profits are the focus and everyone we meet only talks about how we need very large square footage to meet the demands of the offshore buyers and noboyd has a thought about preservation. It makes me sad each time I see a great house go down. On another note, the cost of buildng is just increasing rapidly with all the requirements of the newest building code so a true number to work with for new construction is between $250 and $450 per square foot based on the kind of construction we are seeing. $200 per square foot is becoming a very difficult number to meet.

    • Jay Banks

      Thank you for this comment, Dave! These are sad news but all we can do right now is to raise awareness and try to show people the value of Vancouver’s heritage. I would say our media and various local organizations are doing a great job in most of the cases – this is just one of the examples. Let’s hope even more Vancouver homes will be saved.

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