From a quick fix to a total gut

Like many in construction and real estate, Darren Walker and his father John had been thinking for some time about finding an investment property to renovate. After all, even though housing prices have jumped dramatically over the past 10 years, there are still lots of deals to be had. So when they read an article about two moms who renovated and flipped a house in Crystal Beach, these dads zeroed in on the mature west-end neighbourhood.

Darren, who installs kitchens and bathrooms at Kitchen Craft, and John, a home-building consultant at Home Hardware in Brockville, thought the area was ideal. Home prices are close to the city-wide average of $350,000 and it’s near the Ottawa River and the Queensway, not to mention the new DND headquarters that will take over the former Nortel campus at Carling Avenue and Moodie Drive. And since the home that caught their eye was priced at just $300,000, they knew there was potential for profit.

But profit is always gauged by effort and money required to pull off the flip.

The first time they looked at the four-bedroom sidesplit on Harrogate Private, Darren couldn’t get more than a few feet inside the door; he was bowled over by the acrid stench of cat urine. One of the reasons the home was priced so low was because the former owner was a hoarder with 15 cats and the only things she didn’t stockpile were litter boxes. Because of that, the strong smell was absorbed into the structure.

The Walkers bought the home thinking it would be a “lipstick job” in need of a good cleaning with a new kitchen, bathrooms and some paint. It turned out to be more like plastic surgery and liposuction: They had to open the walls, ceilings and floors to fully eliminate the stench and to uncover the dead animals, which included a cat under the porch and a squirrel that dropped from the ceiling during demolition, prompting one of the male helpers to “scream like a girl.”

“At the end of the day, the whole house had to be gutted down to the insulation to get the smell of the cat urine out and everything else,” says Darren. “It turned out to be a little bit bigger job that we thought. But once you start you have to be able to do it right to be able to sell it.”

When father and son weren’t working their day jobs, they were at Harrogate ripping the place apart, along with a few brawny hockey player friends they managed to recruit.

In the end, they filled 10 30-yard Dumpster bins.

While it was a lot of work, they were sold on the sound structure of the 1960s home. They maintained the configuration of the bedrooms, adding new windows and closets, carpet, paint and trim.

They removed three walls on the main floor to create an open living space with rich walnut floors throughout, sloped ceilings and updated wood-burning fireplace. A linen closet was removed to open the second-floor landing and enhance the loft feel of the home.

The kitchen got a major facelift, including a new layout that added an island, granite counters and new cupboards.

The basement, which had been a cold room with a cement floor, was transformed into a functional family room, while mechanical upgrades included new duct work, air conditioner, electrical and switching the furnace to gas from oil.

Outside, the home was rescued from the overgrowth, a rotting sunroom was removed and new brick siding, stone and windows were installed.

Paul Rushforth, whose firm Paul Rushforth Real Estate helped the Walkers find the house, says he “flips” about seven homes a year and usually looks for ones that will either be ripped down and rebuilt or that need just a cosmetic fix.

“I’m looking for homes that have good bones, so they have good foundations, decent windows, decent roof, but the inside is just ugly,” he says, adding that it helps to have good contacts for deals on materials, a good team to help you renovate and, of course, a good location.

Darren and John Walker had the contacts. And they invested a lot sweat equity, paramount to keeping overhead in check. But even with discounts on materials, they were still over their $70,000 budget by about 25 per cent.

In the end, it took six months to complete the renovation — twice as long as they had hoped — and six weeks to sell the property, which went to a military couple for $468,500.

Their advice to want-to-be flippers?

“Look at it more negative than positive,” says John. Rather than just thinking of the money you can make, “look at the shape it’s in, look at the work we have to do, really look at it in a negative point of view and say, ‘Should we do this, do we want to do this, is it going to be that good?’ ”

The Walkers are confident their next flip will be much easier because it can’t get much worse. At least, that’s what they hope.

“We didn’t make the money we thought we’d make,” says Darren, who is now searching for a real “lipstick” flip. “But we are proud to have our names on this because it is done right.”

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