We split our 1940s bungalow into two modern houses. It’s pandemic perfect

We split our 1940s bungalow into two modern houses. It’s pandemic perfect

Jordan: My parents, Ken and Connie, emigrated from Hong Kong to Toronto in 1975. They barely spoke any English and worked cash-paying jobs as dishwashers and cab drivers. My older sister, Cathy, was born in 1977. Then I was born in 1980. We lived in a two-bed apartment in North York. By 1985, my parents had saved up enough to buy a three-bedroom wartime bungalow, built in 1949, at Avenue and Wilson for $127,500.

I moved out in 2000 to study health sciences at the University of Ottawa. I moved back to the city four years later and found work as a publisher in trade media. In 2002, I met my now ex-wife. We bought a three-bedroom house in 2007 at Weston and Eglinton. In 2009, our son Ryker was born. By 2010, I had switched careers into real estate and was learning a lot about the industry. At the same time, I was seeing some severances happening in my parents’ neighbourhood—people who were tearing down an old home, splitting the lot, then building two new homes on the land. So I had this crazy idea to do it with my childhood home. I would sell our house at Weston and Eglinton, tear down my parent’s bungalow, where they still lived, build two separate houses, and live in one house with my wife and kids while my parents lived in the other.

The Chong house, built in 1949, which they decided to demolish and convert into two houses

In 2011, I started asking my real estate colleagues about lot severances. They said I would have to apply for approval from the city’s Committee of Adjustments, which considers applications for major changes to properties, based on local bylaws. The committee exists to make sure that nobody builds something crazy, like a 10-storey house in a residential neighbourhood. If your application gets denied, for whatever reason, you can appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board (now called the Toronto Local Appeal Body), an independent tribunal, who offer a decent shot at approval. 

First, I had to get my parents on board, which took some convincing. At the time, they were nearing retirement and wanted to avoid the financial risk of a huge construction project, along with the hassle of moving. Before I mentioned it, they had no plans to move out of that house—ever. A year or two later, they eventually agreed because they saw it as a way to help build the family’s net worth. By building two new homes, we could more than double the total value of the property, based on comparable teardown bungalows in the neighbourhood. After my younger sons—Bryson and Avery—were born in 2012 and 2014, the idea started to make even more sense. All my kids could attend school in a better district and grow up in my childhood neighbourhood. 

Next, I had to find an architect. But because lot severance applications get denied so often—and architects are all about their track record and reputation—few are willing to take on a project that would likely get rejected. Plus, I wanted someone who had experience with the city bylaws, teardown projects and the neighbourhood. After interviewing four architects and getting rejected by two, I finally found one I wanted to work with. Our plan was to build two 2,400-square-foot, three-bedroom, five-bathroom houses. We asked for the maximum height, width, length and lot coverage based on our property size and the neighbourhood. We went to the Committee of Adjustment in February 2016. They hold public hearings to consider applications for construction projects like this. It cost around $10,000 for them just to review our application. But the committee ended up rejecting it.

The next step was to appeal the committee’s ruling with the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). But I misread the deadlines in my application. When I handed in the paperwork, a month after my Committee of Adjustment meeting, I had met the deadline for appealing the severance but I had missed the deadline for appealing the height and size restrictions of the new builds. I hadn’t realized there were two deadlines. So I had to refile a completely new application with the Committee of Adjustment in May 2016, knowing they would review it and reject my application, just as they had the first time. That second application cost another $10,000.

Jordan Chong, 40; Bryson, 8; Avery, 6; Ryker, 10; with their three-year Italian greyhound, Archer, in their new kitchen

Before I could go in front of the OMB to appeal the Committee of Adjustment’s ruling, I needed to prepare a more detailed proposal, so I hired a city planner to help me. That was even harder than finding an architect. Most of the city planners I spoke to said these projects have, at best, a 50-50 chance of succeeding. Plus, I had to pay them either way, and a bunch of the planners didn’t want to accept money for a project with a low likelihood of success. It took a couple of months, but eventually, I found someone. I hired a real estate lawyer to help prepare my appeal, too.

I also had about 20 signatures of approval for the project from my neighbours. Between 2011 to 2014, I had gradually canvassed the neighbourhood to tell everyone about the plan and get their signatures. Most of our neighbours were on board, because they were familiar with our family. For example, the lady who lives across the street used to babysit me as a kid, and her son lives three doors down from my parents. It wasn’t a requirement to get these signatures, but I thought it would be a good, proactive way to show the OMB that the neighbours weren’t fighting us. 

In September 2016, we finally went in front of the OMB. We stated our case: we were a hardworking local family who wanted to improve our property, we’d been in the neighbourhood forever, our neighbours approved of everything. And we won. We got the grant to move forward. The money we had spent to that point—about $50,000, for the application and architect fees—wasn’t a total loss. But we still had a long road ahead, which included moving my parents out of the home, teardown, rebuilding and financing the whole project. We expected all of that to cost $1.3 million.

During that period, in mid-2015, my wife and I separated. That put the home-splitting project on hold. Our original builder grew impatient because of the delay, then jacked up the estimated cost of the project. I took the plans to a new company, Memar Architects, who quoted me closer to the original construction cost. By 2018, we were finally ready to start.

First, I had to move my parents out of their home. They’ve been in that house for more than three decades and they’re borderline hoarders, so that was a process. You’d be surprised how much fits in a 1,000-square-foot bungalow. But we did it. We hired movers and rented a house four blocks away for $4,000 a month. I also moved into the rental house, which had enough room for the kids when I had them for three days a week. 

We also had to get a construction mortgage to fund the project. We went to a private lender in the United States. Interest rates are high for construction mortgages—around eight to 12 per cent—since they’re usually short-term. So we were also paying about $15,000 a month for that. Teardown began in July 2018. Then we had to build two houses on a regular-sized 50-foot lot, meaning we had to fit double the materials in half the space. Space became a logistical nightmare. We only had three feet of clearance between the houses. How do you fit a machine that can carry pallets of bricks to the back? You can’t. You have to hand-carry it through. Thank god for my builder, who found people who were willing to hand-move everything. Then we had issues with weather. Our expected move-in date was late 2019, but the homes were ready by March 2020. That’s when Covid hit.

Ken Chong, 71 and Connie Chong, 70—in their new digs

There were still some things to finish, like putting cabinetry and lighting fixtures in the kitchen, installing faucets in the bathroom and painting patches of drywall. But the house was done to the point where it could be lived in while the rest of those tasks were being completed. On March 17, a city inspector was scheduled to inspect the houses and give us an occupancy permit. This, of course, ended up being the day that Premier Doug Ford announced Ontario’s state of emergency. So the city inspector cancelled, saying he had no idea when he would be able to come. Then everything else in the city shut down.

The site basically sat empty for months. To pass the time, I would go over to the houses every day and start cleaning up the construction dust. My work as a realtor was pretty much on hold too because of the lockdown. During the first month, I thought, Let’s see how this goes. But by the end of April, I was starting to get nervous. We were paying close to $20,000 a month, between our rental and the construction mortgage, with no end in sight. On top of that, April is usually my busiest month as a realtor and I only did one deal that month. I slowly watched our savings dwindle and the debt pile up. I admit I had a bit of a mental breakdown at this point. We actually considered moving out of the rental house into the new houses, even without occupancy permits. We weren’t sure what the fines would be if we got caught, but since our monthly costs were already so high, we thought it might be worth the risk. But we decided not to push it.

In mid-May, the province entered Stage 2 and things started to open back up. I got my builder to call the city inspector, who came back in late May for the inspection and gave us our occupancy permit. We moved in immediately. My parents and I had started to grate on each others’ nerves after living together for so long, including lockdown. It was a huge relief when we could finally move into our homes. But I couldn’t relax just yet.

We still needed to apply for a conventional mortgage to pay off the construction mortgage, and get my kids and parents settled in. Now that the occupancy permit was granted, the buildings were officially homes in the city of Toronto. Getting a conventional mortgage took longer than usual because mortgage lenders were being more careful with checking financials, given that job security was fickle in the wake of Covid-19. At one point, I thought if we couldn’t get the mortgage, we would sell my new house. But the approvals came through. Getting the house finished also took some time. Some tradespeople were willing to come by and finish exterior details, like landscaping and finishing the exterior railing. Other tradespeople were not willing to come inside if someone else was in the house. If they didn’t feel comfortable working at that time, we would wait until they did. We didn’t want to put anyone’s health at risk. 

We designed the houses to look very different on purpose. Most severed houses in my neighbourhood look exactly the same, so they’re always going to be associated in price. Instead, I designed one to be ultra super modern with lots of greys, blacks, concrete and glass, while the other is traditional rustic style with more whites and wood. I let my parents pick which house they wanted to live in. I thought the rustic style would have suited them better, but they went with the modern one. Each home is valued at about $2.4 million. At its peak, in 2016, our old home was worth about $1.9 million.

I feel good knowing that I was able to do this for my parents. They’ve never had anything new, not even a car. The washing machine in their old bungalow was my age. My dad is super handy, so he’d always figure out a way to fix things and refused to buy new. He would even refuse to let me or my sister buy them something new. Now they’re calling me over every other day to ask how to use the washing machine or adjust the lights because the technology is so different. Everything is Wi-Fi enabled. They don’t even know how to turn on their oven.

There are definitely some adjustments, but they’re happy in their new home. And it’s nice having them next-door, particularly during the pandemic, when everyone can stay close while still having their own space. Splitting a property into two homes is kind of like the real estate version of social distancing. Ryker, Bryson and Avery get to see their grandparents all the time, especially when they’re in the mood for Chinese cooking. Or they stay here when they want spaghetti and meatballs. We haven’t put a fence up between the backyards, so the kids and my dog get to run between both houses. I think we’ll keep it that way for now.