24 Sussex Drive shares our real estate dilemma

Canadians will spend $53 billion on home renovations this year, as much as was spent on new housing construction, says a new Scotiabank study. This fact is an excellent thing, a symptom and a fetish, and I do mean all three at the same time.
This home fix-up habit is one of the reasons that the essential repairs to the prime minister’s house at 24 Sussex Drive were initially referred to as “renovations.” The house is so decrepit that cardboard boxes being taken out of the house this week were labelled “mould affected,” residents slept with space heaters, the wind whistles through windows lined with winter plastic sheeting, and the third-floor room for stray cats kept by Laureen Harper will have to be fumigated or whatever you do about the smell of cat pee.
People buy homes that are in a particular state, without realizing that homes are living structures that deteriorate as much as their owners do. Wood rots, plumbing leaks, floors creak, squirrels claw through window screens and anything plastic eventually crisps up and cracks.
I understand that prime ministers were too frightened to spend money propping up a rental home in a nation suspicious of ostentation, but home-owning Canadians are fair-minded. They can add. Unlike politicians, they’re well-placed to understand that a superficial reno — not the massive asbestos scraping that 24 Sussex requires — can be paid for by a line of credit that will be covered when the house sells. A million-dollar detached house is said to be earning its complacent Toronto or Vancouver owner about $8,500 a month in profit. The cost of borrowing has never been cheaper. So do it now and you’ll be ahead of the game.
There’s something distasteful about pointless renovation, people installing, for example, kitchen islands that will fall out of fashion in the relentless self-generating cycle of home design. Granite countertops, besides possibly emitting radon, are over now and quartz is in, but why? Huge statement light fixtures are at their peak. Brushed metal is over and shiny 1970s chrome is back.
If your reno has been done in a chaste understated fashion, its style will last 25 years, and then have to be done all over again if you don’t want your interior to look “tired,” as realtors put it. Buyers want a move-in ready house. Double-income couples work so hard to buy the place that they can’t contemplate the emotional wreckage and exhaustion of doing the work themselves after they move in.
It’s a marriage risk and just too fraught. A house contains and radiates emotion, and, it must be said, status. It is sanctuary and guardian of identity, says the philosopher Alain de Botton. People paint their faces the same way they buy curvaceous fire-engine red Smeg fridges.
The problem is people who take out home-equity loans and see prices sink, which is a risk right now. House prices are overvalued in 11 of Canada’s biggest cities, says Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., but most severely in Toronto and Vancouver. Worryingly, homeowners are doing renovations rather than repairs. As Chris Sorenson writes in Maclean’s in a way that makes this homeowner feel faint, they’re drywalling without insulating, installing cheap thin windows that leak air, and installing laminate floors instead of hardwood. They’re bricking false fronts and fake-stuccoing the back in a way that will start water staining in a few years.
In other words, they’re altering the house without improving it, which will mean more money spent on repairs, heating and air conditioning as the climate changes and electricity costs rise. Good renovations are painful to pay for and hard to describe. They’re dull. Both the rot of age and the excellence of maintenance are often not visible to the naked eye. Seriously, 24 Sussex has knob-and-tube wiring. The place is a fire hazard and a danger to children. I worry retroactively about those cats.
There’s something eerily temporary about the reno boom, as the Scotiabank study pointed out. We see houses fixed up cheaply and flipped for extraordinary prices in a deteriorating neighbourhood, and it all has an End Times feel to it. People forget that they have to live somewhere, hopefully pleasant.
If this sounds preachy and dire, well, yes. I follow Harper’s plucky pet chinchilla @24sussexCharlie on Twitter, and he is hoping to hide out in the bat house through the repairs. Good luck, Charlie and see you in two or three years. They won’t finish on time. They never do.