Is there such a thing as an ‘easy’ renovation?
Ha! Clearly my tongue was well and truly in my cheek when coming up with that title.
Having lived in the dust and rubble of many a renovation (and yes the fact this is a first world problem has not escaped me) when my husband and I decided to embark on another project, the following conversation ensued:
Andy: “now the house is perfect my darling let’s move”
Georgina: “can we not just have a little time here to enjoy the perfection we have slaved over?”
Andy: “well we are looking to start a family so it makes sense. Besides, this time we will just go for a purely cosmetic project. We will find a house that needs new carpets and a lick of paint at most.”
Fast forward five months, also five months into pregnancy, and we find ourselves in the doorway of a practically derelict seven-bedroom Victorian house which hasn’t been touched for about 40 years. Oh it belongs to us now.
It needs rewiring, new plumbing throughout, new bathrooms (and bathroom extended), new kitchen (also to be moved), replastering, oh and new ceilings pretty much throughout.
I tell you all this in case you want to decide to dismiss all of the following as I am clearly an idiot who doesn’t know when to stick to her guns when it’s really really necessary.
So I have a few friends that have decided to embark on project houses asking me for advice lately so I thought this could be cathartic, whilst helpful to others.
I think it’s negative to say you have regrets and much more helpful to learn from experience. So today’s blog is basically a list of what I have got right over the years and what I would do differently next time.
Because of course there will be a next time as I am a sucker for punishment and clearly addicted to breathing life into neglected houses.
Match the project to your circumstances
Consider your circumstances before taking on a project. Ha she laughs. For example, do not take on a seven-bedroom house in need of total renovation when you are expecting your first baby.
Do not underestimate how much said creature will impact this experience both before and after he/she slides into the world. You will NOT be the same person.
Lots of people do it because they decide they want a bigger house because they have a baby on the way and possibly can’t afford the extra space unless they buy somewhere that needs some TLC. As much as I love a challenge though, I would say do the renovation and then get on with the baby-making – if you have any energy left!
Sorry to those for whom this is already too late. Read on and take note.
2. Get the right recommendation
Definitely get recommendations when taking on a builder, but get the right recommendations.
It quickly became clear we had the wrong builder when ours was wanting to rip down ceilings with original Victorian cornices and ceiling roses, to replace with plasterboard.
Foolishly we had taken a recommendation from someone who’d had an extension on a 90s build which just wasn’t comparable.
3. Set a budget and deadline – obviously!
This one is so obvious but it still needs to be said. Definitely set a budget and a deadline but expect to go over them. In my experience you may want to add 50% on top of the estimated time given by your builder.
Budget wise, that all depends on how expensive your tastes are… and sometimes how much extra your builder smells you might have…
If giving you a quote for the whole job it’s important you know everything item he/she is accounting for. Make sure it’s clear from the start that you want to OK any extra costs before they do the work, to avoid a nasty shock at the end.
4. Detailed plan with interim deadlines
Sit down with your builder and draw up a detailed plan of the project with interim deadlines and the associated costs. From the start you should have a list of everything you need to think about and when.
Your builder should also be able to set deadlines for everything giving you actual dates rather than words like ‘soon’ or ‘in a few weeks’. You will need to be flexible as life doesn’t always go according to plan, particularly where houses are concerned, but if deadlines are way out this needs to be addressed.
Badger him/her because if they are handling multiple jobs it really will be a case of he who shouts the loudest…
These deadlines will also help you to prepare for any research or decisions that need to be made along the way, as otherwise they tend to be thrust upon you at the last minute.
I love the interior design side of the renovation the most and it was the carrot keeping me going for months. I then found myself with a three week-old baby in my arms and a builder in front of me saying he needed to know the colour of paints for every room by the end of the week. He and I are no longer friends.
You would be amazed how long it can take to find the little details like the right light switch. An electrician put plastic ceiling roses and lamp holders in the middle of the ornate Victorian plaster ones in every single room because we hadn’t thought about the fact we needed to get appropriate vintage metal ones.
This plan will help your builder as well though. It’s not something a lot of people like to spend the time doing but saves a huge amount of time and money in the long run.
If you employ a building company do not expect to be able to hand everything over to them and for them to get on with the job in hand to your every specification.
I’m sure there are builders out there who are very capable of doing this, particularly when you pay the upper end of the scale, but don’t count on it. My experience is that they are handling many projects at the same time.
No one will care as much about your house as you do. I think one of the things I have found incredibly frustrating is that I will tell them what I want and they will tend to go down the easy route. By the time you notice the mistake they are way over the deadline and all you want to do is get finished because you’re either living there amongst the detritus or you’re paying rent somewhere else and want the job finished.
Plus you are likely to end up paying for that correction in the end without realising it and without it even being your fault. Therefore expect to have to project manage this to the point of micro managing if you really care about the outcome, budget and time scale.
To reiterate this point I need to tell you about the time a plumber cut down the pipe for a rain shower so that unless you were under 5’5” you would need to crouch. He was about 6’3” so probably did a lot of crouching while fitting this. His response to my unbelievably calm pointing out of said error: “yeah I wondered that as I was cutting it”…
Having said this, I really hope I never have to micro manage to the point of pre-empting such a ridiculous mistake.
6.Write everything down
With one builder we started off having weekly meetings with him during which he would dutifully write down everything you said and fill you with confidence. He then left his notepad behind and (because it was open…) I noticed his scribble didn’t even make sense and none of the projects had been labeled. I was possibly about to get the dolphin tiles as requested by Doris down the road.
We actually went to the extent of writing a list of our requests for every single room, which included a diagram, which we stuck to each door and had in a central folder.
The guys actually working on the job said this was really useful to them – mainly because Mr Notepad was rarely on site and even more rarely communicated our desires to them.
Even with all this expect them to only follow 80% of your instructions…
Nonetheless, your instructions need to be 100% accurate as if you make any mistakes you can be sure they will follow it to the letter.
For example, one door on our diagram was opening the wrong way, so the electrician assumed the existing door was going to be changed so put the light switches in the wrong place as he was following the plan. I can’t remember whether the door or the switch was changed in the end as I think I was in the middle of my three-day labour by this point.
7. Seek a second opinion
Although builders should be experts in their field, don’t always take their words as gospel. Quite often, particularly if they have given you a job quote as opposed to a daily rate, they will persuade you to make a decision that’s easier and quicker for them, but not always the best or most aesthetically pleasing for you.
If you feel unsure about something they are trying to steer you towards or away from speak to an independent builder who doesn’t have a self-interest in mind.
The Victorian ceilings saga I mentioned earlier is a perfect example, and one I will be eternally grateful I stuck to my guns on.
8. Be a weather forecaster!
Always keep an eye on the weather report because you will be told many times that weather is the reason for them not turning up or not being able to do something. When really they’re doing a job round the corner that is better paid because it’s only a couple of days’ work they’re squeezing in..
As a weather presenter they can’t use this excuse with me, but it’s amazing how many funerals (including dog ones) take place in the building trade…
9. Invest in a mountain of dust sheets
You will treat your freshly painted carpeted house with kid gloves for a while, because, like your nerves, it will all feel fragile.
Don’t expect any tradesmen you have in to finish the snagging to do so. They tend to focus on the job in hand and there will be casualties on the way unless, like a serial killer, you cover all areas yourself with dust sheets.
Don’t have any? Buy a load of sheets and curtains from charity shops.
10. Drink champagne – lots of it!
Visualise the end goal. Think of your partner and you having a glass of champagne in your new kitchen, new garden or bedroom for that matter! Whatever it is that gets you through.
Do not underestimate how stressful this can be and is likely to be no matter how well prepared you are, but in my experience it is worth it in the end. It just won’t feel like it until you have that glass of champagne in your hand.
In the 18 months since the start of my current ‘six month project’ trust me I have drunk much champagne, but not ‘that’ glass yet, but it’s close, oh so close and the thought of it is keeping me going…