A couple of years ago, my husband and I bought a house. I say a house – it was actually more of a building site: walls stopped several feet short of the floor, the enormous hot water tank was temporarily plumbed into the middle of the kitchen and a perilous ladder took you up to the semi-completed top floor.
But it was in the right location; we calculated that building into the side return and extending at the back meant we could make it big enough for our needs (we have three children); and, crucially, it was within budget, so we took the plunge, and embarked on a hefty renovation project.
We had to do everything; and I mean everything. Rewire, replumb, build, lay floors, add walls and doors, work out exactly where we wanted all the light switches to go. Also, we were on a budget – as much as I would have loved to call in a top-end architect and interior designer to oversee the whole thing, sadly that wasn’t an option.
A year and a half later, and we’re finally in – marriage surprisingly intact, finances gradually recovering. Would I do it again? Ask me in 10 years. In the meantime, here’s what I learnt.
A set of architects’ drawings is worth the money
Right at the outset of the process, I signed up an architect friend, who has exquisite taste (Olivia Gordon) to do me a set of drawings for the house, with the idea that we’d then employ a builder to execute the work.
It didn’t quite work out like that, but the process was invaluable – she talked me through how we like to live and what we wanted from our home, what was crucial (a utility room) and what was merely desirable (a separate TV room got canned), as well as helping me to think ahead about what we might want to do in the future – for example, turn a large bedroom into two smaller ones, and create an en-suite.
All of this helped us work out where to put walls and plumbing, reconfigure the space so the house flowed beautifully and make sure our furniture fitted. It gave us the long view and saved dithering and mind-changing (which costs more money) later down the line.
Get a design and build company in for an extension
After a series of fruitless conversations with builders, waving our architect’s plans at them, we realised that most contractors, even the really good ones, want to be told exactly what to do, and in what order.
If you have architects’ plans already, you can employ a project manager to oversee the build and manage a team (or the architect could also oversee it for you, working with a project manager and building team), but it will generally cost more money. Or you can hire a design and build company, which does what it says on the tin: designs your space and then builds it for you.
This is a brilliant option if you’re doing something like a side return or loft extension, which are the bread and butter of companies such as these, as they will know exactly how to maximise your space, draw it up, get it through planning and carry it out, within an agreed budget and time frame.
We could have cut out the architects’ drawing stage and gone straight for this option (and in fact, MoreSpace, the company we used to do our kitchen extension, did tweak our drawings slightly to get them through planning, and they sailed through without a hitch).
They will also deal with building control and fire regulations – reassuring to know the whole thing won’t fall down or spontaneously combust. I couldn’t recommend MoreSpace more highly: ask for Stewart Ellerby, and request Louie’s building team.
Being your own project manager can be fun
Well, not fun exactly, but definitely satisfying. If you’ve got enough time, you can also save money by doing it this way – getting multiple quotes from individual contractors takes ages but means you can drill down into the costs, and you’ll learn a lot throughout the process, which is also helpful if anything goes wrong in future.
We hired different individual contractors to rewire, take out chimneys, put up stud walls, plaster, fit bathrooms, lay the kitchen floor and decorate – it was laborious and time-consuming, but at the end of it we had a handful of really good names in our address book of tradesmen we will definitely use again (as well as some we definitely won’t).
As a rough rule of thumb, you shouldn’t be paying more than about £250 a day for contractors, so if they quote you a sky-high figure, ask them how long they think the job will take them. But don’t sit on quotes, as prices can go up – check how long they’re valid for. And if a contractor says they’re free to start the job next week, be suspicious: the good ones get booked up, so get organised and be prepared to wait if necessary.
Electrics go in early – so make sure you’re prepared
This is really hard, but is also where having some architects’ drawings, or a rough layout, can come in handy, as you can work out where you want furniture to go, which in turn affects placement of things like switches and plug sockets. You’ll probably want at least one double socket on either side of a double bed, for example, and sockets with USB ports are useful for overnight phone charging.
Think about where you want to plug your hairdryer in, or how and where you want to charge an electric toothbrush (we originally put the latter in the wrong place and had to move them, otherwise we’d have had toothbrushes hanging from the wall). Where are you going to have your kettle, toaster and microwave?
Don’t forget you can put plugs inside cupboards – we have one inside our larder cupboard, so we can tuck the microwave and Nutribullet out of sight – and err on the side of more sockets than less (we still have to have an extension lead in the sitting room thanks to all the TV paraphernalia).
If you prefer lamps to harsh overhead lighting (me), a separate five-amp circuit for lamps is useful in, for example, the sitting room, as it allows you to turn all the lamps on and off with one switch.
Put everything on dimmers so that you can change the mood of the room by raising or lowering the lighting levels, and don’t forget to install an outside plug – ideal for those garden fairy lights, and you can extend off it if you want to incorporate more garden lighting or wire out to a garden office later on. Don’t forget internet access too – think about whether you want to install an Ethernet cable system if you’ve got a large house where Wi-Fi boosters won’t cut it.
Spend on a plumber, save on bathroom fittings
I spent months ogling freestanding copper bathtubs, enormous marble-clad rainfall showers and his-and-hers vanity units; what I should have done is focus firmly on the plumber I hired – as in the end we had to sack one lot and find another at very short notice. Rogue water can cause all sorts of problems, so it’s worth getting someone who knows their stuff and can make sure you’ve put everything in the best place to optimise things like water pressure.
We kept and repainted the existing roll top bath, bought new taps for the old-fashioned sink and got the rest of our bathroom kit from the Bathroom Discount Centre, which stocks all the major brands but at a vastly reduced price (ask for Derrick). If you’re buying new sanitaryware, ceramic lasts longer – and you can always jazz up a basic sink or bath with really nice taps.
When it comes to tiles, a high-low approach stops your bathroom looking cheap but doesn’t have to cost a fortune – we splurged on Ca’ Pietra mosaic tiles for our modestly sized bathroom floor but paired them with extremely reasonably priced marble tiles we found online at Stonedeals.co.uk (they were cheaper even than Topps Tiles); in our boys’ shower we used Bert & May tiles on the tiny floor space but went for cheap-as-chips Topps Tiles subway tiles in the shower.
We’re not kidding – Screwfix is your friend
Seriously, it has everything you need. Yes, you will lust after those aged-brass cabinet handles in the swanky independent hardware shop – and then you will realise that Screwfix sells them for a third of the price and you won’t even remember what the other ones looked like once they’re installed.
Even its bog-standard white china door handles are cheaper than anywhere else – along with its brushed-steel switchplates, electrical wire and gardening tools. See also Toolstation. They also take things back if you get it wrong.
A second-hand kitchen will save you a fortune
I cook a lot, we entertain a lot – and we’d budgeted what we’d thought was a generous amount for our kitchen. Alas, my Plain English tastes were no match for our B&Q budget – one quote from a top-end kitchen company came in at just under £40,000, without appliances.
Enter The Used Kitchen Company, which sells ex-display, cancelled orders and simply unwanted kitchens: we bought our dream kitchen (10 years old, but solid wood and beautifully made) for less than a quarter of the price of the massive quote.
It came with gorgeous copper sinks, Caesarstone worktops and a big range cooker, and our brilliant builder fitted it all in and made it look as if it had been designed for our house (he also cleverly built a larder cupboard to match, using an unwanted base unit as a starting point). It meant we could spend money on a beautiful parquet floor, and we saved an unwanted kitchen from going to landfill to boot.
Think practically about the best way to use your space
We had a bit of an altercation after finding our kitchen, as we had to design our extension around it, which meant we had to rethink the utility/television room situation. In the end, we decided (I persuaded my husband) that a utility room should take precedence – we have three boys, a tiny hallway and I hate washing machines in the kitchen.
Thank God we did. We now have somewhere to hang washing, put wellies away and store tools: far more useful than two lots of places to relax (which there’s never any time for anyway).
On the advice of a clever friend, we also incorporated individual cubbies (with alphabet-initial coat hooks for each person) in the utility room for each member of the family, so everyone has a place to hang their coat, put school bags and shoes away and dump general paraphernalia – which definitely helps with the overall tidiness of the house.
We have masses of books, so got a joiner to build cupboards with bookshelves in the sitting room, and another bookshelf using the otherwise dead space around our bedroom door – and we earmarked specific walls to put freestanding bookshelves on too. The aforementioned larder cupboard in the kitchen was a must – it swallows up all the dry goods, tins, spices and baking kit, as well as hiding the microwave.
Building in narrow wardrobes in our bedroom (made from MDF but really well-painted) came in at about the same price as putting Ikea ones in (you can always haggle if you’re getting someone to do a lot of work), took up less room than an old-fashioned freestanding one would and swallowed up all our clothes.
Finally, possibly the most useful item in our home – squeezed on to the extremely narrow ceiling of the utility – is an old-fashioned Sheila Maid laundry airer, which means we can dry a load overnight without having to use the tumble dryer.
Once you find a builder, hang on to him (or her) and make friends
As we were our own project managers, it was trial and error with contractors – some were great, some distinctly not so (see plumbers). By some miracle, however, we ended up with Robert, who came to fit our kitchen floors and ended up finishing the whole house off.
He could do anything, was super-creative (using leftover bits of tile to create a pretty pattern around the basin, for example, and cutting an old door in half to create a more practical utility room door) – and he got us a free dishwasher that was being chucked out of another job. I now have him on speed dial for doing practically anything. I’m even considering inviting him to my birthday party.
It sounds crazy – but invest in a paint consultation
I know, it sounds bonkers to be shelling out on someone coming round to tell you what colours to paint your walls. But trust me, by the time you get to the painting stage, you will a) no longer be able to make coherent decisions; b) be running dangerously low on cash; and c) be almost out of time. When you’re doing a whole house you also need to paint, well, a whole house, which means even more choices.
If you don’t want to just paint everything white (or even if you do – do you know how many whiter shades of pale exist in the 21st-century paint market?), it pays to get some help.
A professional will be able to tell you how the type of light a room receives will affect a particular colour, advise on which paint finishes to use, tell you how many litres you actually need to buy, and help you with what sort of mood you want to create in each room – as well as pushing you just beyond your comfort zone, in a good way. There are loads of options out there, and it doesn’t have to cost a fortune (and will save you one on tester pots).
The new-ish eco paint company Lick offers a 30-minute video colour consultancy for £75; its tester pot equivalents come as peel-and-stick squares that you can position in different places around your house to see what the colours will look like. If you favour a particular paint brand, most of them now offer consultancies – Farrow & Ball’s start from £195 for an in-person consultation, and then gives you 15 per cent off paint.
If you like the idea of mixing your brands, Paint the Town Green works with a number of different paint companies including Little Greene, Edward Bulmer and Paint & Paper Library; its consultancy service is £150 for an hour. I now have an utterly satisfying kaleidoscope of colours throughout my house, and not a magnolia wall in sight.
A decent decorator will cover a multitude of sins
Our plasterers, it turned out, were a bit so-so at getting the walls flat – luckily we had a brilliant pair of decorators who sanded them all down and made them look perfect. Cornicing, ceilings, doors, caulking – you name it, they made it look brilliant. Worth every penny.
Save some of your budget for carpets and the garden...
“We’re always the last ones to come in, and people have always run out of money,” said my carpet-fitter cheerily while he was hammering down the basic beige wool-mix we’d opted for throughout the house – a choice necessitated by time (it was readily available) and cash (it was cheap).
I’d wanted sisal or an eco alternative, but it turns out that a) it costs a fortune, and b) you have to have completely – and I mean completely – flat floors, which ours, after a year and a half of ripping up floorboards, hammering them down again and filling the gaps with caulk, certainly were not.
If you’ve got your heart set on something for your floors, factor it in at the beginning of your project – and the same goes for your garden. Ours currently looks like a combination of the Somme and a building site – not only has it been used as a massive builders’ dumping ground for the past 18 months, but we’re doing it completely ourselves in odd bits of time, so the vibe is very much “unfinished”. I have visions of a smooth lawn (fake will do) and an abundance of roses; my husband has availed himself of a saw, an incinerator bin and some heavy-duty weedkiller to tackle the ground elder. We’ll get there – eventually.
... And try to think about the latter at the beginning
We’re now in the position of extracting the rubble out from the garden through our very narrow, newly decorated hallway. If we’d been really canny, we’d have done the heavy-duty work in the garden when the rest of the house looked like a building site. Now we just have to be very, very careful as we carry the bags of rubble, earth and assorted detritus through the house.
Shop around and mix it up for the decorative bits
As with carpets, by the time you get to the moving-in stage, cash will be running extremely low, so this is when to be clever, as it’s also when the fruits of your labours will all come together, and you want it to look nice. I bought all the fabric for my curtains from a mill shop close to where my parents live in Yorkshire (Waltons Mill Shop – they’re brilliant) and had them made up there by a seamstress who was far cheaper than anyone in London, where we live.
Our kitchen table, meanwhile, cost £10 from an auction and I painted the top with blackboard paint to jazz it up a bit. An old glass-fronted cupboard we’d previously used to store china was repurposed as a linen cupboard, an occasional table became bathroom storage and a small hall table my dressing table. We framed the kids’ drawings with Ikea frames and mixed them with charity shop finds for our kitchen gallery wall. Welsh blankets became bed covers and a much-loved Suzani has become a sofa throw, as we couldn’t afford to replace the sofa. It’s all a bit hotchpotch, but it works!
Accept that the work will never be finished...
... But that’s part of the joy. Originally I’d wanted every curtain to be hung and every last square inch painted before we moved in, but in the end we lived with temporary blackout blinds and decorator’s tape on the hall floor for a good few months.
Next on the list is finishing the garden, then it’s painting the utility room, sorting out the fireplace in the sitting room... the list is endless. On which note, invest in a decent drill/screwdriver as there will be loads to do once you’re in, from putting up shelves to installing coat hooks. And that’s when it’ll really feel like home.
What are your tips and tricks for home renovations? Let us know in the comments below