Four years or so ago, when Carl and I were young, innocent, and newly married, we decided it was the right time to buy a house.
‘Let’s look at this one,’ I said. It was a two-bedroom, Victorian terraced house. There were two pictures in the listing: one of the front of the house, and one of the view out of an upstairs window. That should have been a warning sign, However, it was listed at £35k below where a few houses nearby had sold, so we booked in to see it.
It reeked of cigarette smoke. It had been cleared after it had been repossessed by a bank, except they had left the contents of the cellar and attic, which were crammed full of junk. We put in an offer anyway and the survey cited damp, lead pipes, old wiring, and a questionable roof as just a few of the issues with the house.
We bought that house for £80k, and I cried when we walked into it as owners. To be clear, they were tears of fear at what we’d got ourselves into, and of revulsion at the smell.
Taking on a house renovation is a big deal. Especially when you’ve never done it before, and especially when the house is old. We absolutely had to make things up as we went along, and a lot of it was really hard – physically as well as emotionally.
While we will be the last people to warn you against taking on a big renovation project, we have learned a lot of lessons. Hopefully you find that you’re able to learn from our experience.
1. Don’t work hard to preserve something you are going to rip out anyway.
I spent hours scraping wallpaper off of the walls in our house. I picked away at wood chip paper, scraped off pink wall-paper borders, pulled down paper than had been painted over several times. ‘Preserve the plaster’ was the name of the game.
Until it became completely and totally obvious that the plaster wasn’t salvageable. It had soaked up so much damp from rain pouring down the side of the house (thank you broken gutters), that it was falling off of most of the external walls. On the internal walls, it had blown in many places. Even where it hadn’t, I had still damaged it while trying to get the paper off, despite my best efforts.
The plaster went – and the rest of the wallpaper went with it.
While it would have been really difficult to make a decision about the plaster when we first got the house, we would have saved so much time if we’d known that we were going to take it all out anyway. Instead of working around the plaster for a couple of months, we would have got rid of it in a few weeks and moved on from all the dust and dirt with our ‘clean slate’.
2. Don’t live too far away from the house you are working on.
Without traffic, it took about ten minutes to drive between the rented house where we lived and the house we’d just bought. Add traffic in, and that could double, or sometimes triple. With Carl working full-time (and often long hours), this meant that a lot of evenings we really couldn’t be bothered to drive to the house to get work done. This pushed work on the house to the weekend, almost exclusively, until an impending deadline (i.e. the due date for our first baby) meant that we had to speed things up.
It took us eleven months from the time we bought the house until the time we moved in. Around the six month mark I realised how much time we were wasting driving between our rental and the house, and how much easier it would be to pop over, get a little job done, take a delivery, etc. if we lived next door. While we made it work in the long run, it’s clear to me that the closer you live to your renovation, the better.
3. Don’t overestimate your skill-set.
I had daydreams of being really handy, too. I was in a part-time job, and I figured I would spend most of my free afternoons at the house doing jobs. As it turns out, I can paint, I can make decisions about kitchen and bathroom design, where to put switches and sockets, and what flooring I want. I’m also very, very good at driving to Screwfix, but I’m really not handy. I don’t know much about power tools, and I don’t have the patience or focus to make sure I get a good finish on my projects.
We would have been in so much trouble if Carl wasn’t extremely handy. He handled demo, wiring, plumbing, fitting the kitchen, and countless other jobs that went into making the house livable. Our house was in such a state that it was far beyond the scope of simply redecorating to make it nice.
Be realistic with yourself, and honest about what you do and don’t know how to do. Even if you have the personality to learn new skills, that will take extra time, so factor that into your plans.
4. Don’t assume you’ll find the money to do the work.
Going back to being young and innocent, when Carl and I took out a mortgage to buy our house, we figured we’d be able to secure a loan after the fact to put towards the work. While we had some savings to get started, we knew we didn’t have enough to cover everything that needed to be done.
As it turns out, getting a loan was nearly impossible. We didn’t own enough of the house to take out a home improvement loan. We were rejected for the personal loans with the best rates – and only accepted for loans with exorbitant interest payments, despite being in good jobs and having practically no debt other than the mortgage. Our project very nearly stalled three times due to lack of funding. In the end, it was a combination of interest-free credit cards, peer-to-peer loans, and “the bank of mum and dad” that saw us through.
In short, know, for certain, how you are going to pay for the renovation before you commit. Whether it’s savings or a loan, you can’t do anything if you don’t have cash.
5. Don’t expect anything in the house to be square, level, or plumb.
This is especially true in an old house, and oh, is it frustrating. Nothing, nothing in our 1890s terraced house was level or square. While most things could be camouflaged with bits of trim and decorators caulk, we had:
- An L-shaped kitchen counter that wasn’t parallel to the cabinets underneath it (until we finally found the one position that allowed both sides to be parallel);
- Stairs that were parallel to the wall before it was boarded but not after, due to the wall not being plumb;
- Built-in shelves that had to be individually cut into trapezoids, no two the same;
- Wood flooring that had to transition into carpet because one surface was level and the other was sloping;
- Many, many more instances where we had to hack a project in order to ‘look’ right, even though it wasn’t.
There isn’t much you can really do about this issue, other than embrace it. It’s the nature of an old house to be a bit quirky. Expect it to make things difficult and power through it.
In retrospect, we should have specifically asked the tradesmen who put in the plasterboard and the stairs to spend a bit longer to ensure everything was square and plumb. There are probably other and better solutions to some of these problems. We’d love to hear yours.
6. Don’t be surprised when you decide to do it all again.
Renovating a house brings a lot of lows. There were a ton of problems with the house that we didn’t even know where to start with. Carl and I are very different, and communicating (instead of arguing) was a major learning curve. It was a challenge to maintain enthusiasm and focus, and not let the weight of stress over the house keep us from moving forward.
And yet, we made it. Despite moving into the house before the kitchen was even fitted, despite hardly knowing anything when we started out, despite scraping together the funds to finish the work, we sold our house last month for £40k more than we bought it. We estimate we put about £20k into the house, which means we had a tidy sum to put towards the purchase of our next home.
We have been really fortunate, and we know that projects like this don’t always work out so well. Still, we apparently caught the ‘DIY’ bug over the course of doing up our first house despite the numerous setbacks. While our current home is decidedly different – in architecture, age, and condition, it still needs a lot of work to bring it up to current standards and our own preferences, and we’re ok with that. There is something special about taking a property that is worn down and outdated, and turning it into a home that works for you and your family.