5 things we’ve learnt from living through house renovations

Jeans: H&M (old). Cards: Papier. Diary: Smythson. Watch: Skagen.

It has been almost a year since we moved into our new home (the exact date was 23rd December, and we completed and exchanged within 24 hours – not the most carefree way to spend the run-up to Christmas!). And although we’ve achieved a lot, we still have a long way to go…

So thought I’d share a few things we have learnt along the way…

1. EVERYONE WILL THINK THEIR PROJECT IS WORSE…AND YOU’LL THINK THAT TOO

It’s a weird old thing, renovation chat…there’s a lot of ‘oh but mine was disgusting’, or ‘we couldn’t even live in ours it was so gross’. And I must admit, we’re guilty of it – yes we lived in it from day 1, not really because it was actually liveable (we had no heating, gas pipes, or a working kitchen) but because we didn’t have a choice…all our money went on the mortgage. But everyone think theirs is the worst, regardless, because to the individual living in it – it is harder than you can imagine.

We would spend our life explaining to people how bad it really was – mainly because I take nice, glamorous pictures for a living so could never really show the horror that was our life in those first few months (when 3 ceilings collapsed, we wore puffa coats to bed, we had to shower at friends’ houses and Chris had to stand outside the door every time I used the only bathroom in the ‘dungeon’ as it petrified me).

So when people showed me pictures of their 1950s working kitchen, I would always think ‘you should really see ours’…but the truth is, no matter what stage you’re at with the house, even if you’re just renovating one room or building an extension – it’s always HARD, it’s always DUSTY and it’s always horrible to live through it. So we’re learning not to compare and just appreciate that there are other people who ‘get’ what we’re going through.

2. A GOOD BUILDER IS HARD TO FIND (ON YOUR OWN) 

We’d only had experience of one set of builders before, and they were fine, but not exceptional. We’d gotten used to doors fixed the wrong way round and switches in annoying places but when they left us with tons of snagging issues in our last place, we knew we’d never make the mistake of under researching again.

This time, we asked around via friends for builders, plumbers and electricians and we have been SO happy, it has made such a difference to our lives. We really didn’t think it could change our outlook on building work so dramatically but it has.

Having people you can rely on, who realise that you are the customer and strive to achieve everything you want for your house is priceless.

Our plumber has come round at a moment’s notice when Chris accidentally burst a pipe whilst laying some flooring, and for our builder, nothing is a problem. He gets all our ideas, asks us before installing or adding anything and in general, is a pleasure to deal with. A few have already asked for their details but if you are local and want to email me, we are happy to recommend (they just might be a tad busy with us for a while!).

Before: the leaking side extension and outside toilet which we demolished to bring back side access and a courtyard garden.

After: our study.

3. YOU’LL WANT TO CRY EVERY TIME SOMEONE SAYS ‘YOU’RE ALMOST FINISHED, AREN’T YOU?’

As much as I love ‘Homes Under The Hammer’, it has ruined renovations for everyone. You see someone come in, they have an accessible budget straight away, a timeframe of 6 weeks and bang, they’re done. In terms of flipping properties for profit and to get renters in, I get it – time is money.

But when it comes to buying property in today’s economy, every house we looked at was the top end of our budget, all needing quite a bit of work (although none quite to this extent!). We have had to save bit by bit and even remortgage once we were in to do just the minimum: plumbing, heating, electricity meters and a working bathroom.

Now we are on phase two, we are borrowing from my work account and figuring out a payment plan to pay it back….we’re luckier than most that we can fund it ourselves over time but it means that our answer to anyone asking when we’re finished is ‘oh, years….we don’t really have a deadline’ and it always comes with a bit of embarrassment and having to explain our financial situation…

Our temporary living room: we painted it straight away to keep it clean and one ‘sane’ room to live in through the first stages – for 3 months we also had a microwave in here and it served as a kitchen too (but we ate off paper plates as we had nowhere to wash up!).

4. THE DUST

I wrote about this more when we did our loft conversion, but it’s something you never really get used to. You realise after a while how it becomes so everyday you don’t even notice it…I sneeze every morning when I wake up (pregnancy also has something to do with this right now, too!) and I’ve almost accepted that dust is just the scent of our house.

Although, looking on the bright side, it’s better than the constant smell of mildew that existed when we moved in (that took about 6 months to get rid of).

Dad’s DIY – our tiled fireplace.

5. YOU’LL ALWAYS FORGET HOW FAR YOU’VE COME…

People ask how we got through it so far, and we just shrug and go ‘it wasn’t that bad’…

Actually it was, but we didn’t have a choice but to be positive and move forward. But even when we’re being positive, we still forget how far we’ve really come.

We now sleep in a room that doesn’t give me nightmares, we have a bathroom I love being in, with great water pressure and hot, steaming water (we no longer have to fill a bucket outside, to take to the downstairs dungeon loo just to flush the chain). We have an almost finished study, which my husband used all weekend to finish some editing he needed to do. All of our radiators, although cost a fortune at the time installing, are ones we chose from the start and look great in every room. We no longer think we may risk death by switching on a plug in the skirting boards.

I could go on, but you get the gist.

We’re just about to embark on the next part: our master bedroom and the hallway. It wasn’t really in the plan to do this next but as always, life happens and you have to adapt. It’s a big room and with a baby on the way early next year, it would be great to use the space for the new arrival. We’re installing an ensuite there too, so hopefully I can utilise it pretty much as a studio flat for the first few months! Wish us luck…

As always you can follow along on Instagram Stories for daily renovation updates.

20 Comments

  1. What you’ve done looks so good, well done. Our house was nowhere near as desperate as yours when we moved in but I hear ya! Getting the kitchen done nearly finished us off but it’s so worth it when you look around and know that everything is what you chose and wow, haven’t we got great taste?! Bathrooms next – struggling to find tradespeople to help us with that. I love yours and have been inspired by it Any advice on how to get someone to help us make it a reality?

    1. We are holding off to the kitchen until last as know it’s the biggest expense….but every now and then I just think – shall we just borrow the money and spend out life paying it back, but still enjoying it at least?! The bathroom was surprisingly easy – or maybe we were just desperate! Once you have a builder that gets you, it makes life so much easier xx

  2. I couldn’t agree more! We are mid renovation and the “when will you be finished” question is my favourite, we always just laugh and say ooooh 10 years! Sometimes you want to cry because your tired and *nothing* ever is as easy as expected in a period renovation, but we are 1 bathroom and 1 and 1/2 rooms done and I couldn’t be happier with the rooms we have done – we’ve got to pick everything about it, and it excites me to think of the potential left in every other room! Only 10 more rooms to go! Good luck!

    1. We had a 10 year plan, too! Although we are moving through it much faster as it does get you down after a while, doesn’t it?! And totally agree about having everything exactly as you want it…we used to just paint over skirting boards etc but this time they’re perfect with no paint drips etc from years of overpainting! xx

  3. Ha I also don’t get people who buy and are able to renovate immediately (and secretly wish to be them one day)! Love that you’re representing something more realistic 🙂 We’ve done A LOT of painting since we moved in and saved up to do the bathroom last year. This year we’ve done a lot of smaller things (plugs, glass in windows, light fixtures, etc) but we still have the kitchen and flooring to do. The up side to doing it slowly is really taking your time to choose the best (that you can afford) and thinking everything through a hundred million times until you really come up with the best plan. Best of luck with the dust! I remember that we had to clean every day for about a week after they were done with the bathroom as it all takes a while to settle.

    1. Every time we watch Homes Under The Hammer, we contemplate changing our career path…! And it is a luxury to pick things from scratch – I love fixating over fittings (which my husband just doesn’t get at all!) xx

  4. Like Jenny above, my house was in nowhere near the level of work you are undertaking but we’re lived in it for a year and although the kitchen needs replacing and garden is looking worse for wear, other things taken priority. A rather inconsiderate neighbor lead us to fork out for a drop kerb and now a installation of a driveway – so unfortunately our kitchen, new sofa, new wardrobes, new flooring, new bathroom and garden are having to take a backseat! I fear when it is all finished i’ll be bored and i’ll do it all over again haha! Great blog post! Thank you for sharing!

    1. Sometimes, it takes longer to do things when it’s ‘liveable’ – we didn’t do anything in our last flat until it was time to move and we always thought ‘why didn’t we do this earlier? It would have been lovely!’…and I agree, things get in the way (we had an issue with the landlord in our last place refusing to pay for a leaking roof – such an unexpected nightmare!) – we are pretty sure things will slow down/stop once the baby comes! xx

  5. Loved this post Alex, we’re in the midst of our house renovations and i’ve been really loving all your posts and stories on your property & developments. It’s nice to see the reality as much as the successes.

    We’ve made our bedroom and lounge liveable and actually despite no door or skirting board it feels really homely. We’re currently doing the front garden and renovating the front door (which has taken nearly two weeks … one thing that surprised me is just HOW LONG everything takes). But the big work will start soon when we properly extend, and add a second bedroom and a new open plan kitchen /living space.

    I’m so excited but I can’t even really believe it’ll ever be done haha 🙂

    Mel x mediamarmalade.com

  6. Haha! This post resonates with me so much right now! We’re renovating a 130 year old coach house (part of it anyways) and it didn’t look that bad at the start, we thought we could just move right in. Of course, like everyone else, we’re mortgaged up to the eyeballs! Anyway, every week something else is uncovered… Asbestos tanks here and rotton ceilings there… Also, who knew heating systems cost so much money!? *face palm* Well done for powering through with yours and congrats on it looking so gorgeous!

  7. It’s so easy to compare, and decide mine was the worst. I suppose it’s down to the fact that I didn’t live through everybody else’s build/ renovation. Ours was a new self build, I was supposed to spend a week in March (2007) painting all the rooms. We moved in in July (because we had to), and the walls weren’t even plastered, bare concrete floors and extension leads for electrics. We had managed to finish the bathroom, so that was one bit of luxury. Ten years on, we still aren’t finished, but are getting there. The electrics still aren’t finished, guess what my husband’s profession is? You’re right – he’s an electrician! When you’re doing most of it yourself, it does take more time, but that’s part of the fun.

  8. Very interesting to hear about your experiences… we are about to embark on building an extension, plans are getting drawn up as we speak! I would love if you could do a feature on how to complete renovations on a modest budget i.e. where to save money and where to spend money… Any tips would be gratefully received!

    1. To be honest I think budget is all personal to you and where you won’t compromise….we would prefer to paint ourselves and fit skirting and doors etc ourselves, but then not scrimp on windows etc….but for someone else, maybe with a kid, would prefer not to waste their time painting etc! I would write a list of my dream purchases – black aluminium windows, marble sink – and then work out where else I could scrimp to afford my dream buys x

  9. My fiance wants to redo our bathroom in February. I am already dreading it. And it’s just a bathroom! What a wimp. I’m like “can’t we just enjoy being together in our flat for a little bit? Maybe?”

  10. Almost same here (in France). My boyfriend and I bought a 150 years old house with a lot of work to do in it. We said to the real estate agent that we could do some renovations but not “heavy” one like central heating or electricity. Well…. We would have been able to open the “Old Boiler Museum”with “appending all hope thee who enter” as a motto…. Central heating was almost as old as the house and we risk our life each time we used a light switch. The wood floor was covered by cardboard which was covered by linoleum which was covered by the oldest carpet I’ve ever seen. There were holes in walls (but why?), windows didn’t close very well (winters in french country are sometimes terrible) and the garden was a huge garbage dump. But this house had (and still has) a “je ne sais quoi” and we felt in love at the first sight. So, 20 years later, we still have to renovate the attic, I want to change the bathroom… Anyway each house has its own history as well as the owners and this “mine was the worst” is a nonsense. Home renovation is very expensive, very tiring, sometimes disheartening, it’s a long-term job but it’s worth it! And I think that was you’ve made in your home is incredible!

    1. This is so true – we fancied doing a place up ‘a little bit’ but when we saw this we just knew it was too good to pass up! We’d explain how bad it was, but it wasn’t until people came round that they would realise the extent…..but when you love a house you just ‘know’! And I’m sure, like you, in 20 years time we will still have lots of projects on! xxx

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