What does it take to be a home renovation expert?
8 min read
Last Modified 16 February 2021 First Added 11 August 2016
Jules Hudson, Presenter of the BBC’s hit rural property series Escape to the Country and Britain’s Empty Homes, gives his advice on the ups and downs of home renovation.
I started my first renovation project twenty years ago; an old stone cottage in the mountains of mid-Wales. Just twenty-six years old, my friends thought it madness, but when I think back to those early days I clearly recall the adrenaline rush and sense of excitement that came with the prospect of immersing myself in a project that would eventually become my first home. The personal reward, and my fascination with mastering many new skills over the years, have fed into a deep rooted passion.
Make no mistake, renovation and restoration isn’t for everyone but if, like me, you are the sort of person for whom a home is more than just a storage unit, then it could well be something to consider. I’ve long felt that home-building is as much an emotional journey as it is a practical one, and you don’t have to be a DIY fanatic to pull it off. Nonetheless, the investment of your own creative efforts and ideas into a building that’s in need of a re-think provides an emotional connection to it that you simply can’t achieve with a new off-the-peg property.
Overall, the advantages of taking on a renovation project are easy to recognise, but you do need to be aware of the pitfalls too. On the upside you are almost certainly going to buy it for less than if it were perfectly finished, opening the door to the prospect of creating an investment. For many first-time buyers it’s also a great way to get onto the property ladder. When looking for projects, take advice from the agents as to what it might be worth when it’s all done. Before you buy take round your builders, if you’re not planning on doing it yourself, and estimate what it might cost you to improve it, then see if that allows you a reasonable budget when set against the properties projected finished value.
One of the other big draws with renovating an existing property is that almost by default it’s probably already got some history and character to it. The dream of course is to find that classic period number that’s managed to retain its defining features that you can make best use of. You may, like I once did, face the challenge of how best to incorporate the mod cons’ into a building that was never designed to have them, or have to figure out how to gain more space without completely wrecking the intimate and cosy floor plan that’s given your lovely cottage its authentic feel. The solutions are many, so don’t be afraid to unashamedly raid the pages of magazines, pick the brains of builders and architects, and scour the area for other examples that may have already solved the problem. Chances are, the neighbours will be as pleased to show off their renovation, as you will be to see it.
By far the biggest cost of any renovation will of course be your builders, but if you can do a lot of the basic work yourself you’ll save a huge amount from the final bill. I’m a great believer in doing as much of the ripping out and clearing up as you can, giving your builders time to employ the skills you don’t have. What’s more, most will usually be happy to agree either a day rate or a project figure, which means you can manage the materials bill by setting up an account at your local builders’ merchants and shopping around online.
Whatever your practical abilities, there is often no harm in trying to learn new skills, but neither should you feel that you’ve got to become a master plasterer before you start. When it comes to successful project management it makes sense to have a realistic grasp of basic tasks and techniques, even if you can’t do them yourself. Understanding the terminology, knowing your stud walls from your rafters, your flashings from your Fibre-glass, and being aware of various ‘fixes’ or ‘stages’ in a build will all create a sense of confidence that both you and your builders will appreciate. What’s more, if nothing else, being able to recognise a good tradesmen’s work from a bad one is the only way you’ll reassure yourself that you are getting the right man, or woman, for the job.
Getting the right team around you is crucial and, remember, if you expect hard work from them, then you need to work at it too. In my experience, builders and other skilled tradesmen don’t work for me, they work with me, and whilst ultimately I may be responsible for paying the bills, we are all part of a bigger team with the shared goal of getting it all done on time and on budget. Sadly, I hear many stories where the relationship between owners and contractors has become so fractured that the project becomes a misery for everyone. Poor communication, lack of clarity as to what’s required, endless and ill-conceived changes, and often a misplaced notion that the owners are somehow better or brighter than their builders can all lead to a catastrophic ‘them and us’ scenario that’s unlikely to end well.
When it comes to re-designing your renovation project; keep it simple, at least at the start. You can always add here and there as it develops and you see where the money is going. Depending on what the property offers you, you may find you have a complete blank canvas, for example; if you’ve bought an old industrial site that’s got permission for change of use. More conventionally, you may find that you’ve got a wall or two to knock through, and a new kitchen and bathroom to install. All of these things are very easy to do, so don’t be put off. What’s more, the mess and muddle will be short-lived compared to the time you will be able to enjoy your dream home for, unless you’re trying to realise your investment and want to sell it off quickly. Either way, careful planning of what the project needs is the only way you’ll start with some certainty of costs and timescales. I spent nine months planning my first renovation, and we then flew through it over the following six with few changes. Most simple renovations won’t require anywhere like that amount of time, but it’s as well to remember, that good planning is everything.
One of the great joys of renovation is seeing a building transform itself from being tired and unloved into something far more triumphant. Changing a floorplan or opening up an area can have an immediate and dramatic effect, often involving the repurposing of space and giving the whole thing a completely different feel. Yet one of the most exciting elements is searching out all those small details that will give your project its final touch. In a structural renovation, as opposed to something much simpler and purely cosmetic, much of what you’ve done and paid for may well be covered in plaster and paint, and will remain hidden from view. It therefore falls to those final details to give you that perfect finish which can say as much about who you are as the clothes you wear.
Get creative with solutions and materials too, shop around for low cost answers that might also give your home a distinctive feel. I’m a huge fan of upcycling; re-purposing and re-using often abandoned every-day items. For example, using a simple console table you’ve found in an auction as a wash stand with a surface-mounted sink on it, is both a cheap and effective way to lift a bathroom out of being just a purely functional space into one that embodies real design. With the advantage of the modern online world at your fingertips, fixtures and fittings should not cost a fortune, but setting well-chosen items in a well-finished context can create an original end result that will look far more expensive than it really is. Materials such as old pallets or scaffold boards, and places like auction rooms and charity shops, only need the addition of a little bit of imagination and some basic practical skills to deliver striking, low-cost interior design solutions that will help you balance the budget whilst creating an original and memorable space.
The key things to remember remain simple; your imagination, and the relevant permissions of course, are the only limit on what you can achieve. If yours is lacking, others will help out. Plan well and have fun with it. Let your ideas take shape without rushing and allow yourself to think big regardless of the budget, then figure out how to make your preferred solution work with a creative array of materials and fittings. Finally, don’t be daunted – help and advice is always out there, and at the end of the day you’ll get the home you want, just the way you want it and, with any luck, it’ll be worth considerably more than it cost you.
Have you recently delved into the world of home renovation? Share your thoughts in the comments below.