The Mini Home Makeover Guide
Jun 19

The Mini Home Makeover Guide

Renovating a House: Where to Start?

Back in 2016, my partner Neil and I were right where you are now – about to make the brave decision to take on a property to renovate. We fell in love with a 1930s house that miraculously came onto the market within our price range, but we only had a very tight £80,000 to make it our dream home. And it needed EVERYTHING changing.

There was no central heating, every wall and ceiling had dated wallpaper, and the carpets were so old they were literally crumbling under our feet. To top it all off, we were oblivious to how much it would actually cost to renovate. Over a glass of wine in the evenings, I remember sitting in our new fixer-upper with Neil, talking about the worst-case scenarios. “What if we run out of money and are left living in rubble? Where do we even start? What if we regret our decisions and waste money?” For two very new renovators at the time, the project felt insurmountable.

But guess what? We did it. And we learned SO much during the process. We documented every single inch of the dust, sweat, and tears it took right here on our blog, including the mistakes, to support other first-time renovators. I then trained to become an interior designer, frustrated at the lack of support available to renovators at the time. Now, Neil and I deliver online courses to help first-time renovators plan their projects with confidence and avoid the pitfalls we encountered.

Your family and friends are probably saying “don’t touch it,” but don’t listen to them. With the right support and if you’re sensible with money, you can do it. You’ll make this house your dream home.

Viewing Properties: What to Look For

You might be looking at properties to renovate as I write this, or you might have your heart set on the one you’re just waiting for the keys to. When Neil and I were looking, we initially didn’t know it was a renovation we’d end up with. Were you the same, or did you know it was a property to renovate you were looking for?

We called ourselves “reluctant renovators” – although now we’re addicts – because we were forced to buy a property to renovate due to rising property prices in the South East. Our options were: buy a house that was already decorated with 90s decor for about £400K, or buy a house with 60s decor that needed renovating for around £330K and use the £70K equity to make it our dream home. We considered our options very heavily and decided we’d rather make a property our own than buy one to someone else’s taste and have no money left to redecorate.

So, what should you be looking for if you’re viewing properties right now? First and foremost, look for a property with “good bones” – that means decent-sized rooms, the potential to extend or convert if that’s on your wish list, and heating, electrics, and water at least already installed, especially if you plan to move in straight away and it’s edging closer to winter. (We made that mistake – cue us huddled around a plug-in electric heater during -2 temps!)

Period features like chimney breasts, alcoves, stained glass windows, and original cornicing are a nice-to-have, but if you’re tossing up, I’d go for character above all. That said, you can always reinstate features that have been ripped out.

What we learned quickly is to bring an experienced contractor to your viewing. We slipped ours £50 to say thanks, and they looked out for structural issues or pricey problems before we put our offer in. They might even tell you whether it will be easy or difficult to get planning approval. A full Building Survey is a MUST in our opinion – Home Buyers surveys just aren’t detailed enough. You need to enter into this refurb with your eyes wide open, aware of all the potential house renovation costs that may be lurking.

In fact, we actually asked our surveyor to ballpark remedial costs, which helped us negotiate with the sellers. We brought our original offer down by £23,500 simply by obtaining a full building survey and estimates for the work. That was a tidy sum we put back into the maintenance of the building.

Understand the Feasibility and Costs

It sounds obvious, but never buy a property and worry about how you’ll have the layout later – you could be left very disappointed if work can’t happen due to feasibility or for legal reasons. If you know you want to extend or build into the loft, find out if it’s feasible now by either conducting a viewing with an experienced general contractor, structural engineer, or architect, or give your Local Planning Office a call.

I’ll give you an example – the property we bought can’t really be extended larger than the current size because the floor height is about 8 steps above the back garden height. We’d have to drop the floors internally to do a rear extension with bifold doors. I mean, it’s doable, but not to our taste or budget.

Some people think you can knock up a loft conversion in any house – nope. The property needs the right head height, so check this with an experienced contractor or your local planning office before you buy. Look at the neighbours’ floor plans online too – usually, properties nearby will be built with a similar footprint to yours, so you can tell whether loft extensions are feasible just by looking at whether your future neighbours have done it.

The hard truth is, you might think £100,000 is enough to get everything done until you need to double it. Don’t believe the “Homes Under the Hammer” promise that you’ll get the perfect 3-bed reno complete in under £50,000 – it just doesn’t happen in today’s world unless you’re a contractor doing the work yourself and paying only for materials.

It’s more likely you’ll run out of money on the design and finishing bits like the lighting, worktops, kitchen furniture, etc., than the actual renovation work. This baffles me, I have to say, because prices for these are all online and available for people to factor into their budgets from the word go, yet people forget to.

To avoid any costly surprises, set a very healthy contingency, have access to funds 10-20% higher than your overall budget, and consider phasing the work. It’s exactly what we did, and many of our students are too. Remember, renovations can move as fast or as slow as you want them to – the only thing holding you up could be contractors, but you’ve got a lot of planning to do before they knock on the door, so use this time wisely.

Getting the Right Team

Okay, you’ve investigated and started to clarify what you want and need from your fixer-upper, and now you’re ready to put your ideas into action – and get them enhanced and drawn by expert minds like an architect or interior designer.

Lots of renovators choose to form their interior design and exterior plans in a piecemeal way, but I recommend working holistically if you’re serious about getting your interior layout to flow well with the additional space you’re building or reconfiguring.

My top tips for this stage are:

  1. Find an architect who designs properties that you’re aspiring to create. It’s far more likely you’ll have a good rapport, they’ll be the right budget to hire, and they’ll plan a build that’s within your budget too. Remember, there’s a lot of work to do before you part with your cash and hire an architect – we’ve put together a step-by-step action plan to follow in our home renovation online course.

  2. Work towards drawing up a detailed layout and design plan for your kitchen, bathroom, loft conversion, and/or extension spaces. Understanding what furniture, appliances, lights, sinks, showers, etc. will fit where as early as possible is so important. You’ll ensure there is enough space, it’s feasible, and prevents any heartbreak later when you come to realise you can’t have that dining table because your extension isn’t built big enough.

  3. Be clear about your project requirements when finding contractors. You’ve probably heard from family and friends how hard it is to find available contractors right now – some don’t even answer your call or send quotes. The biggest piece of advice we can give if your timeline is slowing down because you’re waiting on contractors is to make your project sound exciting and like it’s going to benefit them. Contractors do this work day-in-day-out, and they’re people at the end of the day. They want to work with happy clients they enjoy problem-solving with, and if a job sounds up their street, they’re more likely to do it.

So, show your personality and tell them why you’ve chosen them to come and quote – get them excited about working for you. It’s like hiring someone on your team at work. And compare quotes fairly – in our online course, we have a popular PDF download explaining how to effectively obtain quotes, ensuring you’re asking the correct questions and then, importantly, how to compare them and make the right choice for your renovation. I can’t stress enough how important this step is to get right.

From Planning to Construction

Okay, so you’ve got your plans in place, your contractors ready to go, and it’s D-day – the kettle is on the boil, and the builders are knocking. Finally, work can begin!

This next phase needs to involve great communication, ensuring you reduce stress and manage the team and outgoing costs effectively. And if you’ve done the right level of planning prior to this, you’ll sail through it all, I promise.

Do you want to know the order a typical renovation runs in? We share the exact steps with renovators in our free Sofa Spectacular Survivors Guide to Renovating. Look out for Day 3 for each step of the process from here.

Renovations have been somewhat glamorised in recent years, but as an experienced renovator and an interior designer, I can tell you there’s more dust, sweat, and tears than people expect going into it. Yes, it’s 100% worth it, but if you don’t feel clued up, it can be a really stressful period of your life.

Neil and I started our company to help new renovators ease the stress, prevent costs from spiralling, grow their confidence in the design and project management, and get the home of their dreams – all within budget. If you’re on the same page as us and you like the idea of renovating a home that’s going to enhance your life, we’d love to invite you to the next opening of our renovation online course. Take a look and see if it’s for you.

Thank you so much for reading this, and very best of luck with your renovation project. You know where we are if you need help!

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