Our big build Part Three: what we learned from renovating our home

15 May 2020

After six months’ work on her three-bedroom semi in St Albans, Rachel Lacey finally sees her building project completed and shares her tips on what she has learnt from the experience

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I  am, and will always be, grateful that we were able to move out of our house during our building works. We did not need to ‘camp’ in one room, rely on a makeshift kitchen or have to visit friends to have a shower.

That said, I really missed being at home and I was not above having a moan. The boys loved the freedom we had in our rental house – it was a quieter street with a green out front and they both had friends on the doorstep, but I just wanted to get home and (much to our builders’ annoyance, I am sure) I found myself looking for any excuse to pop round.

Our shell of a house was gradually becoming a home. Rooms were starting to gain function and character again.  A big turning point was when our new bathroom was fitted – we had chosen botanical tiles for the wall of our en-suite shower and they looked amazing.

But excitement was not the only thing that was mounting. Our costs were heading north too and, as unforeseen expenses kept arising, we started to feel as if our contingency fund needed a contingency. 

Our builder’s quote included several areas with ‘provisional allowances’ – an estimate of costs, where the final price would depend on the choices we made. For plumbing and heating our provisional allowance was spot on, but the same could not be said for the electrics.

The whole house needed re-wiring and after we had gone around with the electrician talking about where we wanted plug sockets, spotlights and light fittings, we were looking at not far off three times what we had budgeted.

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Then there was the issue of matching old house with new – our lumpy living room ceiling needed to come down, so it would match the now beautifully smooth one in the open-plan kitchen/diner. Then there was rendering – our quote included the painting and rendering of the new parts of the house, but not the old, so in order to get everything matching we had to get the pebble-dashing stripped off the front before it could be rendered and painted. Not a cheap – or quick – job.

We looked at areas where we could shave some costs but, as a friend had warned me, “costs go down in hundreds, but up in thousands”.

We had financed a good chunk of the build by remortgaging and, thankfully, our mortgage broker had recommended we borrowed more than we thought we would need. This meant the money was there if we needed it and if we were on budget, we could pay it back. It seems a slim chance of that happening.

By now, our walls had been plastered and the decorators were making good progress. I had raised my eyebrows at my youngest’s choice of a rather acid yellow and grey for his bedroom, but he has obviously got a good eye and it worked weirdly well. Our living room opens into our kitchen-diner, and the dark blue we chose for it makes it feel warm and cosy – and not just an adjunct to the kitchen.

The bulk of the house, though, is white, or shades thereof. By this point, I think we had both run out of steam and we just didn’t have the capacity to make any more decisions. We can come back to those walls in time.

Interestingly, though, in one of my numerous trips to the paint shop (who knew how much paint newly plastered walls can drink?) I met a woman working on a similar project. She was using a colour consultant who had charged £300 to recommend the exact paint shade for each room.  

Several people I shared this with baulked at the thought of paying £300 to hire someone to choose your paint colours – but having been faced with making decisions about every room in the house (and having discovered that one white will look very different in part one part of the house than another), I am not sure that it is such a big expense in the grand scheme of a big project and would have spared us a number of headaches.

What I’ve learnt about costing a big build

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I am not sure that I have the appetite to consider another major project, but if I was to reconsider there are plenty of lessons that I have learnt about planning a build and how much it will cost. My four main tips are:

1 Ensure builders’ quotes are as accurate as possible. Check what is included and what is not and quiz them on likely additional costs you might not have considered – for example, matching old and newly built parts of your home.

2  Check the assumptions your builder has used for provisional allowances. For example, is an electrician’s quote based on a basic ceiling rose and a plug socket or a more complex configuration of spotlights and multiple switches?

3 Talk to your builder as you go along and ask them to identify any areas where you might be able to cut costs.

4 It is important to have a contingency fund – 10% is often recommended but I think we needed more than that. Our foundations needed to be deeper than we anticipated; an old floor needed to be removed for underfloor heating to extend across our kitchen; the whole house needed rewiring; and we had to have the front of our house painted and re-rendered.

As the summer term drew to a close, my excitement was reaching fever-pitch as we started to plan when we could return home. Our kitchen was scheduled to be fitted in mid-July, but the big hurdle was the floors.

Even if we had functioning kitchen and bathrooms there was no point moving all our furniture back in just to move it out again.  We had been warned the screed could take as long as three months to dry, depending on the weather, so it was a huge relief when the guy from the floor shop’s moisture-measuring gadget made the satisfactory bleep that confirmed we were good to go.

Once the floors were down and the carpets had been laid, we could move back in. Fitters were booked in, our notice was handed into the estate agents and packing up could begin.

We had not rented in years, and I was nervous about the logistics of moving again and about getting our deposit back. We had paid six weeks’ rent as deposit plus an extra charge for a cat.

It was written into our contract that we needed to have the house – along with carpets and curtains – professionally cleaned. It turned out that the cheap curtains could not be dry-cleaned, so I got away with throwing those in the washing machine (with no disastrous results), but we had to call in a cleaning company to do the rest.

As I had done with so many decisions, I turned to a local property renovating page on Facebook for recommendations and we settled with a company that would do an end-of-tenancy clean, including carpets, for £300. Not cheap, but nor were any others we contacted, and this company at least guaranteed that if any element of cleanliness meant we would not get all of our deposit back it would come back to rectify the problem.

Cleaning was a bit of an issue in our own house too. Dust – and builders’ mess – was everywhere, but the builders included an end-of-build clean, which was one less thing to worry about.

We were due to move around two weeks before our tenancy finished, so we at least had time on our hands to move all our belongings back. The key challenge was shifting all our furniture back.

Our biggest saving was again calling on friends to help us move, rather than using a removals company. We hired a van and made sure a supply of beer was the first thing to be loaded into our new fridge. With the boys despatched to their Nanna, a team of local friends spent the day helping with the heavy lifting and by late afternoon we were in. There was still oodles of unpacking to do, but we were home and the relief was enormous.

As is always the case the builders were not 100% finished. My much-loved bookcases in the living room needed rebuilding; built-in storage had to be fitted in the hall; and there were still plenty of bits and bobs for the plumber, electrician and decorator to crack on with – including the inevitable snagging.

The builders were great – we ended up having at least one tradesperson in the house every day for two weeks, but after that we were done. They had not abandoned us for another job, and we did not have to pester them to get those last bits done – a challenge I know many renovators face.

We got our full deposit back on the rental too, which – given the cost of the build – was a huge relief. After the house had been cleaned, we made sure we took photos so we could prove that we had left it in a good state and that we were present when the rental agency sent an agent round to inspect it.

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Eight months down the line, we are loving our new house. The boys finally have their own rooms; visitors sigh with relief that they no longer need to sleep on the sofa-bed; and I have a proper office.

Having an open-plan kitchen is the biggest change to the way we live – it is just so much more efficient, not to mention more sociable, having everyone in the same space, doing their own thing without being on top of each other.

Finances have not permitted us to do everything we would like. There is still more furniture we need to buy, but we are pacing ourselves. The garden has not had any TLC since the builders left either, but with a gardener booked to lay a patio and sort out the lawn we are hoping to be able to enjoy it during the summer.

Six cost-cutting tips

It is not easy to cut the cost of your work – as everyone will tell you, if you do not install that underfloor heating or get the boiler you want now, while you are having work done, you never will. Cutting costs can affect your finish or reduce your enjoyment of your home, so it makes sense to work out what is most important to you.

Here are a few of the ways we cut costs:

1 We kept our old kitchen units and asked our builders to fit them into our utility room. It is a functional room that is not on show, and this saved us a few thousand pounds.

2 We stripped our bathroom budget right back, particularly on sanitaryware and taps. Our two  splurges were wall tiles and electric underfloor heating. We dithered over the latter for ages, but it was the right call. Toasty tiles are lovely on a cold morning.

3 We laid the same carpet in all rooms except the boys’ bedrooms– it meant we had enough off-cuts to carpet the stairs – another good saving.

4 The cost of tiling racks up fast, so we only tiled part of our family bathroom and the en-suite bathroom. But I am tempted to call the tiler back though – every time water splashes out of the sink in the downstairs loo, I wish we had put some tiles behind the sink. The same goes for the utility room – it is far easier to clean the mud splatter after scrubbing football boots.

5 We called on friends to help us move home, twice.

6 We did not pay to put our furniture in storage, borrowing my mum’s garage instead.

You can read part one of Rachel's big building project here.

You can read part two of Rachel's big building project here.

First published on 24 April 2020

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