Special projects editor Rachel Lacey reveals what she learnt once the project was in full swing at their three-bedroom semi in St Albans
Two days after we moved out, the house was gutted. The kitchen and the bathroom were in a skip, ceilings were coming down and the remaining toilet looked like a scene from Trainspotting.
Among my jobs to do that week was to phone the council to enquire about council tax discounts. As we were having major works done to the property we were able to apply for a 50% reduction for six months.
“Are you able to prove your house is uninhabitable?” they said.
“No problem,” I replied. “How many photos would you like?”
As we had only moved around the corner, it was easy to keep an eye on progress. But at this stage it was more about destruction than construction. Every time I went over, another wall had come down and there was mess and dirt everywhere.
The excitement at our long-awaited project finally starting had begun to fade. The builders were cracking on and doing a grand job but I’m not known for my patience and it felt like an age until we would be able to move back in.
Nonetheless everyone told us not to hang around with ordering kitchens and bathrooms: it comes around quickly and you don’t want to be rushed into making big decisions in a hurry.
I set about our kitchen first. I’m not sure my husband will agree but this was the fun bit for me.
Our new kitchen will be part of a big open-plan living space – I knew we’d be spending a lot of time in this room so I wanted to get it right.
After lots of showroom browsing it emerged that there are many companies all basically selling the same kitchens. With a pretty clear idea of what we wanted we narrowed it down to three and booked in sessions with their kitchen designers.
The results were all very different; one (the cheapest) clearly wanted to cram as many units into the space as possible, sent us home with 3D images but then had to be chased to actually tell us how much it would all cost. The most expensive company talked to us about what we liked and disliked and how we planned to use the space before inviting us back a week later to present three different options to us. The 3D designs were impressive but we couldn’t have email copies before we paid a deposit – too many previous clients had taken their designs to cheaper kitchen companies.
We ended up going with our middle quote. They listened to what we wanted and were willing to negotiate. I’m rubbish at haggling: it’s a running joke in my family that I can come out of a price negotiation agreeing to pay more. Maybe I’m too British but I just feel awkward doing it. Thankfully my husband has no such qualms – he got the price down and managed to wangle a boiling water tap and an extra piece of quartz for our island. As he says, the worst that can happen is that they say no.
What I have learnt so far (part 2)
If you’re moving out make sure you’re on site regularly and are having weekly catch-ups with your builder. There will be no end of decisions to make and there will be the opportunity to make changes as you go along. Being on hand will mean less delays and less risk of things not being done how you want them to be.
Talk to your builder and other tradespeople about your kitchen and bathroom plans. If you’re putting a hob on an island, for example, there could be ducting and extraction issues to contend with. Our plumber also pointed out a number of issues with our bathroom choices but thankfully, as we showed him our plans before we ordered everything, we didn’t end up out of pocket.
Haggle and negotiate: fixtures and fittings don’t come cheap and some suppliers will be flexible, but others won’t. The worst that can happen is they say no.
Sooner or later you will hit a decision-making wall: make the big ones (choosing the kitchen and bathroom) early on, when time is still on your side.
As happy as I am with the kitchen we’ve chosen, a part of me is a bit gutted we didn’t have the gumption to do the DIY approach. You design your kitchen, measure the spaces and order the units yourself and then your builder fits it. Get it right and you end up with a high-end kitchen for a fraction of the price. Get it wrong and well… I suppose that’s why we wimped out.
With the kitchen ordered – and costing more than we originally intended it to – it was time to hit the bathroom showrooms and see what they could do with our new shrunken budget. One of the many tips I was given for doing bathrooms on a budget was to go cheap and cheerful on sanitary ware and splurge on some feature tiles in a limited area for a luxe feel.
We didn’t go super cheap – we don’t want to be doing this again any time soon – but we didn’t splurge either (£300 for a tap. Really?). And going via a trade-only supplier we were able to get our builder’s discount on advertised prices. Choosing sanitary ware was a breeze, but shopping for tiles was like entering one of Dante’s circles of hell. I visited every tile shop in the area: Italian stone, Victorian or metro-style; brights, neutrals, textured and flat.
The choice was overwhelming and, lacking in any design inspiration, I didn’t know where to start. Looking on Pinterest just added to the confusion. I couldn’t even decide on a colour scheme.
It was only in the last shop I visited that inspiration struck. At last. As I was about to leave the shop I came across a range of feature tiles that I loved. Ideal for a wall over the bath in the family bathroom and the shower wall in our en suite. Even better, they had corresponding wall tiles so I didn’t have to find others to match.
My husband (thankfully) liked them too, so we were sorted – and I could stop spending my evenings scouring Pinterest.
With fixtures and fittings to focus on, the build was rapidly progressing and the house started looking better each time we went around. The outer brickwork was quickly completed, steels and joists went in and the roof came off and went back on again.
Flooring caused a brief spell of panic: we hadn’t realised how long floors took to dry. Our builders were a way off screeding and the company who were fitting our flooring warned it would take 10 weeks to dry. The last thing we wanted was to have a finished house and have to hang around waiting weeks before the flooring could go in. Thankfully the builder was able to juggle things around – he hastened up the laying of the underfloor heating and cracked on with the floor.
It was great when the timber studwork went in and we could finally see the shape and sizes of our new rooms – being on site regularly meant we were able to make tweaks and adjustments as work carried on. We ended up borrowing space from a bedroom to make fitting the bathroom easier, altered window positions, moved built-in storage out of the hallway and into our office and then scrapped a now redundant length of corridor to create a much more useful sized room.
Next up was plasterboards, the arrival of the plumber and then the electrician.
Our house – albeit a shell – was built. We still don’t have a kitchen or bathroom, but finally it is starting to feel like the end is in sight.
Plastic really is fantastic when it comes to renovating a property, but as with every type of credit you need to use it wisely so you don't get stung by huge interest charges or rack up a bill you may struggle to repay.
Whether you need credit or not it makes sense to put large purchases on a credit card. Under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act, your credit card company is liable for any spend between £100 and £30,000, alongside the retailer or trader, if something goes wrong. Useful if the firm you are dealing with goes bust. You don’t have to pay for the full cost of the item by credit card either – even if you just pay a deposit, the whole transaction is protected.
Cashback and reward cards come into their own when you are shelling out on kitchens and bathrooms and have more rooms to furnish. Just make sure you clear your bill every month unless it also offers 0% on purchases.
If your costs are building up and you want to be able to spread repayments, consider an interest-free credit card. For upcoming spending look at cards offering 0% on new purchases or if you have already got a whopping credit card balance look for one that is offering 0% on balance transfers.
Allow plenty of time for new credit card applications and if you will need to move out during your renovations apply before you move out; once you've changed address, it will only complicate your application.