Having made cosmetic changes to our first flat and embarked on major renovation of our first house, people often ask me what are the key things I've learnt from the experience. We've learnt some the hard way and I know I'd definitely do things differently next time...so here are my top tips for getting the best out of any house project you take on.
1. Hire an architect
If you're undertaking structural changes or adding to the size of the property, work with an architect. An architect has had years of training and can come up with ideas that you just aren't able to. We had a 'lightbulb' moment in our project when we realised my husband's vision of the extension did not resemble mine in any way. Pretty hard to achieve this mis-match considering we were just having a three metre extension across the back of the house... But whilst I imagined a lean-to roof, he imagined a pitched roof, the internal and external shapes very different; no soaring ceilings and beautiful space for light to shine through with my imaginings. But we realised (after we'd managed to stand up straight again following a fit of the giggles) the ridiculousness of the situation. Our builder's flat-plan - sketched on to a piece of paper, gave a very clear indication of the layout, although it gave no clue whatsoever to all other (very important) aspects. The height, the roof shape, the internal ceiling shape, where the windows would go... So we hired an architect who drew up proper plans. 3D plans with measurements, wonderful to-scale drawings full of promise and excitement. Finally, we were in business.
2. Work with builders/tradespeople who come recommended
It's not just money and trust you're putting in the people delivering the project for you. You're putting your hopes and dreams. They are the architects of your imagination, creating in real life what until now you have only imagined. It's important you work with people you can rely on and feel assured will deliver the goods. We hired a firm that came recommended by a friend who'd done a similar project. We saw photos and talked extensively about the good and the bad. I've heard too many stories of builders who don't finish jobs, who don't take great pride in their work. You may have to wait for a slot to become available (a downside to the upside of a builder who's in demand) but it will be worth it in the end.
3. Communication with your chief builder/foreman is essential
Being able to trust - and communicate with - your builder is the most important piece of advice. You will discuss, argue, debate and agree on many things - from the cost of plywood and the solution to the drainage issues in the garden, to the extras they take on as new necessities arise. You need someone who is happy to talk, and who can speak the same language as you (I mean this literally and metaphorically) as you don't want to be blinded with building jargon and not know what's going on.
4. Budget - and add another 30% for contingency
Building projects are notorious for going over-budget. Being the spreadsheet-obsessive that I am, I took great delight in whiling away the hours putting together a carefully constructed, beautifully colour-coordinated matrix of how the project would proceed. We were not going to be stumped by overspending and stressed by overrunning. No sir-ee. But of course we were. All building projects throw up unexpected events. Put simply, unless you're starting from scratch - with the skeleton of a building - you just don't know what lurks beneath the floorboards (mice), the paper on the ceiling (unsuspected cracks), the drains beneath the earth (rusty and brittle), the pipes in the walls (leaky and frail). All I can say is set your budget - and then, if you can, add another 20-30% on top for unexpected happenings that need to be resolved.
5. Get a contract so you know what is - and what isn't - included in the project
A contract with your builder should cover - in great detail - what they will be responsible for doing, and therefore what you are responsible for making happen. They'll have a schedule of works, and it will be your responsibility to ensure that items arrive in good time for the fittings to be made. If you don't stick to your part of the plan, it could delay the project at a cost to your own pocket. We talked through the schedule in great detail and knew when the kitchen, internal doors, external bi-folding doors etc. all needed to be on site. Keeping to our own schedule meant everything stayed on track as far as was in our control. It also means you know the small details such as how many spot-lights, door handles and plug sockets they are contracted to supply and fit.
6. Have a list of 'non-negotiables' and 'negotiables' - and be prepared to let ideas go if other more urgent priorities emerge
Knowing what you are - and aren't - prepared to negotiate on is paramount, especially as projects never quite go to plan. When we were told that our entire heating system needed replacing - at a cost of an additional £2,000, we had to cross something off the nice-to-have list, as money was not blossoming in place of cherries on our lovely tree. We said farewell to the wood-burning stove and new windows everywhere (just the really rotten ones were replaced), but I was not prepared to forgo the bi-folding doors for French windows. I called the door manufacturer and managed to agree a slightly smaller door frame that would fit our now shrunken budget. Having these priorities already outlined was a great help and made dealing with project upheavals slightly less fraught.
7. Make sure the builders finish the whole project before they get their final payment
Many builders will return after three months in order to check that you are happy with the project and that there are no issues; it is at this point that they receive their final payment. Three months gives time for problems to emerge - from leaks and bigger issues, to smaller niggles - such as an uneven ledge, rough paintwork and an unfinished skirting board behind the fridge. It's of course best to try and spot these before the builders actually finish the project, so the three-month check-up is really just that, as once builders move on to new projects their commitment is no longer with you. And remember - don't pay the final installment until you are 100% happy with the work and any niggles have been addressed. Happy renovating!
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