Renovating a House: The Ultimate Guide to Modernising a Home

renovating a house
(Image credit: Simon Maxwell)

There are many advantages to renovating a house, as opposed to buying a new property or self building. Perhaps the main advantage of renovating a house is the exciting potential it offers to uncover all manner of charming original features, closely followed by the fact that a renovation project can, if carried out to a good standard, result in a home that sees an impressive uplift in value. 

Conversely, there are also some downsides. For one thing, renovation opportunities are not always easy to come by — buyers often clamour to snap them up and are regularly willing to pay a premium for a 'blank canvass.'

There is also the risk of buying a money pit that ends up draining your funds and causing undue stress — although this is avoidable if you know what to look out for. 

And that is exactly what out guide to renovating a house is here for — to arm you with the right knowledge to ensure your project results in the house of your dreams.  

Here, we have broken down the stages of a renovation into easy-to-follow steps, from how to remove any risk from your purchase with the right surveys, to how to deal with any unexpected and expensive issues. 

Renovating a House

Although no two renovation projects are the same, there tend to be certain tasks and requirements that many have in common. The general running order the majority of renovation projects tends to look something like this:

  • Find a project
  • Assess the project's potential
  • Make a thorough budgeting plan
  • Carry out surveys
  • Take out renovation insurance and a warranty if necessary
  • Check whether you are eligible for any grants
  • Find an architect
  • Apply for planning permission
  • Find a builder
  • Notify building control
  • Organise waste removal
  • Address access issues and assess existing drains
  • Look at measures to improve energy efficiency
  • Get the building weathertight
  • Protect and repair original features
  • Update plumbing and electrics
  • Make internal structural changes
  • First fix works
  • Plastering
  • Second fix jobs
  • External updates (it is likely these will have been underway during internal work anyway)
  • Decoration and snagging list

1. Find a Renovation Project

The actual process of finding and buying a house to renovate is often one of the hardest parts of renovating a house. Properties in need of modernisation are always in high demand and as a result, it is not uncommon for people to end up paying more than a house is worth in order to beat the competition, adding to your house renovation costs before you even get started. 

Cash-buyers tend to be more successful than those relying on a regular mortgage or a renovation mortgage, as getting a mortgage on a property will depend on an independent valuation to ensure the house is worth as much as your accepted offer. 

Despite properties selling fast, it's important not to rush into anything — checks will need to be made to uncover any issues that could swallow up your budget. 

Fortunately, you don't have to buy blind and even before you have purchased a renovation project, it is possible to get a good idea of the condition of a house.

Properties in need of renovation are often sold at auction or using a sealed bid system of best and final offers. Get to know how these systems work early on to help you stand the best chance of securing a renovation property at a great price.

2. Make a Renovation Project Checklist

Renovate or Remodel?

Renovation is more akin to restoration — bringing something back to its original state, to reinvigorate and refresh.

Remodelling essentially refers to changing a building, perhaps through altering its layout or extending.

Not all renovation projects are going to be right for you — some will just work out to be too much of a financial undertaking while others will involve too much work. 

It is important, when assessing a home for renovation to understand its potential — and this is where a renovation checklist can come in useful. When viewing a house, ask the following questions: 

  • Is there space to extend, whether that's a rear or side extension, or converting a loft, basement or garage?
  • Look at neighbouring houses. Have they been successful in getting planning permission for renovations similar to what you have in mind?
  • Is the house in the right location for you?
  • How much of the work will be structural versus decorative?
  • What are the ceiling prices for houses in the area? Will your renovations add value to the property?
  • Are there any covenants or planning restrictions you are aware of that could prevent your planned extensions or alterations?
  • Ask a builder or architect to take a look at the property and ask for their professional opinion. 

victorian house with contemporary single storey glass extension

This beautiful Victorian house has been renovated throughout. A remodel has been made possible by the addition of a striking contemporary glass extension that now houses an open plan kitchen living space.   (Image credit: Simon Maxwell)

3. Make a Comprehensive Budgeting Plan 

If you are aiming to renovate on a budget, this is a really important stage. Before buying a property to renovate, you should be aware that, apart from the usual house renovation costs, there are some additional fees you should factor in, including:

  • Reconnection fees: It may be necessary to connect or re-connect a water supply. If there was one it may have been disconnected. Electricity will also be required for power tools or day-to-day living if you plan on staying on site.
  • Valuation fees
  • Council tax
  • Professional fees: include planning permission and Building Regulations approval, a variety of surveys, structural engineer reports and any other professional fees (e.g. tree surveys) in your budget
  • Contingency fund: make sure you have some extra cash on hand to deal with anything unexpected that may arise (and when renovating a house, it is absolutely to be expected)
  • Legal costs: expect to pay £500-2,000 for a solicitor or conveyancer to act on your behalf

house renovation in progress knocking down walls

There are hidden fees to consider when buying a renovation property, which will add to your overall expenditure on the project.  (Image credit: Future)

4. Find Out Which Surveys You Need 

The right building survey will ensure any potential issues are flagged up early. In fact, it is possible to arrange a survey before even putting in an offer on the property if the homeowner consents, but this is usually undertaken after an offer has been accepted. 

A building survey should highlight any areas of concern and give you an idea of any essential repairs that will be needed and what they might cost. You will be able to use the report to make a decision on whether to proceed with the transaction, or whether you may be able to barter money off the property based on the findings. 

A chartered surveyor will recommend further investigations if they suspect or detect:

  • Infestation
  • Subsidence or heave
  • Damp
  • Drainage problems

A building report should reveal the construction methods that have been used in the house (sometimes these vary if the house has been extended over the years). This information can then be used during the house renovation in order that any new materials and techniques used are appropriate.

Remember, most structural issues will have a solution. While these may well mean you need to increase your budget, finding them early on will allow you to plan better for this. 

You also need to consider that certain structural problems, such as subsidence, could affect your insurance options, as well as its eventual resale value.

three storey Victorian terraced house

Carrying out a survey and calling in the services of a structural engineer should give you a clear idea of the kind of work you are likely to face when renovating a house. (Image credit: Rachael Smith)
Should I Buy a House With Subsidence?

Just because the house you love has subsidence, you might not need to walk away.

Aim to identify any structural problems with the property as early on in the project as possible — not only are they dangerous, but they could cause further damage. Subsidence, underpinning or piling work to the existing foundations can be a particular concern. If lateral spread has occurred in the walls and roof, steel ties might be needed. In some cases, the insertion of steel props, beams or scaffold will prevent further collapse.

A measured building survey will give you a precise scale drawing of the layout of the existing building. These are often required when putting in a planning permission application for the likes of an extension.

Also think about a drainage survey — it offers peace of mind on a property's drain system and is relatively inexpensive, especially when compared to the cost of rectifying any drainage problems that are left unidentified after you've already bought the property. 

You can find a surveyor via the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors.

5. Take Out Renovation Insurance 

Once you exchange contracts on a renovation project you become responsible for the site and you must therefore have the right insurance in place. Renovation insurance covers your property while building work is taking place, and is also sometimes known as building work insurance, building renovation insurance and house refurbishment insurance.

If you are taking out a mortgage to fund the project, your lender may not release any money without your warranty and proof of insurance being in place and should you experience issues such as flooding, theft or fire to the property, however, this tends to be based on standard home insurance. If you don't let your insurer know when you're conducting major renovations, your standard policy could be invalidated. 

When renovating a house, insurance should include public and employer’s liability, cover for building materials and works, plant, tools, temporary buildings, the existing structure, personal accident cover and legal expenses. Typical costs range from £500-1,500 depending on the project.

(MORE: Get a quote now to protect your renovation project)

pink living room in period house with original features such as mouldings and ceiling rose

Renovating a house can result in some of the most beautiful homes — however it is vital to take out the correct insurance to avoid costly delays.  (Image credit: Simon Maxwell & Joe Traylen Photography)

6. Decide Whether You Need a House Warranty

While house warranties are not always a requirement when renovating a house, they can be a good idea. 

A warranty is basically a policy which will cover your house against flaws in its design, materials or build quality —  it will also cover any problems that occur as a result of these defects. They usually last for around 10 years. 

If you are interested in a getting a warranty on your project, get in early as premiums are likely to increase the more you progress with your project. 

7. Ask Whether You Are Eligible for a Renovation Grant

It pays (quite literally) when organising funding for your renovation, to check whether you are eligible for any grants that might apply to the house renovation work you are carrying out. You will need to apply for grants before starting work. Check with your local council and also at national level from Central Government via National Heritage.

When it comes to VAT concessions, reduced rates may be offered on residential buildings that have been empty for two or more years. You can find more on this in VAT Notice 708

8. Find an Architect

Once you have secured your renovation project and assessed its structural condition, the next task on your list will be to develop a design for your new home and any extensions you might have planned. Many people renovating a house find producing a design for an existing house trickier than starting from scratch.

It is not always necessary to hire an architect or designer and obviously you may well have some great home renovation ideas of your own — plus you will save money by coming up with your own design. 

However, extension projects and larger-scale renovation projects, as well as those in sensitive areas or listed buildings, will almost always require professional advice.

Your options when choose a design professional will include an architect, architectural designer, house designer or even a structural engineer who would be able to provide good solutions for specific problems.

A professional designer will be able to talk you through the planning permission process, produce designs based on your brief, advise on what will or won’t be viewed favourably by the local planners (some works might fall under permitted development) and give you a good idea of how far your budget will stretch.

Once you have a design you are happy with and which has been approved, you should create a schedule of works to ensure that you are carrying out improvements in a logical way to minimise disruption and duplication.

contemporary white gloss kitchen in conversion with ceiling beams

An architect is not always necessary for every house renovation but a design professional can be vital in helping to make the very most of an old property. The owners of this cottage renovation and extension came up with the design themselves.  (Image credit: Jeremy Phillips)

9. Secure Planning Permission 

Not all house renovation projects will require planning permission but there are several consent checks to bear in mind before starting work on your house, including:

To avoid delays, always begin your schedule of works with those projects that do not require planning consent.

victorian house with new single storey extension

There is plenty you can do when renovating a house without applying for planning permission. Many small extensions or alterations fall under permitted development rights. If in any doubt check with your local planning department. (Image credit: Fraser Marr)

Join The Planning Hub

(Image credit: Future)

The Planning Hub is a new online resource that will help you understand how to get to grips with complex planning rules. Join today for access to easy-to-read guides which will provide you with key information to help you secure planning permission. 

If you are extending or altering the roofline you may well require planning permission and if you live in a listed property or in a designated area, you will almost certainly require consent before carrying out any work. Check with your local planning department before starting any work.

Remember, even those jobs that require Building Regulations approval can be started following 24 hours’ notice of the intention to comply, made to the local authority building control department.

If you are building near the boundary of your house renovation you should check whether or not this work is affected by the Party Wall Act. It is also wise to get your solicitor to check your title deeds or lease — there may be restrictions relating to development of the property.

cosy living room in farmhouse with flagstone floors and open fire and green sofa

Depending on the works you are carrying out, you may well require planning permission — and if the house is listed or in a Conservation Area you will need permission even for internal alterations. Contact your local planning department. (Image credit: Jeremy Phillips)
Top Tip

It really does pay to spend a few months living in or spending time in a house. This will allow you to see where and when natural light enters the house, which layout configurations work and  allows you to build up an idea of how the house could best work for your lifestyle.

10. Find a Builder

If you are using an architect, you may well find that they have builders they regularly work with and who they can recommend. 

Otherwise, you will need to find a builder to carry out the renovation work for you (unless you plan on doing all the work on a DIY basis.)

Trusted recommendations are the best way to go about tracking down reliable tradespeople and you should always aim to use builders who have carried out work of a similar type and scale to those you are planning. Get at least three quotes before making a final decision. 

11. Notify Building Control

All new work must comply with the Building Regulations. As of January 2006, new building regulations applications for extensions have to include proposals to upgrade the thermal performance of the existing part of the house.

pretty thatched cottage with bricks and half timbers

Even where planning permission is not required, Building Regulations will still need to be adhered to.  (Image credit: Getty Images)

12. Make a Schedule of Works

No renovation project should kick off without a schedule of works. It will keep the project on track and ensure you and the trades you subsequently bring in to work on the project know the order in which the work will take place. With that in mind, let's begin step one in the renovation process.

A concise and clear schedule of works will list every single job that's required when renovating a house, laid out in the correct order for the most efficient process. It should also ideally include who should be doing what and how much it will cost.

Here is a typical schedule of works. Of course, this will vary depending on the nature of the project. Your house designer or builder will be able to advise you.

  • Current condition assessment
  • Stop further decay
  • Grants/Tax concessions
  • Statutory consents
  • Structural stability
  • Demolition work
  • Dealing with damp
  • Drains
  • Site access
  • Major building work
  • Weathertight
  • Exterior
  • External works
  • First fix
  • Plastering
  • Drying out
  • Fixed flooring
  • Second fix
  • Decorating
  • Final clean
  • Move in
  • Snagging

13. Organise Waste Removal

If you are removing any sections of the house you will need to think about demolition work

Waste can be removed in skips. Private individuals can get rid of most waste for free at local authority tips, although asbestos will need to be dealt with separately.

A house renovation often involves certain elements which can be salvaged and reused. These items should be taken away and stored somewhere safe, or sold on to a salvage yard.

Sometimes it is possible to sell the salvage rights of large-scale demolition projects in which case some of the removal work may be undertaken by the reclamation yard — saving time and effort and potentially raising some cash, too.

14. Address Access Issues

If your house renovation is located on a site with restricted access it is a good idea to plan ahead and get any large items or machinery in for landscaping on to the plot, before access is further obstructed by new building work and stored materials.

Machinery on a renovation site

Ensure you consider how you are going to get materials and machinery on to your renovation site. (Image credit: Jeremy Phillips)

15. Check Your Existing Drains

Are the existing drains are in working order? Locate the inspection chambers (manholes) and pour different colour food dye down the loos and sinks to find out what is connected to where and whether any drains have collapsed and need digging up.

Once the scaffold is down, it is time to connect up the external drains to the sewer or septic tank. Some prefer to undertake this work at the groundworks stage, but this leaves the drains vulnerable to damage during building work — especially if they are exposed in the trenches around the building before backfilling.

Landscaping work to form the drive, paths, beds and lawns can be undertaken at almost any point in the project, providing it can be protected from damage by the building work. Most people wait until they are ready to move in.

Do not lay the final drive finish until all heavy vehicles and skips have finally left site.

If building an extension, you may have to relocate drains anyway and now is the time to find out. If there is no mains drainage connection, inspect the condition of any existing septic tank and soakaways.

16. Look at Ways to Improve Energy Efficiency

What is Eco-vation?

Two new terms on the block, eco-vation or eco-renovation is the process of improving the energy efficiency of an old home to make it less draughty, more economical to run and a lot more comfortable to live in.

There are two main ways to ensure your finished renovation is eco friendly. Firstly,  you need to minimise the amount of heat your home uses to keep its occupants warm, and secondly, minimise the cost of producing the heat that it does require.

Draught-proofing is essential, but you should also prioritise wall and loft insulation. Upgrading the boiler and heating sources (such as old radiators) will also help to reduce heating bills, as well as creating a more comfortable internal environment.

Easy draught-proofing measures include adding draught seal, repairing damaged and ill-fitting windows and doors and the use of draught excluders.

Insulating old houses can involve adding in cavity wall insulation (providing you have cavity walls), adding internal wall insulation to existing solid walls, which will then require plastering, or adding external insulation (an option for those carrying our an external make-over or re-rendering).

You might also consider replacing single glazing with double glazing, although this will depend on the affect it will have on the overall appearance of the house and whether it is permitted under your planning permission.

contemporary eco friendly renovation project with narrow timber cladding

Designed by Piers Taylor of Invisible Studio, this extension was part of a renovation to a dilapidated folly — eco friendly upgrades included extra insulation and photovoltaic panels.  (Image credit: Jim Stephenson)

17. Get Your Renovation Project Weathertight

Once the roof structure has been repaired (or built in the case of extensions), felted and battened, the entire structure should be made weathertight to keep out the elements and to secure the building.

Whilst the scaffold, is up check that any chimney stacks and pots are stable and clear, put on bird guards, and to repair lead flashings around the chimneys, in valleys, on hips, dormers and any abutments.

If any new parts of the roof intersect with the old, it is always preferable to match the existing/original roof covering either by buying reclaimed tiles/slates or by replacing one plane of the roof at the back and using the salvaged tiles/slates at the front.

Doors and windows can also now be installed and glazed. Where doors and windows are not yet on site, the openings should be covered in plastic sheets or even better — boarded up.

The scaffolding will also be useful when it comes to replacing, repairing and fixing rainwater goods.

This is also the ideal time to carry out decoration to external joinery such as fascias and soffits, barge boards and windows, render and timber siding.

18. Protect and Repair The Original Features 

For many people renovating a house, one of the main attractions tends to be the potential to incorporate original features that may still be in place — all of which add to the character and charm of old buildings.

Sadly, not all renovation projects will have survived years of neglect in tact, meaning original features might be missing or damaged. Work out which features are worth saving and which are later additions in order to avoid spending money unnecessarily.

blue grey renovated staircase in period house with patterned floor tiles

Renovating a house presents homeowners with the opportunity to restore and embrace original features. Here the original staircase has been repainted to really make the detailed design stand out.  (Image credit: Pete Helme Photography)

In some cases, the cost of repair work does not practically make sense and you may need to consider sourcing sympathetic, matching replacements. However, unless you are prepared to spend more, these replacements may not capture the fine detailing of the originals.

In order to retain the original character of your renovation project, there are certain features which you should pay particular attention to, including:

19. Update Old Plumbing and Electrics 

Rewiring and replumbing a renovation project are expensive jobs but both these projects offer you the chance to install systems specifically tailored to your lifestyle, your energy usage and can be designed around any future plans you may have for the house. Updating heating and electrics will also add significant end value to the property.

If you are lucky, you might find that the heating and electrics have been updated to a good standard quite recently, in which case all that will be required may be new radiators. Old radiators can suffer from cold spots caused by a build up of sludge —  having them power flushed will be a big help in improving their performance.

Of course many people renovating a house and particularly those adding extensions will want to consider underfloor heating as an alternative to radiators.

bathroom with gloss tiles and freestanding white bath

Fitting new bathrooms is a common undertaking in house renovation projects — but don’t forget that an entirely new plumbing system may also be required.  (Image credit: Walls and Floors)

20. Make Internal Structural Changes

In the case of most renovation and remodelling projects, an element of structural change will be necessary in order to make the house suitable for modern-day living.

Period houses were often designed to incorporate lots of smaller spaces and may have been subject to a hotchpotch of ill thought-out additions over the years, meaning the general flow of the layout can be left lacking.

You may want to extend or change the use of your spaces by knocking down internal walls, building out into the garden or perhaps making use of existing redundant spaces, leading to a basement conversion, garage conversion or loft conversion.

knocking down internal walls in renovation project

Many renovation projects require internal walls to be knocked down. Before removing load-bearing walls consult the advice of a structural engineer. You will also need Building Regulations approval. (Image credit: Getty Images/Mats Silvan)

21. Carry Out 'First Fix' Jobs

You may have heard the term 'first fix' — but what does it mean?

Once internal stud wall frames can be built and any walls removed, flooring grade chipboard or floorboards can be fixed to joists, and ceiling joists can be added where required.

Door linings can now be fitted ready for the plasterers to work to (these are added later for dry-lining), and window reveals and cills can also be inserted.

Once the first fix carpentry (including new staircases) is complete, new first fix wiring and plumbing work can be undertaken, including soil pipes and drainage connections.

At this stage everything that will later be concealed by plaster needs to be installed, such as:

  • ventilation ducts
  • hot water cylinder
  • extract ducts
  • wiring for central heating controls
  • alarms
  • speakers or any other home automation equipment.

22. The Plastering Can Begin 

With first fix complete it is time to look at plastering walls, apply plasterboard/dry-lining to ceilings and any stud walls (tacking), and to repair any damaged plasterwork/mouldings.

In an older buildings, avoid using modern metal angle beads around arises, unless you want crisp clean lines: instead use timber beads.

You also want to consider the type of plaster you use — many older houses will have been finished with lime plaster and adding a new modern plaster could well result in damp issues. 

Make sure you protect the stairs and any other vulnerable features while the plasterers are in, as it is a messy job.

New floor screeds for the ground floor will be laid at this point, usually after plastering to help keep it clean, but some like to screed and then plaster in order to create a neater joint between plaster and floor.

If you are laying underfloor heating, the pipes or cable elements will usually be laid after plastering, so that the manifolds can be fixed in place, but before screeding so that the pipes and elements are covered.

second fix work and freshly plastered walls

Once plastering begins the house takes shape — be prepared for lots of dust and mess! (Image credit: Getty Images/James Osmond)

23. Start Second Fix Jobs 

Once flooring is laid and the house is plastered, second fix work can begin. Second fix typically involves:

  • Connecting the consumer unit and fit all light fittings, sockets, switches, phone and TV points and the extractor hood
  • Hanging all doors and fix skirting, architrave, spindles and handrails
  • Installing the bathroom fittings and connecting the taps
  • Installing the boiler and controls, and fitting radiators
  • Fitting the kitchen and completing any fitted furniture
  • Boxing in any pipes or soil stacks ready for the decorators
  • It is also time for the plumber and electrician to commission the heating system

rewiring a double plug socket

Jobs such as fitting switches and sockets and hanging doors can take place once plastering has been carried out (Image credit: Jeremy Phillips)

24. Carry Out External Improvements 

Renovating a house doesn’t always involve a pretty country cottage or beautifully symmetrical period properties.

In fact, an increasing number of people are now waking up to the potential of post-war properties that, whilst not as visually attractive at the outset, are often cheaper, full of natural light and come with large open internal spaces. They also tend to be cheaper than those their more attractive renovation counterparts.

Post-war houses provide a huge amount of potential for a stunning exterior makeover, including new cladding, roofing materials, window treatments and driveways.

modernist 1970s renovation project with pale timber cladding

New cladding, such as timber boarding or render can completely transform a house, as can new windows and doors — as the renovation of this 1970s property, designed by Remagination, proves. (Image credit: Jonathan Gooch)

It is important to look at the smaller details that you could change without breaking the bank before you take on a large-scale makeover — these are vital when it comes to creating kerb appeal. Small alterations to consider include:

  • Replacing rainwater goods
  • Repainting (or replacing) any timberwork, such as fascia boards and finials
  • Adding a porch to add character
  • Landscaping, including gates, fences and planting
  • Painting brickwork

Many of these changes can be carried out under Permitted Development, but if your home has a special designation (i.e. listed) these rights are removed.

Open plan kitchen-diner leading to garden

Contemporary extensions to period properties are becoming an increasingly familiar sight (Image credit: Granit Architects)

25. Carry Out Final Decoration Work 

Painting and staining should only begin once all second fix work and preparation is complete to ensure the building is clean and dust free — otherwise it will be impossible to get a good finish.

Kitchen and bathroom wall tiling can now be carried out.

Shower enclosures and doors can be fitted once tiling is complete. Finally, once decorating is complete, any soft floor coverings, such as vinyl and carpet can be laid and the white goods such as the oven, hob, fridge and washing machine can be fitted.

master bedroom with polished dark wooden floor and original fireplace

Renovating a house provides the opportunity to combine original features such as timber floors, exposed brickwork and fireplaces with contemporary design (Image credit: Simon Maxwell)

26. Make a Snagging List

Small problems will inevitably crop up over the ensuing months.

Fix these problems as they arise, or, if you used tradesmen, ask them back, although expect to have to pay them for defects that are not their fault, such as plaster cracks.

If you used a main contractor, you may have held back a retention of 2.5-5% on the final payment. This sum is released once they have returned and resolved any defects.

(MORE: Guide to Snagging)

Natasha Brinsmead

Natasha is Homebuilding & Renovating’s Associate Content Editor and has been a member of the team for over two decades. An experienced journalist and renovation expert, she has written for a number of homes titles. Over the years Natasha has renovated and carried out a side extension to a Victorian terrace. She is currently living in the rural Edwardian cottage she renovated and extended on a largely DIY basis, living on site for the duration of the project. She is now looking for her next project — something which is proving far harder than she thought it would be.