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Renovating a House: The Ultimate Guide to Fixer Uppers

nash baker architects spent years renovating a house that was 400 years old on suffolk farmland
(Image credit: Nick Guttridge for Nash Baker Architects)

Renovating a house has plenty of benefits — from the potential of delivering a home with plenty of character and original features to making a great return on investment when you buy smart and do the right work. However, get it wrong and a renovation project can end up as a money pit, draining your funds and causing undue stress. 

In our opinion, the reward certainly outweighs the risk, and with the right know-how, renovating a house could be smooth-sailing, allowing you to create your dream home in your sought-after area, without breaking the bank. 

In our ultimate guide to renovating a house, we cover all the essentials, from how to safeguard your purchase with surveys, how to manage the issues that may be unearthed in a renovation property, as well as a step by step walkthrough of how a renovation should be managed — everything you'll need to know along the road of your renovation journey. 

Where do I Start Renovating a House?

When renovating a house, having a schedule of works is essential to keep the project on track and ensure you and the trades know the order in which the work will take place. 

A correct schedule of works will outline every single job that's required as part of the renovation project, laid out in the correct order for the most efficient process. 

Including who should be doing what and how much it will cost will also be incredibly helpful. 

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

nash baker architects spent 3 years renovating a 400 year old house in the suffolk countryside

Nash Baker Architects spent 3 years renovating this 400-year-old farmhouse in Suffolk. They discovered severe timber decay inside, with damage from death watch beetle. The finished project say the property repaired, while retaining original features and making energy efficiency improvements.  (Image credit: Nick Guttridge for Nash Baker Architects)

How to Find a Property to Renovate

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.

The first job you need to tackle is finding a house suitable for your renovation project. Unfortunately, 'fixer upper' projects are in high demand and there's a risk that you could end up paying over the odds in a competitive marketplace. This can also push cash-buyers ahead of the pack, 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. 

However, despite in-demand properties selling fast, it's key to take enough time to ensure the property will work for your renovation and that it's not going to eat up valuable funds with undiagnosed issues. 

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.

(MOREHow to Assess a Property for Renovation)

Properties in need of extension renovation are often sold at auction or using a sealed bid system of bets and final offers. Getting to know how these systems work and building your confidence to look at house auctions could lead to you securing a renovation property at a great price.

renovating a council house into a modern design

The renovation of this London council house by Vatraa Architecture refreshed the interior characteristics entirely, now a modern, design-forward space.  (Image credit: Jim Stephenson for Vatraa)

How to Know if a House is Worth Renovating

To decide whether a house is worth investing in, consider the following when viewing a renovation property: 

  • What is the potential for renovating the property?
  • 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 surface level?
  • What are the ceiling prices for houses in the area? Will your renovations be able to add value to the property?

What Fees Will I Have to Pay When Buying a House to Renovate?

Renovating a house

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

Bear in mind before taking the leap that, apart from the work involved in renovating a house, there are other additional costs that should be factored in:

  • 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

(MORE: Renovation Mortgages)

Surveys

If you're interesting in buying a house to renovate, a chartered surveyor will be able to let you know if there's any potential issues that would have an effect on the sale. It's possible to arrange a survey before putting in an offer on the property if the homeowner consents, but this is usually undertaken after an offer has been accepted. 

The surveyor will be able to carry out a building report which 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 problems will have a solution. Whilst 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.

new flush windows have been installed when renovating this 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: Evolution Windows)

Which Surveys Should I Have Done When Renovating a House?

How to Find a Surveyor

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

One of the most useful types of survey for a renovation project is a measured building survey, as this 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. 

Always view a property at least twice — taking a video if possible in order to analyse it further once you get home.

Warranties and Insurance

Do I Need Renovation Insurance When Renovating a House?

Once you exchange contracts on a house renovation you become responsible for the site and you must therefore have adequate insurance. Renovation insurance specifically will cover your property while building work is taking place in your property, and is 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)

Do I Need a Warranty to Renovate?

Not necessarily. It's not a legal requirement to take our a renovation warranty, but it can prove a worthwhile investment. 

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 warranty on your project, it's wise to know from the get-go, as premiums are likely to increase the more you progress with your project. 

Grants

Am I Eligible for a Renovation Grant?

It pays (literally) when organises 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

Planning Permission

Do I Need Planning Permission When Renovating a House?

Timber frame extension ideas

Whilst much renovation work will not require planning permission, large extensions and work to listed buildings or those in designated areas may — if in any doubt check with your local planning department. (Image credit: Dave Burton)

There are several consent checks to bear in mind before starting work on your house renovation, including:

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

JOIN THE PLANNING HUB

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 designate 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.

renovating a house

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)

Building a Team

Do I Need an Architect For a House Renovation?

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 that producing a design for an existing house trickier than starting from scratch.

architect's brief

Whilst an architect is not always necessary for every renovation project, a design professional can be vital in helping to make the very most of an old property.  (Image credit: Kloeber)
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.

When renovating a house it is not always necessary to hire an architect or designer and obviously 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 your 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.

Subsidence

How to Deal With Subsidence When Renovating a Property

Aim to identify any structural problems with the property as early on in the project as possible — not only are they dangerous, particularly if you are living on site, but they could cause further damage to the sound and table areas of the house too.

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 extremely unstable house renovations, the insertion of steel props, beams or scaffold will prevent further collapse.

Original Features

How to Restore Original Features When Renovating a House

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.

a living room with original features including beams and a fireplace

Aim to highlight and restore original features wherever possible.  (Image credit: Nick Guttridge for Nash Baker Architects)

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:

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.

(MOREHow to Get Rid of Rubble)

Damp

How to Deal With Damp When Renovating a House

Anyone renovating a house should be prepared to find signs of a damp problem — active, historical or both.

Any property more than 80 years old is likely to have solid walls (as opposed to modern cavity walls) and such buildings often suffer from damp problems. Very often the damp will have been caused by inappropriate modern alterations such as:

  • replacing lime with cement in pointing or render
  • painting using modern impermeable products
  • replacing suspended timber floors with concrete
  • reducing or covering up ventilation
  • changing external ground levels against the building

There are several types of damp, although the most common two are rising damp and penetrating damp. It is wise to get an expert opinion on what type of damp you are dealing with in your house renovation — each will need to be treated differently.

Rising damp solutions include:

  • improving ground drainage around the property
  • lowering the external ground level
  • improving ventilation
  • even just getting the heating back on

Penetrating damp problems in walls and ceilings can usually be resolved by repairing the building’s fabric, such as:

  • repointing brickwork with lime mortar
  • repairing lime render or missing hung tiles
  • fixing the roof
  • repairing lead flashings and valleys, guttering and doors and windows

When treating damp, look also to treat any signs of infestation such as rot and woodworm.

Many conservationists frown upon spraying chemicals in buildings to treat rot and woodworm, as these problems should resolve themselves in a few months once damp problems are fixed and the building is heated. However, not everyone is willing to wait or take any risks, and lenders often insist on chemical treatments as a condition of their loan.

Site Access

Providing Site Access When Renovating a House

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)

Drains

Replacing Drains When Renovating a House

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.

Building Control

Should I Contact Building Control When Renovating a House?

Types of bricks - used on traditional cottage

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

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.

If living in the renovation, seal off the occupied spaces at the same time as protecting any parts of the existing building that could be damaged during the main construction stage of the project, especially in listed buildings.

How Do I Get A Renovation Project Weathertight

Once the roof structure has been built, 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.

Whilst the scaffold is still up, replace, repair and fix all guttering, and fix brackets for the downpipes.

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

Plumbing

Replacing Plumbing When Renovating a House

house renovation

New bathrooms are probably a given in most renovation projects — but don’t forget that an entirely new plumbing system may also be required.  (Image credit: Jeremy Phillips)

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.

Knocking Down Walls

Knocking Down Walls When Renovating a House

Open plan kitchen diner in renovated home

Before removing load-bearing walls consult the advice of a structural engineer. You will also need Building Regulations approval. (Image credit: Simon Maxwell)

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.

First Fix

What Does 'First Fix' 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.

Plastering

Man plastering walls

Once plastering begins the house takes shape — be prepared for lots of dust and mess! (Image credit: British Gypsum)

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

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

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.

Flooring

Choosing Flooring for a Renovation Project

Before bringing in any timber products (such as flooring etc), the plaster and any new screed needs to be allowed to thoroughly dry out.

Depending on the time of year this will take from two to six weeks — the longer it can be left, the less the danger of moisture causing problems with second fix joinery and especially wooden floors.

If time is of the essence, go for drylining instead of hard plaster and for suspended timber floors instead of concrete.

Cosy living room

New wooden flooring will need time to acclimatise to the indoor climate before it can be laid. (Image credit: Jeremy Phillips)

Whilst some people choose to lay fixed flooring such as flagstones, ceramic tiles and solid wooden floors after fitting the kitchen, sanitary ware and built-in furniture, there are several reasons why this is not a good idea.

(MORE: Types of Flooring)

Laying these floors from edge to edge of each room beforehand avoids many problems later in terms of uneven edges and also leaves flexibility to change these items in further down the line.

Hard floor such as this will need to be laid before skirting and architrave can be fixed in place, as it will need to run underneath.

Second Fix

What Are 'Second Fix' Jobs?

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)

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

Exterior Renovations

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.

Cladding including timber boarding and render on home's exterior

New cladding, such as timber boarding or render can completely transform a house. (Image credit: Simon Maxwell)

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. 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)

Eco Considerations

How Can I Make My Renovations Eco Friendly?

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).

(MORE: External Wall Insulation Guide)

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.

Finishing Touches When Renovating a House

house renovation

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)

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.

What is 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)