Taking on the Wrong Project
No matter how organised or experienced you are, renovating is a stressful and timeconsuming process, so unless a project is guaranteed to give you either your dream home, or make you money, you are taking on the wrong property.
Whether you are thinking of renovating your own home, or are looking to buy a place to renovate, assess the property’s potential and have a clear idea of your goals: are you looking to create a long-term home, to climb the housing ladder, or just to get as much space as you can afford?
Unless you plan to live in the property for the foreseeable future, you should make sure that you will be able to resell it should you need to, and at least break even.
Buying Without a Survey
Don’t wait to discover damp, rot, subsidence or other major structural defects until it is too late. Find out as much about a property as possible before you buy, or before you start any work. A building survey, undertaken by a Chartered Building Surveyor (www.rics.org) will provide information on the type of construction and materials used, and will give details of any defects found, their remedy and an indication of the likely cost.
It is also worth commissioning a measured survey of the building, providing you with a detailed set of floorplans and elevations upon which to base your proposed design alterations.
Hiring Cowboy Builders
Renovation can turn into a nightmare if your builders or subcontractors fail to do a good job. Always be suspicious of an estimate or quote that is considerably cheaper than all the others, or someone who is available for work immediately. Ask for references, and speak to their previous clients.
Make Sure Your Builder…
- Is confident of undertaking the required work.
- Understands the job and what is involved.
- Has undertaken similar work before.
- Will provide details of previous clients.
- Seems to understand what you are trying to achieve.
Ask Their Previous Clients…
- What was the builder like to work with?
- Was the work of a satisfactory standard?
- Was the project completed on time?
- Was the project completed on budget?
- Were they neat, tidy and reasonably quiet?
- Would they use them again?
Renovation work always costs more than you expect. This is because some problems are not revealed until you start work and uncover them, but mostly because items are forgotten from the budget, or because you change your mind and alter the design or specification. Professional renovators always leave a contingency of between 10-20% to cover these costs and fully expect to have to spend it.
Before you can start to predict costs, you need to have a good idea of your proposed plans, your specification for fixtures and fittings, and have decided who is doing what. To estimate costs, look at other people’s projects and expect to spend a similar amount, taking into account how much work they did themselves, when the project was completed, and the variation in labour costs.
Alternatively, get a builder’s estimate. This is a builder’s best guess of what your renovation project is going to cost, based on what they can see and the information you have provided them with. This is not a quote and the builder cannot be held to it, but an experienced builder should be able to give a fairly accurate guess.
Finally, prepare your own budget by listing all tasks, the materials required, and who is going to do the work. You can then go out and get quotes for materials and estimates for each trade. Make sure you allow for skips, scaffold hire, plant hire, and tools.
Ignoring Rules & Regulations
There is no point in ignoring the requirements of the law, as it will eventually catch up with you, so do not undertake any work without first checking the following:
- Do you need planning permission? Ask the local authority.
- Do you need Building Regulations approval? Ask the local authority.
- Do you need to notify neighbours? Check the Party Wall Act.
- Do you need to notify leaseholders or get permission from others? Check your deeds for restrictive covenants, leases or other overriding interests in the land.
If you fail to get planning permission, you can apply retrospectively, but if this fails you may have to undo alterations or extensions. Altering a listed building without consent is a criminal offence.
If you fail to get Building Regulations approval, you will have to prove compliance. This may mean undoing completed work. If you fail to observe the Party Wall Act, it can lead to an injunction and delay your project whilst you get an agreement in place. Breaching a restrictive covenant or the terms of a lease can lead to an injunction, and you may have to make a financial settlement or remove your alterations or extensions.
Using the Wrong Materials
The use of modern impermeable materials, such as very hard cement mortar mixes, plastics and impermeable coatings, can create all sorts of problems in period houses constructed using traditional materials, leading to damp that can result in damage to the structure. In the case of earth-based construction systems, such as cob, clom, clunch, clay daub and dabbins, the effects of insensitive repairs such as chemical damp-proof courses can be disastrous.
- Avoid replacing soft lime mortars with hard cement mixes when re-pointing.
- Avoid hard cement renders on traditional solid-walled buildings — use a breathable, flexible lime-rich mix.
- Do not use waterproof paint or sealant on a traditional solid-walled building.
- Avoid hard cement backing for gypsum plaster on the inside of the external walls in solid-walled buildings.
- Ensure materials are visually sympathetic. Avoid stone cladding, pebbledash, roughcast or PVCu on a period building.
Scrimping on Design
A good design scheme can transform a property and its value, and is worth every penny. Poor design, or no design at all, can cause the following problems:
- Ill-judged applications could prejudice the planning process, leading to refusal and planning blight.
- Poor design can squander potential, waste space and fail to maximise value.
- Over-complicated design can add unnecessary costs and delays.
- Failing to listen to your brief and objectives can lead to an unsatisfactory result, wasted time and fees.
- Lack of detail or errors can cause delays and complications on site and expose you to charges for variations to the contract.
Taking the Wrong Energy-Saving Measures
The energy saved by installing double glazing in place of single will take 15-20 years to pay itself back, by which time you may have moved on. There is no point, therefore, in replacing period windows that could be repaired just to save energy. Instead, focus your budget on those energy-saving measures with the shortest payback. These are as follows:
- Draft exclusion
- Energy-efficient light bulbs
- Hot water tank and pipe insulation
- Loft insulation
- Cavity wall insulation
- Upgrading to a condensing boiler
It is worth investigating whether your local authority operates any grants to help with energy-efficiency measures by calling or visiting their website. Grants and VAT relief are also available on some energy-efficiency measures. Visit www.est.org.uk for details.
Removing Period Detail
Removing original period windows and exterior doors can destroy a period property’s character, and its value, unless they are sympathetically replaced. Authentic replicas are expensive, so always consider repair as a first option. Cheaper, off-the shelf joinery is rarely appropriate and is unlikely to fit the original openings and so will look wrong.
If the original external joinery has already been removed, research neighbouring properties or books to find appropriate styles. Avoid modern hybrid products, such as front doors with built-in fanlights.
Try and observe the techniques and materials used in the building’s original construction and try and repair, or replace, on a like-for-like basis. Internally, try and preserve original doors, floorboards, fireplaces and plaster mouldings if they are still intact. Most features are not purely decorative, but also have a practical purpose, either structural or cosmetic, and removal is only likely to necessitate an alternative solution. Conservation is cost-efficient and ecological.
Making Piecemeal Additions
Do not renovate your property by making small, half-hearted additions, as and when money allows. It is common to find an old cottage that has had several small extensions added, on an almost room-by-room basis, with flat roofs, lean-tos, boxy conservatories, and other carbuncles bolted onto every elevation. Such additions eventually cripple a property, both in its ability to function as a home with a fluid layout, and in terms of value.
Difficult though it is, it is often best to take a step or two backwards before moving forwards, by demolishing such additions and taking the building back to its original form before extending and remodelling. Unfortunately, sometimes this previous legacy of improvements has added just enough value to make their removal unviable financially.
Wasting Existing Space
Before making plans to add an extension to your renovation project, consider how you can use the existing space. There are many measures that will help to make a property feel more spacious and which will add to its value, yet which cost a fraction of the price of extending. Think about converting the attic, garage, cellar or other attached outbuildings. The following ideas can be applied to any property but are particularly appropriate to those where space is an issue:
- Reuse wasted circulation space.
- Use carefully positioned mirrors.
- Use a space-efficient staircase.
- Create mezzanine levels.
- Improve the flow, adding doorways.
- Change the direction a door swings in, or use sliders or bi-folds.
- Remove walls and remodel.
- Use space-efficient furniture with dual purposes.
- Add patio doors to create the illusion of the garden being part of the house.
- Improve lighting design.
- Use informal room dividers.
- Use space-efficient storage.
- Combine rooms — such as open plan kitchen/dining room layouts.
- Use borrowed light.
- Install space-efficient heating.
Creating New Damp Problems
Solving damp is one of the most important tasks for any renovator, but sometimes well-intended improvements can inadvertently create new damp problems. Here are some of the common causes:
- Raising external ground levels above the dampproof course (DPC), or above floor level, leading to penetrating damp.
- Painting the exterior of a solid-walled building (no clear cavity) with impermeable waterproof paints or sealants—leading to penetrating damp.
- Adding double glazing and blocking fireplaces, flues and vents without compensating with adequate alternative ventilation — leading to condensation problems.
- Sloping new paths towards rather than away from the building—leading to penetrating damp.
- Making new additions, such as a conservatory or extension, without fitting flashings, cavity trays, or other suitable means to divert any damp away from the building.
- Using hard cement fillets as a weatherproofing measure in valleys, abutments or at the base if chimneys — it will crack, and damp will be able to get in. Use lead flashings, valleys and skirt/apron.
- Sealing the roof structure with new felt or spray-on urethane insulation without ensuring the timbers are adequately ventilated.
- Using hard cement render mixes on the exteriors, as they will eventually crack and draw in penetrating damp through capillary action.
- Pouring a new concrete floor in place of a suspended timber floor without adding adequate damp-proofing measures, both horizontally and vertically, and compensating for the loss of subfloor vents.
Taking on Too Much DIY
Undertaking work yourself can allow you to control costs and quality, but don’t be over-ambitious and plan to do more work than you really have time – or the skill – to undertake successfully. You could end up slowing the whole project down and living in a building site for years, which can in turn lead to family conflicts and potentially to accidents.
Bad DIY will also cost you dearly, slowing down the other trades, wasting materials, sometimes causing work to be done twice, and ultimately devaluing the property if it is not put right. You can get so tied up in DIY work that you lose focus on running the project and keeping up with decisions.
Working in the Wrong Order
A typical hierarchy of works for the renovation of a derelict property is as follows:
- STOP FURTHER DECAY: Keep out the elements. Take out buildings insurance, including public liability.
- STABILISE THE BUILDING: Make the site safe to work on. This might mean underpinning or piling work to stabilise existing foundations, the insertion of steel tension rods or ties to stop lateral spread, or the insertion of steel props, beams or scaffold to prevent further collapse before repairs.
- STRIP BACK AND SALVAGE WHAT CAN BE REUSED: Private individuals can get rid of waste for free at local authority tips. Salvage anything of value and store for reuse or sell on via eBay or a salvage yard.
- UNDERTAKE MAJOR BUILDING WORK: Build or replace any floors, walls, roofs or extensions. Carry out any re-pointing, injecting of DPCs, tanking, rendering, chemical treatments etc. If possible, only break through to the existing structure once the new work is complete.
- MAKE THE SHELL WEATHERTIGHT: Once the roof structure is complete, the structure should be made weathertight. Exterior doors and windows should be installed and glazed, or covered with boards.
- FIRST FIX: Build internal stud walls, fix floorboards, door linings, window reveals and cills and then undertake first fix plumbing and electrics.
- RE-PLASTER/REPAIR PLASTER: Apply plasterboard/dry-lining to walls and ceilings, or repair any damaged plaster. Floor screeds for the ground floor will be laid at this point.
- SECOND FIX: Lay timber, stone or tiled floors, hang doors, fix skirting and architrave, box in services. Install the bathroom, kitchen, boiler and fit radiators. Complete all painting, staining and tiling.
Making Unsafe Structural Alterations
Removing structural elements such as load-bearing walls, chimney breasts, lintels, columns, piers or buttresses, or cutting out roof timbers without compensating for the alteration can lead to disaster. The building may not collapse – although this is not unheard of – but it will lead to major movement in the building, followed by all manner of problems, from stuck windows and doors to warped floors and partial collapse of walls, roof or chimney stack.
An experienced builder will be able to identify which components are structural and how to compensate for their removal. The building inspector will want to know of any changes and how you propose to deal with them, and they may request calculations from a structural engineer.
Living on Site During the Major Work
Living on site can offer many advantages such as improved security, being on hand for weekend or out of hours deliveries, being available for early site meetings, being able to keep an eye on the work, or having the project close to hand for those working on a DIY basis. The downside is that the project is always there and you cannot escape it, which can become oppressive. It is best to move out at least whilst the major work is being undertaken, such as major demolition or construction, especially if you have children or pets.
If you cannot move out, try and isolate the construction work from your living space using plastic sheeting carefully taped up, by avoiding knocking through to connect new and existing parts until you are ready to plaster, and by making sure the builders have separate welfare facilities, i.e. a WC, rest room and access to water and a kettle.
Leaving Builders to Make Decisions
Renovating involves making countless decisions, from which improvements to make and the choice of fixtures and fittings, down to the route for new services such as plumbing, or how details should be finished off. Many of these decisions need to be made quickly if they are not to hold up work, and so you need to allow time for this, based on what will be the most practical and aesthetically pleasing solution. If you leave such decisions to builders, they will invariably do whatever is easiest and quickest for them, and this can look awful. The trouble is, once the work is done, you have to pay twice if you later want to make changes and the builders will hate you for it too. A good builder should warn you well in advance of the decisions that they need you to make. Listen to them, spend time on site visits, and keep up to speed.
Ignoring the Garden
Don’t forget to leave some money in your renovation budget for landscaping the garden and forming the drive and paths. If you are renovating a long-term home you can leave this until time and money allow, but if you are planning to sell on, an incomplete garden can have a serious impact on resale value, no matter how nicely the property is renovated.
Getting Carried Away With Fixtures and Finishes
As you reach the second fix stage of the project, it is easy to think you are on the home straight, under budget, and that you can start splashing out on designer bathrooms, taps, expensive handmade tiles, luxury showers, chrome sockets and switches, column radiators and all manner of great features. The trouble is you probably still have a third of your budget to go, and you can easily run out of money.
Keep track of your budget throughout the project and always have an idea of how much you have left. If you do underspend, or you have budgeted for high-quality finishes, then no problem, but do not end up running out of money needed to pay for work or bills still to come.
Paying Too Much Tax
If a contractor is not VAT registered, make sure they do not charge you VAT. If your project is subject to any VAT concessions, make sure that the appropriate rate is charged.
If your renovation project is a conversion or the renovation of a dwelling that has been empty for ten years or more, then it is largely zerorated for VAT. Your contractors should charge the reduced rate (currently 5%) on eligible labour and materials, and you can claim this back, together with any standard-rated VAT (currently 17.5%) you have paid to buy materials. See HMRC Notice 719 (www.hmrc.gov.uk).
If you are undertaking major reconstruction of a building that has little architectural merit, consider whether or not it would be more costeffective to demolish it altogether and start from scratch, as this will save you 17.5% VAT on all eligible labour and materials (you are allowed to leave a basement in place, or a single facade if required to do so by the planners).
VAT relief is also available for some other types of renovation work, providing it is undertaken by a VAT-registered contractor. Make sure you are charged the right amount.
‘Work qualifying for VAT relief but with no DIY’ refund scheme:
- Approved alterations to listed buildings (ends 1st October 2012).
- Dwellings empty for at least three years.
- Renovation of a dwelling that involves a change in the number of units.
- The installation of energy-efficient materials.