Property renovation is almost a rite of passage for anyone hoping to climb the housing ladder but with ambitions beyond their means. Run-down houses can represent real bargain potential and can prove an excellent way to stretch a budget and get more home for your money.
Renovation is not without its risks, however, and the first-time renovator can easily come unstuck, especially if they are tempted to rush into starting work without first taking stock of the structural condition of the property.
A common situation is to complete renovation work including re-plastering and decoration, only to discover that the whole place is riddled with rising damp and in need of an injected damp-proof course, involving hacking off all of the new plastering up to waist height.
There is a logical order in which renovation works should be undertaken. Stray from this progression – or critical path as it is sometimes known – and you end up having to undo completed work to tackle basic repairs and improvements. Preparing a plan of attack is also a very useful way of estimating the likely cost and time schedule of a renovation project. Where funds are restricted, it will allow works to be prioritised without compromising the end result or wasting money.
1. Assess the Building’s Condition
The first stage of any renovation project is to get a detailed assessment of the current condition of the property. Those buying to renovate should always commission a chartered surveyor to undertake a building report which will identify any essential repairs needed and will recommend further investigation by specialist surveyors into any other aspects that arouse suspicion, such as infestation, subsidence or heave, damp or drainage problems.
Those renovating their own home should still consider commissioning a survey or getting in specialists to look into any areas of concern. If you ask, a surveyor should also be able to indicate the likely cost of repairs.
The building report will reveal the type of construction used across different parts of the house. This is very important to note, as it will affect the type and extent of any alterations that can be made and the materials and techniques that are appropriate. Using the wrong renovation techniques can quickly lead to extensive damage to an old building, especially in the case of earth construction such as cob and clom, oak framing, rubble stone walls and random slate walls.
If the building is to be remodelled or extended it is also essential to get a measured survey of the building. A measured survey is an exact scale drawing of the layout of the building as it is. This will prove to be an invaluable starting point for making design decisions and is also likely to be needed as part of any planning applications.
You can find a surveyor via the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors.
2. Stop Further Decay
Any building left empty for more than a few months will start to deteriorate. This may begin with minor dilapidation but if damp gets inside the building through broken windows or slipped tiles, the rate of decay will accelerate rapidly.
Climbing plants will quickly grow into the tiniest crack in walls or window frames and will invade, potentially letting in damp. Once damp gets into a building, infestation by pests and fungal attack will soon follow. All of the common problems that destroy buildings: wet and dry rot, woodworm and deathwatch beetle, thrive in a damp, mild environment, especially in timber.
An empty property is also a target for a far more rapid form of decay: vandalism and theft by trespassers. This usually starts with children breaking windows for fun, but obvious neglect soon invites far more destructive invaders, as well as letting in the elements.
The work required to protect a building will usually be to secure the site and buildings to prevent trespass, and if at all possible, to make the building weathertight. Windows and doors can be boarded up either with sheets of ply, or in more susceptible areas, by using metal shutters that can be rented.
If the roof is missing or damaged, it may be covered in waterproof sheets, or in some instances an entirely enclosed scaffold, although the latter is an expensive option.
It is also necessary to take out adequate buildings and public liability insurance cover to protect against accidental damage through fire, storm or flood etc, or legal action from a trespasser who suffers injury.
3. Check for Any Grants or Tax Concessions
They are few and far between, but there are grants available in some instances for restoration and home improvement work, either at a local level via local councils or at national level from Central Government via National Heritage. There are also VAT concessions such as a reduced rate for dwellings empty for three years or more. It is essential to apply for grants before starting any work to avoid disqualification.
4. Apply for Consents
At the earliest possible stage you should identify which aspects of your proposed renovation project require statutory consent. You need to know whether or not the work requires:
Sometimes applications can take several months and this may influence your decision on which works to undertake.
If you want to start work immediately, it will be best to take on projects that do not require planning consent, e.g. converting an existing garage or roof space or making additions that fall within the allowances made under Permitted Development Rights. Even works 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 do require statutory consents for all or part of your proposed works, then you must build into your schedule the time required for the local authority to determine the application. Planning decisions are supposed to take eight weeks and a full building regulations application five to six weeks.
If you are building near the boundary you should also check whether or not your work is affected by the Party Wall Act. It is also wise to get your solicitor to check your title deeds or lease, for any restrictions to development of the property.
5. Stabilise the Structure
With the building’s condition stabilised and all consents in place it is time to start work on site. It may be necessary to make sure that there is a supply of water – if there was one it may have been disconnected – and electricity for power tools, possibly using a temporary meter box depending upon the condition of any existing wiring.
The next task is to undertake any work identified in the survey as being required to ensure that the building is structurally stable. This might mean underpinning, or piling work to improve or stabilise any existing foundations, steel ties to stop lateral spread in walls or a roof, or the insertion or steel props, beams or scaffold to prevent further collapse.
6. Demolition and Clearance/Salvage
Once the structure is stable, it is time to undertake any demolition work that is required and to strip the building back to the part that is to be kept. Waste can be removed by skips, or private individuals can get rid of waste for free at local authority tips — providing you can convince the tip manager that you are not in the trade!
Anything that can be salvaged and reused should be removed and stored somewhere safe, or sold on to a salvage yard if not required for the project. If demolition works are extensive, it might be possible to sell the salvage rights 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.
7. Solving Damp
Any building more than 80 years old is likely to have solid walls (as opposed to modern cavity walls) either of brick, stone, oak frame, earth or even chalk. Such buildings often suffer from damp problems, although in many cases the problems are the result of modern alterations or ‘improvements’ such as replacing lime with cement in pointing or render, painting using modern impermeable products, replacing suspended timber floors with concrete, reducing ventilation and changing external ground levels against the building.
Although there is no building regulations requirement to upgrade damp-proofing in existing houses being renovated, lenders will often insist on damp treatment and conversions will have to be upgraded under the regulations. A great deal of damage can be done by using inappropriate modern materials — for instance an injected silicone damp-proof course can solve rising damp in soft brick walls and some porous stone, but can destroy earth walls, and would prove a waste of money on a rubble stone wall.
If there are signs of rising damp in an older building, get at least two expert independent opinions, first to ensure that it really is rising damp – there should be signs of hygroscopic salts – and to find a suitable solution. Often the problem can be solved using non-invasive methods such as improving ground drainage around the property, lowering the external ground level, improving ventilation and even just getting the heating back on.
Damp is often caused from condensation within a building. The solution is to improve ventilation, and to ensure that the building can breathe by reinstating lime in place of impermeable cement in plaster, mortar and render.
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, and repairing lead flashings and valleys, guttering and doors and windows.
The principle is to avoid invasive solutions that will damage the building’s fabric and to replace like with like wherever possible and practical. It may require the reversal of botched modern remedies to solve an old building’s problems.
This is also the stage to treat the building if there are signs of infestation. Many conservationists do not like 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. The answer is to take a pragmatic approach.
8. Check Drains/Service Connections
At this stage it is a good idea to check that the existing drains are in working order. Find the inspection chambers (manholes) and get someone to 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.
If you are extending, you may have to relocate drains anyway and now is the time to find out. If there is no mains drainage connection, it is also a good idea to inspect the condition of any existing septic tank and soakaways.
9. Plan Access/Site Layout
Where a site has restricted access it is a good idea to plan ahead and get any large items or machinery in for landscaping, before access is further obstructed by new building work and stored materials.
10. Major Structural Work and Extensions
Any major building work can now take place as the existing building is stable and there is no danger of concealing problems or having to undo work to get to the original building. 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.
Measures should be taken to protect any parts of the existing building that could be vulnerable to damage during the main construction stage of the project, especially in listed buildings.
11. Fit Doors and Windows and Make Weathertight
Once the roof structure is complete and felted and battened, the structure should be made weathertight to keep out the elements and to secure the building. 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.
Whilst the scaffold is up it is a good idea to check that any chimney stacks and pots are stable and clear, to put on bird guards, and to repair lead flashings around the chimneys, in valleys, on hips, dormers and any abutments.
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.
All new and replacement windows are more or less obliged by the Building Regulations to be double glazed, unless the building is listed, in a Conservation Area, or of great character. Building control has the right of discretion.
12. Fix Gutters Downpipes/ Decorate Exterior
Before the scaffold comes down it is time to replace, repair and fix all guttering, and to fix brackets for the downpipes. It is also an opportunity to undertake any external decoration or staining of external joinery such as fascias and soffits, barge boards and windows, render and timber siding.
13. Drainage/Landscaping, External Works
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.
14. First Fix
With the building all but complete externally, it is time to focus on work inside. This can start as soon as the roof is covered. Start to build carcassing for any internal stud walls, add flooring grade chipboard or floorboards to joists, fix ceiling joists where required, build in door linings ready for the plasterers to work to (these are added later for dry-lining), window reveals and cills.
It is also common to fit any new staircases at the first fix stage, prior to plastering. Once the first fix carpentry is complete, any new first fix wiring and plumbing work can be undertaken, including soil pipes and drainage connections. Don’t forget to get any large items such as the hot water cylinder into the attic whilst there is still access. At this stage everything that will later be concealed by plaster needs to be installed, such as:
- ventilation ducts
- extract ducts
- wiring for central heating controls
- speakers or any other home automation equipment.
In an older property it is a good idea to consider rewiring the entire property and to budget for this, as the Building Regulations now require all wiring to meet the current regulations and electricians will insist on this in order to be able to certify their work.
15. Plastering Out/Screed Floors
With first fix complete it is time to re-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 can get everywhere.
Any 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 second to create a neat 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.
16. Leave the Building to Dry Out
Before bringing in any timber products, 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.
17. Lay Fixed Flooring
Opinions differ on whether to lay fixed flooring such as flagstones, ceramic tiles and solid wooden floors before kitchen and other fitted furniture and sanitaryware. H&R’s view is that it is best to lay the floors from edge to edge of each room and to fix kitchen units, fitted furniture and sanitaryware on top as it avoids many problems later and leaves flexibility for the future. This sort of flooring will certainly need to be laid before skirting and architrave can be fixed in place, as it will need to run underneath.
18. Second Fix
Time to connect the consumer unit and fit all light fittings, sockets, switches, phone and TV points and the extractor hood. Hang all doors and fix skirting, architrave, spindles and handrails. Install the bathroom fittings and connect the taps. Install the boiler and controls, and fit radiators. Fit the kitchen and complete any fitted furniture. Box in any pipes or soil stacks ready for the decorators. It is also time for the plumber and electrician to commission the heating system.
19. Decorating/Tiling/Wooden Floors/Carpets
With the second fix complete, it is time to prepare all of the surfaces for decorating by sanding and filling. 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. If time is of the essence, start at the top of the building and work down, with the decorators following behind the other trades as they complete each floor. It is also time to get the tiling done in the kitchen and bathrooms, having left space for this behind sinks.
Depending on design, any 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.
20. Final Clean/Move in
The building is ready to move into, but before doing so it is a good idea to have a final clean throughout. This is to remove any stray plaster, dust, materials and packaging, to remove protective coverings and to get the windows really clean. It is also time to fix curtains and blinds.
Small problems will inevitably crop up with the work 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.