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How I played the renovation game and survived

January 18, 2015 | 4 Comments

The house (before) has great views

Rule number one for female property renovators is to never make tea or bring freshly baked goodies for the workers.

One of the savviest women I know told me this, adding: “If you do, they’ll see you as the little woman rather than the person in charge.” Of course, it sounds like perfect sense but I am a little woman (5ft small) and her sage advice came too late for me. My strategy for dealing with a couple of warring workmen, who were trapped together in a two-up, two-down, was to provide refreshments (kettle, mugs, tea, coffee, milk and biscuits) and feed them pasties.

My theory was that if these squabbling alpha males were fed and watered and I delivered baked goods at a critical point (mid afternoon) they would feel happier and, therefore, less likely to kill each other. I like to think it helped during the lowest point of my renovation project. It came one morning when the house was a filthy, stripped back hell-hole full of rubble, work benches, tools, blokes and a cement mixer. I got a phone call from one contractor and then the other.

??????????????????????????????? They hated each other, could not stand to be in the same building, too crowded, either he goes or I do, etc. etc. I could’ve cried, especially as I was on holiday, but instead I counselled, cajoled, begged and silently prayed while recalling a recent chat with a seasoned developer, who told me that people skills are vital in the building game.

Of course, I could have threatened to kick them off the job and with-hold payment but I had a critical deadline to meet. Plus, one of them is a fantastic operator and I’ll no doubt need him again.

Anyway, they stayed, did a great job, I paid them, gave them a hug (not sure whether this is a good idea or not but they didn’t seem to mind!) and said “thank you”.

The aforementioned deadline was for my mum’s partner, Roger, a brilliant handyman who had set aside two weeks to do a raft of jobs, including fitting the kitchen. He and my mum own 90 per cent of the terraced house we bought to let, while I own the rest.


Roger multi-tasking-reading his paper and tiling at the same time

They live down south so my job was sourcing, project managing and mucking in, because I have form.

Every house I have bought since clambering on to the property ladder in the 1980s has been a do’er upper. Mistakes? I have made many, from employing dodgy roofers to trying to save money by doing my own wallpapering.

This time I thought I had it all worked out and I have a Pollyanna approach to all new ventures. My partner, recovering from a major illness, warned me not to do it. “Too stressful, bound to be a nightmare.” I ignored him.

I spent months looking for a house. Auctions were a possibility but the properties were in poor locations so I targeted the local paper and Rightmove. The house I bought had languished on the market. Empty for six months, it had been much loved by its previous owner and was in a good area with a great rural view… but needed a lot of work. Eventually reduced from £85,000 to offers over £75,000 for a quick sale, I jumped in with my offer of £70,000.


I then paid £200 for a survey that revealed what I knew. The roof was okay and there was a new boiler but the house needed a full damp course, new windows and doors, a rewire, a kitchen, new plumbing and all the trimmings. We budgeted between £12,000 and £14,000, which included blocking up a door that linked both bedrooms and knocking the old fireplaces out.


What we didn’t know was that we also had woodworm, a rotten lintel above the kitchen window and a gas leak in the yard, which shut down the job for a week, hence the “Clash of the Contractors” debacle.

More expense came from new internal doors and moving two of the radiators under the window to create wall space. This meant buying new, smaller ones (more expense), although the plumber told me that’s the best place for heat circulation anyway.

My Pollyanna timescale was 12 weeks. It took almost double and ran over budget by about £1,500 but this would’ve been much more had it not been for Roger’s unpaid work. Some of the delay was due to taking advantage of the government’s Green Deal Home Improvement Fund, which effectively gave us partial grants for replacing the single glazed windows and draughty doors and putting internal wall insulation on the front elevation. The insulation is amazingly efficient!

To save funds I stripped the walls, prepped the decaying plaster and did most of the painting.

To be honest, this project took over my life and I was like a limp rag by the end but, hey, I lost weight and I picked up some new skills, including using Easi-fill to make good some of the walls.  This is a quick-setting plaster like substance that you can spread on then sand down to create a smooth surface. Harder than it sounds and at the end, there’s a blizzard of white dust hence my fetching shower cap.

Other savings included the kitchen. The cheapest I could find was from Homebase, which was £1,200 including a cooker. The store staff were fab but the delivery, controlled by a call centre, was a nightmare!


The kitchen was tricky thanks to the chimney breast. To remove it downstairs and upstairs would’ve meant party wall agreements and huge expense so we worked with it.


The units are from Homebase, the flooring is vinyl and the shelves from Ikea’s bargain corner

My old favourite, eBay, brought the best bargains – a superb, pre-loved gas fire and surround for £50 (thank you to that lovely woman in Skipton) and an internal pine door for a fiver from a builder in Leeds. Ikea’s bargain corner yielded two floating shelves for the kitchen.


The bargains gave me a lift through what was an exhausting project – juggling work and children with renovating is hard work. Still, I believe that doing a house up is like childbirth. It hurts but you soon forget the pain. We did get some compensation. We found a lovely tenant, who has made the house into a cosy, stylish home and the property is now worth at least £95,000. So if we sold there would be a £10,000 gross profit (or as I see it – payment for the hours we put in).


The bay window was replaced with a more practical flush window. The lintel above was rotten and had to be replaced.


The house is now energy efficient thanks to the internal wall insulation at the front and new double glazing.


Keep decor neutral so tenants can easily make the house their home.


We re-used the bath and sink but Roger added hand-made bath panels, stripped out the woodworm-infested cupboards and floorboards and I tackled the walls and ceiling with Easi-fill and paint


*Always get a survey even if you are a cash buyer and think you can see everything that needs doing. I simply asked a surveyor to go round and see if there were any major issues that I hadn’t spotted – like subsidence.

*Get estimates as soon as possible and then plan a schedule of work, but be prepared to re-jig it. I had all the workmen carefully planned in to follow each other but the disastrous overlap came after the gas leak, which stopped one contractor halfway through.

*If it’s a major renovation make sure you keep the property as clear as you can. I took delivery of a huge, long worktop I’d bought on eBay but it was a nightmare for the plasterer to negotiate.

*Set a budget and then add a 15 to 20% contingency, at least. There are lots of expenses and the little things like curtain poles, door handles, TV points and new aerials add up.

*Do not under estimate how long it will take to source items and start looking the moment you agree to purchase the property. Paperwork is also time consuming and includes dealing with council tax and utility providers.

*Buy decent paint. Johnstone’s trade paint is brilliant and saves money and time. The coverage is great. I bought magnolia and white then mixed the two together. (cheaper than buying a colour like Jasmine White). If you are renovating to rent then it’s best to keep the decor neutral so your tenant can

*Stock up on comfort food. Wine and chocolate helped me through my darkest hours, along with swimming, which calmed me down and kept me sane.


4 thoughts on “How I played the renovation game and survived

  1. Liz Carnell

    Wow! Absolutely lovely. You should be doing this for a living. The fireplace is wonderful and the decor so stylish. We are thinking about redoing our kitchen ourselves, the lowest ‘professional’quote we had was £8,000 which seems ridiculous, even if it does include some appliances. I’ll be showing this to Himself to see if it helps to make his mind up. I won’t be doing any DIY, obviously, just being clerk of works. xx


    • Sharon Dale Post author

      Thanks Liz x It’s hard work but I enjoy it, as does Steph. Good luck with the kitchen. Roger fitted ours so we didn’t have to pay fitting costs but if you find a good fitter/joiner/handyman and buy the units yourself you will cut costs. Another option is Ikea’s Varde range – I have it my own kitchen via eBay. Fab freestanding units, really solid. Good luck


  2. Helen & Ron in hospital

    Great work Sharon dad and I loved reading and looking at the photos, Rog showed mum on Saturday we think you’ve all done great job could you come and renovate our houses…. Ho ho!
    Love Helen and dad xx


    • Sharon Dale Post author

      Hello Helen and Ron, it was hard work and thank goodness for Roger. Love to you both and hope you are feeling better, Ron.


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