Common home renovation mistakes

Johannes van Graan Johannes van Graan
Fulham, London - rear extension, loft conversion and entire house renovation including inserting swimming pool Zebra Property Group
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Sometimes acquiring that dream home involves a bit more than going on weekend drives with estate agents to show you what’s available. A lot of forever-homes are because of old properties undergoing major facelifts to provide their owners with a more stylish and functional lifestyle. 

Yes, renovating a property can be a great way to get the house of your dreams, or fix it up and allow someone else to get their dream home. But the physical process of renovating a property is far from a dream – in fact, it can be quite a nightmare for the unwary.

So, to ensure you sidestep the myriad of minefields awaiting the unprepared, have a look at some of the most common home renovation errors, and how you can avoid them.

1. Taking on the wrong project

Regardless of your clean-as-a-whistle track record with building projects, renovating is a stressful and time-consuming process. Thus, unless a project is guaranteed to give you either your dream home or make you money, you are taking on the wrong property.

Assess the property’s potential and have a clear idea of your goals (will you create a long-term home for yourself, climb the housing ladder, etc?).

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.

2. Buying without a survey

Don’t wait to be surprised by damp, rot and other major structural defects. 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, 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.

3. Hiring cowboy builders

Renovations are hard enough without adding in builders or subcontractors who don’t 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.

Ensure that your builder is confident of undertaking the required work, understands the job and what is involved, and will provide details of previous clients.

Ask their previous clients what it was like to work with the builder, if the project was completed on time/budget, and if they would use them again.

4. Underestimating costs

home renovation project will always cost more than what one usually expects. 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.

Get a builder’s estimate, which is a professional 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.

Draw up your own budget by listing all tasks, the required materials and who will be doing the work. 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.

5. Ignoring rules and regulations

There is no point in ignoring the requirements of the law, as it will eventually catch up with you. Thus, never 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.

6. Using the wrong materials

The use of modern impermeable materials can create all sorts of problems in period houses constructed using traditional materials, leading to damp that can result in damage to the structure. So:  

• Avoid replacing soft lime mortars with hard cement mixes when re-pointing. 

• Do not use waterproof paint or sealant on a traditional solid-walled building. 

• Ensure materials are visually sympathetic. Avoid stone cladding, pebbledash, roughcast or PVCu on a period building.

7. Scrimping on design

A good design scheme can transform a property and its value, which makes it worth every penny. Poor design, or no design at all, can cause the following problems: 

• 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.

8. Taking the wrong energy-saving measures

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.

9. Creating new damp problems

Solving damp is one of the most crucial tasks for any renovator. However, sometimes well-intended improvements can inadvertently create new damp problems. Here are some of the common causes: 

• Raising external ground levels above the damp-proof 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. 

• 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.

10. Taking on too much DIY

Undertaking work yourself can allow you to control costs and quality, but don’t be overambitious and plan to do more work than you really have time (or the skill) to undertake successfully.

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.

11. 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. 

• Stabilise the building: Make the site safe to work on.  

• Strip back and salvage what can be reused: Private individuals can get rid of waste for free at local authority tips. 

• Undertake major building work: Build or replace any floors, walls, roofs or extensions. 

• 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.  

• 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.

12. Making unsafe structural alterations

Doncaster Kitchen Remodeling Project, UK Botico Kitchen

Removing structural elements (such as load-bearing walls or columns) can 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.

13. Living on site during the major work

Being close to the action can offer many advantages such as improved security and being on hand for weekend or after-hours deliveries. The downside, however, is that the project is always there and you cannot escape it, which can become oppressive. 

Therefore, 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 this proves to be impossible, 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.

14. Leaving builders to make decisions

Renovating involves making countless decisions, many of which need to be made quickly in order not to hold up any work. If you leave such decisions to builders, they will invariably do whatever is easiest and quickest for them, which can look awful. 

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.

15. 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 on selling, an incomplete garden can have a serious impact on resale value, regardless of how nicely the property is renovated.

16. 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 touches and finishes. 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 under-spend or have budgeted for high-quality finishes, then no problem. However, do not end up running out of money needed to pay for work or forthcoming bills.

17. 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, then ensure that the appropriate rate is charged.

If your renovation project is a conversion or the renovation of a dwelling that has been empty for 10 years or more, then it is largely zero-rated 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. 

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. 

Now, let’s have a look at: What you MUST know before renovating your kitchen.

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