How to renovate a house: an expert guide

Planning a home renovation project for the first time – or after a long gap? Follow these practical steps before starting your renovation project to ensure it runs safely, smoothly and to budget

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Breathing new life into an old home, rescuing a period gem from ruin or simply renovating a neglected house on a budget can be incredibly rewarding. However, before enthusiasm gets the better of you, make sure you have prepared for the renovation in advance. It will make the whole process run more smoothly and help you budget for the cost of your renovation more accurately. Follow our house renovation checklist for everything you need to do before and after work starts.

Check for renovation restrictions

It should have been made apparent to you at the point of sale if your home is listed, but if you are unsure, you must check, as it is a criminal offence to carry out unauthorised work to a listed home. Many buildings built around 1840 or earlier are likely to be listed — and over half a million in the UK are. You can check if your home is listed at British Listed Buildings and if it is, you will need to gain Listed Building Consent for alterations. Even painting a listed home with plastic paint or using gypsum plasters is unauthorised, so always check before you start work.

A home located in a Conservation Area has another protective status that can affect work to it. Restrictions in Conservation Areas generally affect only the exterior of the property as the intention is to ‘preserve or enhance the character or appearance’ of an area, but your permitted development rights (works that you can usually do without planning permission) will be affected, meaning you may require planning consent for works that are authorised elsewhere.

Find the best contractors for your renovation

Use recommendations from family and friends to help find an architect, builder and, if needed, a project manager – unless you are planning to be the renovation's project manager yourself.

‘You have to feel comfortable and confident in the skills of everyone working on your site,’ says expert renovator Michael Holmes. ‘If you’re buying a renovation project, it’s worth taking an expert, such as a builder or architect, with you on a viewing to get an idea of costs, which you can then reflect in the offer you make.’

Get the right insurance for your renovation

Few would forget to insure their property and its contents, but many are unaware that home contents or buildings insurance may not cover for extensive building work. If you carry out alterations without addressing this, you might find your policy is voided and claiming against it impossible should anything go wrong. It is also worth noting that standard insurance policies only cover an inhabited house, so if you plan to move out while the work is carried out, make sure your insurance company knows. The best thing to do is to take out specialist renovations insurance. The level required will depend on the works carried out.

Check that your main contractor has site insurance. If you are hiring subcontractors (and thus taking the role of main contractor), you will need to sort site insurance yourself to be covered for public liability, employer’s liability, legal expenses and damages on site. If the unthinkable happens, not being insured will have a major impact on your project.

Protect the building site from theft

Simply insuring a home while it is being renovated is not enough — you must ensure the property is adequately protected against break-ins, too. If the property is empty, don’t be mistaken in thinking there is nothing worth taking: pipes, wiring and architectural salvage can all be stolen or vandalised.

Windows and doors on period properties are prone to rot and may not offer the protection your home needs. Even if you plan to replace them eventually, take the time to add locks for the immediate term. It is not wasted money when you consider how much you could lose if the house were broken into. When you do come to replace windows, make sure they are adequately boarded up in between the old being removed and the new ones put in.

Assess the building’s condition and stabilise it

The first stage of any renovation project is to get a detailed assessment of the current condition of the property. ‘It’s really important to know what problems you are up against,’ says Hugo Tugman, founder of Architect Your Home. ‘Invest in a measured survey of the building to give you accurate plans, and a condition survey that will report on issues such as damp, infestation or subsidence.’

Any building left empty for more than a few months will inevitably start to deteriorate. While you finalise your plans, ensure the building is weather tight by covering up missing doors, windows and sections of roof. You may also need to put urgent temporary structural stabilisation in place; this might mean steel ties to stop lateral spread in walls or a roof, or scaffolding to prevent further collapse.

To find experts to conduct the surveys, consult the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors.

Work out the cost of your house renovation

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Before taking on the property, you should thoroughly cost out the renovation to check that the project is financially viable, but once you have taken possession, have a good look around and properly assess the extent of the works, so you can get a detailed financial schedule in place. 

Some mortgage lenders will help you fund your renovation project and offer the money in staged payments. If you are going down this route, find out what those stages are and work out by when you will have each step of the renovation finished.

In other cases, you need to be realistic about what work you can afford to do and when. If the property is not in a habitable state, your first priority should be to make it safe and dry, with hot water and heating, so that you can move in — especially if you are spending money to live elsewhere while the work goes on. Avoid moving in until major works are out of the way, but you can live among cosmetic alterations as long as you have finished rooms in which to cook, wash and sleep.

Property developer and TV presenter Sarah Beeny says it’s crucial to decide exactly how much you have to spend. ‘Rule number one is make a budget and stick to it,’ she says. Work out costs for each room, factoring in everything from structural work, such as underpinning, to finishing touches, then add it all up to see if you can afford it. 

If a contractor is helping you with your project they have to give you a clear quote, which will help you with your budget. It is advisable, however, to have a contingency of 10–20 per cent to allow for the unexpected expenses that can arise when renovating older homes. You will also need to create a separate budget for decorating and furnishing the home once structural work is completed.

Conduct a bat survey

Bats love the dark, quiet nooks and crannies in old homes — even more so if those homes have been left uninhabited for some time. It is a criminal offence to harm bats or disturb them when roosting, so conduct a bat survey and find out if you need to take special measures with your project. 

Bat surveys can be expensive, but the fines imposed for not taking the precautions and disturbing bats are higher, so do your research well in advance as conducting a survey too late could hold up works. 

Write a schedule of works

Be clear on the steps you will need take to renovate the property before you make a start, and prioritise works that stop further decay or stabilise the structure. You might find that works in one room impact on those in another (especially where plumbing and wiring are involved), so have a clear vision for the whole house and prepare a schedule of works listing the order of jobs – so for instance, re-wiring is completed before walls are replastered.

If you are carrying out major structural work, or adding an extension, consult the appropriate professionals first, as there may be implications you are unaware of.

For example, converting the loft might seem like a job isolated from the ground floor of the house, but adding an additional habitable floor carries building regulations demands and might require fire doors, a sprinkler system and mains powered alarms. You need to be aware of these issues early on as they will affect the budget, and also the aesthetics of your property.

Research period features and safeguard them

Over the years, many period homes have been stripped of the things that make them charming. Beams are covered up, beautiful original windows replaced with uPVC and original fireplaces swapped for electric alternatives. It is sad to see homes that have lost all of their character, but before you go about ‘restoring’ period features, remember it can be equally damaging to a home’s heritage to install what would not have been there in the first place — so do some research.

Get to know your home, the age it was built in, and the kind of people who would have lived there — the average workers’ terraces would not have had the regalia of a Georgian townhouse, so don’t shoehorn in ornate plaster mouldings and intricately carved fireplaces. The best approach is to repair existing features, make the house dry and safe, and undo any well intentioned mistakes that could affect the condition of the building (such as breathable stone walls covered in impermeable waterproof coatings that cause damp).

Create a design for your renovation

It’s worth taking your time to perfect the design and ensure the finished property will meet your needs. Think about how the changes will work with the original building – do you want any extensions to blend in with the existing property? Do you want to restore its original appearance, or dramatically transform your home's exterior? Ask yourself what you are hoping to achieve, then consult with an architectural designer to look at all of the possibilities.

Think carefully about room placement, too. ‘Focus on introducing natural light, which has the power to transform and uplift any space,’ says Sarah Beeny. ‘Wherever possible, arrange rooms so you spend the majority of your time where the light is. It’s also worth considering the view – a good one can go a long way.’

Apply for planning consents

Once you have your plans, you must identify which aspects of your proposed renovation require statutory consent.

‘Make sure that you understand the different consents that you will need to address,’ advises architect Hugo Tugman. ‘Do you have permission to use the building as a dwelling, or will you need consent for a material change of use? Is it a listed building, is it in a Conservation Area, do you even need planning permission? Even if you don’t, you will almost certainly have to comply with building regulations and you might need a party wall agreement with neighbours. An architect can guide you through this minefield.’

If you want to start work immediately, check with your local authority and take on projects that are classed as permitted development (PD), such as converting an existing garage or roof space. If you do need statutory consents for all or part of your proposed works, factor in the amount of time required to determine the application. Planning decisions are supposed to take eight weeks and a full building regulations application five to six weeks.

Brief your neighbours

Living next door to a building site can be almost as stressful as living in one. Remember that you have a vested interest in the work being carried out that your neighbours do not, so being considerate takes the edge of any inconveniences.

Make sure your builders know about things like shared entryways and communal areas so that they don’t leave them messy or obstructed. You should also warn your neighbours about large delivery vehicles and excessive noise. Some people may be anxious about having lots of strangers working near their property, so introducing them to your team is a good way to put their minds at ease.

Make the site safe, then clear it

‘Making the site safe and secure is your next priority, followed by any clearance or demolition work,’ says Michael Holmes. ‘Health and safety is the responsibility of the building owner, so a risk assessment and method statement for demolition, which includes dealing with hazardous waste, is essential. A hazardous waste survey is also necessary to look for asbestos and other risks. 

‘It’s important not to rush into demolition,’ says Hugo Tugman. ‘I’ve seen people fall foul of listed building consent by stripping out internal fabric they thought was unimportant only to find they have undertaken a criminal act. Take care that services such as gas and electricity are safely capped off before work starts.’ 

When it comes to getting rid of rubbish, don’t put everything in the skip — not only is that environmentally unfriendly, but you might miss out on making money from unwanted fixtures and fittings. A salvage yard may agree to pay for old materials and include removal as part of the deal. Items usually fit into four categories: salvage, sell, charity, or tip.

  • Salvage anything that you can use such as old sanitaryware, which can be cleaned up and re-enamelled if need be.
  • Sell things that are in good condition, but not needed — salvage yards will take anything from old windows to spare roof tiles.
  • Take things that can be used by someone else to the charity shop or an organisation helping people furnish their homes.
  • Only bin things that are damaged beyond repair. This reduces your skip costs and environmental impact.

Start major building renovation work

Any major building work can now take place, as the existing structure is stable and any hidden problems should already have been uncovered. Measures should be taken to protect any parts of the building that could be vulnerable to damage during the main construction stage, especially in listed buildings.

‘This part of the renovation usually starts with any groundworks, such as foundations and drainage,’ says Hugo Tugman. ‘Any new or modified structures, like extensions and conversions, can then be completed, walls, floors, roofs constructed, and openings for doors and windows formed.’

Damp-proof measures and new insulation will be incorporated at this stage and any existing damp issues can be sorted out. Always get an independent expert to take a look at any damp and advise on the right solution. Impermeable waterproofing may be ideal for modern homes, but can do more harm than good in a solid-walled period property. Often, the problem can be solved using non-invasive methods, such as improving ground drainage and ventilation or even just getting the heating back on.

Make the building weather tight

‘It’s important to swiftly get your property sufficiently weather tight because so many subsequent stages, such as plastering, electrics and joinery, need a dry building,’ says Michael Holmes.

‘Getting the roof coverings on, with all of the associated flashings and weather seals, is vital,’ adds Hugo Tugman. ‘Fitting doors and windows is also a huge step forward. Wrap them in temporary protection as the work continues.’ While the scaffold is up, it is a good idea to check chimney stacks and pots are stable and clear, and to replace or repair lead flashings, guttering, fascias, soffits, render and cladding.

Begin with the first fix

If you’re changing the internal layout of the property, this is the stage where stud walls will be built and staircases, door linings, window reveals and sills installed, ready for the plasterers to work up to.

Once this is completed, pipes and cables for hot and cold water, gas, electrics, phones, internet, and waste drainage will be installed into the floors, walls and ceilings. ‘Cables will be left sticking out in the right places for lights and power points, while pipes will be set in the right positions for basins, baths and toilets, which  will all be fitted later,’ explains Hugo Tugman. Underfloor heating is also an important first fix item and care must be taken to avoid damaging the pipes before the floors are laid over them.

Line the ceilings and lay the floor

The ceilings will now be boarded, bringing the cables through into position as per the lighting plan. Walls can be lined with plasterboard and floorboards or screed laid.

‘Walls and ceilings can then be plastered, and for the first time you’ll start to get a sense of the size of the rooms,’ says Hugo. Plaster and screed needs to dry out, which can take from two to six weeks. The longer it can be left, the less danger of moisture causing problems with second fix joinery and wooden floors.

Move on to the second fix

‘The second fix can be a very exciting stage, but can also be the most frustrating as it often seems to take an eternity,’ says Hugo Tugman. ‘This is where many of the items you will interact with in the house get installed. Kitchens, appliances and worktops, sanitaryware and taps in the bathrooms, lighting in the ceilings and power points in the walls will be fitted into position, connecting to the cables and pipes that were brought into the right places at the first fix stage.’ The boiler and heating system will also be activated.

Finish with the décor, flooring and tiling

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‘Where we had heavy and rough work at the earlier stages, now we have lighter, more precise work where care needs to be taken not to damage finishes and to install items level, straight and in-line,’ says Hugo Tugman. 

Staircases, skirting boards and wardrobes can be put in, floor finishes can be laid, tiles can be applied, and the decorating work can begin.

‘You can save money on expensive floor finishes by not installing it underneath kitchen units and islands, but it can prove a false economy if you later decide to change the layout,’ warns Michael Holmes. ‘Either way, skirting boards are always best fitted after hard floor finishes.’

The colour schemes you choose depends on whether this is a home for life or a project you plan to sell on in a few years. ‘I find it is best to stick to a quality, classic design over passing interior trends – less is definitely more,’ says Sarah Beeny. 

‘Think longevity when choosing a design. If you’re creating your own home, luxury items can always be addressed at a later date, so look at creating a strong canvas to build upon over the coming years.’

Tidy up

Unless you have hired a project manager who oversees all the subcontractors, it will fall on you to make sure the site is tidy at the end of the day. Each individual trade will do what they can to keep their work area tidy, but it is inevitable that there will be a certain amount of shared mess that nobody takes responsibility for. Sweep up and have a quick tidy at the end of each day to make sure that tradespeople who come in to start new jobs the following day aren’t held up.

Don't forget your builders

You need to make sure you cater for the needs of your builders. Tell them where they can safely park, provide somewhere for them to take breaks and hire a portaloo. They key to a healthy relationship with your builders is having separation between their building site and your ‘home’, so keep welfare facilities apart if you can.

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