Q&A: How to renovate a Victorian property

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If you’re about to buy, renovate or extend a period home, use this guide to find out what’s possible with layout, design and decorating ideas.

Victorian homes are much loved for their attractive façades, elegant proportions and architectural detail. The 2012-2013 English Housing Survey (published in February 2014) shows that pre-1919 properties account for 19.7 per cent of housing stock, and, according to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), there are four million Victorian and Edwardian houses in the UK.

The houses left in towns and cities today include those in terraces – near the industries that created the new employment of the era – larger versions with more ornamental features, and bigger, semi-detached and detached properties that would have had room for staff as well as the resident family.

The new railways allowed for the transportation of building materials, such as roof slates and bricks, while plate glass manufacture meant larger panes were used in sash windows, so homes became more standardised. However, the era saw varied styles of architecture emerge, with diverse features and decorative embellishment.

So what are the changes to consider in order to create an up-to-date layout? ‘Whether your property is a detached, double-fronted villa or a more modest terraced house, there are two main differences between housing needs then and today: technological advances and social, cultural change,’ says Hugo Tugman, co-founder of architectural services company Architect Your Home.

‘Original Victorian houses relied on open fireplaces in every room, which led to large, complex chimney stacks. There was little insulation, no double-glazing, and artificial lighting was relatively primitive. Water for bathing and washing was heated over a fire.

‘Socially and culturally, times were also very different in the way that houses were used. Rooms tended to be self-contained, with only certain rooms given “presentation” status where guests might be welcomed and, due to the heating challenges, windows were relatively small or had heavy curtaining with doors kept closed.

‘Today, we not only have the technology to allow more open space, but social barriers have been broken down. We regularly open up separated rooms into zoned living and dining spaces, which reflects that informality. More importance is given to luxury in kitchens and bathrooms, while families cook for themselves, celebrating rather than hiding the process.’

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I’d like a contemporary extension for my Victorian home. What features should I include, and how do I ensure they work with its architecture?

‘Bi-fold doors will give a contemporary feel with the large expanse of glass,’ says Neil Ginger, CEO at manufacturer Origin. ‘They’ll create a light-filled, seamless transition between garden and home. ‘For existing architecture, aluminium bi-fold doors offer both strength and weight, allowing for slim, aesthetically pleasing frames. Stick to muted shades of cream, dusky greens and blues in keeping with a period property, with powder-coated aluminium doors offering a range of colours to blend in or match.

‘Bi-fold doors are available in two-door options through to large eight-door configurations that can open up the side of a house.’

What are the challenges of refurbishing a Victorian house?

‘People sometimes carry out misguided “improvements” that turn out to be damaging,’ says Ian Rock of Rightsurvey.co.uk, and author of the Haynes Victorian House Manual. ‘Avoid ripping out original features such as fireplaces, cornices and sash windows. Worst of all, covering old brick or stonework with artificial stone cladding can instantly knock thousands off the value.

‘It’s not unusual for Victorian houses to have the odd damp patch or boreholes in floorboards from woodbeetle. The main worry with damp in the walls is that nearby timber floors could be at risk of rot. But there’s a lot of hype about “rising damp” – the solution is to fix any leaking pipes and gutters, worn windowsills, and excessive indoor condensation. Also, make sure the outside ground levels are at least 200mm below the internal floor, and that there’s a good air flow under the ground floor via air bricks in the main walls. ‘With shallow foundations, old buildings tend to move as the seasons change; as modern cement and plasters are brittle and rigid, they’re prone to cracking, so use traditional lime-based materials that are more flexible, and salvage and reuse Victorian materials where you can.’

I’m planning major renovations on a Victorian home I’ve viewed. What do I need to check before I buy?

‘If you’re thinking of extending, it is important that you are clear what the boundaries of the property you want to buy are,’ says Sarah Slade, senior residential property executive at solicitors Barlow Robbins. ‘This can be checked against the title plan. Consider whether any adjoining walls are party walls, as if you are proposing major structural work to a terraced or semi-detached property, you may need to enter into a party wall agreement, so seek a surveyor’s advice.

‘Ask your solicitor to check the title as there may be restrictive covenants that prevent you from extending or changing the physical appearance of the property without the consent of another party. The searches can also reveal entries such as any restrictions on planning, whether the property is within a Conservation Area, and if any drains and sewers exist within the boundary that may need a “building-over” agreement or other consent from the water company, were you to erect an extension over the drains.’

How do I maximise the resale value of a Victorian property?

‘The best way is by remedying any obvious drawbacks, such as enlarging a tiny kitchen, providing off-street parking, or fitting modern heating, electrics, kitchens and bathrooms,’ says Ian Rock. ‘But low-cost improvements can also add value, such as stripping pine floorboards and restoring sash widows and doors. Double glazing doesn’t actually add much value, so it’s normally better to overhaul the original windows.

‘Most Victorian houses have spacious roofs that are ideal for loft conversions, or a new kitchen-diner can be created by building a small extension to fill in the side return. Old ground-floor bathrooms aren’t ideal, but sacrificing a bedroom to install a new one upstairs is not advisable, as the number of bedrooms is a key factor in determining the market value of a property.’

I’d like to reinstate some of the original features in my Victorian home. What’s the best way of going about this?

A ‘Source features from antiques and salvage dealers – and search in skips,’ says LASSCO Ropewalk reclamation yard manager Nick Newman. ‘If you’re lucky, you will find original features in salvage yards, or might find reproductions from fireplace shops or DIY stores. A good timber merchant will have authentic mouldings, or you could commission something from a tradesperson. Study and observe – join the Victorian Society, visit Victorian houses, and look at neighbours’ houses that are undisturbed originals.

‘Use old rugs and carpets on pine floorboards, and preserve and retain your old flooring. You can “spline” the gaps in your old boards or, if necessary, patch in with authentic material. If your original pine boards have gone, a salvage yard will supply replacements.

‘By doing things properly, you can only enhance your home’s monetary value – and give yourself the satisfaction of knowing you have augmented its cultural value.’

What costs am I likely to incur if I undertake major work on a Victorian house?

’The specification will affect costs,’ says experienced home renovator Michael Holmes. ‘Although the cost of many of the construction elements doesn’t vary based on quality, the cost of joinery, flooring and fittings does. Character bricks cost £1,020 to £1,140 per 1,000, compared to stock bricks at £420 per 1,000. Welsh roof slates can cost £95 per square metre against £24 per square metre for modern large-format concrete interlocking tiles. Decorative roof details will also add to the labour and materials costs. And if you have windows that need replacing, you’ll need to get a quote from a joinery supplier for bespoke designs.

‘Standard ceiling finishes cost around £20 to £24 per square metre, but if you’re adding decorative coving, ceiling roses and other decorative plasterwork, you will need to budget for extra.

‘A radiator system with gas boiler and basic controls costs around £22 to £28 per square metre, while you’ll need to allow £36 to £48 per square metre for underfloor heating. If you’re extending a Victorian property or converting a loft, use these tables to get an idea of finished cost per square metre (£/m2). Because this is renovation work, VAT at 20 per cent has been included:

Single-storey extension

  • Basic quality: £1,380 to £1,680
  • Good quality: £1,680 to £1,920
  • Excellent quality: £1,920 to £2,160

Two-storey extension

  • Basic quality: £1,320 to £1,620
  • Good quality: £1,620 to £1,860
  • Excellent quality: £1,860 to £2,100

Loft conversion 

  • Simple rooflight loft conversion: £1,200 to £1,500 
  • Dormer conversion: £1,440 to £1,680
  • Hip to gable or mansard conversion: £1,680 to £2,400’

Image above: A modern glass extension makes a statement on a period home. View more case studies.