How to Survive a Renovation


‘Don’t touch it with a barge pole’ and ‘put it back on the market even if you lose money’ were the words the first architect uttered. That was the first architect. The second was much more obliging. So we set to work to overcome all the obstacles associated with a renovation not to mention a global pandemic and a materials shortage.

Worried faces from my family and friends were the order of the day when I purchased The Little Dorset Cottage, via online auction in 2019. The Little Dorset Cottage, a crumbling terraced, Grade II listed part Georgian, part Victorian house slowly edging further and further into the street.

My friends Pat and Janet opposite told me ‘oh yes dear, you see that crack, that gets bigger each year’.

I’d never been to an auction, I’d only ever seen the house twice and I didn’t have a survey. What could it possibly tell me that I didn’t already know? I could already see there was a hole through the attic ceiling, the floorboards were rotten, the sash windows needed refurbishing and there was woodworm. And grime. So. Much. Grime.

However, whilst we had the pleasure of removing mummified rodents from the shed (ever so slightly less glamorous than when my father found an actual mummified cat complete with bandages in a chimney in our childhood home), it was reassuring to know that the previous owner had followed an old wives tale and placed a conker or two in each room to ward off spiders. Small mercies.

My brother and I grew up in a house that was a doer-upper. I have memories of lifting the floorboards in the bathroom to look down into the kitchen to see what was for supper. Weekends my parents would open a bottle of champagne and smash through a 1950s fireplace only to find another inglenook. Holidays were spent helping; the words ‘could you just hold this bin-bag a minute’ still have me recoil in horror to this day!

So I know what it is like to go to a dinner party thrown by friends of my parents just so that we could have a hot bath and to live off fish and chips for longer than is recommended.

But this time I did it differently.

Fortunately my daughter and I were lucky enough to be able to stay with my parents during the course of the renovation. Yes, we did want to kill each other at times. It also happened to be the very first lockdown. And it turned out to be a blessing. My parents, being retired teachers were on hand for home schooling and I shopped for groceries, not to mention plaster, paving and ‘2be1’, so that my parents could shield.

The Little Dorset Cottage is my third renovation, so over the years I have learnt a thing or two about damage limitation. And how to manage expectations.

My Tips for Surviving a Renovation

Know your budget

You have to ask yourself ‘is this a renovate-and-go or my home of dreams?’. Asking yourself these questions makes it easier to decide how much money you want to or indeed can, spend on the property.

If you are renovating to sell perhaps rethink those gold taps and floor to ceiling fabric walling. If it is your dream home, invest in excellent finishes and long lasting design. A beautiful kitchen (I used Howdens, reasonable, versatile and in the last 5 years have really broadened their range) and stunning bathrooms (Nicholas Walton Design Ltd made my bespoke vanity units) will ensure happiness all round.

Naturally, years of running an interior design business has taught me this, when renovating the Little Dorset Cottage I kept a record of every single expenditure right down to masking tape. I used the software Esti (on which I Iecture), to enter all my estimates, quotes and supplier invoices. This meant I knew exactly what I had spent. I could also see how much I’d spent on different categories like bathrooms, building works, paint etc. This made it really easy to work out what was left of the budget for each room and overall.

Mood Boards and Design Planning

It is essential to have a plan for the design aesthetic of each room before you begin. Make a list of what is really important to you. Brass taps, underfloor heating, wallpaper in the bathrooms, whatever it may be. Collect photos, cut out inspiration from magazines and source items online taking screenshots of objects you like. This is not a worthless, indulgent exercise. This will also help to inform your budget and encourage your design to stay en pointe.

Knowing your ‘look’ will mean the property will flow aesthetically between each room. Take photos of existing furniture and build up a document of all the items including sanitary ware and kitchen units.

I am hugely inspired by French interiors and on buying the Little Dorset Cottage I knew I wanted to bring a little bit of Provence to Dorset. With limited travel it was especially important to me to create this feel in my own home. I sourced from French websites and osmosed books on France (Madame de Pompadour by Nancy Mitford being one). Perfect French Country by Ros Byam Shaw (published by Ryland Peters & Small) was my reference and inspiration. I also looked at Country Houses of France by Barbara & René Stoeltie (published by Tashcen) and Period Details by Judith Miller (published by Mitchell Beazley). All fantastic reference books for beautiful finishes and unique style.

Manage Expectations

It’s going to take longer, it’s going to be far dustier and it’s going to cost more than you imagined. You may at times wonder why you ever bought the place but rest assured ‘this too shall pass’. Renovating your own home takes guts and elbow grease. If you can live somewhere else like we did then it will prevent further grey hairs. However that is not possible for all. My old school friend Fiona Mackenzie Johnston (@victorianwreckbythesea) is currently living in and renovating her own Victorian wreck. Looking back I am quite envious to see her journey through the damp, the woodworm and frankly the oddities that previous owners have left behind. The things we discovered on our renovation journey were thrilling. Like, for example the Victorian, possibly Georgian postal sacks that swathed the under-stairs with ‘Shaftesbury to Basingstoke’ emblazoned on them; the original cast iron range we stumbled upon behind yet another piece of chipboard; the Georgian handmade nails holding the house together and the oh so many glass medicine bottles and pieces of pottery in the garden.

Your builder

Finally find a builder you trust and who speaks your design language. I am fortunate enough to have worked with my builder for over 15 years. He gets it. And this is super important. Choose a builder that has come recommended. Often the best builders don’t have a website (or in the case of my builder, no email or WhatsApp!). But word of mouth is everything and for rural renovations often the local pub can let you know a few names! So whether you are renovating to sell on or doing up your dream house remember there will be tough times. Times where you need to gulp, breathe deep and carry on knowing that your gut instinct was right all along. And that sometimes just sometimes you need to throw away that barge pole.