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Properties in need of renovation can be an affordable choice, but quite how much will be based on your current skills and budget. What can you do yourself, and what should you leave to the pros?
As first-time buyers, PR manager Robyn Morrison and her fiance had a choice to make. Should they find a one-bedroom flat they could move straight into but would outgrow quickly, or a bigger house that needed a lot of work? The latter was a daunting project for the DIY novices and, watching water pour through the kitchen ceiling a few months later, Morrison admits wondering if they’d made the right choice.
“Living in rented accommodation, we’d never even put up a picture on a wall,” she says. “The closest we’d got [to DIY] was putting together Ikea furniture, and even that was hard work. I went into [the project] slightly with rose-tinted glasses, thinking all [the house] needed was a lick of paint and a new carpet. Actually there was quite a bit more.”
Despite criticism that under-35s don’t have basic DIY skills, such as changing a lightbulb, fitting a toilet seat or putting up wallpaper, we’re still a nation of DIY enthusiasts as a whole. According to ONS, alterations and improvements to homes account for 14% of total housing costs on average and, driven by rising property prices and the cost of stamp duty, approximately 63% of homeownerswould rather opt to improve their existing home.
Michael Holmes, author of Renovating for Profit and property spokesperson for the Northern Homebuilding & Renovation Show, says homebuyers are still willing to take on renovation projects, but “as to whether they’re keen to do the work themselves, I think there’s less DIY happening than a generation ago. I think we massively underestimate our capabilities. Contrary to what people might tell you, there is nothing in your house that you cannot [legally] do on a DIY basis if you are a competent person.”
Holmes says buyers should be looking for “the worst house you can find on the best street you can afford” and consult a builder or structural engineer when putting a renovation budget together – although project managing the process yourself (ordering materials, liaising with the relevant trades and generally moving the project along) could save you 15-20% of the total cost. Space, layout and functionality will be highly prized by future buyers, as well as a well-designed kitchen and bathroom if they need replacing. Most importantly, he adds: “Leave money in the budget to make structural repairs, and to make sure [the property] is warm, dry and weather tight.”
A home renovation done well can increase a property’s value between 5% and 30%, depending on the overall finish, says Sarah Beeny, TV presenter and founder of estate agent Tepilo. But a botched job can have the opposite effect.
“My heart sinks when we get people who put their properties on the market where there’s some clear DIY errors, like trying to cover over cracks with woodchip wallpaper and paint. My advice would be to leave the bigger jobs to professionals. And do everything in the right order – for example, make sure your wiring and plumbing are sound before spending hours decorating.”
She remembers her first renovation project with her brother and boyfriend, which cost £5,000. “We literally did everything ourselves … [but] you learn quickly when you have to. Every time something doesn’t quite go according to plan, you make sure it goes more smoothly the next time.”Research and practice are key for any DIY project, Mike Edwards, tradesman and founder of DIY Doctor, says. He started the website 20 years ago after more of his clients asked if they could save money by doing work themselves. The site now gets 1 million visitors a month. He believes there is still an appetite for DIY among homeowners, some of which has been caused by cowboy builders. DIY Doctor surveyed 2,000 of its users two years ago and found 26% would rather do a job themselves because they believed they could do it better than the last guy they employed. Unqualified builders are costing British homeowners an estimated £1.9bn a year, according to the government’s TrustMark scheme.
“We run a building company alongside DIY Doctor and I would say 85% of our income comes from jobs we have to go in and put right,” Edwards says. “That’s 50/50 between cowboy builders having worked for them or them having done it themselves.
“Anything you’re doing at home, don’t just go and get the tools and start drilling and hammering and banging. We have so many people who want to take the wall out between their kitchen and dining room and then they’re wondering why their bed is in their lounge. It’s not as easy as the pros make it look – they’ve been practising for years.”
On finding the right builder, Edwards has written a free desired outcomes contract for homeowners to go through with tradesmen before work starts: “If they’re not genuine, you won’t see them again after page three,” he says. He also advocates getting two or three references for similar jobs (such as other bathrooms if you need a bathroom fitted), asking to inspect past work and talking to clients about what the builder was like to work with. You should always ask to see a public liability insurance certificate and call the broker to check the policy is still valid, he adds.
Morrison and her partner spent three years and £20,000 renovating their house in Cheltenham. They did most of the work themselves, including knocking a doorway through a stud wall that a builder had quoted £2,000 to do, pulling up carpets and adding a false ceiling to hide the new wiring and plumbing, and now have a garage full of tools. But they sought professional help for the plastering, kitchen and bathroom fitting, the electrics and plumbing.
“Now the house is eventually complete, you forget the months spent among chaos and dust,” she says, when asked if she’d do it again. “But we’ve been able to create the home we’ve always wanted … [and] we’ve learned all sorts of new skills along the way. If I’d known [how big a project it was going to be], I don’t think I would’ve taken it on, but I’m so glad we did.”
It’s a sentiment Beeny thinks will encourage more homebuyers to have a go at DIY. “I think the tide is turning again, partly to do with the increasing cost of living, but also because people are starting to want to carry out tasks that give them a great sense of achievement. The truth is, there is nothing more satisfying than creating something with your own hands and standing back and looking at it. Earning all the money in the world and paying someone else to do it will never ever make you feel as good.”