Diary Of An Accidental Renovator.
Climbing the property ladder and essentially creating a pension pot in your spare time is no mean feat. It’s something we have done almost by accident over the last 23 years. Our life has somehow steered us towards having to move relatively often due to work commitments, or things like a global pandemic! Inadvertently, we have always chosen houses that needed lots of work. Over the years we have honed our skills and learnt many new ones along the way. Our biggest project so far was turning a run-of-the-mill 1920s box into a New England style weatherboard dream house. In this, the final part of this series, I tell you all about that renovation and give you a few more hints and tips for how to make money from property.
Buy The Ugly House!
If there is one thing I would recommend if you are thinking about renovating property, it would be to always buy the house that no one else wants. Buy the property that no one can see the potential in, or that most people think is too much work. We have done exactly that almost every time. Our friends and family have often thought we were completely insane when we showed them the house we were going to buy.
That’s exactly what happened when we first took two of our friends to see the boring 1920’s box in The Surrey Hills. Even I didn’t want to view it originally, Mr C forced me to go along. It was in the middle of nowhere on a street I wasn’t overly keen on. However, it was close to quite a few beautiful big houses, which was a good sign and also, all the houses on the street were different, so it would be easy to transform ours into whatever we wanted – or so we thought!
How It All Began…
My Love of weatherboard houses all started when I was a young teenager. Channel 4 (we only had four channels in the U.K then) started airing a new television production of Anne of Green Gables. It starred the forever fabulous Megan Followes as Anne and the late Jonathan Crombie as the dreamy Gilbert Blythe.
Both characters and actors had me in a spin as I think I was going through a phase of trying not to be gay. Finding the telephone number for Megan Followes agent and trekking to a phone box to see if I could speak to her and tell her how much I loved her was maybe a little crazy! My recorded series on VHS tape was watched by me over and over. I adored Anne, but Gilbert had my heart. I dreamt of living on Prince Edward Island with him. Anne could live with us too if she so wished, but she’d have to have her own room, of course!
In my dreams we had a large white wooden weatherboard house with a wrap-around verandah and a seat-swing. We would sit there, Gilbert and I, sipping lemonade whilst we watched the sun go down. After many years have since passed and many a building project had taken its toll, I finally got my very own weatherboard home and I also got my Gilbert. We would sip a little more than lemonade watching the sunset though!
Ugly Duckling To Beautiful Swan
When we bought what would become the New England Dream, it looked nothing like the photograph you see above. It was a 1919 boring box that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Surbiton. Nearly all the lovely original features had been removed. It had a leaky conservatory and small dark windows, with no real connection with outside. Honestly, the only reason we bought it was because of the view, everything else you could change!
I hated the road it was on, the garden was an overgrown mountainous jungle. It really had very few redeeming features. In fact, the deal was that we would buy it, but that we would turn it into something completely different. I’m not sure if Mr C, my hubby, knew what I had in mind at the time, but it wasn’t long before I started to hatch my plan. We booked a trip to Massachusetts, one of my favourite states. In previous years we had already visited it many times along with Connecticut, Maine, Vermont and Rhode Island. The plan was to have a few days in Boston exploring the Gaslamp district and moseying along Newbury street and Quincey Market. After that it was a ferry ride over to Provincetown, one of our favourite haunts.
The main purpose of our trip was to recover from the awful stress we had endured trying to buy and sell at the same time. The English system for buying and selling property is appallingly bad and is notorious for ruining marriages! I was keen, however, to crack on with my research for the house. Mr C generally sunbathed, while I walked the streets taking photo after photo of wide and detail shots of every clapperboard house I could find. I even knocked on doors and asked whether I could take a look around, Americans can be most obliging, particularly once they hear a British accent.
Something that occurred to me was that all the windows were large and usually sash. They were also framed by a border of painted wood on both inside the house and out to accentuate the windows. This would be something that we would insist upon in our renovation. We chose a wonderful joinery, which unfortunately went into liquidation a few years back, which is such a dreadful shame as they were amazing! They worked with me to get every detail right.
The Details Matter!
Our architect Chris at Matchbox Architects designed the house with the windows as the focus, the eyes of the home, the bigger the better! It’s all about the light. Sadly, the lovely canopies over the tops of the windows you can see in the photos above were not going to be possible on the second storey due to the roof ridges, so putting them on the ground floor windows would have looked a little strange.
One of the things that you notice when walking around a bone fide New England home is that the joinery is very simple, particularly in the salt-box homes. In the U.K we would generally always mitre our corners so that they met on the diagonal. Over there things are much simpler with joins on the horizontal or vertical. This is something we copied and Mr C did a grand job on all of the internal windows!
I spent my days on the Cape studying verandahs, outdoor steps, cornicing, canopies, sills and roof lines. My mind became a sponge, soaking up every morsel of architectural detail I could. I was determined to get it just right. One thing you need to know about me is that when I say I’m going to do something, my god I do it! There’s no half measures with me.
Obviously not all New England homes are by the sea, but there is something synonymous with the two. The expanse of sky, the purity of light, the aqua-marine blue of the ocean, it’s all reflected in the whites and pastel tones of the architecture. Even the pillar box red barns seem at home against the white and blue, truly American I suppose. Of course, the style originated in England, hence New England. The chocolate box weatherboard cottages of Kent, Surrey and Sussex were the pilgrims inspiration, creating a feeling of home. They did it bigger and better though, adding the verandahs and balconies to suit the climate, larger windows to take in the views.
It’s something that we had to use when fighting for our planning permission. We were told the style was not in keeping with the Surrey vernacular. I promptly researched the area and found over fifteen buildings within two miles of us that were made of wood! The Parish Council objected to our plans and that started a huge drama with Guildford Borough Council that went on for years! We eventually had to take the council’s refusal decision to appeal with the Secretary Of State. After an incredibly stressful and expensive few months we won the appeal.
Buying a house specifically to turn into something else is a risk. What if you don’t get permission to do what you want? Our entire future rested on us getting planning permission, so we knew we had to fight to the death to get it. Taking a borough council on effectively in court is a scary thing. If you lose, then the chances are they will never give you planning permission for anything and the house will be hard to sell. We had no choice though and luckily for us it worked out. It meant though that from buying the house in August 2013, we were not able to start the renovations till February 2016!
Getting The Look Right
The Key to getting the weatherboard look right is to think about the entire house, inside and out. It’s not as easy as just adding some cladding. The windows need to be the right size – large! The architecture inside the house needs to match the outside too, otherwise it’s a huge disappointment when you get inside. You’ll need to think about porches, verandahs and balconys as well as the right outdoor light fittings, guttering and even the planting in the garden.
The main thing though is to get the cladding (weatherboard) right. We were advised to use a pre-painted fibre cement board called Marley Eternit. We went to visit a development back in the UK that had used it. As soon as I got up close I knew it wasn’t for us. The moulded wood effect was too uniform and I didn’t like the feel of it. I’ve seen it used to great effect on many developments, so please don’t be offended if you’ve used it, but I gotta like what I like!
There are various other companies that produce faux weatherboarding and a few in the U.K that do the real deal. I sent off for samples of everything under the sun. My main criteria was that it had to be pre-painted, as our climate isn’t the greatest at playing ball when you need it to be dry. It also had to be guaranteed and last a long time with little or no maintenance. After much research, the only company that fitted the bill were Cape Cod Cladding, made from Canadian lodge pine all the way from Canada!
We used a British distributor called Vincent Timber, who were absolutely amazing. The cladding comes in a huge range of colours and profiles. We chose the rebated bevel 6 inch in Heritage Gray and all the trims were in Rail White. The nails used to fix the cladding to the felt and battening were also pre-painted in colour-coded paint, so they disappear. Framing the entire house in white trim is quite an unusual step for a traditional New England style, but I had seen it done many times in historical Key West, where the houses have a very similar look, although slightly more ornate, particularly the verandah and canopy detailing. For our house though, the white trims would work beautifully and really make the house pop.
We visited an estate in Kent where they had used Cape Cod cladding. It had been built fourteen years earlier, so it was the perfect site to visit to see how the weather boards had held up over the years, don’t forget the paint warranty is for fifteen years. Mr C and I were so impressed! None of the houses showed signs of paint peeling or flaking. The colours had just faded. Some of the house owners had re-painted using the same paint from Cape Cod Cladding. I spoke to one such owner, who told me that re-painting the boards was a breeze. The paint just glided on with no need for sanding, so we knew at that moment that it was for us.
To get the style right you must do your homework. Know exactly what you want down to the tiniest of details. Employ an exceptionally good carpenter. Our guy was a true perfectionist. At times that was frustrating as we had a tight building schedule and the weather was turning. The cladding was finished just before Christmas 2016.
It’s important to remember that you will need to fit the windows further out from where they would usually be placed in a British brick-built home. The cladding has added bulk to the outside of the house. It works best if you push the windows out further to meet the cladding. This will also mean that you create a deeper reveal on the inside of the house, which is very in-keeping with the American style. It also allows you to have deeper window sills inside the house for all your gorgeous bits and bobs.
Some form of galvanised steel guttering is used in The States most of the time. We very much wanted to replicate this, so we used Lindab. It’s not inexpensive, but my god it looks the part. When attaching light fittings, or a door bell, in fact anything to the outside of the house once you have clad it is hard to do. It’s imperative that you think about where every single thing is going to go before you start cladding.
All the external wiring must be done and you must know precisely where every fitting is going to be located. This is because it’s almost impossible to fit anything onto the cladding itself as it is bevelled and lies on the diagonal. Therefore, you have to create little flat squares of painted wood, which will act as the base for attaching anything. There should be a hole in the centre of the square where your wiring pokes through. The light/doorbell etc can then be fitted onto the flat surface. You then claw around the square – see above.
This project nearly killed us, I’m not joking! After the planning nightmare from hell we then had the drama of our main contractor getting early onset dementia and ultimately running off owing us lots of money. After that Mr C was also made redundant. It was an incredibly stressful time. In the end though, all that happened actually saved us as it meant we had to do everything else ourselves (except the cladding). By taking up the reigns and finishing the job ourselves, we saved an absolute fortune and that ultimately helped the profit situation when we came to sell in 2020.
What does the future hold? Well, if you follow me on Instagram, then you will know that we bought a deckhouse on the coast, which we are currently renovating. We are also in the process of buying an incredibly beautiful Victorian townhouse, that will become our new home. I’m hoping to be able to show you all in the next few weeks. It’s huge and has astonishing original features throughout. It is a fixer-upper, but not to the extent of the New England house. It’ll be a calm renovation that we can do whenever we want as it’s perfectly liveable right now.
So, that’s it for now, thanks so much for reading. I hope its been interesting and if you’re thinking of doing a similar New England style project, I hope its helped a little. I’m off now to sip lemonade (honest) with my Gilbert on the verandah (of the deckhouse). Bottoms up!