Diary Of An Accidental Renovator
I’m so happy there has been such a huge response to this blog series. It’s a bit of a labour of love to write and truly feels like I’m writing my memoirs! If you missed Part One, Two and Three, then click on the links here. In this episode I’m going to tell you about the haunted house Mr C bought without me seeing it and the Victorian cottage we bought afterwards that would become our home. I’m going to tell you about our points system for buying the right property and loads more hints and tips that have helped us along the way. If you are thinking about starting out on the property ladder, want to know how to climb it successfully and don’t know where to begin, then this is the series for you.
If you remember, we had been staying in a barn whilst the house purchase was going through. To say it was rustic was the understatement of the year. The floor in the far corner was lined with hay. I was half expecting Mary and Joseph to rock up with a donkey asking if they could stay the night! Unfortunately (or, maybe fortunately), we were not able to extend our stay for the last couple of nights needed to complete the house purchase. So, we had to decamp to the local YMCA. I can say with some authority that it is not, in fact, fun to stay at The YMCA and, much to our dismay, it is also not filled with hot gay men!
Two nights wasn’t going to kill us though and after the barn it was somewhat palatial! The purchase completed on the Guildford house and we moved in. However, because it was never going to be our permanent home and there was so much internal work to do, we couldn’t release all our belongings from storage. It was touch and go whether we would even have a bed on the first night.
The Haunted House
It was a 1960s nondescript terraced box and I absolutely hated it. I can’t really think of one redeeming architectural feature, other than it had a parquet floor in the living room. It faced North and it backed onto the A3. However, it was perfectly placed for Surrey University and it would prove a winner with the renters.
Now, this was the only time that we did a renovation without our heart and soul. It was all about doing it up quickly and renting it out asap. The kitchen was replaced, along with the bathroom. We also replaced the hot air heating system with gas central heating and decorated throughout. It wasn’t the type of house that called for fancy interiors or a design aesthetic. A few trips to Wickes and B&Q were going to do the job with off-the-shelf products and a flat-pack kitchen – inspiring right?
I found it astonishingly dull and I have no intention of ever repeating the process. But, we had our eyes on its true purpose and it gave us a much-needed home, whilst we searched for the right one. That search took a lot longer than we thought it would though.
When I first entered the house I got a very strange feeling. It’s a sensation I have had before with one or two other houses I have lived in. It made me draw breath, something was there! About three days or so into our first week at the house I was busy upstairs painting a ceiling. Mr C had gone into the office, so I was alone. It was coming up to 3pm and I became aware of a strange stench emanating from the front bedroom. Just as I stepped off the ladder I heard a door slam, then another and another. It was a cacophony of door slams, open, shut, open, shut. I ran out into the hallway and everything went abruptly silent.
It absolutely scared me to death, however, it wasn’t the first time that had happened to me. Years before when I was a student I had witnessed the fit of door slamming somewhere else. I now knew that it was a bit like a ghost/spirit throwing its toys out of the pram. You might not believe in the spirit world, but I’ve witnessed so much that I cannot explain or deny. I decided to look into the previous owner who had died in the house – a Mrs Henderson. I had a feeling that 3pm might have been the time she passed away. The same stench, often accompanied by the hissy fit of door slamming happened almost at the strike of three most days.
Later that year we went on a week’s holiday and my younger brother said he would look after our rabbit for us by going in to feed it every day and give it a run. Whilst away I received a text from him: “You could have told me the f***ing house was haunted! Just had the shit scared out of me by all the doors opening and closing. There’s a f***ing dreadful smell too!” It was just after three in the afternoon.
The Victorian Cottage
During my online property search back in Northamptonshire I had come across a Victorian semi-detached house in the Surrey Hills. It needed masses of work and a large extension, but it definitely had potential with a south facing garden and pretty views. I had discounted it though because it was out of our price range at the time. Seven months on and it was still on the market. It did require quite a lot of imagination as the garden was a shambles and inside was verging on derelict. We decided I would go and view it – “just to see”.
From the moment I walked in I loved it. It had such good bones and somehow it felt like the whole house was giving me a hug saying: ‘please buy me!” That night I talked incessantly to Mr C about it, to the point that he was compelled to view it himself the next day. He loved it. We put in a cheeky offer as it had been on the market some time. It’s always worth trying. Even in the current high-paced market of 2021 where everything is going to sealed bids, it can be worth a go and, in fact, we did! I’m always quite surprised when watching Location, Location, Location on TV that Kirsty and Phil often seem to suggest offering a couple of thousand below the asking price. Mr C and I always turn to each other and say we would have offered a lot less!
We secured the Victorian house in the hills for nearly ten percent below the asking price and proceeded quickly with the purchase. We owned the house for nearly two months before we moved in. I went there every day that I wasn’t travelling up to Northamptonshire to do hairdressing, to start stripping floors, skirtings and architraves.
It wasn’t five minutes before we had employed an architect and the plans were in for a major extension and remodel that would include a whole new roof and painstakingly matching period tiles and bricks with a mix of a modern equivalent and reclaimed materials. We wanted it to look like the extensions had been there forever and that requires an enormous attention to the finer details.
The house already had a basement room, but it wasn’t full height, so we dug down and used a conveyor belt to take out the soil. My god that was a tough job, but so worth it as it created a fourth bedroom/playroom or home gym. We added a large side extension, which would incorporate a family kitchen/diner and utility room with double bi-fold doors leading onto the garden. Upstairs, we added a master bedroom and en-suite.
The garden also needed a huge transformation and would be my most difficult to design so far. It sloped upwards on a slight gradient, but as soon as we started to terrace those levels we saw that the gradient was actually much steeper! It had to be done though and we created a garden oasis with a large sweeping Koi pond. If you’ve been following me for a while, then you’ll know that I believe that the outside space of a property is intrinsically linked to the interior. They are, in my mind, one space that needs to be synergised so that they flow.
We were half way through the planning process when we realised the architect’s drawings were wrong. Something had been niggling us about the drawings for weeks and after buying a special architect’s ruler, we measured everything ourselves to discover that he had not created enough height on the second storey. It would have been just perfect for the Oompa Loompas in The Wizard of Oz, but not Mr C at over six feet tall!
We ended up having to take legal action against the architect and then start the planning process again. This time, we did the drawings ourselves. By the Spring of 2009 the project was complete and it would become the location for our wedding the following Summer.
The Points System
In the first instalment of this blog series I talked about our points system for buying a house. Now, most people have a wish list when searching for a home, that’s nothing new. Our system goes through all the pros and cons and comes up with a mathematical answer, taking emotion out of the equation. If you are going to climb the property ladder successfully, then you need to stay calm and keep focused.
List every single thing that you want in a home, from views to proximity to schools and a train station. Then list all the things you definitely don’t want. Each pro is worth one point. Every con is a minus point. Take a property you are considering and apply this process adding points for every pro and removing a point for every con. The total at the end tells you how well the house fits the brief. So, if you have 30 on your pro wish list, then the closer to a figure of 30 at the end of the process, the better the house fits the bill.
Here’s our list. We use it every time for every house we look at and it has worked in each case:
- Detached or suitably beautiful to not need remodelling from the outside if attached.
- Three bedrooms or more, or ability to extend.
- South/West-facing garden.
- Period features, or suitably nondescript to be able to turn into something with character.
- Near water – ie: river,stream, the sea.
- Near a shop and a pub.
- Close to a train station.
- Near good schools.
- Easy access to a main highway.
- Within ten miles of a good supermarket.
- Within ten miles of a Marks & Spencer, Waitrose. This sounds snobby, but these companies do their research when siting their stores and they opt for more affluent areas. You want that if you are climbing the property ladder.
- The neighbours look after their homes.
- Building works within a short distance of the house. If other people are renovating then it’s a good sign.
- The house has not been recently renovated.
- Large kitchen/diner area or space to build one.
- Utility/boot room, or space to create one.
- Space to add more bathrooms if only one exists.
- A loft with good access.
- Good access to work locations.
- Room for outbuildings in the garden.
- A road with different types of property with many of them aesthetically pleasing.
- A road where planning permission has been granted for neighbours in the past.
- Not in the centre of a village or town, but within close proximity.
- Parking for at least three cars.
- Good dog walking locations nearby.
- A choice of good pubs and restaurants within a few miles.
- Close to a high-end shopping location/high street.
- A good community – check websites and parish magazines etc.
- Good proximity to friends and family.
- No Tree Preservation Orders on the property.
- No refused planning permission.
- Not a listed property.
- Not a thatched property.
- Close proximity to a local councillor – wherever they live things seem to get done!
- Listed Property.
- East or North-facing garden.
- Little Privacy.
- In a street where all the houses are the same design.
- A semi/terraced property that isn’t pretty and can’t be altered due to the house it is attached to. If you’re in a row of semi’s and they all look the same, then standing out by remodelling the exterior of yours is not going to bring in the big bucks.
- Near an Asda or an Aldi – sorry, but it’s proven. I’m not meaning to be rude to anyone that shops there, but if you’re serious about climbing the property ladder then this matters. I know I’m going to get it in the neck for this!
- On a main road, or in earshot of a busy road.
- Near a large-scale housing development.
- Planning refused in the past.
- There is a Tree Preservation Order on the property.
- Extremely difficult to extend.
- The house has been renovated and not to your taste.
- Not near a pub or a shop.
- Not near a train station.
- Extensive structural faults.
- Upvc windows.
- It’s in the middle of nowhere.
- No off-road parking.
- It’s in a conservation area.
So, there you have it, that’s our extensive list. I promise by using this process you will get a very clear idea of how close a property meets your requirements. It’s so easy to get caught up in the moment just because a house is pretty. Take a step back. It will pay dividends in the end.
Next week is the final instalment of this series and I’ll be going full hog into our most outlandish renovation so far – turning a 1920s ugly duckling into a New England swan. Thanks for reading.