I went from a big house to a small house. And now I am making the small house bigger. This it the first major renovation I have project managed using a team of builders, plumbers and designers, although the DH and I seem to have spent our lives renovating houses.
Yes it seems bonkers, downsize, extend. The big house had six bedrooms and three storeys. The small house has two bedrooms which is all we need. It also had an impossibly small and poorly laid out kitchen.
The Victorian Terrace in Bearwood
In England there are millions of terraced houses built in the Victorian era. In Bearwood where I live there is one of the largest grid of such houses in the country, mostly Victorian, spreading away from the main street, getting bigger and grander as they move up the hill toward what was parkland (landscaped by Humphry Repton) of Warley Abbey which is now Warley Woods. Indeed many of the roads in the area were named after local people.
When I first moved to Birmingham from London this area of terraced houses was where I wanted to live. Due to changes in mortgage interest relief in 1988 creating a spike in the housing market and a rush for unmarried couples to buy before losing joint tax relief, this area became unaffordable.
Houses were being viewed on an open house basis – sometimes 20 or 30 couples at a time. Offers made in sealed bids. Houses selling for 5 or 6 times the asking price. Negative equity. Fast forward 30 years and by downsizing I could move to the area, to my lovely small house.
We moved in November 2015. The renovation did not start until April 2017. After moving we then went travelling. My original plan was that the work would happen while we were away. Realistically this was not a good plan. Subsequent experience has reinforced this view.
It was a long time to live with a hopeless kitchen, too much furniture and washing draped in front of the fire in winter. I began to hate the house, regret the decision to move.
The house was also very dark. Not good for a SAD sufferer. I got a lamp.
In hindsight the delay helped me figure out what I wanted. I learned a lot, lost some money due to bad advice, discovered that builders can be unreliable or have no vision or both.
In May 2016 out of sheer frustration I called a kitchen company whose ad I had seen in the free local paper. Not only did the designer turn up when he said he would, he brought a builder with him.
The most common kitchen extension in a terraced house is a long thin galley style utilising the space of the former outhouses which were originally the coal house and outdoor lavatory. And that is what every builder told me to do. Until Dave.
Dave is a man of few words. Indeed on some days I think he uses all his words in one conversation with me. I have lots of words. That day he used them very wisely as he outlined what he thought would work in the house.
I had a vision – of an open plan Australian style house with lots of light. Every other builder muttered and tutted. The hopeless, expensive, unnecessary architect that one builder said I needed said it would be too expensive and require planning permission. He emailed two plans that were rubbish and charged me £250. I sacked him.
Dave said – and he had not heard my vision – you could knock down the back wall, extend to the side return and have bifold doors and skylights to let in the light. And open the front and back rooms up to make it feel bigger.
Chris the kitchen man nodded and outlined some ideas for the kitchen. I then shared my vision of an open plan Australian kitchen with bifold doors and skylights and lots of cupboards and drawers to hide all the crap. AKA minimalist. No kettle, no toaster. Nothing on the worktops.
Fast forward 12 months and the work is in progress to make that vision reality.
It has not been plain sailing
While planning permission was not required, a Party Wall Agreement was. And Building Regs (which the builder arranged). Party Wall Agreements are usually straightforward. A letter is sent to your neighbours and they say yes ok and you have an agreement. The surveyor I had used in the purchase of the house had mentioned she also specialised in party wall agreements and so I got in touch with her. One of our neighbours had been fine when I told him the plans. The other, an absentee landlord had not. Short story, it was not straightforward. All three houses had to be surveyed at my cost and a Party Wall Award was made. So more money spent and still not a brick laid. But money spent on a water tight agreement that cannot be disputed.
Tears and tantrums and having nowhere to live
At this stage (well pre the award) I could have happily sold the house and ran away to an island or live in a tent. Hell, a swag in the NT would be just grand. The snag was that I would have to disclose a dispute with a neighbour. The outhouses were falling down and we could not touch them without The Award. This was a low point in the process. It was winter, it was cold, it was dark and all of that plus the hassle factor depressed me.
We then had to move out. The builder had erased the pencilled in start date. He had other clients. I thought it would be February and booked a house sit in Wales. Nothing happened but DH was commuting from Wrexham to Birmingham as we had committed to the house sit. We were then told it would be Easter ish and secured another house sit in Kidderminster. And work started.
Six weeks said Dave. It is now week seven. And we can’t move back in yet. Four bank holidays is four work days lost. Fortunately the weather has been on the builders side (or I am sure it would have taken longer) and they turn up every day by 8.30. They are polite and pleasant to the neighbours and get on with it. Bricks have been re used where possible so the huge extension blends into the existing building.
We have a bathroom. We very nearly didn’t.
When the floor tiles were removed and the tiles under that were also removed, and then the lino, the joists were rotten. The floor could have collapsed into the kitchen below at any time. We had to have a new floor.
I visited the site to discover the loo and wash basin crammed into a corner, insomuch I had to slide past the loo to use the wash basin and stand sideways to use it. And not be able to open the drawers beneath it. After crying and throwing all the toys out of the pram the builder suggested I met his plumber. The plumber agreed with me and assured me that I was not being a princess. He agreed that I was right (I like that feeling) and I remembered who was paying for this (me).
More tears, a hissy fit and redrawn plans (this is why you need to visit the site regularly) but no hot water. Because the boiler can’t go in the bathroom. Communication between the builder, the fitter and the designer (who have worked together numerous times) just wasn’t happening. Lesson learned, visit often and if it feels wrong it probably is. And say something. If I had left it and it had been plumbed in and tiled it would have been an expensive and timely mistake to fix.
And then they suggested I get my own water supply
Terraced houses often share a water supply. Back in 1898 or so this wasn’t a big deal. Now with washing machines and dishwashers and power showers it can mean that the pressure of the water can be low. Dave said it will probably be free. It is not. I also had to explain to the water company that they had sent me the wrong paperwork. I had to print the right paper work, complete by hand, write a cheque (the only payment method) and post it to them. But I will have my own water supply, the plumbers will replace the lead pipes and my power shower won’t be a trickle. All at a price, of course.
The shopping for appliances
I have not bought new kitchen appliances for over 13 years. The last washing machine and dishwasher were refurbished models that lasted longer than the full priced ones. My fridge freezer was 20 years old.
The cost involved in buying these prompts the ‘how much? my first cooker cost £4 and lasted 20 years’ reaction. Chris the kitchen man needed decisions to draw the final plans. He suggested lots of online retailers and I trawled through these comparing prices. Made a wish list with John Lewis. Who were no more expensive than the big box websites.
I couldn’t have a tumble dryer where planned as it can’t be vented. There are no integrated condenser ones. Do I want a fridge freezer with an ice maker? What is the best make? I knew I wanted the slide and hide ovens but did I need a steam oven? A two drawer dishwasher or not? Finally after many hours and trade offs on prices and brand names versus non branded and Beko versus Bosch who make 17% of parts for all things in Germany …. the things you learn – I went to John Lewis, met a helpful sales advisor/partner and got £500 wiped off the bill by their never knowingly undersold promise. And I got a steam oven.
Feck this I am going on holiday (not)
After the first house sit we naively thought we may be able to move back into the house. We couldn’t. The house was a wreck.
Renovating on this scale involves up to six builders knocking down and building walls, wires hanging, a cement mixer in the sitting room. Plumbers, plasterers and a sparkie all in my house.
It was like Grand Design meets Big Build. Without Nick Knowles to hug me. And we had no where to live.
I longingly perused holidays (a week in Greece for £100 was on offer) but the DH had to work. We could rent a campervan I thought. £100 per day.
I looked for a house sit which had to be near enough home for site visits and the DH to get to work. There are not a lot of house sits in Birmingham. One we applied for immediately after the Kidderminster sit got postponed and so I booked my first ever AirBnB. More tears and tantrums ensued.
AirBnB is expensive in Birmingham
I didn’t want a room in a house so looked for self contained apartments. The ones that are good get booked up, and for long term accommodation are not economical. Great for those on business expenses, not so great for people needing short term accommodation while their house is being renovated. And the original concept of AirBnB was to rent out a room in your house not rent out apartments. My experience was not good. I have airbrushed that out of my life and am dipping my toes back into the world again, to experience it as it was intended.
I discovered apartments in Kensington cheaper than Harborne. A studio in Streatham cost less per night than one in West Bromwich. Why so expensive in the Birmingham area? At this rate I would have to sell the house to pay to stay in a bedsit. And it was not a solution at £40 to £60 per night to our accommodation situation. Building extensions is expensive and renting rooms or flats was a drain on resources. More tears and tantrums.
I started looking at holidays again
I resented that we had to stay in the area as the DH had a job. Asked him to quit the job. I found holidays that were under £150 and that made paying out more than that for a grotty bedsit unbearable. I threatened to go to Greece by myself. But it cost more for one to go on a package to Crete than for the two of us. Single Supplement Hell. Travel Agent suggested buying two tickets and one would be a no show. Seriously that is what people do. And if I had gone away to a Greek Island who would have noticed the big design error in the bathroom? A holiday wasn’t an option.
Rescued by the children and weekend escapes
The DD invited us to her flat for the weekend. The train fare to London was cheaper than staying in the AirBnB. She offered it again a fortnight later and the train fare the second time was cheaper than a daysaver bus ticket. The DS said we could stay in his and his GF’s spare room. I think they realised by then I was At The End Of My Tether. Of course I have paid them. I took an average rate from AirBnB to rent a room minus cleaning and commission and offered that. I would rather give them the money than pay for some of the shoddy rooms on offer on AirBnB. It is not perfect. Who would want their parents living with them for weeks on end?
We try to move out at the weekend (see offer by DD above) and book B&B’s away. We went to Malvern and explored National Trust Properties. Exchanged building nightmares with an ex lodger and now friend. Her stories were worse than mine. I may have a mean neighbour but my builder hasn’t knocked a hole through to his kitchen.
I am still house clearing the house that belonged to the mom in law, so we have been to Winchester once and are booked to go again. We usually stay at a chain hotel but as mentioned earlier, this time I will be using AirBnB and staying with a host this time. I hope my faith in AirBnB is restored.
Another house sit
The people we sat for at Easter asked us back for four days. We love the house and the dogs. It gives the DS and the GF a break. Truly this sit is almost as good as a holiday. The bed is soooo comfortable which means a good nights sleep. The peace and quiet, I see no one all day, the only noise is the birdsong and the sound of hooves as people ride their horses down the lane. With no distractions I get to write and read. Writers block, go play with the dogs. Need a nana nap, go nap with the dogs.
Next week we go back to the DS and hope that is only for a few days if the hot water is connected. If we have a bed and hot water we will move in. Which is why we spent a weekend ….
The DH and I cleaned for two days.
The dust was unbelievable. We got through three vacuum cleaner bags. I discovered that baby wipes are the best cleaning cloth. The DH cleaned the gas central heating boiler with them. The one that is disconnected and leaking over the carpet in the spare room. Encrusted with kitchen grease. Not sure I would want to use baby wipes on a baby mind…. but they are great on bathrooms, brick dust, wood, plastic and Upvc window frames.
I have slept in ten different beds
With house sitting, AirBnB, children putting us up, weekends away the DH and I have slept in ten beds. We have lived out of a suitcase since Easter. Before that we were already packing away. I take my pillow everywhere and sometimes my own bed linen. While moving around and sleeping in swags and hotels and the YHA when travelling is fun, this is not. I spend large parts of the day alone. I have to wash clothes daily as we only have what we can carry. The DH adds hours to his commute when we are house sitting. For the first time in my life I am home sick.
And yet I count my lucky stars that if I were really homeless my bed would be a doorway. And I will have a bed to call my own, soon.
Lessons learned so far
Have a vision
Don’t forget you are the paying customer
Research party wall, planning permission and building regs
Find somewhere to rent for 3 to 6 months if you can (expensive and not easy)
Moving from bed to bed and living out of a suitcase is not fun
Ask everyone you know who had building work what it was like
Ask them who their builder was and would they recommend them
Stand your ground
Book a holiday
Visit the site regularly
If it doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t
Have a contingency fund because things will go wrong
Be prepared for additional expenses
Remember the vision
Be nice to your children
It gets worse before it gets better
Go away for weekends
That promise you made to yourself – after the last renovation – to never do it again?
Like childbirth you forget how painful it is
Book a holiday
Go on holiday
Cry a little bit
Use baby wipes to clean everything
Sell all your old furniture or give it away – it won’t feel like a new home if you don’t
Go to John Lewis for your white goods as they will price match everything
Cape Verde calls
In three weeks I will be in Sal. At an all inclusive hotel. It will be sunny. I will have one bed for seven nights that someone else will make. I will eat food I didn’t have to buy and cook. The house will probably be finished.