Renovating a House: The Complete Guide

Whilst renovating projects are undoubtedly exciting, when it comes to old houses, nothing is ever straightforward. Our complete guide to renovating covers everything from how to find and buy the right project in the first place to extending and designing your new home.

Skip to:

  • Step 1: Finding a project
  • Step 2: Purchase
  • Step 3: Design
  • Step 4: Repairing original features
  • Step 5: Structural changes
  • Step 6: External makeover
  • Step 7: Extending
  • Step 8: Heating & Electrics
  • Step 9: Eco-vation
  • Step 10: Finishing touches

How to Find a Renovation Project

Just how can you spot the potential for renovation? Whilst a quick property search may well throw up endless lists of ‘houses in need of modernisation,” not all of these necessarily offer value for money. Some projects just won’t be viable, whilst others might turn out to be complete money pits.

The key is assessing design and financial potential before committing. Consider the location and immediate area, the design possibilities available to you and remember to assess the structure of the building.

Be realistic about factors you can’t change, and be bold about what you can.

Almost all structural problems are solvable to some degree, but the more severe will impact on your ability to finance the project and insure the end result. The key is to get the most out of your viewings. View the property at least twice (it is a good idea to record one so you can analyse it further).

(MORE: What to consider when assessing renovation potential)

Renovating vs. Remodelling

The terms ‘renovate’ and ‘remodel’ are often used interchangeably but they do have quite different meanings.

When it comes to buildings, renovation is more akin to restoration than remodelling — that is to say, bringing something back to its original state, to reinvigorate and refresh.

Remodelling, on the other hand, essentially refers to changing a building, perhaps through altering its layout or extending.

Of course what most owners of old houses end up doing is a combination of the two — returning original features and the bare bones of the property to their former glory whilst playing around with the layout in order to make the house more suitable for modern-day living.

Buying a Renovation Project

The potential to make a quick profit by renovating means there is often premium placed on houses in need of modernisation. What this means is that before you go in with an offer, you should be in the best financial position possible.

Renovation projects are very often sold at auction, or else end up going to sealed bids, or best and final offers, and knowing how these processes work is vital if you are to be the successful bidder.

Apart from the renovation work, there are other additional costs that should be factored in:

  • Reconnection fees: you may need to pay some fees to get the house working again, e.g. water supply, cleaning out the septic tank, etc.
  • Valuation fees
  • Council tax
  • Professional fees: include planning and Building REgulations approval, surveys, structural engineer reports and any other professional fees (e.g. tree surveys) in your budget
  • Contingency fund: make sure you have some extra cash on hand to deal with anything unexpected that may arise (and with a renovation project, this is kind of the norm)
  • Legal costs: expect to pay £500-2,000 for a solicitor or conveyancer to act on your behalf

(MORE: How to finance the purchase with a specialist renovation mortgage)

Renovation Insurance

Once you exchange contracts on a renovation project you become responsible for the site and you must therefore have adequate insurance.

If you are taking out a mortgage to fund the project, your lender may not release any money without your warranty and proof of insurance being in place and should you experience anything such as flooding, theft or fire to the property, having proper insurance will mean your project can continue.

Renovation insurance should include public and employer’s liability, cover for building materials and works, plant, tools, temporary buildings, the existing structure, personal accident cover and legal expenses. Typical costs range from £500-1,500 depending on the project.

Get a quote now to protect your renovation

Warranties

Although it is not essential, it is a good idea to take out a warranty on your renovation project. This is a policy which will cover your house against flaws in the design, materials or build quality, along with any problems that occur as a result of these defects.

Warranties usually run for 10 years. If you plan on arranging a warranty, do it early on as the premiums escalate the further you get through the project.

How to Design Your New Home

Just where should you start when it comes to designing your home? Producing a design for an existing house is often trickier than starting from scratch.

It pays to spend a few months in the house before coming up with the design. You’ll see how the sun comes in to the various rooms, what works as it is and what doesn’t.

While some renovation projects can be carried out without the need for a designer, larger-scale schemes need professional advice, from either an architect, architectural designer, house designer or even a structural engineer who would be able to provide good solutions for specific problems.

Design should be prioritised within your budget, particularly if you are keen to avoid common renovation mistakes that will limit the end value of the project. This is also the time to determine whether your planned improvements need planning permission.

Create a schedule of works to ensure that you are carrying out improvements in a logical way to minimise disruption and duplication.

Restoring Original Features

The main draw of old houses tends to be the intrinsic charm they hold thanks to the original features they possess. But what do you do when they are in poor condition or missing altogether — which are worth saving and which are later additions?

In some extreme cases, the cost of repair work does not practically make sense and you may need to consider sympathetic, matching replacements. However, unless you are prepared to spend more, these replacements may not capture the fine detailing of the originals.

Pay particular attention to:

  • Windows
  • Floors
  • Doors
  • Fireplaces
  • Original mouldings
  • Roofs
  • Timber beams

Making Internal Structural Changes

In the case of most remodelling projects, an element of structural change will be necessary.

You may want to extend or change the use of your spaces with a basement conversion, garage conversion or loft conversion and some projects will require the knocking down of walls. 

You will have found at the design stage whether your proposed work needed planning permission or whether you can undertake the work under Permitted Development.

External Makeovers

Not all renovations and remodels involve pretty country cottages and beautifully symmetrical period properties.

An increasing number of people are now waking up to the potential of post-war properties that, whilst not as visually attractive at the outset, are often cheaper, full of natural light and with large open internal spaces.

This type of property provides potential for a stunning exterior makeover, including new cladding, roofing materials, window treatments and driveways.

Before you take on a large-scale makeover, it is often the smaller, seemingly insignificant details that can make all the difference. Consider:

  • Replacing rainwater goods
  • Repainting (or replacing) any timberwork, such as fascia boards and finials
  • Add a porch to add character
  • Landscaping, including gates, fences and planting

Many of these changes can be carried out under Permitted Development, but if your home has a special designation (i.e. listed) these rights are removed.

How to Extend an Old House

Old houses don’t always provide the space modern-day homeowners expect and in this case an extension will be necessary.

Ground condition, site access, location and proximity of services, design and size, will all affect how much your extension will cost. As a rough guide, the structural side of the project will take up about 60% of the total expenditure, whilst fittings will use up the remainder.

(MORE: Find out all you need to know about adding a single or two-storey extension)

Updating Heating and Electrics and Plumbing

Be prepared to find the central heating system in your renovation project seriously out-of-date — or even non-existent. The same goes for the electrics — don’t walk into a project assuming the electrics will not need updating because complete rewires of old properties can make a big dent in the finances.

On the plus side, you have the opportunity to install a system specifically tailored to your lifestyle, your energy usage and designed around any future plans you may have for the house. Updating the heating and electrics will also add significant end value to the property.

While some projects will require significant heating and electrical updates, sometimes all that will be required will be something as simple and inexpensive as new radiators. Old radiators can suffer from cold spots caused by a build up of sludge – having them power flushed will be a big help in improving their performance.

Making Old Houses Eco-Friendly

Eco-vation or eco-renovation is the process of improving the energy efficiency of an old home to make it less draughty, more economical and a lot more comfortable to live in.

The key is to use a two-pronged approach – minimise the amount of heat your home requires to keep you comfortable and minimise the cost of producing the heat that it does require.

Draught-proofing is essential, but you should also optimise (or add) wall and loft insulation as a priority. Upgrading the boiler and heating sources (such as old radiators) will also help to reduce heating bills, as well as creating a more comfortable internal environment.

Decorating an Old House

The day has finally arrived when the structural work is behind you — now the fun begins and its time to put the finishing touches to your renovation.

Walls need to be prepared and painted, floors need to be sanded, covered or levelled and any woodwork – both external and internal – needs to be stripped, prepared and finished.

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