How to Survive a Home Renovation

Posted on September 2, 2015

“If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” William Morris

Before you start your house renovation, know this: it will take longer than you planned, be more stressful than you imagined and cost more than you can afford. These three things will happen. You won’t know how you’ll find the time, the perseverance and the money but somehow, someway, you will. And in the end, it will be worth it. Every day, I wander around my renovated and extended 1930s semi and marvel at how bloody amazing it is. But it wasn’t always like that – let me take you back…

Front of house

Two years ago, my husband and I bought a “blank canvas” property, i.e. a shell. Apart from the addition of a couple of electrical sockets, the house had not been updated since it was built in 1934. It needed rewiring, replumbing, central heating, insulation, new windows, new floors and a kitchen. Yes, a kitchen. The original scullery with sink and stove was still (barely) functional.

On the plus side, the house did have all its original features and, because it had never been built on or altered in any way, most of those features (archways, doors, architraves, picture rails, fireplaces) were in relatively good nick. It sounds adorable and it kind of was, it just wasn’t liveable.


Before and after: Hallway

The pre-purchase survey had thrown up all the visible issues and more but thankfully the house was structurally sound. The next step was to hire an architect. This is probably the most important decision you will make as your architect is the person on whom you will rely throughout the project for advice, moral support and basically talking you down from the ledge when you’re standing in a pile of rubble, looking at a hole in the roof that you’re pretty sure was not in the plans.

HallBefore and after: Front of hall

1. Hire a good architect

When people ask me, “But do I really need an architect?”, I have to stop myself from laughing rudely at their naïveté, remembering that I was once too a novice. If you’re doing any sort of structural design work then yes, you need an architect. Yes, even if your brother-in-law’s cousin is an engineer/quantity surveyor/brickie and has built an extension with her bare hands. Especially if your brother-in-law’s cousin is an engineer/quantity surveyor/brickie and has built an extension with her bare hands.

Many people imagine that an architect simply draws up plans and then their work is done – that’s what I thought. Having known a few architects, I knew that they trained for seven years but I never really thought about what they learned in the same amount of time it takes to become a doctor. And let’s face it, we can all attempt self-diagnosis via Dr Google and the outcome is unlikely to be as catastrophic as pretending to be an architect. Turns out they know all about design, engineering, building, materials, planning, regulations, tendering, compliance, project management and most importantly, people management. And they’ve been through the entire process many times before.

Back of house

Before and after: Back of house

My advice is to get yourself a decent architect to manage the whole project and you will cut your workload by 90%. But what about the cost? Fees are around 10% of the overall project cost and yes, that is a huge amount of money, no matter what your budget. However, a good architect will have a relationship with tradespeople and suppliers, which will allow you to avail of trade prices and discounts.

So how do you find a good architect? A personal recommendation is always best – ask your family, friends, colleagues, online acquaintances. Look at the architect’s website for photos or visit the finished product, if possible, to get a feel for the style and quality of their work. Houzz is a fantastic resource for design and architecture inspiration and also has a large directory of professionals. If you find an architect whose work you like, call and ask for references so you can talk to someone who has worked with them. The key phrase is “made it all so easy” – if you get that, you’re onto a winner.


Before and after: Staircase

2. Start your planning now

Along with a great architect, the key to making the most of your renovation (and minimising the stress) is pre-planning. Even if you think you know exactly what you want, it’s worth spending endless hours looking at Houzz, Pinterest, Google, magazines and friends’ houses – you can start this months or even years in advance. You might be surprised at how much your tastes change or are honed by looking at other people’s houses, and what you think you like now can evolve considerably. And how else will you know that you absolutely must have an understairs playhouse/cat shelves/a mudroom?


Before and after: Bathroom

3. Move out

So, you know what you want and you know how to get it – it’s time to move out and let the destruction begin. That’s right – move out, just go, anywhere you can. I know it’s costly, I know it’s only for a few months but if you value your sanity, you need to leave. If you really have to stay, set up house in a single room. This room will be your bedroom, living room and kitchen so make sure the zones are clearly defined. But know that no matter how hard you try to avoid it, everything will still be covered in dust so learn to deal with it.

Shower room

Before and after: Shower room

4. Source fixtures and fittings at the start of the project

When you fall in love with a tile/stove/shower head, find out where to get your hands on it as soon as you can. There can be several weeks or even months lead time on products and when your contractor tells you “we need your sanitaryware on Monday”, that is not the time to go looking for it. If you know what you want (e.g. a 7.5mm flat, matte, white metro tile) but can’t find a supplier, message boards are a good source of info – Mumsnet has seen most home design scenarios in its time.


Extension – kitchen and dining area

5. Buy the best you can afford

You won’t be doing this again any time soon so don’t skimp on quality. This applies when you’re hiring professionals too.


Extension – living area

6. Be flexible

There will be delays, guaranteed. Try not to obsess about or rely on a specific finish date. This is a moveable feast that you will enjoy when the time comes.


Extension – dining area

7. Make the most of your interior

Buy only what you need and make sure you love it. If you love it but you can’t afford it, save up and get it later – you don’t have to buy everything at once.

Think about colour and the flow of colour from room to room.

Buy second hand. Buy online. Haggle.

Try and stay away from mass-produced furniture.

Do obsess over the perfect sideboard, cocktail chair, paint colour. But if you find yourself drowning in choice, just make a decision and move on – the end result does not hinge on every tiny detail.

Don’t forget your budget.

Take a step back at times to see the difference between what you really need and what you think you need. Just because Houzz has done a feature on fancy kitchen taps does not mean you need to spend £400 on a tap. Because a friend did that and the, ahem, friend is still thinking the money could have been better spent elsewhere.

 Kitchen dining

Extension – Dining area and kitchen

8. Enjoy your beautiful new home

You will survive, it will be beautiful and it will be all because of you.

Living kitchen

Extension – living area and kitchen

Thanks to John Flood at DMVF architects who made it all so easy.

By Fiona McPhillips. First published in the Huffington Post on 4 September 2015.

What Others Are Saying

  1. john March 10, 2016 at 12:45 pm


    Could you tell me please where you got the hall floor tiles, are they original style?


  2. Fiona March 10, 2016 at 3:58 pm

    Hi John

    They’re from


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