My BIG house renovation and extension Q&A

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It’s six years since we bought our house and I’m so happy to say that it is pretty much finished! Seriously, you have no idea how good it feels to say that!

We bought the house in 2014 and now, at the start of 2021, it’s finally looking exactly how we want it to. The house is finished but still needs decorating and I can’t wait to add the finishing touches.

The work to our house can be split into three sections:

  1. Renovation (2014-2015)
  2. Extension (2019)
  3. Landscaping (2021)

Please excuse the photos in this post. I’ve been trying to take them for weeks but with three children in the house it’s been impossible!

Table of Contents

Renovation

The house was uninhabitable when we first bought it so it was totally gutted, stripped back to bare brick and renovated from top to toe. The exterior walls, the roof, the staircase and the fireplace were pretty much the only original things to survive.

The house was built in the 1850s and was originally a chapel before it was converted into two semi detached cottages. You wouldn’t think it now because it just looks like a normal house but there were arches hidden in the brickwork.

When we bought our house it was a two-up, two-down and had a wonky conservatory on the side. It was small but in a lovely location and it was love at first sight.

Initially, we didn’t change much with the layout of the house, we just converted the attic into a lovely bedroom suite. We kept the wonky conservatory for a few years because it was a great space for storage, despite the fact that it was ugly and cold! We added a wooden garden office and a BBQ shelter outside to give us some extra living space, something we really needed once we had two young children! 

The house was small but we loved it.

The renovation work took 10 months and Sam and my dad did the majority of it during evenings and weekends. My dad runs a construction company and there were some days where we paid the guys who work for him to come to our house and do the bigger jobs that would have taken Sam forever on his own.

House renovation Project | The Travel Hack at home
House renovation Project | The Travel Hack at home

Extension

In 2019, we put a 3-story extension onto the house to make a large kitchen/diner, two extra bedrooms and an extension onto our attic conversion bedroom. I documented a lot of the extension work on Instagram so I have an Extension Highlights saved over there if you’d like to take a look.

We’d always known we’d put an extension on the side of the house but it wasn’t until we decided to have a third baby that we knew we’d do a full 3-story extension. Before this we’d toyed with the idea of a very grand one-story extension with a vaulted ceiling.

Sam did almost all of the extension work himself and it took him about 9 months to complete. And, yes, it’s no coincidence that it was the exact amount of time for a baby to arrive!

^ This fireplace was an original feature but was painted black and boarded up. There was an ugly gas heater in front of it and we were so happy to find this brick fireplace hidden away!

Landscaping

And this week we’re finally finishing off the landscaping around the house. Sam didn’t do this work himself, we organised for specialists to do it.

They’re raised a lot of the garden and driveway because we live next to a river and it floods. We also wanted our patio to be flush with the house. 

A large patio has been laid, the drive has been finished and new boundary walls have been built or repaired.

This summer will be the fun part as we add trees, plants and flowers to the garden.

OK, so now it’s time for the house renovation and extension Q&A!

On Instagram stories I asked for your questions and I’ve answered them all here. Here were a couple of questions that came up again and again such as, ‘Did Sam already have building skills?’ and ‘Where do you even begin!!?’

Is Sam a builder? Did you/he already have the physical skills?

OK, this is a big one and something that gave us a huge step up! When we started the project Sam wasn’t a builder but he was a gas engineer so he was very familiar with the building trade and he had lots of tools and a van. 

Sam plays it down and says, ‘If I can do it, anyone can!’ But I do not agree! Sam didn’t know how to build a roof so he watched a YouTube video and taught himself from that tutorial! I don’t know about you, but I don’t believe that just anyone could build a roof by watching a YouTube video! I certainly couldn’t!

Sam has a lot of experience of working on building sites and on big renovation projects. He might not have done any physical building himself but he’s been around it a lot and lots of his friends are also tradesmen and he must have picked up so much just from being around them.

But – here’s the biggie – my dad is a builder. He owns a building company and they do property development so my dad taught Sam loads as they renovated our house together. And they enjoyed renovating our house together so much that Sam ended up working for my dad full time. So now, as a result of our project, Sam IS a builder.

I would definitely say that being a tradesperson really helps because Sam had access to all the tools he needed and also to my dad’s big truck. The truck made it easier to collect supplies and remove all the rubble and stuff that came out of the house. This just isn’t something you’d be able to do in a regular car. Of course, you could get skips and get everything delivered but it’s going to cost a lot extra.

Did we live in the house while renovating?

We didn’t live in the house while we did the initial renovation. When we bought the house I had no idea how bad it was so I imagined we’d live with my parents for a month or two before we moved in. We ended up living with my parents for 9 months! And did I mention that George was born half way through this whole process!?

The house was 100% complete when we moved in. We painted the whole house and then went on holiday to the Maldives. While we were in the Maldives the carpet fitters came in and laid fresh carpets so it was like moving into a brand new house when we got back! That was an amazing feeling.

But we did live in the house while we did the extension.

Living in the house while Sam did the extension wasn’t too bad because:

  1. He did it really quickly!
  2. Sam didn’t need to knock any walls through at first – the extension was just built onto the side of our existing house so there wasn’t any mess in the house

There were three nights where I went away with the kids to escape from the mess. Two of those were when Sam was knocking through the kitchen wall into the new extension. I went to our caravan in Abersoch so that was a nice little break for me and the kids and I felt awful leaving Sam to do a horrible job all alone. The third night away was when the screed was laid on the kitchen floor – meaning we couldn’t enter the house because both the front and back doors were blocked by wet cement.

What do you start on first? Plumbing? Room by room?

Ours was a complete wreck so we started by completely gutting it. All the floors and ceilings, windows, doors…everything came out and the house was stripped back to bare brick. 

If you’re going to be living in the house while you renovate then you’d sort the plumbing and electrics first and then do it room by room. If possible, I’d try and block off the room you’re working on as much as possible.

How did you budget for the project?

When we did the renovation work, we didn’t budget really. We’d just put all of our money into buying the house so we didn’t have a lot of money left. So every single spare penny we earned went into renovating the house for almost a year. 

When we did the extension, Sam worked out how much it would cost and we released this amount from the mortgage. 

For the landscaping work, we just saved up. Sam was actually saving for a boat but, you know, 2020 and lockdown has put that plan on hold!

How did you see the potential in what looks like a bit of a wreck!?

Oh I just knew! The house gave me ‘the feeling’ and I fell in love with it the second I saw it.

Sam still recalls the moment I saw the house on RightMove. Apparently I saw it and just screamed to him, ‘I’ve found it! I’ve found the house!!’ The house had been on the market for years but the sales kept falling through for various reasons, and I was sure it was because we were meant to have the house!

The first thing about it is the location which is just absolutely perfect for us. And the second thing was the light. Oh the light! The light in this house is just gorgeous and I remember falling in love with the light before anything else.

On paper, this was a terrible house to buy. It was virtually derelict, it’s on a flood plain, it was tiny, it was overpriced and, due to some unusual circumstances surrounding the house and the previous owner, it was an absolute nightmare to actually buy. But the heart wants what the heart wants and my heart wanted this house!

Are you glad you renovated or was it more work than you thought it would be?

It was more work than I thought it would be but we’re both 100% happy we renovated. 

The main reason is simple – we wouldn’t have been able to afford a 5-bed home in the area we live in unless we took on a big renovation project.

People talk about that satisfying feeling you get from doing all the work yourself and having everything exactly the way you want it. And yes, I get that, but this is the first house we’ve owned so I don’t really know any different.

How did you have the time to do it with the kids?

Oh this is all Sam. Sam is a machine when he gets his teeth into a project.

When he was doing the first renovation work he would go to work at his job from 8-5 every day and then go straight to the house and work 5-9. And then he’d be there for 12 hours each day of the weekend too. He did that solidly for 9 months.

When Sam did the extension, he worked 3 days a week at his job (Tuesday-Thursday) and then worked on the house for 4 days (Fri-Monday). That obviously made a massive difference to how quickly it was done.

And it was tough going on me too. I was pregnant with Alba at the time and I had to keep the boys out of Sam’s way constantly. It was really tiring and I found the summer holidays particularly difficult.

Did you have any problems getting planning permission for a 3 story extension?

No, none at all and it actually all went through really quickly. But we live in a conservation area and we knew there would be tighter restrictions regarding our extension so we did keep this in mind when designing the house. We worked with a local architect who has lots of experience working with the local planning department so he basically put forward a plan that we knew would be approved. Sam also did A LOT of research so we already knew exactly what we could and couldn’t do.

The biggest mistake we made?

I don’t think we made any mistakes. Every decision we made was the right decision at the time and, even if we went back in time, I’m sure we’d make all the same decisions again.

Some things that could be considered mistakes are….

We put decking in the garden, which was gorgeous and a lovely space but it was only down for two years before we ripped it up for the extension. It was expensive and a bit of a waste of time and money considering it didn’t stay down for long! 

But we didn’t know when we’d build an extension and we had two glorious summers using it so I wouldn’t call it a mistake.

Another thing that wasn’t great (in some ways!) was how quickly the renovation work was done. Of course, this was amazing in most ways but it meant a lot of it was rushed and we didn’t enjoy the process of renovating AT ALL. 

I remember going to the tile shop to pick out the bathroom tiles, ensuite tiles, kitchen tiles, floor tiles and hardwood floor for the living room. This should have been a really fun and exciting experience but it wasn’t. Sam had to rush back to the house for something so we were there for about 20 minutes and literally just picked the first tiles I saw and liked. I waddled into the shop (8 months pregnant!) and was just like, ‘Yea, I’ll have that one, that one, that one and that one.’

In some ways this isn’t a bad thing because so many decisions were made quickly and instinctively. We didn’t overthink ideas or get overwhelmed by planning. It all just happened so quickly and decisions had to be made there and then. And thankfully, I still LOVE all the tiles and flooring we have so it worked out well!

We also chose cheap bathrooms but actually we’re both fine with that because we’d like to re-do the family bathroom when Alba is a little older. We have a big bath in there at the moment, which is brilliant for three little kids, but we’d rather have a big shower in there so we’ll replace the bath when the kids stop having their baths together.

The original decking was mostly ripped up to make space for the extension.

Did you need to reinforce any of the banks as you are by a river?

No we didn’t. We don’t own the river banks so it’s not something we’d be able to do. Our garden is next to the river but our house is about two metres higher than the lowest part of the garden and it’s much higher than the river. Our garden does flood but it’s very unlikely to ever reach the house.

We have put a wall around our patio and we chose to make a wall out of stones and wire cages so it won’t be damaged by water when it does flood. If we’d built a normal brick wall then it would have fallen down fairly quickly.

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How do you know much you’ll need to save?

This is a really hard one because you could spend barely anything or spend hundreds of thousands. We just saved as much as we could but, realistically, life gets in the way of plans and schedules. I think that if you wait until you’ve saved enough, you’ll never get started. You’ll always need a bit more money, no matter how much you have. 

We were always comfortable with the fact that we might get half way through a project and have to stop if we ran out of money. It makes it much easier to start a project if you think like this.

Would you recommend doing an attic conversion?

Oh yes, 100%! Our attic conversion has transformed our house and I LOVE our bedroom up there. I think it gives the house something really unique and special. We’ve gained so much extra space without spending too much extra money.

But, if you can, I would recommend doing it while you’re doing a big renovation project. It is a big disruption to your house so it would be difficult to live in your house while an attic conversion is happening. 

For our attic conversion, all the ceilings were lowered on the first floor. Our ceilings were mega high anyway and this gave the attic extra ceiling space. One of the bedrooms had to be altered to fit in a new staircase too. Velux windows were fitted in the roof and a juliette balcony and double doors were fitted in the gable end. We also needed to have fire doors inserted throughout the house to comply with fire regulations. 

Basically, it was a BIG job and I’m glad we did it while the house was upside down with renovation work.

Where do you start with revamping an overgrown garden?

We started simple and just had a digger come in and clear the entire garden. We left three trees but literally cleared everything. The ground was flattened and new turf was laid and this gave us a blank canvas to start again.

Our garden was just too overgrown to try and tackle it and keep any of the trees and shrubs. There had been fruit trees in the garden but they’d been left to grow too big and stopped producing any fruit, which was a massive shame, but just confirmed that everything needed to go.

Do you have any tips for a couple renovating a house and planning to start a family?

The lady who sent this question elaborated and explained that it’s hard to plan a family home before you have kids. And yes, I totally agree! 

Here are some things we have that make life as a family of 5 much easier. These are things you might not think about until you have children:

  • Our washing machine is outside in the outhouse and I love this because it means I can put it on at any time of the day or night.
  • I love having a huge fridge freezer in the kitchen. We used to have a small fridge in the kitchen and then the big fridge freezer in the outhouse but this was a pain!
  • We have 5 beds but I actually wouldn’t worry about kids sharing bedrooms. My kids still sleep really well when they share bedrooms.
  • Having a large porch is really handy to keep coats, shoes, bags and pushchairs out of the main living space.
  • Having hard floors everywhere downstairs is a good idea – especially if you plan to get a dog
  • I would love a huge pantry/utility room
  • I wish we’d put built in closets in the kid’s bedrooms. It saves a lot of space not having wardrobes and draws
You can’t really see it but we have a porch big enough for a double pushchair, all our shoes and coats and a downstairs toilet. It’s always messy but it keeps the mess out of the house!

Is it OK sleeping on the top floor of the house and being on a different floor to your kids?

Yes, this is totally fine. We have a baby monitor for Alba and we’ll keep using that monitor for longer than most people would use one because we can’t hear her if she cries in the night. If the boys need us in the night then they just come upstairs to our room and that’s never been a problem.

It can be a bit of a pain traipsing up and down the stairs in the middle of the night, but it’s all we’ve ever known! I notice the difference when we go on holiday and the kids are sleeping in the room next to us and it’s so easy to go into their bedroom and sort them out in the night!

I actually love having our bedroom at the top of the house. It feels like my little sanctuary away from all the chaos in the rest of the house! And I’m sure all those stairs must keep me fit!

How much did it cost?

OK, the answer to the question everyone wants to know but they’re never sure if they can ask.

Renovation – Approximately £40,000

Extension – £50,000

Landscaping – Ongoing

There you have it, the big house renovation and extension Q&A!

If you have any other questions please feel free to leave them in the comments below and I’ll get back to you!

Now that my decoration plans are beginning, I’m planning to share updates from individual rooms as we decorate them and add all the finishing touches. Most of the rooms really just need a lick of paint, a splash of colour, pictures on the walls and some nice accessories so this is going to be the fun part!

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