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June 7 2019

10 tips on renovating character homes

Gemma Broomfield
Renovating

1. BUDGET

Whether you are intending to renovate and flip for a profit, or keep and hold to live in, you should work out the achievable sale price of your home once renovated based on similar surrounding properties. Your aim here is to create a budget and work out whether that budget is feasible based on the works required, to ensure you don’t over capitalise on the home. Sure, you might see yourself living there for the next ten to fifteen years but sometimes life happens and if you need to sell the home you want to be comfortable with the result, whether you break even or make some money from your efforts. If you’re flipping the property for a profit you should factor in a contingency plus a margin, and if it’s a structural renovation you should be looking at a minimum of 15%, plus contingency of a minimum of 5% of budgeted costs, maybe even up to 10% of budgeted costs if you've never renovated before. We all have a bit of a fanatical love affair with character homes here in Australia but trust me, your love affair will end very suddenly and bitterly if you wind up making no money on it or worse losing money. I know from experience that character homes at the level that require “restoration” and not "renovation" are money pits and fraught with unexpected extra costs (hence my contingency comment!) and whilst I have never lost money renovating a home, your margins can easily be ground down by things like repointing, turned veranda posts and replacement heritage cornicing.

2. PLAN!

Plan out the works for the renovation. If you’re building an extension or hiring a builder to do the works then your builder will plan this out for you.

Let’s say, however, your renovation is fairly cosmetic (ie. no structural works to roofs, walls, no extensions etc). You should write a list of everything you would do to the home. Go room by room with a pen and paper, for example let’s look at a bedroom that needs only a basic cosmetic renovation.

Bedroom before

  • Clean, patch hairline cracks and paint walls
  • Clean, patch and paint skirting boards and architraves
  • Remove carpet
  • Check for damaged floorboards and replace where needed
  • Fix sash in window frame
  • Replace damaged ceiling rose with similar design
  • Patch and paint cornices and ceiling
  • Sand and varnish floor boards
  • Hang new blind in window
  • Stain fireplace mantel and surround (patchy and chipped)
  • Find new tiles for hearth
  • Install new light pendant, two new downlights, new light switches and power points.

This is a single bedroom and just this room has a multitude of jobs. Yes, this home was in terrible condition, but realistically you’ll want to be doing this to any character home you buy to a varying degree.

So, you would go through every single room in the house in this fashion. Yes, there will be things you forget and things that you can’t always see, but you should also pick up some ideas and extra things from your building inspector from when you purchased the property too.

Once you’ve gone through every room in the house in this manner, you would group all the tasks then by trade, so for example the painter, and then you effectively have a scope of works for the painter ready to go for a quote. If you’re going to live in the house for years to come, by all means have a crack at the painting, but be realistic as the jobs become bigger and you should be hiring a trained and licenced painter, especially with these older style homes. Plus, painting a whole house in itself is a HUGE job. I bought my first home when I was 21, and I was so excited I went all-out gung ho, gave the walls a hasty wipe over with a damp rag and went for it with the paint roller. Second coat – the roller literally took off my first coat and a hundred years of paint coats before it and it flaked like you wouldn’t believe. All the walls in the house had calcimine on them, which if you run your hand over the wall it’s like chalk coming off it on your fingertips. With this, you have to sugar soap the walls and then use a really solid primer sealer undercoat (PSU) before applying your top coats. When in doubt save yourself some time and money and get advice from an expert!

Bedroom after

Moving on, you by now have your trades, with the scopes of works in a list room by room, and then you have the task of working out the order. This is known as a work breakdown structure or schedule and there are several templates online. Some items are obvious and common sense, like paint ceilings and walls before you sand and varnish floorboards, but others, like when to drill holes for down lights, or when to re-wire the house, are not obvious if you’ve not renovated a home before. There are tons of renovation courses out there you can do, for example Cherie Barber’s Renovation course which is fantastic or if you’re not up for doing a course, then I suggest you ask your trades when you get quotes from them when they’d like to get in and do the job. After the painting? Before the floor’s been sanded? If you’re getting multiple quotes, which of course you should, you can find a gold mine of knowledge from good tradespeople.

Ask your tradespeople for time frames on when they can do the work and how long they think it will take them to do. This will help you create a program and you can feed your trade quotes into your budgeted cash flow.

You can use excel or a program like Microsoft Project to create a simple gantt chart or calendar for the works.

3. HAVE THE MONEY

DEFINITELY do NOT start a renovation if you don’t have the budget to finish it! Firstly, you’re probably spending money on holding interest, secondly, you might be living in the house you’re trying to renovate (also don’t recommend this, I’ve done it and it ain’t healthy for your body and can make or break relationships!!) Make sure that you have the funds to do it from start to finish. If you don’t have enough, borrow it, wait until you do have the money, or don’t buy the property. I read about families that take a decade to renovate a character home and they aren’t in a hurry to renovate again. “We’ll build next time” is a common thought after years of living in dust, mess and portaloos.

4. WHAT TO KEEP AND WHAT TO REPLACE?

Have a good think about what original features you want to keep and what you have to replace.

Restorations are expensive. Sometimes, if the council allows you, it’s better to replace the feature rather than fix it up. Some small examples of this are ceiling roses, skirting boards, cornices, stonework, verandas, retaining walls, stone walls, fences, fireplace mantels and fireplace inserts. For example, in both major character home renovations I’ve done, I’ve replaced the ceilings and cornices because the ceilings were in really bad condition and the cornices were too, or there were some rooms without cornices at all, which made that decision easy. Having said that, heritage cornices are very expensive to install so you should weigh up whether you really need to replace the cornices if you can. You often need an experienced plasterer to do these cornices as the corners and mitres are tricky to get right and if you’re installing the cornice on an old ceiling the chances are the ceiling has bowed and it ain’t level.

Don’t be too fussy about how elaborate the latticework on the veranda is or how fancy the fireplace mantels are. If they’re in good nick and they are original – keep them. It’s part of the history of the home and it’s just spending money for nothing, in my opinion. My other half will disagree I’d imagine, but trust ME on this one!

Formal living room with new ceiling and cornices with original flooring and doors

5. FIRST IMPRESSIONS

The front garden and façade of the home is a very important aspect of renovating character homes. I always opt for formal gardens to character homes, especially with symmetrical cottages and villas. If the mortar between the stone on your facade is a bit dull and dark but otherwise in good condition there is a more affordable option then getting it all re-pointed! Give it a clean (not with a pressure cleaner, this will destroy the mortar and the stone) and then if your linework is only faded you can repaint the mortar joints the colour you think it should be, and add back the lines with a colored tile grout pen afterwards. Old red bricks with herringbone patterns make fantastic driveways and paths but are not cheap, so think carefully about this when creating your front garden. Box hedges and standard roses are a really great option for a super formal front garden or you could create an arch for climbing plants if you want to get a bit more creative.

symmetrical front garden

FORMAL FRONT GARDEN

6. CONSIDER THE CONNECTION BETWEEN OLD AND NEW

If you’re extending a character home consider carefully the join of old and new with your architect or building designer. It really depends on the roofline and if you’re cutting back the original house. Sometimes a big statement transition between the old and new parts of the home is necessary, but this is ALWAYS astronomically more expensive. A “tack” on extension is the cheaper option that retains the rooms with the original heights and removes the lower height lean-tos is the way to go but it can often lead to a tacky looking result if you’re not careful. See below the two options I mention on previous projects and both look really great even though their budgets were completely different.

Impressive tower connecting the old home with new skillion on the left. On the right is a lowered section connecting the old part of the home with the new skillion.

7. CHECK WITH COUNCIL

Check with your relevant council what you can and can’t do to the front of (or any part of) the property. Check the colour schemes and fence styles you’re allowed to do by chatting to the council heritage planner. Look out for State Heritage and seek the advice of the Council for Local Heritage and Conservation zones. They want to see these homes restored. Also if you have a modern twist on an element of a heritage home don't give up on it. I know couples that have waited 4 years to get planning approval for their designs. After a huge battle with the council to get it approved, the council now refer future renovators past their home as a great example in the area of mixing single level street facing heritage with a two-storey rear extension.

8. Don't DIY everything

Just don't. Electrical and plumbing work should go without saying but here is list of items you should try to avoid doing yourself.

Don’t knock down walls (do you know that it is load bearing?)

Don’t do your own heritage cornicing (heavy and awkward)

Don’t hire a floor sander and try do it yourself.

Don’t re-roof your house yourself! Not only is all of this potentially very dangerous, but you’ll be much slower than a professional and you won’t be as good.

If you make a mistake by knocking down a loadbearing wall, you’re going to cost yourself a lot more money than if you just hired a carpenter to install a beam above your desired opening.

9. TAKE PHOTOS!

Take loads of photos all the way through, before, during and after. It’s great to look back on what it was before, all the hard work during the works, and then the result at the end. It’s such a great feeling and a great story to show friends and family.

Its also great to look back on where the electricians or plumbers ran their pipes and services before the walls get lined. It can help with avoiding very busy walls full of services later when trying to hang that painting or shelf.

BEFORE

AFTER

10. HAVE FUN

I think in old houses you can be a bit more eclectic and experimental. There’s so many styles you can opt for, but my suggestion would be to ensure it’s uniform in its style throughout the house. Create a Pinterest board for inspiration. If you’re renovating to sell, always go with a neutral and classic style; you’ll appeal to the biggest market.

During the thick of the work it can feel stressful, expensive and sometimes bring out the worst in us, especially when a partner or family member disagrees with how something should be done! Just remember why you're doing it, try to keep a grip on the bigger picture and know that at the end it will totally feel worth it! Tony Robbins says something I love - people say "one day we'll look back on this and laugh". Why wait? Don't forget to laugh!

Front bedroom of recently completed renovation

Hallway of recently completed renovation