I’m half Scottish and half Yorkshire, and though I heartily disapprove of cultural stereotyping, I have to admit that I’m a tight-fisted devil. This particular part of my genetic makeup is, in general, a good thing. I can spot a bargain at 100 meters (the Scottish side) and I refuse to hire a workman to do a job if there’s even the possibility of ‘having a go’ (that’s the Yorkshire heritage).
However, this approach to life’s little efficiencies has certainly led to some interesting times. In possibly my biggest effort to save a few quid – well probably tens of thousands of them actually – the last house I bought was not so much a ‘doer-up’ as a ‘oh my god it should be demolished’. As with any old house and renovation you can never really say that ‘the end is nigh’ but these days the little jobs outweigh the big ones. So having spent years working from the ground up, can I recommend this extreme do it yourself approach? Sort of!
The pros and the cons
What are the pros then? Money, money, money. Materials are costly enough, but when you add to that the labour costs, you can wave goodbye to an exotic holiday or two. Labour is by far the biggest cost when it comes to renovation. If you aren’t afraid of hard work – and lots of it – then you can save a small fortune. Labour costs can be £100 a day per labourer and I’ll leave you, as our American cousins would say, to do the math.
The cons? Well, in truth, not many. Not if you enjoy learning curves! The biggest problem you’ll face is simply that what a skilled labourer can accomplish in a day, you’ll find it will take you a week. Sometimes you’ll find it’s all gone a bit wrong and you have to start afresh. If you are not already of an optimistic frame of mind, you will at least probably develop one.
But I’m a bit clueless
This is no good excuse – as I was to start with! Prior to my own renovation project I could change a light bulb and knew roughly how to bleed a radiator. In the first house I’d owned we’d had the kitchen done by a builder, he’d offered to let us pull the old ceiling down to save costs so we did. That was, roughly, the full extent of my knowledge. Between myself and the better half we can now do the following: demolish stuff; build walls, fit RSJs, build fireplaces, mortar, plaster, plumb and wire. We can also put scaffolding up and take it down again – surprisingly important – fit chimney liners and chimney pots, point walls, fit radiators, light fittings and sockets. To be honest the list goes on. If i can do it from my slow start of being able to change a light bulb, most people probably can.
Sheer brute force and a slightly perverse enjoyment of hard labour are a surprisingly big part of renovating. You don’t need a lot of skill for this part of the work. There are some more technical areas that you may need a little advice, training and the occasional builder to call round and shake his head knowingly about; but most jobs can, with patience, be tackled. Two areas that usually provoke the most nerves amongst the un-initiated are plumbing and electrical work – so a couple of pointers:
Plumbing needn’t drive you round the bend
Plumbing is essentially a lot of pipes. Not the hardest concept in the world to master, although this can depend on the nature of the plumbing. Running the pipe work for domestic supply or central heating systems is definitely not rocket science. Copper piping is the traditional method, but what some plumbers won’t be willing to tell you is that there is a cheaper and easier type today. Plastic piping and connectors are available which make the job simpler and you can mix and match with copper where necessary. Having a plumber listed amongst your friends or family can help with the technical details, although advice is easy to come by on the internet these days.
This is one area that is probably best not approached as a novice – although there is certainly a lot of the hard labour that you can do yourself. Finding a good electrician who is qualified to do the work is the safest way, but if you’re working on the site yourself you may be able to come to a deal. The majority of electrical work now falls under the evils of the Building Regulations department of your local authority – so employing a competent person with the right piece of paper is crucial. Some, though they are few and far between, electricians who specialise in the self-build arena will be willing to let you do the ‘groundwork’, monitor your progress and sign off the work to the satisfaction of the local Building Regs office. Though scarce, these electricians can help in the battle to cut costs without costing lives. Alternatives include taking the necessary qualifications yourself – not perhaps cost effective in the short term, but potentially earning you money in the future.
The main benefit to taking a project on yourself is of course the warm glow that you get when your home is complete; he lied. Yes, you do get considerable satisfaction, but you also save considerable amounts of money and get to learn a lot of new skills. Self-building and renovation is not for the faint hearted – but for those willing to learn and work hard (really hard) and be prepared to laugh at the unexpected it is certainly an incredibly fulfilling option!