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Step-by-step guide to home renovations (part one)

Johannes van Graan Johannes van Graan
by Tim Versteegh Architect
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Renovating a property might sound like a big undertaking – that’s because it is! Even though run-down houses can represent real bargain potential and can provide a fantastic way to stretch a budget and get more home for your money, it is not a project that should be taken lightly. 

Renovation certainly doesn’t come without its risks, and first-time renovators can easily come unstuck, especially if they are tempted to rush into starting work without first taking stock of the structural condition of the property.

Like everything in life, there is a logical order in which home renovation works should be undertaken – and what luck, for we have it right here…

1. Assess the building’s condition

First things first: you need to get a detailed assessment of the current condition of the property. The building report will reveal the type of construction used across different parts of the house. 

This is vital to note, as it will affect the type and extent of any alterations that can be made, as well as the appropriate materials and techniques.  

If the building is to be remodelled or extended, it is also essential to get a measured survey of the building.

2. Stop further decay

Any building left empty for more than a few months will start to deteriorate. But minor dilapidation, dampness, climbing plants and pests are not the only worries—vandalism and theft by trespassers are also quite common. 

Work needs to be done to secure the site to prevent trespass and, if at all possible, to make the building weather-tight. Windows and doors can be boarded up either with sheets of ply, or in more susceptible areas, by using metal shutters that can be rented.

It is also necessary to take out adequate buildings- and public liability insurance cover to protect against accidental damage through fire, storm or flood etc, or legal action from a trespasser who suffers injury.

3. Check for any grants or tax concessions

Although they are few and far between, there are grants available in some instances for restoration and home improvement work, either at a local level via local councils or at national level from Central Government via National Heritage. 

There are also VAT concessions, such as a reduced rate for dwellings empty for three years or more. It is essential to apply for grants before starting any work to avoid disqualification.

4. Apply for consents

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You need to identify which aspects of your proposed renovation project require statutory consent as early as possible. It’s important to know whether or not the work requires: 

• Planning permission.

• Building regulations approval, and/or 

• Listed building consent.

Sometimes applications can take several months, which may influence your decision on which works to undertake.

If you are building near the boundary, you should also check whether or not your work is affected by the Party Wall Act. It is also recommended to have your solicitor check your title deeds or lease, for any restrictions to development of the property.

5. Stabilise the structure

Now that the building’s condition has been stabilised and all consents are in place, it is time to start work on site. It may be necessary to make sure that there is a supply of water (if there was one it may have been disconnected) and electricity for power tools, possibly using a temporary meter box depending upon the condition of any existing wiring.

It is also crucial to ensure that the building is structurally stable. This might mean underpinning, or piling work to improve or stabilise any existing foundations, steel ties to stop lateral spread in walls or a roof, or the insertion of steel props, beams or scaffold to prevent further collapse.

6. Demolition and clearance/salvage

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Once the structure is stable, it is time to undertake any demolition work that is required and to strip the building back to the part that is to be kept.

Anything that can be salvaged and reused should be removed and stored somewhere safe, or sold on to a salvage yard if not required for the project. If demolition works are extensive, it might be possible to sell the salvage rights, in which case some of the removal work may be undertaken by the reclamation yard. 

This could go a long way in saving time and effort and potentially raising some cash as well.

7. Solving damp

Country style houses by A|F architetto Country Bricks

Any building older than 80 years is likely to have solid walls (as opposed to modern cavity walls) either of brick, stone, oak frame, earth or even chalk. Such buildings often suffer from damp problems, although in many cases the problems are the result of modern alterations or ‘improvements’ such as replacing lime with cement in pointing or render.

If there are signs of rising damp in an older building, get at least two professional independent opinions to ensure that it really is rising damp (there should be signs of hygroscopic salts) and to find a suitable solution.

Penetrating damp problems in walls and ceilings can usually be resolved by repairing the building’s fabric, such as re-pointing brickwork with lime mortar, repairing lime render or missing hung tiles, fixing the roof, and repairing lead flashings and valleys, guttering and windows and doors.

This is also the stage to treat the building for any signs of infestation.

8. Check drains/service connections

Now is the time to check whether the existing drains are in working order. Find the inspection chambers (manholes) and get someone to pour different-coloured food dye down the sinks to find out what is connected to where and whether any drains have collapsed and require digging up. If an extension is in the cards, you may have to relocate drains anyway.

If there is no mains drainage connection, it is also a good idea to inspect the condition of any existing septic tank and soakaways.

9. Plan access/site layout

Where a site has restricted access, it is a good idea to plan ahead and get any large items or machinery in for landscaping, before access is further obstructed by new building work and stored materials.

10. Major structural work and extensions

As the existing building is stable with no danger of concealing problems, any major building work can now get underway. 

All new work must comply with the Building Regulations. As of January 2006, new building regulations applications for extensions have to include proposals to upgrade the thermal performance of the existing part of the house.

Measures should be taken to protect any parts of the existing building that could be vulnerable to damage during the main construction stage of the project, especially in listed buildings.

11. Fit doors and windows to make it weathertight

Once the roof structure is complete and felted and battened, the structure should be made weathertight to keep out the elements and to secure the building. 

With the scaffold up, it is recommended to check that any chimney stacks and pots are stable and clear, to put on bird guards, and to repair lead flashings around the chimneys, in valleys, on hips, dormers and any abutments.

Doors and windows can also now be installed and glazed. Where doors and windows are not yet on site, the openings should be covered in plastic sheets or boarded up.

Please note that all new and replacement windows are more or less obliged by the Building Regulations to be double glazed, unless the building is listed, in a Conservation Area, or of great character. Building control has the right of discretion.

To get more informed on home improvement, find out: What is a party wall agreement?

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