The doer-upper: A journey of renovating, diy and maternity leave
In this episode, we talk to Barbara about the journey of falling in love with a fixer-upper home.
Plus the challenges of handling costs in a ‘labour only’ building contract, and the joys of undertaking DIY projects during maternity leave.
Amy: Welcome to Stories from Site, the renovation podcast that digs a little deeper. I’m Amy Dohnalek and together with my co-host Jane Middlehurst we peek behind the curtains of those insta-worthy interiors to bring you the real processes people went through to make their dream homes a reality.
In this episode, we talked to Barbara about the journey of falling in love with a fixer upper home, as well as the challenges of handling costs in a labor only building contract, and the joys of undertaking DIY projects during maternity leave.
So Welcome to the podcast, Barbara.
Barbara: Thank you for having me.
Amy: Do you want to start by explaining where you’re based what you’ve been doing?
Barbara: So I’m based in Essex, more recently, used to live in Romford. We recently bought this house in, well, is it recent now? It feels, because we’ve been working on it for so long.
Amy: You’re like yesterday.
Barbara: Yeah, because we’ve only recently moved in, but we’ve been doing all the work. But we bought it in February and we only moved in, I’d probably say about three weeks ago.
Barbara: Yeah, the renovation was a lot. I would say we’re still living out of boxes. We’re not really completely settled yet, but it’s just nice to be here. For so long, we were staying with family whilst the renovations were ongoing because we’ve got young children.
I had a baby in December. Yeah, so it’s been a lot. I’m on maternity leave, that’s another thing. So I don’t know whether I’d recommend doing that. Whether anyone should really, you know, embark on a project like this whilst on maternity leave. But yeah, it’s coming towards the end and I’m, it’s weird.
I’m looking forward to going to work because it’s like, I want to do more things, but the money’s run out.
Jane: you’re gonna have to top up and come back.
Barbara: exactly, exactly. I’ve got the free time, but I don’t have the money at the moment to do any more things, it’s a balance.
Amy: It sounds like you probably should have a tiny bit of a rest. I don’t know, just like
what you’ve just described.
Barbara: I, wish I could, I wish I could, but when you’re, when you’re living in it and you’re looking around and you’re just like, Oh, you know, you could do this room. You’re trying to take it bit by bit, but it is, it is difficult when you’re living in it and you want it to be perfect, but you know that it’s a journey.
Amy: So tell us a bit about the journey, what was the house like when you bought it and, and, and what have you done to it so far?
Barbara: so so this is our second, it’s our second house. It was, it’s in a really nice develop, would I call it a development? Yeah, it’s like a lovely cul de sac, lots of beautiful, like, detached homes. And from the outside it looks pretty good. Perfect. And it wasn’t a house that was on our radar at all because I guess it was initially above our budget.
So it wasn’t coming up in any, any of our search results. And me and my husband Wow. Picking a house, we really struggled. So we weren’t really agreeing on the type of houses we wanted. So he found this one actually, I think ’cause it had been reduced. And I was just like, why are we going to see this house?
It’s at the top of our budget. I’m not really interested because We didn’t want to have a house or pick a house that was at the top of our budget if it needed work. We would only pick a house at the top of our budget if it was ready to move in because at that point I was nine months pregnant and I didn’t really want to be doing any work.
So we went to see this, against my own judgment and yeah I fell in love. When we saw the house on the outside it was beautiful, the inside when you walk in then you know exactly why it’s been reduced. They initially on the right move listing, they had used I think like virtual software to recreate what the room could look like if you designed it yourself.
So we knew already that the house doesn’t look like that. So when we walked in, we were like, okay, we understand why the flooring wasn’t too bad, but you could tell it was really dated.
There was a lot, there was a fireplace there, but there was just a lot of soot around. All the radiators were filled with black soot. The kitchen, there was hardly any units they’d taken away the cooker, they’d taken, there’s just so, it was hardly anything there, they even took away the extractor, I’m not sure what they would have done with that there was a leak on the, in the kitchen floor there were no lights in the living room or the dining room we went upstairs, there’s four bedrooms, so it’s a four bedroom detached house,
But when we walked into the ensuite bathroom, we saw that the tiles had broken off, and there was a hole in the wall, and there was a hole on the floor. So we were like, what’s happened there? And the agent was like, oh we don’t know, but you know, that’s why it’s been reduced, because obviously the house needs some work.
So that’s what we saw. But the thing that sold us completely was just the size of the garden. The garden is huge and I’ve always wanted a big garden but I didn’t think I could get a garden this size. It’s like over 100 feet. It’s so beautiful. I don’t know how wide it is but it’s pretty wide because it covers both the width of our house and the width of our garage as well.
We’ve got a detached garage so it’s a pretty big garden. So we was just like, you know, we’ve always wanted to extend. It’s not… something for now. But we thought, wow, we’ve got so much potential in the house. The sizes of the rooms are fantastic. So we were like, you know, well, maybe if we could get the, you know, the vendor down, you know, and get a good deal.
This house seems perfect. I was so excited that my husband had to tell me, calm down, took me aside. He’s like, calm down. He’s like, you’re not supposed to do this. We’ve had this conversation. Don’t give everything away
Amy: Like keep the cards to your
Barbara: Yeah, and I’m usually really good, but when I saw the garden, he immediately grabbed my arm and was like, calm down, calm down.
But yeah, when we looked inside, you could see all the work, but it was just such a lovely shell. And, if, you know, even though it was at the top of the budget, I was like, I want this one. It doesn’t matter how long it takes us to get it right. This is the house that we want.
Amy: So did you actually manage to buy it before the baby came?
Barbara: We completed after the baby came, And it was around that time because we got our mortgage approved in November.
So it was really at the peak of when all that, you know, palava was going down with the interest rates. So we didn’t really get a favourable interest rate, but to be fair, compared to what it is now, it’s not as bad, but it was pretty bad then considering what we had come from in our previous property to that.
So again, it’s just a big adjustment. There’s so many things that we had prepared for, like finance wise, in terms of planning, especially because I was going on maternity leave and how to be able to meet mortgage payments and renovation costs. But when we saw those interest Those new interest rates, yeah, to do some more planning, again, quite quickly.
Amy: And some deep, deep breaths as well at the same time.
Barbara: deep breaths, it’s like,
What do you do? We do need somewhere to stay. We’ll stay with my mum, which is lovely, because she’s got space in her, in her house. We already have a three year old, so it’s like to have another, a newborn, it’s just like, oh, So we were so eager to move in. So immediately, even before we completed, we were looking for builders. Because we heard that it could be a bit difficult and that was our first, well we had, we’d done a renovation before in a previous house but it was nothing like, you know, this level or this magnitude.
Amy: So did it need any planning or was it internal? I mean, it sounds like you had to do quite a lot internally. But what did you do in terms of the renovation?
Barbara: yeah, so it didn’t, we didn’t need any planning or anything because we just didn’t, we didn’t take down any walls or anything. I wanted to take down a few walls but because we are quite keen on extending later on as soon as we can access some of our money in the house we didn’t want to do too much at this point, structurally, when we’re going to make some structural changes a bit later.
So what we did was we changed all the flooring on the ground floor. We’ve done, we’ve got some underfloor heating. We’ve we replastered all the ceilings because obviously the leak from the ensuite that we found out about that had leaked through to the dining room.
And it had damaged the ceiling.
We were lucky in that we had paid for a building survey. So the surveyor came and he’s the one that found out the extent of the damage. We wouldn’t have known that there was damage to the dining room ceiling.
But he could see that it was a really shoddy job.
Amy: So yes, we plastered the ceilings. There was no, for some reason they are taking up all the carpet upstairs and all the stairs, so we were just left with underlay.
Barbara: They left the underlay, thankfully, and the carpet grippers, so we had to, new carpet on the stairs and all the four bedrooms upstairs. We had to completely rip out and redo the bathroom and the ensuite upstairs for obvious reasons. The building surveyor found out that Along with the leak in the ensuite, because that was a long term leak.
There had also been a leak in the main bathroom too. Not as bad, but again, so then he also found that there was some moisture that had gone through the walls and through the floors into the next bedroom. Again, nothing, something that we wouldn’t have been able to tell if not for the building survey, so thank goodness.
I recommend everybody get one of those. They’re quite pricey, but yeah, there’s a lot of things that when you’re viewing a house and you’re really excited that you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t really know, or even know to check yourself. And what else did we do? The kitchen as I said earlier, was just not in the right state.
We ripped out what was there, what little was there. So we had to get a completely new kitchen as well. So it was really, yeah, everything was just internal. We didn’t want
to do too much. Yeah, it was, it was a lot, because every, every single room got some action. But yeah. We really are quite keen on extending.
So it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s bittersweet in a sense that say, for example, we really love the kitchen at the moment. We tried to keep it within budget, but still do something that we liked, but we’re like, Oh my goodness, in the next five years or so, we’re going to knock it through because for this extension and that money’s just gone.
But we had that in mind when we was making our choices and stuff. So but still it’s hurt. It hurts to do.
Jane: You don’t want to just do everything so cheap that you’ve wasted money. But at the same time, you’re thinking about reusing for the next stage, yeah.
Barbara: Yeah. And you want to be you want to be excited about a home that you’re moving into. We came from a two bedroom terraced house and so to move into like a four bedroom detached house. It’s been quite nice, but we still want to live in the same, you know, to the same standard that we had in our old smaller house.
But it’s not, it’s not always easy.
Amy: So, you found the builder and did he help you kind of say, Oh, it’s going to cost this much. Tell me about the budget process you knew you had a certain pot, like
Amy: manage it?
Barbara: yeah. So like I said, we were already, we picked the house at the top of the budget, but we still had some money left for work. But definitely not enough money for the level of work that we found out we needed to do. So when we’re looking for a builder, we had a few builders come in to give us quotes.
And when I tell you the range of prices we received. That was, that’s something we weren’t really prepared for. But the builder we ended up going with, he was really lovely. He’s really like family orientated. He had a, it was a family business. And he just seemed really keen to do the project.
It seemed like he was really interested in making it a home for us and doing it well. And we felt that we could talk to him and get some advice as well as him just doing the work. So he Gave us a quote. So we had looked around to see what these things might cost.
But still, I really don’t think that there’s much transparency there because everyone’s project is different. So we didn’t have the best ballpark range. We went with this builder because we thought, you know what? That’s reasonable, given all the other prices we had received the other quotes. So that’s kind of how we made that selection.
The the thing we weren’t prepared for was the price of materials. That’s something that, although he gave us the cost for some materials, things like cement, you know, and things like that, no one tells you about, you know, how much sealant you might need, or, you know, how many pipes you might need to buy, and how many, yeah, no, you can’t, you can’t anticipate these things, but you have to pay for them, because that’s the thing that’s So, budgeting was, was difficult.
We, we had the money saved for the builder that we picked and for the price that he quoted us. But for the materials, we had some money left, but most of that was coming from income at that point.
Jane: Okay, so that’s interesting from the contractor, I guess. In that time, there’d been massive price fluctuations in the materials, like you said.
Jane: So he, he basically gave you a quote that was for the labor,
he just was saying, let’s see the materials as we go and you pay for those separately.
Barbara: Exactly, yeah, there were some materials included, but it really wasn’t much. It was just, like, big things like sand, cement floorboards, if we might need those. But the bulk of the materials, we had a WhatsApp group. And he would basically just send us links like, we need this, we need this, we need this.
And then he’d buy it, or there’ll be other things that he might buy, give us the receipts, we’d see in the house, if there was leftover he would return it and then we’d settle it that way. But yeah, it was a lot.
Amy: How did you find that process? Like, did you find it quite stressful not knowing what was coming or was it quite nice because you knew like, okay, all my money is going on. Like, you know, where it’s all going directly,
Barbara: No, it wasn’t nice. I prefer to know, and I think especially because,
planning wise, being on maternity leave at the same time and not knowing what costs could still come. I only get, I only had six months full pay. So my daughter was born in December. So that really was going to be until June. So really and truly, I wanted to know that the money would be enough, especially because most of the materials was coming from income.
At that point, you know, my husband’s covering the mortgage. He’s covering everything else. We’ve got childcare as well for my oldest daughter. So it’s, it’s been a challenging year. Me and my husband, we tend to describe this period as, you know, survival, you know, and we’ll be probably, let’s say next year, we’ll probably be living and like enjoying life a bit more.
We just need to get through this period first. But yeah, that it’s, it’s stressful not knowing what costs are coming in terms of materials, because they’re not costs you can say no to where they’re essentials.
Amy: You’re like, no, you can’t have any more plasterboard.
Amy: You know.
Did you feel like you had control over, for example, the kitchen? Obviously there’s this pot of money, he’s asking for materials, and then, did you kind of have, okay, in my mind, there’s only this much left for the kitchen, and so like, I’m sticking to that kind of thing.
Did you feel like that? Or, did you have a different strategy?
Barbara: Yeah, so we had a specific amount. Well, the kitchen is a lot easier. Well, I guess to an extent, because obviously we had purchased the kitchen separately from Well, we used Wren Kitchens because we love their customer service and we had a really good experience with them. So a lot of the things were included in that price.
So everything else, actually, there was still a lot to be fair. We had the flooring, we had all the like the taps and sinks that we bought separately and tiling on the wall and splashbacks. Um, Those were all our design choices. And I found that our builder He allowed all the design choices to be led by us.
And he only advised us if practically those things wouldn’t work. And we really appreciated that because there were things that we found that, you know, maybe other builders might not have said, you know they could just install it and be like, if that’s what you want, that’s what you get. But he’d be like, I don’t think this is really good quality.
So for example, we bought like a brass mixer tap and he was just like, this doesn’t feel like it’s going to last. He’s like, I can fit it for you. And it’ll be functional, but I don’t think it’s going to last you a long time. And he didn’t have to say all that, you know.
But that, we, we really appreciated that. And he was constantly doing things like that, giving his opinion. If we bought something and he thought this is brilliant quality, he’s like, Oh, this is fantastic. He’s like, this is really good. So he was encouraging us as well, because we wanted to do things that he approved us and it approved us and it, yeah, it reassured us that we were making good decisions.
But there were other decisions, you know, for example, where we’re like, well, there’s no more money. This is the best we can do.
Amy: So when you were on site, were you, were you living close by at your mum’s? Was she close enough that, it was quite easy to check in on the builder? Or was the, the WhatsApp the main way to communicate?
Barbara: No, so yeah, we used WhatsApp mainly, but this property is only about 20 minutes away from my mum’s place. So we were coming every day anyway. Not necessarily me, but my husband. But in terms of things like, okay, what are you doing today? Those conversations we tend to have on WhatsApp.
Initially, in the beginning, we thought, well, let’s just pop in and see, how he’s getting on without telling him just to see what they’re doing. But, you know, the trust was established so sometimes we started telling, Oh, you know, we’re coming by today. Is there anything you need us to pick up? Any materials that you need?
Our builders were fantastic because I did a few DIY projects myself around the house. They were used to seeing me both when I was heavily pregnant and after and they kept saying, what are you doing here? Like, go back home to your baby. And I was like, this is my break.
Jane: It’s nice to feel that sense of achievement of just getting through some jobs, isn’t it? Or doing something practical.
Barbara: yes. That isn’t breastfeeding at that period. 110%.
Jane: So what were the, types of things that you did yourself that were kind of those tasks?
Barbara: The main, thing was the paneling. So I did select the wall, wall paneling and paneling up the stairs as well, and in the landing upstairs, I dunno why I’ve never done any sort of d i y before, but I was just really keen to do something for myself. I’d seen so many people doing it on socials and I thought, you know, so many women doing it.
And I thought, you know what? They do not have two heads. My dad used to always say that, bless his soul, he used to always say, he’s like, if this person, if they do better than you, he’s like, do they have two heads? You’ve got one head, they’ve got one head. What is stopping you doing what they can do?
So I thought, you know what, I’m going to try this. They say it’s cheaper because I didn’t actually get a quote for the panelling, but I had heard from other people that it can be quite expensive. But when I had totaled up the cost for all the materials that I would need to do it myself, I thought, okay, this isn’t bad.
And if it goes terribly wrong whilst the builders are here, they could help me out.
So it’s probably the best time for me to do it whilst they’re around. So, what was great about that is I didn’t have to, I bought some tools myself, but my builder was lovely enough to show me how to use his tools.
So things like you know, the large mitre saws, I didn’t have to buy one of those to cut my wood. I just asked him, I was like, please, I was like, show me how to use yours. He’s like, of course, sometimes he would leave his expensive tools. These tools can cost hundreds and thousands of pounds. And he’d leave them in the house.
Over the weekend, for example, when they’re not working, so I could use them. So uh, yeah, that was really nice of him. But yeah, that project was tough mainly because I didn’t, I’ve never done it before.
I didn’t have much time, it took longer than expected, simply because as a new mum, again, I couldn’t spend too long away from my daughter. So I had to keep coming back to the house yeah, every day for short visits. So I would have preferred to, you know, stay and do, have longer stints where I did more work, but that wasn’t really an option for me.
So, it took me about, probably about six weeks, if I’m honest. Whereas if it wasn’t for all my parental commitments, it probably may have taken me, realistically, maybe five days.
Barbara: Yeah, five days to six weeks. Yeah. Yeah. But I’m glad I’m glad I’ve done it. Even my husband, I don’t think he thought I had it in me.
Amy: No, but I love that. Kudos to you because I see everyone doing it and I’m like, wow, I really want panelling as well. But do I trust myself enough to…
actually do it. But I love that you were just like, yeah, do they have two heads? I’m going to remember that.
Barbara: don’t have two heads. So, no, I was, I was, I was, yeah, it worked. And yeah, like every day, I can’t lie, every day I see it, I’m just like, oh, I actually did that because it looks good. It looks good. It’s a real confidence boost. Part of me is like, oh, what should I do next? But
the other part of me is like, you know what, let’s not,
Amy: Quit while you’re ahead
Barbara: yeah, let’s not burst that bubble.
Amy: Well, I feel like you went for something quite hard. I mean, especially up the stairs.
Barbara: Yeah, that was the hardest bit. But I found some really good like YouTube videos that has some really cool hacks that I was able to follow. I was willing to try anything. My husband’s like, let me help you. And I was like,
I have to do it from start to finish by myself. I know you can help me and stuff like that, but I just, I really want to say that I did it.
Jane: I think there’s something definitely about that very like early baby bit because you’re so restricted aren’t you in what you can do because you’re kind of you know you’re on such a a tight schedule that there is that energy it’s just like bursting out of you. when my second was born I signed up to a pottery course I didn’t do any panelling, which would have been more useful.
I made some house numbers out of clay and I remember the lady there just being like, why are you here? Like, this is clearly not necessary, but I just, I wanted to achieve somethingand it feels good to have some time for yourself to actually do something, that you’re in control of.
Barbara: I completely agree. I think, especially because this time around when I found, when I had my first daughter, it was during lockdown. So I wasn’t able to go out at all. So this has been like my first maternity leave, where the world is open. So I’m just like, let me use it. Let me do something.
I wanted some freedom.
that sounds amazing.
Amy: So, going forward, what’s, what are you thinking about doing next? Cause it sounds like there’s more.
Barbara: Yeah. to be fair, work wise, I mean, I want to, our downstairs toilet, I want to do some painting and, make it look pretty. So that’s main, the main thing, but everything else is more stylistically. Right now we have a home that is structurally sound and safe. No leaks or anything like that, but it doesn’t look very pretty at the moment because we haven’t had the time to do all of that yet because we haven’t been here for that very long.
So that’s the thing. We’re focusing on making it home in a practical sense, putting things away and just making it a pretty space. We’re trying to start room by room, starting with my daughter’s room at the moment because that’s the easiest and she’s quite invested in having her room
look made up.
But I’m just taking it room by room at the moment me and my husband have slightly different design, design influences. So it always takes a while before we agree and we’re not necessarily agreed on a couple rooms.
Jane: So those ones are going to be tackled last. I’m interested to know um, any advice that you would have for somebody in that situation where It’s, you know, it’s just very quick. You’re buying, there’s time pressure, you know, looking back. What are the, what’s the advice that you would give to someone else in, in your situation?
Barbara: The planning that financially is the main thing. And there’s only so much you can do, especially because we try to plan and then, lo and behold, there’s so many things that happen outside of our planning that we have to just, you know, deal with. But financial planning, do the best you can, especially if you are in a situation like me where you’re going on maternity leave.
So you know, you know that your finances are going to be limited. You know exactly when that’s going to happen. Try and budget as well as you can. Easier said than done when it comes to materials. But if you do, I know there are some builders that actually can set out you know, all the materials that you have to buy or, and maybe even quote you for all of the materials.
If you’re able to find a builder that does that, I think that would be fantastic. So you wouldn’t be surprised, you know, when you receive your messages every day about all the things you need to buy to complete your project. I’d also say getting a building survey done, especially if you’re getting a house that looks like it hasn’t had much love in a long time.
Our house was it was previously a rental property, and I think it was a long term rental property, where the vendor hadn’t really been… taking care or keeping an eye on what the tenants were doing so the extent of the damage even, I think, caught her by surprise and she was quite apologetic in terms of, you know, I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize this had happened, this leak had been happening for years so a building survey would allow you to spot all those issues that aren’t immediately visible when you go on your own, you know, visits.
Sometimes you can be so carried away, like I was, when you see potential, when you see large rooms, and you see huge gardens. But because we did take it, we took a big risk. We took a big risk when we When we went for this house, because when the, when the surveyor told us about the leak, the long term leak he said it might be a reasonable cost to fix, but we won’t know the extent of the damage until we can actually get into the floors and the walls.
But you can’t do that until you buy the property. So we had to be like, you know what, let’s just take this, risk and hopefully the damage isn’t too extensive. And we were lucky that was the case, but it could have easily been the other way. But yeah, without the survey, we wouldn’t have done all that.
We probably, yeah, who knows? Who knows? Yeah, and what I would also say is, I think getting as many quotes as you can from different builders that helps as well. Because the prices vary, they vary so much. Like our prices. There’s, at least with two quotes, I could tell you that, within two quotes, There was probably at least 25, 000 between, let’s say quote A and quote B.
It, it, it can be, it can be huge. And whilst the company quoted us to 25, 000 more were more established and I guess more well known, quality wise it wasn’t that different. But yeah, definitely those things to try and at least give you a bit more certainty about the extent of the work you’re doing that will help you plan your finances around that.
Amy: Oh, thank you so much.
Jane: It’s such a beautiful house and I hope you get time to enjoy it, like you said, with your family and just take that time to just appreciate it now.
Barbara: Thank you. I, I don’t think it’ll be this year, , I’m honest, we’ve missed the summer period to enjoy the beautiful garden. But next year?
I cannot wait, I cannot wait. So yeah, next year we’ll be living this year’s just survival, but it’s okay. It’s short term pain, long term gain.
That’s the what me and my husband at our motto for this house, we’re just like, you know what? This house, we’re really gonna enjoy it in the years to come.
Let’s just manage for now.
Jane: We’ve just got to keep each other going.
Amy: Oh, thank you so much.
Jane: Thanks for being with us today. If you would like to see Barbara’s project and panelling install in action, then head to her Instagram or TikTok @thebabshouse. We’ll put a link in the show notes. We’ll be back next week with another Story From Site, so see you then.
Our closing thoughts:
Navigating a full doer-upper is no easy feat, especially when it’s making you stretch to the top end of your budget!
But remember the long game: Keep a clear vision of what you want to achieve in your mind and and why all your effort is going to be worthwhile!
View more episodes