Unexpected discoveries: The cottage renovation

with Hannah

This week we talk to Hannah who is mid way through renovating her thatched cottage in the countryside. 

We discuss the downsides of renovating an old property as well as the difficulties of finding contractors and how she manages the logistics of DIY renovating around life and kids.



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.

This week we talked to Hannah, who is midway through renovating her thatched cottage in the countryside. We discussed the downsize of renovating an old property, the difficulty of finding contractors and how she manages the logistics of DIY renovating around life and kids.

So welcome Hannah. Thank you so much for being with us today. And I wondered if you wanted to talk about the house you brought, what drew you to it and yeah, your kind of vision.

Hannah: So we bought this house two and a half years ago. It’s a 400 year old cottage. And to be honest, it wasn’t the thatch that attracted us to it. In fact, that’s a bit of a nuisance. But it was mainly the space that we loved. We’ve gone a bit out of town. We were quite central before, and that’s given us more space.

We’ve got lots of potential for projects further down the line. And yeah, I think what we were attracted to was, was the space really more than anything.

Amy: Amazing. And can you explain the renovation you’ve done?

Hannah: So we are halfway through. I know quite a lot of your guests have sort of finished, but we are definitely still in the middle of it. Which I think also will probably change my perspective because I think when you’re out the other end, you’re a bit more positive about it, but. Right now it’s quite hard to be positive because it, it feels quite all consuming and overwhelming.

But we are, yeah, we’re about halfway through. And we’ve had to do all sorts of things. The house has been a bit of a surprise. I would guess maybe we were a bit naive because of the age of the house. Obviously it is very old, but there’s just been loads of problems that we’ve uncovered. So we’ve been sort of fighting fires, I would say, for the last couple of years, rather than doing all the things that we had dreamed of when we, when we moved here.

But yeah, I mean, we’ve renovated two houses before and they were period houses as well, but I think they were just really well maintained and so we had it quite easy with those houses. And then this one, Has not been. And maybe we were a bit naive going into it, thinking that it would be okay, but it hasn’t been.

Amy: Oh.

Jane: So, how long have you been in the house and, and how long, how far through are you?

Hannah: So we’ve been here two and a half years and we’re about 50% of the way through. I would say. I mean, there’s lots of potential projects that we’ve not even started. There’s a few outbuildings that we’d like to convert. But we’re not really, we’re not thinking about those at the minute. So, I mean, of the actual house in itself, to get that finished, I’d say we’re about halfway through.

Jane: When you say there is quite a lot of firefighting, can you give us a couple of examples of what type of fires you had to put out?

Hannah: Okay, so when we first moved in, like we, we believe the house was livable and it was on the surface, but as we’ve lived here longer, everything’s just started to break. So we were, we did do like a full survey, but, unfortunately when we moved in, we worked out that the boiler, which just wasn’t working properly, it was an old Rayburn and we had to replace that and get a more traditional boiler.

We also had to like replace loads of pumps and the oil tank. So all that sort of thing, which you just don’t even see the benefit of like aesthetically took out like quarter of our budget right from the offset, and that was just something that we hadn’t factored in at all. So that’s one of the things.

And then lots of other things that have just started breaking really, like all the bathrooms have been leaking. And we’ve un as we’ve started to do projects, we’ve uncovered horrible surprises and just bad diy. So I’ll give you a few examples. The floor downstairs in the living room in the hallway, which is about 70 meter squared worth of flooring, is wooden floor.

Its solid wood floor has the potential to be really nice, apart from the fact they’ve laid it on top of carpet.

Jane: Wow.

Hannah: So, it moves a lot, which has caused the boards to break, and there’s big gaps in between the boards and it’s just really gross. And then I was trying to fix a leaking shower a few months ago and I started to take down the tiles and behind the tiles and the shower was a whole nother layer of tiles and a whole shower.

Amy: Wow.

Hannah: I know I took a video of that one and put that on TikTok and Instagram, and actually that one went quite viral because everyone just like you had the same reaction. So there was the first shower, which I took down. Then there was a second shower, which I took down, and then behind the second shower was a whole nother layer of tiles with a mirror, which was a bit weird.

Amy: Wow. So they literally were just like, ah, yeah, it’s fine.

Hannah: Yeah.

Jane: It’s so strange to do that with the flooring and you know, that’s just like a whole mentality right there isn’t it? Of we’ll just build over the old.

Hannah: Yeah, and we had it checked for asbestos. Cause obviously that’s the first thing that comes to mind is maybe they’re just trying to cover something up. But everything was fine. There was no asbestos. It was, it was just bad diy. So it is things like that, that we are just kind of, n no job is ever simple.

Which means it just takes longer and more money for everything that we do. But we’ll get there in the end.

Amy: Can I ask you, cuz you said that you did two renovations before, did you get the bug from the first two and is that what kind of drew you to this one that you were kind of in your stride type thing.

Hannah: So I think it was, it is a bit necessity. Like we live in a very expensive part of the country, so the only way we could get a house initially when we got on the ladder was to just buy something that was run down. And then as our family has grown, cause we’ve got three small children as well, we’ve had to sort of upsize and again, each time, the only way that we could sort of afford that, what we, what we wanted was to buy something that needed improvement. And I think as well, we have, so we’ve moved every two years for the last eight years and I think it is quite addictive, renovating a property, earning money on it, and then being able to use that to do the next one.

My husband’s also completely addicted to Rightmove. So he’s always coming at me with new projects, but he hates DIY and doesn’t do any of the work. So yeah, that is a little bit, we’ve, I guess we did kind of get the bug. And as our family grew we just needed sort of more space.

So that’s how we’ve done it. But we’re, we are not moving now for a while. This house is definitely gonna take a lot longer to finish.

Jane: You know, you said you’re 50%. What projects have you managed to complete in the house so far?

Hannah: As I said, we’ve replaced all the heating system and the water system. We’ve got about 60 original beams and so we had those all sandblasted. That was a huge project, which we did right at the beginning cuz we had to empty the house again.

And we were still finding sort of sand for months after. So we did that before we decorated anything. And then we’ve done the kitchen. We’ve decorated throughout. Most of the rooms have been decorated, but they’re still finishing touches to do like all the flooring needs doing. We’ve replastered some rooms.

We are, we are about to do three bathrooms, so that’s our project for this year. We’ve got three bathrooms that need gutting and, and replacing. It’s, like I said, they’re all leaking and barely usable. But yeah, that’s what we’ve been doing and we’ve done stuff in the garden. We’ve sort of renovated the summer house in the garden, so there’s, there’s been odd bits here and there, but we haven’t done anything structural yet.

It’s mainly just been trying to make it, make it livable and bring it up to date and improve all the sort of things that we’re finding. As we, as we do the jobs.

Amy: It is kind of amazing to me to hear you speak about it. Cause when you look on Instagram, I mean, your house is so beautiful and it feels really complete. And so it’s interesting to hear that you are feeling what everyone feels, which is just that kind of overwhelm and just the effort that goes into renovating is a lot, isn’t it?

So it’s interesting to hear the reality versus kind of Instagram, which is what the purpose of this podcast was. So, yeah, it quite interesting.

Hannah: Yeah, that is the way, isn’t it with Instagram, especially with reels now, it’s all just like quick reveals. You click your fingers and the room’s transformed, which obviously we wish it all was like that, but it’s not, is it? So I do share a lot on stories of like the reality behind the scenes.

But yeah, if you were to look on my grid and all my friends say that too, they’re like, your house is never messy and it’s beautiful. And I’m like, you haven’t seen it recently. I’m like, you’ve gotta bring your slippers cuz all the floors are up and there’s, you know, there’s rubble everywhere.

And they just think it looks like it does on Instagram. Which, which it never does. And, and that will be the same for everyone who shares on Instagram, it’s never the same as it is on, on the grid.

Amy: Yeah, it is a lovely grid though, so.

Hannah: thank you.

Jane: I was just wondering, like sand busting beams, you’ve got obviously quite a few very specific projects that are specific to your house and, they’re not typical renovation jobs. How do you even go about working out what needs to be done, deciding what order to do things in and working out whether you can afford different things, like what’s your process for managing the project basically?

Hannah: So, a lot of it is dictated by having the kids as well, because it’s, you know, like we did their bedrooms first because we wanted them to have nice spaces to live in. And then timing and schedule can be dictated by them too, because, for instance, the sandblasting, we had to move out for a week. So we had to go and stay with my parents, so then that had to be scheduled in the half term.

So, you know, it is all that sort of thing that you are, then that kind of begins the process, I guess, of dictating what happens and when, and then you work around that. And also we do a lot of the work ourselves. Although my husband hates it, but he kind of gets roped into it. And again, that’s another case of when can we get childcare?

Okay, we’ve got three days here that my parents will look after the kids, so what, how much can we fit into this three days? So a lot of it is, Like dependent on that. And from the outset looking in, people would probably think, why are they doing it in that order? That doesn’t, you know, that doesn’t make sense.

But that’s just the constraints that we have that we have to work around. And I guess that’s probably the same for a lot of people as well. And then budget, budget wise and priority wise. We came into the, the house two and a half years ago with a real like idea of like, the bathrooms were our priority.

And funnily enough, actually the bathrooms are the one thing that we’ve not done yet.

So, It’s probably is not the best way of doing it at all, and if we’d had more money and been able to tackle everything in one go, that would’ve been a lot better. But I think this is probably the reality for more people, maybe that actually you do a bit as and when you can and you just keep plugging away and it can feel quite demoralizing at times.

But then you look back, especially when you’ve got Instagram, if you document everything, that can be quite helpful because you look back at what it was two years ago and you’re like, oh, wow. Actually we have, we have made a lot of changes even though it doesn’t feel like we’ve had that sort of click your fingers transformation moment.

So yeah, there isn’t a huge plan and I think one of the things is that we’ve just had to hold lightly to it because like things change all the time. We were at, we were totally thinking that we were going to do really well out of remortgaging and like our house value has shut up and we thought we’d get like a good chunk of money to do the next phase.

And then obviously the mortgage rates have come in and we’ve just been completely screwed by that. So, so I think like we’ve just, we are just constantly thinking on our feet and having to change plans and not hold on to anything to sort of tightly, because otherwise it would just get really depressing.

So it’s just a case of like, what can we do this week? What can we do next week? What’s the plan for this month? And then we go from there.

Whilst there isn’t a plan, like you’re saying, it sounds like there’s a lot of organization that has to happen because you’re saying that there’s these small windows

Amy: What percentage of the reno work is actually organization?

Hannah: A lot of it is organization, isn’t it? And logistics. And timings, and that’s definitely one of the things that keeps me up at night. Because it’s the thing you can’t control as well. Some of those things, which I find quite difficult. I think I’m a bit of a control freak. My husband would probably agree.

How do you get the information that you need and, and do, who do you go to to get advice for different things?

So my brother-in-law, very conveniently is a builder. He’s not based near us, but he runs his own building company. So I have a WhatsApp with him all the time. What, what’s this and what do I do? And, and he also does come down quite a lot and stay with us with his family. So he will come and help us with things and he helped us with our kitchen floor.

Andhe’ll do the hard bit that needs, like, actual skills and then he’ll show us and set us up with. With what needs to be done thereafter. So that is really handy to have him sort of on speed dial. Apart from that, it’s a case of, obviously we have done two houses before, so there is a certain base level of knowledge that I’ve got, and then it’s just research.

I’m constantly online, constantly just seeing what other people are doing, even if it’s nothing to do with a project that I’m on at the moment. You’re just constantly like, taking in, learning new things and then if I come across a problem, it’ll be a case of, you know, Google is your friend and just doing lots of research.

We’re actually semi-detached, which a lot of people don’t realize cuz of the layout of the house. You don’t really notice it. But, so our next door neighbors have obviously got a very similar house. So like the sandblasting, that was something that, like you said before, we’ve never,

come across that before in any of our houses. So we had a long chat with them about it and actually ended up using the person that they’d used for their house. So it’s sort of just using all the connections that you, you can, isn’t it? And, and using your community to help you work out the best way forward.

But we won’t tackle things like plumbing or anything like electric or anything, we won’t do that ourselves. We’d always, always get someone in.

Jane: That’s really interesting. I think seen as we’ve got you, and like you said, you are a little bit different because you are right in the middle of this process, what is the hardest thing for you right now? Because like you said, people reflect differently, but in the moment, what’s your biggest struggle with, with all of this?

Hannah: I think again, it’s the things that are out of my control, so it’s. Is waiting on tradesman to get back to you, waiting on quotes. It’s that sort of thing where you, you know, you don’t have any control over. And also because of the kids as well, like they’re, they’re young still, and it’s just being wary of the fact that we have got three bathrooms that are building sites.

Like we’ve got rubble and we’ve got unfinished floors, and we’ve got things hanging off and that is an extra pressure. Cause if it was just me and my husband, it, that wouldn’t matter at all, would it? You know, you always, you can just leave your tools lying around and that’s fine. Whereas it’s always that thing of like, okay, actually we just need to get this house a bit more livable now.

And if it was within our control, it would’ve been done by now. But it’s not. So it’s, it’s, I think that’s the thing I find the hardest. And also just. Yeah, just not knowing, like financially, I think not knowing how much things are going to cost like there are some things that you can budget for, but there are some things that just happen that are unexpected.

And so that is always a concern as well. And I think that’s a bit why we try and take on one project at a time so that we can then, reevaluate. We’ve not got the budget to just do the whole thing.

When we first spoke, you were talking about the struggle with trades and the kind of age of your building. Could you talk a bit about that?

Yeah, because the house is really old and obviously it’s got a, thatched roof. It’s very obviously just old and quirky. So we get a lot of tradesmen who turn up and I am short, or maybe it’s just me and they think, gosh, you look like a piece of work. I don’t know. But they just turn up. They, they do, they have a quick look around and they’re just like, nah.

And they, they’re like rushing out the door as quick as they can and we never hear from them again. To be fair, I totally get it because this house is a nightmare and everything that we’ve done, has been really tricky and has uncovered all sorts of issues. So they are right in running away, but it makes it really hard to book someone who’s willing to do the job because, you know, they’re all really busy at the moment and so why would they come and work here when they could just do a really easy job down the road in like a sort of regular 1930s house that might not have as many issues?

So yeah, we do have a problem with booking tradesmen, but I think that’s quite universal. And sometimes we wonder if, because the house is quite large whether they think we’ve got loads of money so that what, they just either put the price up because they think we, we could afford it, or they just put the price up cuz they don’t want the job either or.

We do struggle to get get a tradesman in.

Amy: So has that forced you to take more DIY jobs that maybe if you could get a tradesman in, you would pay for someone to do it, but has it forced you to do jobs that you wouldn’t otherwise, do.

Hannah: A bit. Yeah, because I just can’t be bothered to wait for them. Like, I’m not very patient, I just wanna get stuff done. So yes, definitely we have done more ourselves because it, like everyone knows it’s, that’s half a job in itself, isn’t it? you know, arranging all the logistics of having tradesman come round and they don’t turn up sometimes, or they, you know, and, I mean, I get it. Like I said, my brother-in-law was a builder, so I do get that, they also get loads of people wasting their time. So we do do a lot ourselves. And then also, we rely on family members a bit. And like we still pay them, obviously we’ll pay them their normal rate, but at least you know, they’re not gonna mess you around.

And so, that is like, I think what we have sort of tended to fall back on rather than waiting for people that we don’t know.

Amy: And in terms of your budget, you were saying that is difficult because you’re doing it over such a long period of time.

Like how are you approaching it?

Hannah: Yeah, I’d love to tell you that we had a budget, but we just don’t, we are not, we are really, that’s not our skillset. I’m not, you know, be totally honest. We, we are not great at like, Planning the budget. So we tend to just take each job as it comes. We’re like, do we feel like this is an appropriate amount of money to spend on this task and this job?

And then we, we go from there. So we are we’re, it is not like we are just throwing me at everything. Every decision we make we’re like weighing it up, whether we think that’s an appropriate cost, but we do tend to just. Stick with the smaller projects and then work out how much we’ve got after that.

Amy: Well, I guess that’s a good way to budget really. I mean, you are basically using the rooms to form your mini budgets, so, it is definitely a way of keeping tabs on costs.

Hannah: Yeah, and I mean obviously we will cut costs in places like decorating where we can do it ourselves or sourcing furniture or that kind of thing, and then leaving us more budget for skilled work that where we need to employ people or where we don’t wanna compromise. We’ve just bought some really nice floor to go downstairs, like Oakwood floor and it’s like, this is gonna be here for the next 20, 30 years.

So we are not gonna compromise on that. So it’s weighing up for your priorities, isn’t it? Thinking, what is worth the expenditure and what can we pull back on and save? So it’s definitely like a conscious thought behind the budget, but we’re not very good at spreadsheets so I wish we were, and I, I love that people can do that, but unfortunately that’s not really us.

Jane: You have other skills, plenty of them by the looks of your house.


Amy: We ask this of everybody, but I always think it’s interesting because everybody has totally different answers. If there was anybody approaching a similar project to you in this kind of, long-term way, what’s your advice for them based on your experience?

Hannah: So, I think I mentioned it before, but definitely to hold onto your plans loosely, because you have to be flexible. You have to be willing to change what your dream was for the space. And if you really want to hold onto things tightly, then you’ll just end up getting really down.

So obviously go into it with ideas, go into it with a dream, but just be aware that that might not happen straight away. So I think that would be my tip is to just be prepared to be flexible and also to compromise sometimes.

And also one of the tips I always give to people when they ask is to write a to-do list for the week and for the month. So I’ll have separate lists and rather than just writing a list of everything that needs to be done, is to write like, this is actually, this is just what I need to do this week and I’m just gonna think about that.

And then when it gets to next week, I’ll write down what I’m gonna try and achieve next week, rather than just doing the whole lot. Cuz otherwise you’ll just, wanna give up. And the other thing I’ve done actually is I’ve kept a lot of my to-do lists. So I, I keep them on paper and so I’ve still got to-do lists from our old house.

Actually, it’s a bit sad, but it’s the one thing I’ve kept because then you look back and you’ve got pages and pages and pages of jobs that you’ve ticked off. And it, you know, it can be little things like changing electric socket or painting a room or putting wallpaper up or contacting a plumber. But when you then look back at them, you’re just like, wow, we actually, we ha we did do all this.

And, and you know, with all the, with having kids and all of that kind of thing as well, and just life in general, we did actually manage to get X, Y, and z done. And so that can be really, Good. It’s again, it’s like looking back on your Instagram or back at photos and then thinking, actually we have done a lot, we can do this.

We might feel like we’re struggling at the minute and we’re not getting anything done, but we can, and so that’s one of the things I always say as well, is just to write a to-do list for the week and keep them, and then you can look back on them.

Amy: Mm-hmm. I love that your, your small things are like paint a room wallpaper, you know, like that’s, for some people that would be a massive, yeah, like a massive to-do list in a, in and of itself.

Jane: So just thinking forward, do you have a moment in your mind where you are all done and, and you know you are sat with your feet up? Or do you think that actually this is how you like to be? Do you think you’ll ever kind of stop tweaking?

Hannah: In my head, I think one day I’ll stop and relax and the house will be done, but in reality, I would get bored within half an hour. So, because I know when we moved from our last house, once it had gone on the market, And we had about two months where I couldn’t do anything to it obviously.

Cause we were moving and I was so bored. I was like, you know, even though we had like this house to look forward to, I was like, I want to do things, I want to change things, but obviously I can’t, there’s no point. So I think that this house will take us a long time to actually finish the garden is really big and needs a lot of work as well.

But my husband’s on right move all the time. He’ll find us a new project before this one’s even done. I promise you he will. Even the other day, he was WhatsApp-ing me links to houses. So I think that this is probably us for the long term. I mean, my kids, bless them, they are so, they’re, I mean, they love it and they’ve, they don’t mind at all.

They, they really don’t mind moving house, but they think that the only way they get a new scheme in their room is to move. They were like, next time when we move, can I have this color on the walls? And I was like, you know, we could just change the color on your walls without moving house.

Jane: You don’t have to throw it all up in the air and start again.

Hannah: Yeah, absolutely. But no, we will stay here for a while. We don’t wanna keep moving. And obviously we stay within the same locations so the kids stay in the same school, but I think we probably will move within the next 10 years for sure, if not earlier. So yeah, once this one’s done, we’ll probably start again and, and I’ll just age prematurely.

Jane: Just knowing that you are a renovator and that’s, that’s what’s gonna happen. I, love it.

Amy: It’s such a great combination though. I love that your, your husband’s like found someone who loves DIY and he can just like have his, have his Rightmove time and you’re like, yeah, you are totally up for, because you wanna do the DIY on it.

Hannah: I know, I, I mean, he comes from the north, so he, he will show me like places that we could buy up north, which is obviously a lot more than where we are in the South. And he’s like, oh, here’s a 16 bed castle. It’s like completely falling apart. I’m like, are, are you trying to kill me? There’s no way I can do that.

But yeah. Yeah. We work well as a team. We just have different skills. Yeah.

Jane: He can dream. Oh, well thank you so much for sharing that. It’s really interesting to speak to somebody who has a totally different project cuz we’ve never spoken to anybody who’s dealing with, you know, such an old building and the, the quirks and nuances that come with that. So I think that’s gonna be really helpful for people.

Amy: Yeah. Absolutely. Thank you so much, Hannah.

Hannah: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Amy: If you want to see photos of Hannah’s cottage and work in progress, visit our website at homenotes.co/storiesfromsite.

We’ve also got loads of great resources for you if you’re just starting to think about renovating. So check out our free renovation budget guide as a first step to getting your budget under control. Follow the link in our show notes.


Our closing thoughts:

Renovating an old house means one thing: there are going to be some surprises!

Remember to up your contingency fund – and as Hannah puts it so well – hold onto your plans loosely.

Things are bound to change!

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18. A blank canvas: bringing a home to life

We talk to Tamzin who explains why, after renovating previous properties, she chose not to take on a big renovation for her current home.We discuss the joy of getting creative in your home, being savvy with up-cycling interiors and her process of turning a blank canvas into something special.

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16. Grabbing an opportunity: developing a garden site

A serendipitous chain of events led Siobhan and Joe to quickly move from a finished flat straight into a building site with development potential.

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15. Room by room: A DIY Renovation

We talk to Sharn about DIY renovating her Victorian property room by room. We discuss how both her partner skilled themselves up, and the power of making renovation transparent and accessible through social media.

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