'Doing it yourself' to get the home you want

with Jess

This week we chat with Jess, who along with her partner Darius embarked on an 18-month process of completing the interior of their project.

What started out as a necessity due to budget constraints became an expression of Jess’s passion for interiors and design showing if you can’t get someone to do it for you, then you can do it for yourself instead!

We talked to her about her renovation journey, the support of her family, and her take on creating a unique and beautiful home that comes from the heart.



Stories from site – Jess

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 inta-worthy interiors to bring you the real processes people went through to make their dream homes a reality.

After 10 years as architects renovating homes, Jane and I set up HomeNotes to teach people how to take on their own renovation journeys. We’ve met so many inspiring people on the way, and now we want to share their incredible stories.

This week we chat to Jess, who along with her partner Darius embarked on an 18 month process of completing the interior of their project.

What started out as a necessity due to budget constraints became an expression of Jess’s passion for interiors and design showing if you can’t get someone to do it for you, then you can do it for yourself instead!

We talked to her about her renovation journey, the support of her family and her care on creating a unique and beautiful home that comes from the heart.

To start with, we’d love to know how your renovation journey began?

Jess: So we were living in a flat, in Brixton and we wanted somewhere bigger. But, you know, we couldn’t afford it essentially, so that’s creeping slowly out of London as well, to try and find the right project. So we’re in North London in zone three, and we found this house, which had a really nice feeling about it.

You know, when you just walk in and you’re like, okay, this hasn’t been loved in maybe a couple of decades now, but it has been loved and we just kind of knew that it was the one and it was at the right price as well. So yeah, we took some extra money out of our mortgage and um, got stuck in.

And I guess we were wondering how you set up the project. Was it, was it an extension? Was it an internal refurbishment and what professional advice did you get?

Jess: So it needed like a back to break renovation, but we didn’t have back to brick renovation money. So we kind of broke down the projects into what we figured we could do ourselves over time and with a lot of YouTube and whatever.

And what we knew we needed needed professionals for, which was the structural work. It had an existing extension that was done about 20 years ago, but it was almost like an outhouse on the end of the kitchen with an accessible loo. But it was not in very good state. And so we wanted to keep that footprint, but essentially we had to knock it down and do that again.

And we thought while we’re doing that, we’ll go out into the side return a little bit. So that’s the bit that we were like, okay, let’s get professionals for that bit and that’s the bit for the budget and everything else we’re gonna do ourselves. So that’s kind of how the project was split. So we found a firm who could do the drawings of our idea.

Because we couldn’t quite stretch to an architect and we kind of knew exactly what we wanted to do anyway. And it was a Victorian terrace. We didn’t have the budget to reinvent the wheel, so we thought about how we wanted the light to come in the size of the windows and everything. And then we just got someone to draw it up and submit that to planning permission and do the structural drawings.

So that’s what we spent money on. Which was really worthwhile because we wouldn’t know how to do the drawings, of course, you need a structural engineer anyway. So we did that and that was really smooth. And then separately we found a builder through a recommendation to do the physical work, to the point of first fix.

Jane: Wow. So you did it yourself from first fix.

Jess: Yeah, so everything else in the house we did. So we rewired, we did the plumbing, we did the bathroom in a room that wasn’t there before. We literally took the rest of the house back to brick ourselves and figured it out. And then of course, got professionals to sign off the electrics, but we, we did them in the first place.

Same with plumbing. Yeah, everything else we did ourselves except the plastering. We didn’t we didn’t venture plastering ourselves.

Jane: When the builder handed it over to you, you had obviously already organized that they weren’t going to do the internal fit out. What was the state of the shell when they literally left site and said, here you go.

Jess: It was still a shell , but, well, so then we started to kind of think, okay, maybe we should add on a few things. So then we were like, oh, how much would it be for you to do the tiling?

And then we got the electrician to come back and do a couple of things. So it wasn’t so bad actually because we’d realised, the, the kind of scale of a project doing the rest of the house ourselves. And we’d been saving as we went along. So they did under floor heating and tiling.

We got a company to come and do the doors. It wasn’t so bad, but we didn’t have a kitchen for quite a lot longer than we probably would’ve had if we’d got professionals to do the whole lot.

Jane: So tell us about your, next steps. How did you schedule those works out?

Jess: I think we didn’t realise exactly how long it would take. We kind of had a rough idea that it would take a long time. Um, but we were, but we were living in it. But at one point we didn’t have a bathroom or a kitchen or a roof, and it was winter. And thank goodness a friend of ours needed a cat sitter.

And so we were like, me, me, me, me. Can we please come and live in your house and have a loo and be warm? So we did that for a little bit. Then when we were back, we prioritized the loo, the upstairs bathroom. We just needed somewhere to kind of retreat from the dust and just wash off the reno basically.

So we did that first, that was our first priority. And at that point we did have a roof as well. And then we focused also on getting our bedroom into like a comfortable and cozy place so we didn’t do stuff like the fitted wardrobes or anything by that point. But we made it so that there could be a bed and it could be clean and we could seal it off from the rest of the house.

So for quite a long while we were, had a bathroom, but were eating peanut butter on toast. But I mean, peanut butter on toast is delicious. So

Amy: It’s true.

Jess: But, but for every meal. Yeah, you can make it different. You can, for breakfast, you can have that, you know, for dinner you can put hot sauce. It’s fine.

Amy: How long did it take in the end? Are you finished? Like how do you see the renovation?

Jess: I dunno if it’s ever finished. But yes, I’d say we are reasonably finished. From, nothing to probably all of the rooms in the house habitable 18 months. And that’s because we were spending every evening and weekend doing it ourselves, you know.

We made the first mistake of moving in and then destroying every room cause we were restless. So, you know, the first day we moved into the house, we knocked down a wall upstairs. I mean, I dunno what we’re thinking. In fact, I wasn’t even in the room.

Jess: I was downstairs and my dad was upstairs with my husband and I suddenly hear this banging and they’re knocking down a wall and they’re like, it’s not supporting. I guess it was probably gonna go at some point, but maybe not on day one. And then, weyou know, we started stripping wallpaper in every room.

We basically made every room a bomb site when we probably should have done one room at a time. So uh, I probably would’ve done that differently. But yes, because we’d done that, we didn’t get, to do one room at a time when we fixed it.

We did focus on like prioritising rooms, but we were in every room, you know, kind of trying to do bit by bit.

Amy: Do you feel like there was one thing that you had to do in terms of DIY that you feel extra proud about?

Jess: I think the bathroom. So the upstairs, you know, in a Victorian terrace sometimes there’s that kind of, that third room that’s been, was added some point later, not quite when the house was built. So that was a bathroom and a bedroom. But to get to that only bathroom, you had to go through the third bedroom.

So we ended up knocking it all through and having this giant third room, which we then split into bathroom at the place we wanted it and bedroom at the back. So we did that, built the stud walls, did the plumbing, did the tiling, did absolutely everything except the plastering.

And saved ourself quite a few thousand pounds in the process. So that was our biggest achievement, having, having not done anything before.

Yeah, but my dad is handy. My dad’s, um, business is curtains and blinds, but he kind of knows how to do stuff.

And so he showed us quite a a lot, a lot, a lot. Uh, He lives over two hours away, but he would schlep up on a Sunday quite regularly to show us how to do things and help.

So we couldn’t have done it without him.

Jane: I can really see that from your Instagram account, that it was a bit of a family effort. Do you think that kind of helped buoy you through the harder times were they rallying you along?

Jess: For sure, I just dunno how we could have done it without them. I mean, even if it was just like calling my dad, because I was Selco for the zillionth time asking what, like what’s the right tool? And I realised so much of it, so much of renovating is having the right tools and he has all the right tools so he could bring them up and leave them at our house.

And my mum helped a lot too. My mum doesn’t have those practical skills. But on those first few days when the house was really in a filthy, and in a sorry state, my mum, you know, got the rubber gloves out and wiped my tears and then wiped every surface in the house. So yeah, it was a family effort and I I mean, renovating is a, is a privilege. And Darius and I both grew up, you know, with, with mum’s struggling. And like my mum didn’t have any, you know, even furniture. We lived on quite a few handouts from, from people. It was amazing. And, and they didn’t have like cash to start us off, but they did have time and love and like they’ve given us more than their fair share of that.

Jess: So, yeah. Oh gosh, I’m a bit emotional about that. So yeah, what they couldn’t give in hard cash, they more than gave us in in like just time and effort, which I couldn’t be more grateful for.

Amy: Oh, that’s so wonderful. That’s an amazing part of the, the story.

Jane: I was just going to ask as well, it’s not just your wider family, but you had children through this process at the same time as well.How did that fit into the puzzle and how did you manage?

Jess: Yeah, I think definitely having a baby on the way drives you to get some more things finished. Growing up I used to always see ads of like pregnant women in dungerees decorating. I dunno why, but I kind of always wanted to be that person. And then when I was, I really did not want be that person. But anyway, yeah, I did spend quite a lot of time, heavily pregnant, up a ladder painting, trying to get things done and, so that made a difference. And then of course it’s made a big difference to how we used the house cause we have a one and a half year old um, little girl terrorizing the cats and the whole place and trying to figure out how to make it baby friendly and realising all the things that we didn’t plan for, but that’s all part of it. What would you say was the most unexpected thing about the process? Kind of what took you by surprise?

I think how much money you can save by picking the right bits for the professionals to do. So like people’s time is expensive, but, but some jobs in a renovation are a low skill.

So those are the jobs that we could take on with confidence and save ourselves so much money and then, for the things like the structural work, or the gas or whatever you pay the professional. And in that you save so much money.

Jane: But I, I think it’s, it’s such a nice thing to talk about because with the cost of renovation prices being so high, lots of people are having to phase their works.

They’re having to get involved, they’re having to learn how to do things themselves, which I feel like you said was really, you know, it was really normal for our parents’ generation, but actually it, it feels a little bit like we’re, our generation is learning those skills now. Did you feel that you were just happy to jump in and get involved. Because I noticed you did some more experimental things, like you did lime plaster wash and was it exciting to you to, experiment even a little bit beyond what is the normal DIY?

Jess: Yeah, for sure. I think, look, don’t get me wrong, if I could pay professionals for everything, I hundred percent would. And, you know, but that’s just not possible for most people. Realistically. And so I still wanted all of these things I had ideas for. So the way to get them was just, yeah, to do them, myself and I, and it’s amazing how. I dunno, just invigorating it feels to just know that you can figure out yourself. Like I was a bit nervous to use power tools, but like it’s actually no big deal and there’s no reason why I couldn’t do it versus any other DIY enthusiast. And I think sometimes it can feel like, you know, if there’s something to be done on the jigsaw or whatever, then you know, the man should do it.

But I can feel that way. And certainly I’ve like defaulted, but there’s no reason to. It’s not heavy, you know? And it’s not even like, I’m not strong, you know, there’s just so many things that can perhaps be in your head or maybe just my head that make put you off as a woman sometimes trying these things.

But there’s a, there’s just no barrier. There’s just no reason not to. And the more I did it, the more confidence I got and the more I would just go and be outside and plug in the tool and just do the job. And like if you want like a nice, I dunno, I just made a bit of a wavy shelf for our hallway just because I fancied it and there’s no, there’s just no reason not to.

And it actually took me about half an hour. So I feel like, yeah, the more confidence I’ve built, the more I’ve been like, I really like this idea I’ve got in my head. I wish I had the budget to just say, oh, hello, imaginary trades person. Please can I, can you do all of these things for me? But that doesn’t happen.

So if I want the nice things, I just have to make them myself.

Amy: I love that. Especially cause I don’t know, in my family it was like mum had really clear ideas of what she wanted, but then would have to just wait for dad to like, want to do that thing, which he never did. So I think there’s something really empowering about just like, do you know what actually, like, I’ve got this. Yeah. I love that.

Jess: And that’s the same for my mum.

Amy: I definitely fall back into that trap, you know, just like even putting up a picture and then you’re like, what am I doing? Like,

Jess: Yeah, and don’t get me wrong, I also try and default to my dad. If my dad’s around, I’ll try to get him to do it, but you just have to, sometimes no one’s gonna do it for you, so come on, girl power.

Amy: Yeah, I love it.

Jane: I think we just fell in love with your feed and your pictures of your home. The love and care and detail really just shines through and comes across. It’s such a, a warm and inviting place, and I think perhaps just through talking through everything that really does come across from all the effort that you’ve, put into that yourself. It really shows.

Jess: No, thank you so much. That means a lot. I feel like whenever I talk to people about their home, whenever people do ask for my advice, my main advice is that it’s, you know, it’s for you. You’ve gotta think about the things that you love and that make you feel good and how you want to feel.

Because it’s so overwhelming if you’re renovating especially, or or decorating the whole house, to know where to start. And you can save a zillion things on Pinterest that don’t really match up with your aesthetic. You know, you might look at them and realise there’s loads of different trends. You know, which of them do you like or love?

Or you might change your mind because you’re influenced by different things on Instagram. So, we certainly did this, and I advise other people to do the same as to kind of think back on or think about how you want to use the space and how you want to feel in the space, and then think about a time that maybe made you feel that way.

So, or feel some kind of special way. So for example, the reason our kitchen is this terracotta, like lime wash color is, when I was thinking about this, I was looking back on photos and remembering our honeymoon in Mexico and thinking, how lovely would it be to remember that every day in the kitchen. So looked at the photos and picked out some colors from that and then tried them on the walls and we did the same in our bedroom.

We got married in the mountains and it was a rainy November day and kind of looked at the pictures of the green against the dark sky. And that’s how our bedroom has a kind of dark green ceiling and slightly lighter green walls. And then this kind of almost black, green skirting, which doesn’t sound perhaps great, descriptively, but it does look nice.

Anyway, so that reminds of kind of that misty day in the mountains and that same thing is how we kind did the whole house.

Amy: That’s so beautiful. That’s very poetic. I like that.

Yeah, focusing on recreating something that makes you feel good is, it sounds so obvious when you say it, but actually we don’t often use it from our own history. I love that.

Jess: And it doesn’t have to be literal, you know, I don’t, it doesn’t literally have to look like that place You know, people talk about the emotions of color, but when you’re starting from scratch and you’re looking at paint chart, maybe you don’t know how yellow makes you feel or how red makes you feel.

You know, it’s kind of overwhelming if you’re not an expert, but you do know how you have felt and so you can kind of then look back at the color chart and think, oh yeah, there was that really nice sunset that time, and I really like that pink. So let’s get it somewhere.

I think you’re so right. It’s so easy just to get into the pinning. Like you just can go a bit manic and just be like, oh yeah, I like that. I like that, I like that. But there’s a rigor to interior design, which is really trying to extrapolate what it is about the thing that you like.

Amy: What would you say were your highs and lows from the process?

Jess: Highs were, is, is now, but it’s pretty much finished and not even really remembering all the dust and the lows were, you know, we, we ran out of money for sure at one point. There was a period where my husband was changing jobs and there was a bit of time without any income. It was pretty, it was a pretty scary time. And I think lots of people have to, to varying extents those kind of terrifying times where the money’s running out or is run out and prices have gone up or your jobs changed and you have to figure out a way to get through it. And that did mean a lot more diy and extra hustling with, you know, taking on extra work extra jobs and to get it done. So that was definitely the low. But you know, money doesn’t grow on trees.

Amy: It’s true.

Jane: Do you, you know, those kind of moments where you are really pushing hard to, you know, gosh, we’ve, you said it’s like every evening and every weekend, how did you carry on and get the tools out and, and keep going?

Jess: Necessity, absolute necessity. My husband always jokes that if we ever move, we’re getting a new build, which we are not. But I like, I like a new build, but my dream is a Georgian townhouse. So , we can all dream. We, we just kind of had to push through together. At least we were doing it together.

You know, I’m not saying that on a Sunday night when we decided to just do one more bit of a job. And then we realized that we just caused ourselves like six hours more work and we had to get up, you know, like five o’clock the next morning for work. I’m not saying we didn’t regret it. There are a few of those.

But there’s something amazing about doing it yourself doing something together. And that was pre-baby as well, which makes it a little bit easier. Now everything has to be done whenever she sleeps, which is, you know, even, even further reduces the windows to get things done. But yeah, something amazing about pulling together, especially if family are involved.

A couple of times, even friends came you know, to help us carry things through the house and that kind of stuff. It’s kind of amazing how, how people will help you with something so important to you as your home. You know, it’s not like, flipping houses, I’m sure no one would help us then. We know we’re trying to build a home for our family

Jane: And just finally, like, now you, you are getting your time back, I guess, that you have free weekends and evenings, has it become somewhere where you can all be and enjoy the work that everybody’s put in?

Jess: I’d love to say that that’s the case, but in the evenings at the moment, I’m making a stool and I’m planning on like, I’ve just got so many little things that I want to do now. You know, the walls might be done but I’m building furniture.

Jane: Wow. That’s the bug. There’s the bug right there.

Jess: so no, but yes, definitely more. And you know, when people come and they’re like, wow, you have a grown up house?

We’re like, wow, we’re so lucky. You sometimes when you’re in the thick of it, maybe you, you know, forget to be so grateful. For like a house I would’ve dreamed of growing up in. And like now we get to have our child grow up in like, we’re so lucky. And yeah, so sitting and being grateful and thankful especially to my parents and you know, to each other for not like, killing each other in the process is really great.

Jane: Everybody should get extra brownie points for that!

Jane: Yeah. I actually feel really inspired. My house is just a hundred percent white walls because that was something we were going to do ourselves we just said, oh, just put like builders white paint everywhere and we’ll get round to it.

And obviously we never did. So maybe I’ll do some thinking about my inspiration for that

Jess: Color, color, no, no. No, color isn’t for everyone as well. Your, your best memories might have been, you know, snowy.

Jane: In a white art gallery.

Jess: Yeah, exactly. In a white art gallery.

Amy: Hey, thank you so much for your time and just for being so honest and open about uh, your journey. It’s really lovely to hear.

Jess: Thank you.

Amy: To see images of Jess’s home and her travel inspired kitchen, head to our website, homenotes.co/storiesfromsite.

And if you are currently thinking about renovating, come join us for the guided version of the Getting Started course, where we help you make a plan that’s specific for you and your circumstance to make sure you get the best value from your project.

And if you are thinking of starting your own renovation project, then come join us on the guided version of our Getting Started course, where we personally take you through all the steps to prepare for a successful project book now, and you’ll get a great discount and lots of extras Booking closes this Sunday, the 29th.

So don’t miss out. Visit our [email protected] and sign up now.


Our closing thoughts:

When you have big ambitions for your home but can’t afford to achieve everything you want to do, it can feel like you don’t even want to begin. 

But as Jess has shown, DIY-ing the aspects of your renovation that you can, (although hard work) is a great way to achieve the home you want on a tight budget. 

The key is to map out which parts of your project make sense to use professionals for and which you can embark on yourself.   

Are you planning on incorporating DIY into your project? Join the conversation over on Instagram!

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