Using your professional skills to make your forever home.

with Sandra

This week we’re talking to Sandra who renovated a forever home for her retirement after downsizing.

Sandra had a really clear vision for the space she wanted to create and used her professional skills, coupled with some additional training, to create a stylish and social home for this next stage in her life.

In our chat, she shares her strategies for keeping her project on track and on budget.


Stories from Site – Sandra

Sandra: Most people are managing something in their life, you’re either managing the kids, you’re managing your home, you’re managing your job and you know, it’s just bringing those skills into the project.

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

Amy: 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.

Amy : This week we’re talking to Sandra, who renovated a forever home for her retirement after downsizing. Sandra had a really clear vision for the space she wanted to create and used her professional skills coupled with some additional training to create a stylish and sociable home for this next stage in her life. In our chat, she shares her strategies for keeping her project on track and on budget.

Hi, Sandra, lovely to be talking with you.

Sandra: Hi Amy. Hi Jane.

Today we would love to talk about how you made your renovation happen. And I was wondering maybe to start, you could share a bit about your project.

Sandra: Yeah. So basically we were downsizing. So we were selling a larger home, moving to a much smaller one in the same area and we needed to carry out a major renovation. We decided fairly early on that we didn’t want to do different phases over many years, which is probably how we had handled previous work in other homes.

We really wanted to get this all done and get moved in.

Could you share a bit about your priorities for the project going in.

Sandra: Yeah. So as I said, we were downsizing into a much smaller space, so we really wanted the layout to reflect the fact that we would be spending more time at home. So we needed something like a day zone where, you know, we could cook, we could chat, we could watch TV, we could wander into the garden, but also having, you know, a separate space at the front, you know, a sitting room where we could have some cozy time, maybe in the evening, maybe somebody dropping by maybe socializing. We also wanted the house to feel more contemporary, you know, not like a couple of OAPs are living there, but more, you know, more fashionable, more trendy, so that, you know, that we would enjoy that space too.

And then we sort of wanted to build in some future proofing as well. Not finding, you know, five, ten years down the road that we were then looking at more major work. As we start to get a little bit older and maybe some of our requirements changed a bit there. And of course the big one was the budget.

And whilst we had downside sized and we had a reasonable budget, we needed to stay on track. You know, everybody does no matter how much money they have. So that was obviously one of the big priorities for us too.

Amy: I like the, the picture you paint of retirement. It sounds, it sounds good. What professional help did you get, with the project?

Sandra: We got started very, very early. So we started doing a lot of research and I do sort of think most projects are probably maybe 60% research and planning and maybe 30, 40% execution. So we started researching a lot, very, very early. Some stuff online. We went to some shows in town as well.

Don’t move improve we went to, I think we went to the ideal home as well. Then we we signed up for the HomeNotes course, as you know, which was fabulous. And then when the actual project was kicking off, we had an architect, party wall surveyor, structural engineer. And then we also used quite a lot of services from some of the suppliers, which, you know, they’re free.

So they’re part of, you know, they’re part of the offer. So, you know, bathroom design, color, color schemes, So we used a lot of stuff and just sort of coordinated that in a, in a sort of very simple way.

Jane: When you sat out on the project, did you know that that’s how you were gonna structure it or did it come about organically as you went into the process that you realised you needed a bathroom design or you realised you needed these other things?

Sandra: I’ve got quite a number of friends that have carried out projects and, you know, they’ve got to the end and you know, when you get that sort of post project phase a year in or so, and suddenly I’d realise they’d get the builder back because they weren’t happy with the bathroom or the kitchen.

Wasn’t quite how they wanted it. And there are some areas of of the home that are really, really tricky. I think bathrooms are probably one of the trickiest areas to get right. And with all the other stuff that was going on. We knew we needed help with that. I mean, I think in our previous house, our bathroom was probably about 10 years old.

So it was a long time since we had even done something, you know, from scratch with a bathroom. So I think it was always in our mind that we would need help in those areas, but it was also about finding the right level of help and ensuring that it didn’t bring a degree of confusion into the project with sort of, you know, too many cooks in there.

Amy: Can I ask you about your architects? What did they do for you and was that as you imagined?

Sandra: Yeah. So our architect, I guess from the beginning, we had quite a clear view because we knew the sort of layout that we wanted wasn’t particularly the traditional one, you know. We wanted him to interpret our ideas, but also bring another option to the conversation as well, which he did to be fair.

Then as we moved into the project, he became more of the project manager, particularly for the external shell, you know, the stuff about foundations, et cetera, you know, that’s not really our, our thing. So he managed that closely with the builder. Then when it moved more towards the fit out, then we used him more for checking technical issues.

You know, for example, were the windows that we were gonna order compliant with regulations? Were they gonna meet building control? Were there any issues that would cause the project, you know, not to be passed or cause us a problem later on down the road?

Jane: So essentially your architects,oversaw the external shell of the building, but you were in charge of the internal refurb.

Sandra: Yes.

Amy : So how, how was that sharing the project management?

Sandra: Yeah, it was pretty good actually. I mean, we would have a, a meeting once a week. He would visit probably two, three times a week, you know, cause we were fairly near to where he lived. And initially if I sort of go back to the initial phases when it was a dig out and you know, the house is being ripped out.

There wasn’t a lot of input from us, you know, when you are, you’re sort of ripping out the house. So we would have a conversation once a week and we would visit once a week, usually at the weekend, but we’d also keep a project tracker. So any issues that came up that needed a decision, we would talk about it, document it and close it so that we weren’t then sort of constantly going over the same things and, and, you know, items getting confused. Then we got a schedule from the builder about when items would be issued. And then the, we would talk to the architect about that and say, well, hey, hold a minute, you know, flooring’s like 10 weeks away. We’re still looking at samples, et cetera. What are the things that we need to consider? Bearing in mind. We’re having under floor heating on the ground floor. We want the same flooring on the upper floor, et cetera. So it worked quite well. But I think you have to be very, very clear about closing items out, because I think, you know, the architect, isn’t an absolute expert on everything they can’t be.

So some things he would need to go back and find out. Some things wouldn’t be absolutely definitive. You know, it would be, well, if you sort of do this, which can be frustrating, but that’s just the way it is, you know? And we were very, very lucky. He was very clear and the builder. Was extremely sort of efficient and able to work very accurately.

Sandra: But actually I think in many cases, if you are using the right professionals, then I think actually it can save you money in your project. You know, I’ve sort of heard of people saying, um, that, you know, they use the architect for the planning stage.

Um, but they’re not going to use for the project management. I couldn’t dream of not using an architect for the, for the project management side, you know? I mean, it just would be just not something that we’d consider. I think that’s just great money spent on get, keeping the project on track.

Jane: It sounds like you were very good at holding all those different pieces together in a way that you were central to the different conversations that were going on. and keeping that all on track.

Sandra: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I’m really envious of people that they hand over to the architect and they come back a year later, you know, they’ve got this fabulous home. And I don’t think we would’ve been comfortable with that to be fair. I think we wanted to be involved. And also as we were holding the budget as well, we felt that we really wanted to stay as close as possible without, you know, without sort of making it painful for everyone around, but just stay as close as possible so that we could anticipate what was coming.

And, you know, we could just, we could just stay up to date and also get the project driven through, because at the same time we were renting. So we were paying rent for an apartment. We were paying double, you know, double council tax and all that sort of stuff. And we really just wanted to get into our home as quickly as possible.

Amy : Can I ask how you manage your budgeting?

So, do you remember that spreadsheet? That’s on, HomeNotes where you start with your category, so you start high level. So you start with what’s the cost of professional fees, you know, architects. So on, then you break it down under certain categories. What’s my glazing cost. What’s my bathroom cost.

What do I expect to pay for kitchen flooring, et cetera. Then I broke it down even further and started to go. Let’s say, for example, we’re talking about the kitchen. Well, you know, the kitchen, comprises of a number of components from the cupboards to the worktops, to the taps and so on. And then we broke it down that way.

Sandra: So we started by actually. Putting a headline figure against each category. So let’s say for example, we did two bathrooms. So the budget for the bathrooms initially was 20,000 pounds. So let’s put a number on that and that’s the figure that I gave to the bathroom company. They then built it up using that number and it came out slightly more.

And then I just tweaked bits with them. We talked about it and said, well, it’s slightly over. They, they thought, well, is it a problem? I said, well, yes it is cause if everything is 10% over. I’ve got a I’ve got a massive overspend and I’ve, I’ve not even started the project yet.

And we just, we just tracked it in that way. So if something changed, I changed it. If we had a landed quotation, particularly around the bigger items, like for example, glazing, sash windows, flooring, radiators, kitchen, et cetera. And I’d ask the supply that how long is your quotation good for? And if they said, oh, well, three months, then I would seek to sort of land, you know, at least the deposit to fix the price before they were increasing because not to forget that we were also renovating during a pandemic prices were increasing, there were supply shortages,

So we just dealt with it in that way. So I had a great big spreadsheet. Overview was the HomeNotes sheet and behind it was the cost sheet. The other thing that was really helpful, um, because you know, running a big project, part of the, the key issues, being able to compromise. Cause you can’t have everything that you want.

I mean, it’s just not financially possible. So we always had, item A and item B. What would we love, but what would we accept? There were some areas where we said, actually, we’re not gonna compromise. You know, wouldn’t compromise on flooring. Wouldn’t compromise on glazing, but we compromised on the kitchen.

Initially, you know, I’d started off wanting this fabulous shaker kitchen, or this handleless this kitchen, you know, the quotes were coming in, you know, about 40 K and, um, it was pushing the budget out, seriously, pushing the budget out. And then when we said, well, What’s the difference between let’s say this top of the range kitchen and another value kitchen.

Well, of course there is a, a difference and I think the difference might be in longevity and depending on how you use that kitchen, but visually I think with good fitting, I’m not sure that, you know, to the, to the normal eye, that you could see much difference. And that was one, a main area that we decided to compromise on.

And once we’d compromised that then actually it freed up so much more into the budget. So I always sort of think about the way that we use our budget is it’s sort of like a large piece of bread and we spread the butter right around the corners, as opposed to, you know, one big chunk in the middle.

Jane: That’s brilliant. I love that. So that was part of the, build cause you were managing the interior fit out and that’s all your budgets for your interiors. But then you obviously had the contractors, fees.

Can you talk about how that played into the budget?

Sandra: Yes. So we started off with the normal tender process, going out to about four contractors, got the quotes back and they were just like way over way over. I think, two put in a price. One didn’t one said he was just too busy and didn’t have the labor. And the other one gave us a price, but said he couldn’t do it.

However, his price was the benchmark price because he was something like probably half of the highest other quote that we’d had at that time. So we then change the tendering process. So instead of the usual, send it out, wait four weeks, see what comes back, open them all at the same time, we started to see builders whereby they would, they would come see the project.

They’d already seen the drawings and the specifications, ballpark figure within 48 hours. And if that ballpark figure was near to the benchmark, then we would ask them to actually fill in the tender. And actually that worked really well. Because it saved the building contractors lots of time, not filling in a tender that they were, they had no chance of even getting on price.

When we then came down to the final contractor, we came down to final two actually we decided not to negotiate down the price. We just felt if we start to sort of nibble away and push the price down, we’re only gonna find sort of the extras creeping in later on. So we actually, I think that really worked for us because it started the project off on a really good, good step. And also, when I look back at sort of how, how much extras we picked up. I think we picked up 1500 pounds of extras across the entire project. And those extras were things that we had requested and not specific changes that had happened during the project.

So it created quite a lot of flexibility.

Amy: That’s amazing. And I think that’s such an interesting point because contractors work out their price, you know, the, the price they give you is, is based on something. right.

Sandra: You know, I’d seen his work, I’d seen him working locally So I’d seen the quality of his work then. And also I’d visited a couple of projects that he had completed and spoke and spoken to, um, an architect he’d worked with.

And spoken to a client and they were all really, really happy. And I think that matters, you know, it really matters when you’re doing a big project that you’ve got the best contractor on there that your money can afford and I just felt he, you know, this guy was the one.

Jane: Brilliant.

You had a good feeling about him, good communication. And how did that relationship play out on site?

Sandra: Very, very good, actually. Good communications. Good forward planning, very, very decisive. So I think it’s, it’s important. You know, contractors want to get their jobs done and get, and get finished and moved on to the next contract. What they really all want to avoid, just like any client they want to avoid indecisiveness and also reworking things. So I think our challenge was to try to stay just a few steps ahead of him all the time. And it was tricky because you know, sometimes the project would be jogging along at a fairly good stage. And then we wouldn’t visit maybe for, I don’t know, two, three days.

And then when we visited again, you know, it moved massively, you know, suddenly they were doing sort of the first fix for lighting or something. And, you know, the electrician was saying, right, so you really do need to tell me now, where things are going and in the bedrooms, for example, you know, you want wall lights.

Well, you know, so where is the bed? And how big is the bed? So that he could measure, because they just don’t want to move it afterwards. And you can understand that. So it worked really well.

Amy: What would you say you learnt through the process?

Poah loads. I think, I think the process is very, very emotional. You know, you’re spending huge amounts of money. Even when you’ve done all the research and then when you start to pay deposits, you know, you’re like, oh my goodness. You know, I’ve just spent 50,000 pounds in like 15 minutes because you’ve had to pay all the deposits on everything.

So I think it’s very emotional financially. I think, you know, it’s emotional when you see what was an old, tired, perfectly habitable terraced house sort of ripped back to the brick, the rear of the house demolished. There’s no roof on it. Um, all the internal walls have gone and there’s just the ground floor staircase going sort of to the first floor, but it’s being propped up, you know,

that’s a scary emotional time, but then, you know, you get the other stuff.

Where you know, suddenly your flooring goes down, you know, or your kitchen arrives and it looks great, even though it’s still in the packaging, you’re sort of relieved. They put the tap on, you know, there’s water coming out of it.

You’ll go, oh yeah, we’re sort of the end is in sight. So it’s very, very emotional, very sort of up and down all the time.

Amy : And what would you say was the most unexpected thing, about the whole process?

Sandra: I think the number of decisions, the number of, and the relationships that you have to manage, whether or not it’s it’s the guy that’s on site here that, you know, he’s cleaning up at the end of the day and you’ve got to acknowledge him, you know, even though he’s the most junior member of the building team. Um, also, um, the relationships with the suppliers. And I know sometimes it’s easy to have frayed tempers and to get really annoyed and they’re not getting it right, and they won’t commit to delivery times, but actually those relationships are really, really critical in helping you to stay on track and also helping you to get the best, the best out of your project.

I mean, I can remember going over to see the glazing company that did the loft and the rear of the house, the sliding doors, et cetera. And when we arrived, we already had the plans. We were already drawn out what thought we wanted and they said “I tell you what I would do if this were our house,” and they completely redesigned all the glazing for the back.

And actually it was much better, it was more contemporary and the cost was lower. Now, they they didn’t have to do that. They could have just said, well, you know, this is what you guys have asked us for. Let’s get a quote yep you’re fine. You know, let’s get it ordered. But, it’s just having that relationship as well.

You know, and even things like delivering onto site and our building contractor was great because he worked really closely with any other supplier that delivered whether or not it was the guy that installed a wood burner. Or the team that installed the sash windows, you know, I would give him the contact details.

He would then liaise regarding, you know, the delivery, but he was always there when they came for an initial measure up so that he knew exactly what was happening. And I think that’s absolutely priceless cause that’s keeps your project running smoothly, which is all you want.

It’s all anybody wants really?

Jane: Yeah, that’s really, really interesting. I think those communications between the main contractor and him taking that on board is really, really helpful for the project. And it’s good for them too, because it makes everything run smoother and faster and, you know, you can get to the end quicker. Obviously you’ve put a lot of time and energy into this project and managed to stay on top of it really well. How much time do you think that was for you? going through site?

Sandra: Through site, well, I was quite lucky. I’d finished work. So I had already retired. My husband carried on working. So the project, if you like became my, my sort of my full-time job, I come from sort of a project management, HR background. So I’m, I’ve sort of got some experience in that area, some experience in

Jane: You can tell. I think you can tell.

Sandra: Yeah. I have a bit of experience in that area. I would say.

Maybe at the beginning, probably 10 hours a week. I think, as it got later into the project, you know, the detail, the checking, the double checking, the measuring the following up the, you know, the, the sort of circling back with coms you know, the WhatsApp group that we had running, I’d probably say it was more like 20, maybe even 30 hours.

So I think nearer the end, it was maybe even equivalent to a full-time job.

Amy: When you said that you had made decisions on lots of the items, had you done that before site?

Sandra: Mm mm. No, that was made way in advance. So by the time I came off of the HomeNotes course, I went into sort of what I call a deeper planning mode. We were probably spending a good 10, 15 hours a week, just planning, researching, narrowing down. And then you’ve gotta ask a number of questions, particularly for higher price items about guarantees.

Cause one of our checklists, um, said that have, have we read the contractual details and it was like a checkpoint on our sheet with every sort of big item. And I can remember we, we were about to order a kitchen and then when I read the contractual, did it said, have you read it? And I thought, oh no, I haven’t.

When I read it, there was no guarantee on the kitchen. We couldn’t proceed. So it’s that sort of thing that takes a lot of time to read and to research. And then for, for us as a couple to then say, right. Okay. What do we want to do? Do we wanna spend more money?

Do we want to bin this? Do we want to start again? Do we know enough about this item to order it or. do we not. I always think that I’ve sort of born slightly skeptical, if that makes sense. So I sort of need to know how things work and understand them because once it’s all finished and the builders finished and you know, the architects left it’s yours and you’ve really gotta sort of know that you’re comfortable with it and the choices and why you made those choices, et cetera.

Jane: What comes through is just the thoroughness of your process. I think it’s just amazing the effort and energy and time you put into it, but you can see that in the result.

Oh, oh, thank you.

But I think the fact that you also had, what did you say 1400 was what you went over your budget?

Sandra: 1500.

Amy : 1500

Sandra: Yeah, yeah,

Amy : I mean that’s incredible

On a project of this scale. So, um, if we had a medal, we would definitely give it to you.

Sandra: Oh, Yeah, I’ll take it. I’ll take it. But that’s that’s with the, the plan. I mean, I don’t think it’s, I don’t think, I mean, it’s great to have, have the sort of compliments and I love it, but, um, I think it’s down to the planning and the execution, and most people are managing something in their life. Do you know what I mean, you’re either managing the kids, you’re managing your home, you’re managing your job and you know, there’s always something that we’re all managing and it’s just bringing those skills into the project, but also ensuring that you take the time to take some training where you need to, so whether or not it’s HomeNotes, Create Academy with some other training, input from suppliers, you sort of just need to bring that in there and then be sure that you’re not kicking off the project before you are really, really ready to do it. And I found a lot of that where, you know, friends would sort of say, oh, you know, I’m starting, I’m starting, you know, and I’d go, oh God, that’s really exciting. But yet, you know, they hadn’t thought about certain things. Well, you know, we’ll work that out as we go along.

And I think that’s really sort of quite dangerous territory because, you know, it’s prone to overspend. So I think if you can think all of that through whilst, you know, you could drive yourself slightly mad and we used to have to keep it in a box. You know, we’d only talk about it certain time finished, done dusted, documented, or on spreadsheet.

That was it but it was really great when the project came, because then we’d thought about all of these things.

Jane: And now you are in the finished product. How does that feel to have left all that behind you? And now enjoy the space.

Sandra: It’s fantastic actually. I mean, you know, I do, I do feel for people that are going through big projects now because building costs have escalated. There’s lots of delays out there. There seems to be a shortage of good quality builders as well. I mean, the contractor that did our job now says that he’s taking bookings, you know, two, three years in advance

Jane: Yeah.

That’s really helpful.

Amy : So to other homeowners thinking about renovating, um, what would be your one recommendation?

Sandra: Yeah. My one recommendation would be think about your two, can I have 2 reccomendations?

Amy : Yes, definitely.

Sandra: Thank you. Uh, my, my first one would be, think about your project in the context of maybe 60% planning, 40% execution. So, you know, spend lots and lots of time planning, researching, talking, seeing, visiting, looking, adding numbers up, you know, subtracting numbers, playing with scenarios until you are absolutely happy that you’ve really got that right. And only then are you ready even to start talking to a builder properly at that point, you know, or a professional. The, the second thing I, I would say is. Be really clear about what it is that you want and don’t lose sight of it, cause it’s that that will actually help to get you through the, you know, the awful months of mud and cold and big skips and dust and ripping out and you know, and start to see it, how you want, you know, it was, it’s sort of progressing along. So don’t lose sight of that.

Jane: Yeah.

Amy : Yeah.

Amy: Thank you so much

Sandra: Oh, thank you

Jane: I think there’s so many gems in there. It’s gonna be helpful for a lot of people to hear.

Amy : To see images of Sandra’s beautiful home, head to our website, homenotes.co/storiesfromsite.

Thanks for taking the time to listen to this episode.

Renovating can be a rollercoaster and if you are at the beginning of your renovation journey, come and find out about our Getting Started Course at homenotes.co to make sure you get the best value from your project.

Finally, if you’ve enjoyed this episode, then please do follow or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, as it will help us reach as many people as possible and all learn from these amazing experiences.


Our closing thoughts:

Creating your forever home and staying on budget is possible!

But it takes a lot of effort and energy and focus. Remember, taking the time to plan ahead is never wasted time. 

What professional skills are you planning on bringing to your project? Join the conversation over on Instagram!

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