Are renovations stressful?

POSSIBLY THE MOST HONEST ‘RENOVATION TIPS’ POST YOU’LL EVER READ!

I don’t think there’s much point in sugar-coating the fact that a renovation is stressful. Some may even say it's the hardest thing they've ever endured. But it feels so very worth it when you come through the other side and have a beautiful and life-transforming home to enjoy, and all the stressful memories fade away like a bad dream.

Knock through to open up kitchen in 1930s house 1930s house open plan shaker kitchen after knock through - design by First Sense Interiors

Having been through an extensive home renovation myself while living through it with young children (yes it was a special kind of hell), I have firsthand experience, so when I start a design project for a renovation, I speak to my clients about what to expect. Sometimes though, it feels like they are thinking “How bad can it be? Lots of people do it. We'll get through it.” Yes, you’ll get through it, you have to. But to get through it as sanely as possible, especially if it is your first time, don’t underestimate the mental and emotional effects of:

  • the never-ending (or so it feels) noise, dust and chaos
  • builders in your home all day everyday for many months
  • finding common ground with your partner/family about budget and design choices
  • seeing the home you knew getting demolished
  • lack of proper cooking and washing facilities if you're living on site through a big renovation
  • disruption to normal life and routines
  • juggling work and other commitments with the time and mental energy that a renovation takes up
  • coordinating various tradespeople for different stages of the project
  • the sheer amount of details to understand and effectively communicate to contractors
  • how quickly money disappears
  • unforeseen setbacks resulting in delays and/or increased spend
  • decision fatigue or a feeling of loss of control because there’s too much going on
  • sometimes having to deal with tradespeople who don’t follow the required specifications or make errors
Child's room during renovation Child's room with map wallpaper - design by First Sense Interiors

There are essentially two ways with renovation stress:

  1. you take on the stress yourselves and you can try to mitigate it as best as you can by preparing for all of the above, understanding all the details of the plans you are working towards, regularly communicating with contractors to ensure they also understand what you are aiming to achieve, staying positive and keeping the end goal in mind.
  2. you pay someone to take on the stress for you, i.e. hiring a project manager who is excellent with details and communication, or having your local designer (if you are working with one) work out all the details and decisions, regularly monitor your project and consult with contractors through the key stages, ensuring they are following the specifications.
Pantry - before - during building work Walk in pantry using understairs area - design by First Sense Interiors

When I work on renovation projects, I find that my job becomes more than just creating pretty designs and producing drawings for contractors. When the realisation of what is involved hits for clients, I’m there with all the emotional support and pep talks that they need, and I help to guide them through the ups and downs. This is true for almost all the building projects I have worked on, even those I have designed remotely (e-design service). And for many local projects I am involved in, when the stress starts to build, many clients who’d initially planned to manage it all themselves end up calling me in for the optional service of site assistance, either at regular intervals through the project or during key stages such as first fix, kitchen and bathroom fitting etc.

Thankfully my clients come through it smiling and excited about the beautiful home they can now enjoy, but I know there are some people who struggle to handle it and find it difficult to get past all the negative feelings, which makes me feel really sad for them. So for the benefit of anyone who is embarking on a renovation and planning to manage it themselves, read on for 5 key tips to alleviate renovation overwhelm, based on my personal and professional experiences.

1. PLAN AHEAD AND STAY ORGANISED

There really is no such thing as being over-prepared when it comes to a big building project. Do your research; talk to other experienced renovators; use a renovation calculator to get an idea of ballpark figures and see if these stack up against your expectations; start a budget spreadsheet and add a healthy 15-25% contingency to all your figures to prepare for unforeseen situations; understand the stages of the building process; get recommendations for good tradespeople in your area and do your due diligence about them... it's a lot to do, but you'll thank yourself for it when you're in the thick of the project.

Keep in mind that costs in the building industry change rapidly and builder quotes can also vary wildly. If quotes are coming in well over your expectations and feel unaffordable, your project may to be scaled down and/or phased. Bigger isn't always better, and sometimes we need to think more creatively about how to make better use of space.

Narrow side extension for utility Utility in new side extension - design by First Sense Interiors

Once you have confirmed the building plans, it's time to start working out the room layouts, thinking about how the house flows, if your requirements are being met, if there is enough storage, etc. If you're working with a designer, they should do all this for you.

The layouts in architect plans can often be very basic, and don’t drill down to your personal way of living and individual requirements, so it’s important to think through each room in terms of how you can achieve all that is on your must-have list, and as much as possible of what’s on your nice-to-have list. I often tweak architect drawings to improve the spatial layouts for clients when I work on renovation projects (I'll write a blog series to show some case studies). Changes to internal layouts should ideally be done before the building work starts.

Rear extension for new kitchen diner Stiffkey Blue kitchen - design by First Sense Interiors

If you don't have experience in designing high ticket rooms such as kitchens and bathrooms, it's well worth investing in a good interior designer if you can, as it will pay off by miles to have a creative expert think it all through in detail, balance the aesthetics with the practicalities, and ultimately help you avoid costly mistakes or regrets. Click here to see an example of a high street kitchen company's design vs how I designed the same space.

It also helps to think about the electrical and lighting plans for your home well in advance of first fix, so you're not having to make rushed decisions (and possibly errors) while an electrician taps his foot impatiently at you.

There will be a lot of high value purchases, so be aware of consumer rights and supplier policies should there be any issues. E.g. paying by credit card gives you more protection; check goods when they arrive even if you don't need them for a while. Also note lead times for your planned purchases to ensure you order in good time to avoid delays.

Snug before Cosy bold snug - design by First Sense Interiors

2. LIVING ON SITE VS MOVING OUT

For big projects, it is highly recommended that you find temporary accommodation nearby if possible, at least during the most disruptive phases of the renovation. This can really help reduce stress and disruption to your daily life, allowing you to focus on the project and be present on site regularly without feeling overwhelmed by the chaos if you were living there. Slide to the demolition stage of the bathroom project below and imagine if you had to live with washing facilities like that! 😱

If you don't have the budget to move out, designate a space in your home where you can escape from the chaos. This can be a room or two that's untouched by the renovations where you can set up the facilities you need for day to day living and retreat to when you need some respite.

Bathroom extension - before and after Family bathroom with large art - design by First Sense Interiors

3. BE PRESENT ON SITE AND COMMUNICATE REGULARLY 

It helps to have regular chats – on site, in person – with the contractor or tradespeople to ensure that everyone is on the same wavelength regarding the work. Many people don’t like dealing with builders, because while there are some excellent builders, there are also others that don’t make it easy for their clients to talk to them. This can result in lack of communication during the project and builders doing what they want rather than what you need them to do. But please don’t feel intimidated; you’re a paying client and it is an expensive project. Perhaps they give off the unapproachable vibe to avoid clients bothering them all the time while they’re trying to work – definitely don’t do that, but set aside a regular time either at the start or end of the day to discuss what you need to.

If there is a change to the internal plans, print off the updated plan to scale and hand it to the contractor while explaining in person what the change is. Tape another copy of the plans onto the walls, removing any outdated ones to avoid confusion. Please ensure any changes are communicated well before the builders actually get to that stage of work, because if you are asking them to change something after the work is done, then that’s on you.

If you find they haven’t done something per the plans or have made an error, ask them to rectify it. Decent builders will not give you any trouble about it, but even if it’s a difficult conversation to have, remember – they will be gone soon and you will be living in the house for a long time, so you don't want to be stuck with compromises after everything you've put into the project.

First floor extension to add another bedroom Girl's room design by First Sense Interiors

4. IT’LL TAKE LONGER THAN YOU THINK

This is a big one, psychologically. As humans, we want an end date to the traumatic thing we’re about to go through, so when a builder provides a timescale of 4, or 6 months, people tend to fixate on that end date and can’t handle it when things take longer than they’d mentally signed up for.

Think of how in Grand Designs when the clients unrealistically expect to be "in for Christmas" and Kevin McCloud makes this face...

Kevin McCloud Grand Designs meme

Quite apart from the fact that most building projects overrun due to any number of reasons, it doesn’t end when the builders leave. The exception to this is if you’ve signed up with a firm offering a turnkey solution where they have an internal finishing team that can take care of every little detail, from flooring to kitchen/bathroom fitting, right down to decorative work. But detailed internal work does take time, even more so if you are DIYing some things yourself. So whatever timescale your builder gives you, expect to at least double it in your mind. This will help you to cope better. And forget about the renovations on instagram that seem to happen at the speed of a finger click! It's all smoke and mirrors on that platform. 

Demolition stage of a gut renovation Hallway with family photo wall - design by First Sense Interiors

5. FOCUS ON THE END GOAL AND KEEP THINGS IN PERSPECTIVE

When you are in a state of heightened stress, things feel a lot worse than they are and even a trivial setback can feel like the biggest problem to overcome and can send you spiralling. But problems can be solved. Try to keep this in mind at the start and train yourself to break down every problem you come across into small achievable steps.

There’s a tendency to feel that you should consider yourself privileged to be able to undertake a home renovation, that this is a positive thing you’re doing for your family, so you feel you don’t have a right to sound negative it, but please don’t suffer in silence! Seek out a support network of family, friends or even social media pals who have been through a renovation – people you can speak to honestly, and who can help you to keep a sense of perspective when things feel hard, because there will be days when the overwhelm feels too much. Keep your eyes on the prize – envision how amazing your home will look and the difference it will make to your life once the renovations are complete. Reminding yourself of the end goal can help you stay motivated during challenging times.

Traditional kitchen with secret pantry - building work stage Traditional inframe kitchen with secret pantry

So there you have it. I hope this post is helpful if you have a renovation coming up. At the very least, I hope you've found some amusement in looking through the before-and-after sliders of some of my projects. As you can see, they've been through some rather gritty building work before turning into beautiful spaces. I know some of the demo-stage images look like the stuff of nightmares, but once it's all done and you have a beautiful and unique home that transforms the way you live, the dusty memories really do fade away. Kevin summarises it succinctly here -


But you can mitigate the pain by going into it well prepared, with realistic expectations and the support of an interior designer if you are working with one. 😊


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