How to plan a property renovation (16 valuable tips)

This article explains the key things to know about when you’re taking on a property renovation scheme.

Whether you have some home refurbishment skills, or are renovating a house with no experience, we have lots of practical advice.

Firstly, you need a clear plan – and remember that a house renovation project can present unexpected problems which may challenge your budget.

Here’s where to start!

1. Get a building survey

If you are buying a property to renovate, a full structural survey should reveal any serious issues and indicate the likely costs of a renovation project. It will detect any concealed problems, such as movement in the structure, the presence of asbestos and the roof condition.

Cracks in property may mean nothing more than settlement, but a building surveyor can clarify this. If cracks do reveal subsidence it may be more difficult to get buildings insurance.  Severe cases of subsidence may require underpinning which can prove very costly.

If you plan major structural work, such as taking out load bearing walls, a surveyor may recommend a report by a structural engineer. A building survey must be carried out by a chartered building surveyor who can also tell you if further surveys are required.

A full structural survey will investigate potential subsidence cracks.

2. Get a measured survey

This is useful if you are planning major alterations. Detailed floor and elevations plans will ensure the design is totally accurate, eliminating problems with your renovation project.

3. Apply for planning permission and Building Regulations approval

The local authority’s planning portal will give details about planning regulations in your area. Some conversions, extensions and renovations schemes need planning consent, but not all, for instance, internal improvements that don’t affect the building’s external appearance and some small extensions, which are classed as permitted development or PD rights. If you carry out small improvements, it’s advisable to obtain a Lawful Development Certificate to show that the work did not require planning consent. This can be helpful if you sell the property.

If your scheme involves a listed building, you will need to apply for Listed Building Consent. If you are converting agricultural buildings, your project may qualify for Class Q development. As part of the planning process, you may be required to provide surveys such as a bat survey. You must obtain Building Regulations approval to ensure standards of design and construction.

It is also advisable to notify neighbours about your property renovation – if in doubt about this, check The Party Wall Act. You may also need to notify the leaseholder – check the property deeds for restrictive covenants, or any other interested parties.

Remember that breaches of the above may cause delays, injunctions, financial penalties, or having to remove the alterations you have made.

Architects’ drawings.

4. Draw up a schedule of works

Clarify your aims – which may be to improve light or add value – and identify the main areas that you want to focus on. Make a `must have’ list and then get estimates based on detailed specifications. Remember that conserving and repairing period features is generally cheaper than replacing them.

You might want to focus on energy saving measures with the quickest payback, such as loft insulation, cavity wall insulation, installing a condensing boiler, sealing draughts, insulating pipes and the hot water tank.

Make a list of rooms and the works to be done in order. This will prevent tradespeople overlapping and ensure work gets done when the right trades are on-site without having to return, saving costs. Work from the top of the house downward and do the structural work first.

Be realistic if you intend to work on the project yourself – it’s hard work, you may slow progress and you need to have good skills. The best way may be to hire professionals.

An extension will completely transform a house and add value.

Work out how best to use space – reliable ways to add value include a cellar, garage or loft conversions, mezzanine levels, remodelling internal walls, adding patio doors or creating open plan living space. Installing a new kitchen, kitchen renovations or adding a new bathroom can be the best way to maximise value. For the best results, you may need to engage an architect to design your scheme.

Architect Percy Weston of multiple award-winning London architects Surman Weston said:

It’s important to get priorities in order at an early stage. There is never an unlimited budget or unlimited space, so we have to make decisions on what areas are really important to the client, and where we can compromise. We can advise on whether it is worthwhile to extend or knock down and help with planning permission, building control and technical knowledge.

Plans must be carefully designed and drawn up. We aim to realise the client’s brief, acting as an expert conduit between client and builder – detailed instructions are needed or the client is never going to satisfy their aims. A very important part of the project is ensuring the client is investing energy in the right areas. We make the brief very thorough, so the client does not end up spending money on things which are not worthwhile.

We carry out a feasibility study – a short exercise going through the brief – then go back to the client so that they have something to react to. The plan may well change a lot from the feasibility stage – schemes always evolve, often with threads of the original idea.

Surman Weston designed this Victorian house restoration in Sydenham, London, which involved a rear extension and reconfiguration of the layout to create a free-flowing home, blurring the boundaries between old and new.

5. Mortgages for property renovations

A renovation project will require a specialist mortgage. Careful research is needed as some lenders will not lend on a property which is uninhabitable; others will lend on its current value and not release further funds until the project is complete and has been revalued by estate agents.  

6. Budget for your renovation project

Prepare your budget, listing all tasks and materials to make sure the scheme is financially viable and that you are creating maximum value. Get quotes for materials and estimates for each trade. Remember to allow for hiring skips, scaffold and tools. Allow for a contingency sum of around 10-20%.

7. Updating electrics

Electrics in old houses often need updating – tell-tale signs are dated fuse boxes and light switches. Remember to allow for replastering work after the new electrical wiring is installed.

Property renovation often involves rewiring.

8. Central heating and energy options

Your house may have old radiators, storage heaters or no heating system at all. Connections may also be needed to mains gas or other fuel sources such as LPG or oil. When thinking about the options, you may want to consider installing an air source heat pump. Fitting double glazing, replacing windows and improving the central heating system are proven to add value to a property and are often at the top of many buyers’ priorities.

Rico Wojtulewicz, head of housing and planning policy for the National Federation of Builders (NFB) commented:

When planning a house renovation, it’s worth considering how you might make your home more energy efficient, or ‘retrofit’ it. For example, you might change your heating and hot water in the coming years but the renovation you’re planning involves ripping up floors or changing the roof. So as part of that update, could you install underfloor heating, which works great with heat pumps, or a solar panel for hot water or electricity?

Perhaps your heating system is fine, but you’re changing the flooring or replastering walls. In those circumstances, it’s worth checking to see if you have underfloor insulation or cavity walls. If not, you could insulate the floor or interior side of an external wall.

There are many other things which could sway your plan, for example, buying radiators or sizing plumbing pipes for heat pumps. If you get a solar thermal panel for hot water, you get better water pressure, so maybe you’ll change an electric shower to a mixer one?

If you have a traditionally built or heritage home, which are homes built before 1919 but typically traditional building principles were used up until the 1940s, the NFB has links to some fantastic guides.

Once you’ve considered your renovation plan, it can really help to seek a professional’s advice. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the works and whether you will need Building Regulation approval. A good builder won’t mind going through all the options and talking through the timeline and works.

Then, if you go with them, expect an itemised quote and you don’t need to pay it all upfront. Many builders will get 30 days to pay for materials, so structure staged payments, with a final payment on completion. A reputable company, which will also typically have insurance, will understand why you’re doing this.

With Building Regulations, you can check whether certain works need sign off using your council’s website or give building control a call to find out. Doing work without sign off can be dangerous, or problematic if you decide to sell.

Heating pipes being installed under the floor.

9. Damp problems

It’s important to work out the cause of damp – it may be due to blocked drains or damaged gutters, which can be simply resolved. The house may have undergone alternations which have caused damp, such as laying cement render and concrete floors, which are preventing the house from breathing.

If the drains are in question, a drainage survey with a CCTV camera may be needed. If the drains directly affect neighbouring properties, you may need to obtain a Build Over Agreement from the local water authority board.

Clear evidence of damp.

10. Roof repairs

Buying a house with a roof in good structural condition is a wise move for any property developer, as roof repairs can prove costly. Typical defects include missing or loose tiles, poorly maintained flashings and worn pointing. It’s important to check the roof space for internal warning signs such as ineffective underfelt.

Roof repairs.

11. VAT

For work to an existing home, suppliers must add 20% VAT to quotes. However, if the house has been empty for over two years, VAT should be charged at a reduced rate of 5%. It’s useful to remember that if a contractor is not VAT registered, they should not charge you VAT. If your property renovation relates to a house that’s been empty for over 10 years, the majority of the work will be zero rated for VAT.

12. Property insurance

You are responsible for the property from the exchange of contracts and need the relevant insurance. A mortgage provider will also require proof of insurance. Home renovation insurance should cover building materials, the structure, public and employers’ liability and accident cover.

13. Warranty for building works

This is not essential but will cover the house against problems with the build quality, design and materials. A warranty will usually run for 10 years.

14. Extra costs

These may include reconnecting the water supply, professional costs such as valuation, surveyor’s, architect’s and engineer’s fees, fees for obtaining planning permission and building control certification. There may be a fee to pay for the release of stage payments with a renovation mortgage.

Allow for extra costs in your budget.

15. Hiring builders

When selecting builders, get references or recommendations. Ask to see examples of similar work that they have completed and speak to former customers if possible. Find out if the work was satisfactory, completed on time and on budget. Meet regularly with your builder for updates.

Brian Berry, Chief Executive of the Federation of Master Builders, said:

Before embarking on any home renovation project, it’s important that you put time into finding a reputable builder that you trust. Aside from the recommendations of family and friends, the FMB’s free Find a Builder search tool provides a strong starting point for your search. Our members are experts who have been professionally vetted and independently inspected to ensure they meet the highest standards.

You should aim to get at least three quotes before making your final decision. I would strongly caution against defaulting for the quickest and cheapest option. The golden rule is that a good builder is a busy builder. If something does go wrong, any gains made in a quicker or cheaper start will soon be lost.

Once you’ve chosen your builder, make sure to set up an agreed payment schedule and only pay the final amount when you are satisfied that all the work has been completed to a good standard. It’s crucial to have a formal contract with your builder before works begin. Get the costs, scope, responsibilities, and timeframe written down and signed. If plans change during the project, make sure you sit down with your builder and update the contract.

Given the volatility of material costs, some of which change daily, we’re encouraging our members to create flexible contracts to reflect price changes – this is to protect both the customer and builder. It’s good practice to keep open lines of communications with your builder, but good builders will make sure to keep you abreast of any price or timescale changes if these arise.

16. Be aware of the price ceiling in your area

Whether you are renovating a property to sell on or to live in, be aware that each area has its own price limit. Your renovation project should be in line with the local housing market, so keep a close eye on the budget and don’t overspend to avoid creating a money pit.

A home renovation project can be a huge undertaking, but if you have the right property and a good plan, you will be able to get the optimum price if you sell, or have a beautiful home to live in yourself.

Final thoughts

Have I missed any key points?

Perhaps I haven’t mentioned your favourite piece of advice about house renovation?

If so, let me know by leaving a comment below.

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