First-time buyers can make big savings with fixer uppers in snazzy locations. However, some projects might swallow any discount with the glam work needed.
What is a fixer upper? Fixer uppers might need renovation, or refurbishment. These words are sometimes used interchangeably. However, when doing your research, expect renovation to refer to things like making structural changes. This includes moving walls, building extensions, and changing layouts. The oldest or most neglected fixer uppers will likely need renovation.
Refurbishment is usually less intensive and doesn’t require building work. So refurbs more often include cleaning, painting, and changing the decor without professional help. For this reason, refurbishment can be more affordable than buying a fixer upper to renovate, but either can run away with your finances.
A fixer upper’s reduced price reflects that the buyer will have work to do. The value is in working out if your efforts will cost less than the value you will gain from restoration.
Once upon a time everyone was telling me I’d never have my own property because I didn’t earn enough. I’ve written here about how I saved like a fiend to prove the banks and everyone I met wrong:
Finding a fixer upper that wanted better days also helped my savings converge quicker with a mortgage offer. More about that here:
Here’s what I’ve covered below:
- The pros and cons of buying a fixer upper
- Is a fixer upper right for you
- How to buy a fixer upper in the UK
- How do I know if I can afford it
- How to calculate financial and time costs
- What my refurb was really like
- How will I know where to start
Under the last section I’ve written about:
- Structural changes
- Interior design in living and dining areas
- Interior design in bedrooms
- Upcycling and recycling ideas
At the end I’ve suggested steps towards a plan of action if renovating and refurbing makes you giddy with sheer excitement. I was excited to do maths and stick my fingers together with super glue too if it meant never renting again. Let’s do this!
Important! I’m not a builder, professional handywoman, mortgage broker, surveyor, property developer, lawyer etc. My experience is one example and I recap professional advice from television, but I can’t tell you to go right or left. Do your own research after this because your cash is yours, and only you can decide where it ends up.
Also as you might guess from the contents above, this ain’t a short post. It’s 10000 words. Absorb this and you’ll be ready for any challenge! Join the mailing list for a weekly reminder of the help available here on the blog if you don’t have time to digest everything in one sitting.
The Pros Of Buying A Fixer Upper
- A lower list price
- Opportunities therefore in locations we might not afford otherwise
- More potential to increase the value of my asset
- Most homeowners will want to decorate anyway
- Creative freedom
I also gained a certain amount of financial freedom. Instead of investing my entire budget into the purchase, I could decide how much of the 10% I saved on the sale to plough into the refurb. I know a lot of first-time buyers don’t want DIY hassle, but I would rather retain some of my hard earned cash. That gives room to manoeuvre through life’s surprises.
The cons of buying a fixer upper
The DIY involved is obviously one of the cons if we can’t tell a screw from a nail. Or simply prefer to spend our free time watching all 15 series of Supernatural with a cuppa. (You could refurb several fixer uppers in the time it takes to watch 15 seasons on DVD…)
Other cons include:
- Unexpected costs
- It can be hard work and stressful
- Complex logistics if you can’t live at the fixer upper during the work
It wasn’t feasible to camp out in my shell of a fixer upper while commuting four hours a day. I was also incredibly burned out from a high pressure job without a high salary to match. I actually ended up resigning to focus on my fixer upper refurbishment. (Again, that’s where a savings buffer in life gives options).
Buying far away from your current digs? Or do you normally live and work in very different locations? This will impact the practicalities of managing a fixer upper renovation or doing your own refurb in the evenings.
Is A Fixer Upper Right For You?
Buying fixer uppers is not worth the initial savings for everyone therefore. You’re mostly likely to get value from this kind of investment if you:
- Like projects and using your hands
- Are a finisher who finds it easy to visualise your ideas
- Don’t fit the above, but you are determined to learn these instead
- Are considering entrepreneurship (then there’s potential to profit)
Fixer uppers are NOT worth the savings for broke perfectionists or anyone wanting to get rich quick. If you’re paying someone to renovate for you then the usual wisdom is that quicker is better as delays cost money. This holds true if the delay means contractors are spending longer on site than intended originally. Or you run into extra costs because something can’t be completed the way you planned.
However, aside from this, patience wins the day and the biggest savings are in taking time over spending decisions that have smaller consequences. The interior design can be a work in progress when you move in and you could spend months decorating once any structural changes are done.
This gives time to save in between and find the best bargains, or salvage materials for free if you want to recycle and upcycle. If you can’t live with this approach, then you will not be a happy bunny.
How To Buy A Fixer Upper In The UK
I found my listing on Zoopla, so start with property sites in search of fixer uppers for sale. Go for a walk if there lacks anything needing TLC in the location you want. Look for the one shabby house on a pristine street. Knock on doors to see if someone has thought about selling. (Don’t go alone).
Another common place to look for fixer uppers is at auctions. I’ve covered what to beware in my recap of Cherry Healey’s Property Virgins. That epic also covers just about everything else you might want to know as a first-time buyer about fixer uppers or new builds.
Otherwise judge making an offer on fixer uppers against similar criteria to any other home. Here are the questions to ask yourself, the estate agent, and anyone you know with experience of renovating or decorating:
- How much work needs doing?
- Can you do it, and if not, what help will you need and from who?
- What do other homes look like nearby that are finished?
- What do homes nearby SELL for?
- What will be the likely value after?
- Is there a ceiling price?
- Will the area’s value likely rise due to planned new transport links, or amenities like supermarkets?
- Is there a popular or up and coming location nearby? (This will also likely make the area more desirable in future)
- Are you renovating to create a forever home, or will you likely move in 5 years or so?
- If so, who’s your ideal buyer? A family?
- Does the fixer upper have a unique selling point (USP) like a large garden, or can you add a USP?
Regards what nearby homes SELL for, the national average selling price is usually lower than advertised prices. Something to keep in mind when buying, but also when imagining the future value of fixer uppers after graft.
Related to this, ceiling prices mean that no matter how much work you do, there might be a maximum price that property type fetches locally.
A popular or up and coming location nearby will also likely make the adjacent areas more desirable in future. When you can’t afford the latest trend spot, move to the town next door.
How Do I Know If I Can Afford It?
Calculating whether we can “afford” fixer uppers in advance can be a little tricky. As mentioned in the cons higher up, fixer uppers with surprises may mean unexpected costs putting things right. Even light refurbishment to outdated fixer uppers might still make us unsure about our budget.
While it should be great news when the bank wants to give you a mortgage, you’ll a) want money leftover after your deposit to cover the refurb and b) want the costs afterwards to make financial sense.
A way of judging this is calculating whether certain fixer uppers will likely make you “house poor”. We’re house poor if we spend most our wages on our mortgage, council tax, bills, and any other maintenance. If this outweighs all your other spending, then it implies you’re living in a money pit. (Likewise, I don’t miss renting, as I spent the majority of my wages on rent and bills, and buying reduced my monthly costs).
Fixer uppers might mean shouldering some higher maintenance costs for a few weeks or months in the early days of ownership. Divide your monthly home ownership costs by your monthly pay (before tax). This article suggests aiming for ratio of 36% or less. Round up or down if 36% gives you a maths headache. (It’s an American article, but the same maths applies to buying fixer uppers in the UK).
If adopting certain fixer uppers means high maintenance costs over a much longer period that obliterates this ratio, then there may be more value in biding our time. Wait until other fixer uppers come along, or you can afford a bigger deposit towards a higher priced house that needs less work.
How Do I Determine The Financial And Time Costs?
Okay…but how do I know if I can afford it??! Various considerations will indicate the likely maintenance costs in financial terms and the time it costs us to complete our adventure.
The following list isn’t a list of everything you HAVE to do. You can do whatever you like! It’s a long list because of all the things that might crop up. Some fixer uppers need spending in all these areas. Other fixer uppers might let you skip over most of the list.
Potential spending areas to think about:
Surveys before purchase
Extending (so building work, labour, materials)
Other structural changes
Roofs and guttering
Flooring and doors/windows
Kitchens and bathrooms
Updating or adding plumbing and electrics (including heating)
Any other spaces like attics or gardens
Public liability insurance
Pest removal (look for evidence of nibbling or droppings)
Hazards in very old fixer uppers e.g. asbestos or lead-based paint
Mortgage fees and payments
Rent if you don’t live-in during work (or a tent/sleeping bag if you do…)
Potential reno spending areas in detail
Let’s take a closer look at these:
The biggest money drains
Playing the long game
Order of work
The biggest gains
What a decor budget really involves
Building surveys don’t always reveal problems before buying, but they can offer some peace of mind with very old properties. Is a crack just a crack, or will the house fall down? If you can fit your hand in a crack in a wall then you would be a very brave soul indeed to keep going. Unless you plan to knock it down and start again (doubtful!).
The biggest money drains
Speak to builders for quotes if you’ve spied fixer uppers that definitely need dragging into this century. A new roof for example can chew through £20000.
An extension might cost less than a quarter of that if it’s a small simple extension with no plumbing and litle wiring. By the same token there are plenty of people spending £20k or more on changing the layout of their home. (Although I’ve argued in other posts here on the blog that smart layout changes are superior to costly extensions). This list is not necessarily in order of cost because it depends on the fixer upper and the buyer.
As a rule, subsidence, mould, or damp can easily become financial (and literal?) sinkholes. What looks like a teeny tiny bit of mould that needs washing off a wall might really mean a bathroom that has gone mouldy floor to ceiling behind leaky tiles. The latter needs a professional to sort as it’s not safe to breath in mould.
Playing the long game
Another budget consideration is if the house is liveable then you may want to spend time there first before deciding what changes to make. Trying to race to complete fixer uppers before we will even think about moving in obviously adds time and cost.
Keeping the place bare bones allows you to continue to save for the furniture you settle on once you’ve discovered how you really use the space. It also means less to move around if you embark on work in the meantime.
Life is a long game. Trying to doing everything yesterday doesn’t always position us best for tomorrow. I know what treading water feels like, but there are also gains to not always rushing around at 100 miles an hour.
Order of work
If the entire house is in disrepair, then prioritise the things that make it safe such as fixing holes in floors upstairs or repairing stair banisters that wobble like jelly.
After any structural changes, expect to pay for skilled work next like electricians and plumbers. You might need plasterers, door/window fitters, and bathroom and kitchen fitters.
Follow this with messy decorating costs like painting then new carpets or flooring. Floors and furniture can wait until last unless you’re very careful to protect them while decorating. The less furniture you buy the easier it is to put down new flooring, so this also means you can delay any furniture investments until as late as possible.
The biggest gains
If you’re unsure where to decorate first in old-fashioned fixer uppers, then the best value usually comes from updating kitchens and bathrooms. Direct Line’s research suggests the kitchen still outpips a modernised bathroom. They mention some useful insurance considerations in that link, but always shop around for insurance.
Tidying outside and decorating any porch or entryway also often adds value as these are what gives the first impression of the property.
It’s understandable why not many first-time buyers take on large renovations. Aside from the scale, they are usually cost prohibitive because even someone with some home ownership experience is likely to end up with a project manager.
They can hire contractors and maintain the schedule and budget for you, but this comes at a commission of usually around 10%. They are especially useful when trying to makeover properties far away. It means you don’t have to be around all day every day.
Sian Astley is the project manager for Your Home Made Perfect and lots of other TV shows and builds. Her before and afters give a sense of what professional help can achieve against the clock. If you speak to her, let her know you found her through Save Like A Bear.
Most home policies don’t cover large scale remodelling either. Public liability insurance protects anyone you employ in case of injury, or any other unsuspecting individual that volunteers for you.
What does a decor budget really involve?
“Decor” is a nice vague term! This can include everything from curtains to wall coverings to plants and it’s up to you how far you go to “dress” the rooms inside. This is where you have the most flexibility as there are £0 interiors out there where the most determined buyers have sourced everything indoors for free from paint to furniture to fixtures.
Different people will also have different ideas about when a room is “done”. For one person, every wall will need a picture hung. For the next person, it just means they don’t have to wear a dust mask anymore and they can find the sock drawer. Refurb budgets should really be less ambitious than renovation budgets as most of the digging doesn’t involve any digging at all, and is purely cosmetic.
Potential spending areas for refurbs only
- Painting (inside and out)
- Filling holes
- Updating flooring with new carpets, or sanding/varnishing etc
- Repairs to or painting windows and doors
- Updating kitchen doors and drawer fronts
- Landscaping/garden clearing
- Hardware to put up shelves etc
- Premade self-assembly storage or furniture
Unlike renovations, this list more likely has items we can either skip entirely in some rooms, or just skip with our wallet while we scavenge what we need. Relatives might have leftover unwanted paint in their shed, or tools they can lend.
We can also sometimes work on cosmetic things in one room while something structural happens in another. Or work on two rooms in one day i.e. tile in one room while paint dries in another.
Once you know your hard and fast spending areas, you can then look at prices and fashion a budget.
Tote up first what it would cost rather than what you would like it to cost.
Double costs as a contingency, but also because it’s common to underestimate how much materials we need. No one wants to run out of wallpaper halfway along the wall, and tiles always break when you’re redoing a bathroom or kitchen.
Then you work backwards: if this doubled budget is miles from what you can afford, then ask again if these are genuinely hard and fast spending areas. Then look for ways to pay for these things secondhand or not at all.
What My Refurb Was Really Like
I’m only one example, but I’ve detailed the following below to give an idea of what’s achievable:
- What I spent
- Things that can wait
- Level of difficulty
- Where I shopped
- My best bargains
- Things I didn’t pay for
- What I’d do differently
- Was it worth it??!
What I spent
Circa £5k. The biggest expense was £1k for a new front door and close to £1800 for five new double glazed windows. I was recommended someone local who fitted these in one day and these quotes were around half what big names quoted. Expect to pay more for a door with a lot of glass or the fanciest hardware.
11 weeks from purchase completion to moving in. For the first three weeks I was only available on my days off then I quit my job and was at the house 4-6 days a week. This was only for around 4-6 hours a day though.
I could have spent more time working on the house if I had camped out, but instead we travelled back and forth. Quite often we lost part of the morning buying more supplies in places like Screwfix. We aimed to leave before it was pitch black and rush hour (winter gets very dark if a large stretch of your journey passes nothing but fields!)
There were also numerous coffee breaks, especially as it took a freezing month before the new windows and door could be fitted. We packed lunches to avoid faffing when hunger struck though.
Things that can wait
Cleaning the shocking carpets was a temporary fix so that they didn’t make me hurl until replacing them many months later when it was viable financially. It was many months before the last lampshade went up. Don’t aim for perfection on day one.
I also had an unintended wildflower garden for most of the first year. When summer hit, we dug it up, put pond liner under the gravel to stop new weeds, then relaid the pebbles and gravel. Even later still, we added a small fence as people tended to use my outside space as a walkway.
Level of difficulty: Only the door and window installation required outside help. My family knew how to help with the rest of the DIY, including changing light fittings which not everyone would be confident about.
Where I shopped
- Screwfix (bathroom fittings, taps, tools)
- Dunelm (blinds/lights)
- IKEA (mainly furniture)
- Topps Tiles (ideal for coloured grout)
- Argos (small electricals and large furniture)
- B&Q (mainly garden pebbles/lights)
- Wickes (mainly tiling needs like adhesive)
- Homebase (lighting)
- Blinds2go (for made to measure)
- Carpets 4 Less
- Wilko (wallpaper/curtains/everything else)
My best bargain: A Dunelm blind reduced from £40ish I think to £5. It was way too big for the window, but at that price we cut it down and I kept the leftover as a narrow table runner. Someone next to me at the last carboot I did was reselling lampshades just like one of mine for good money. That implies Dunelm stock has a resale value too.
Things I didn’t pay for
A handful of relatives donated various unwanted furniture (and a TV destined for the tip otherwise). I had accumulated things like framed pictures over the years despite not having anywhere to hang them (again, because some of them were birthday presents etc).
It seems rather extravagant that I have two DVRs and two TVs, but all this tech is likely knocking 10 years old. This post includes my philosophy towards material things and how I choose spending priorities:
I’d rather spend my hard-earned pennies on bigger investments. Like carpet that doesn’t smell like I own pets when I don’t own any pets…
What I’d do differently
I actually could have gone slower. I would have liked to have shopped around even more and held off on certain purchases. However, because I wasn’t refurbing alone there was some pressure to buy anything that I needed help with e.g. lampshades if the lighting fittings needed changing. Otherwise it would have meant that my helpers were indefinitely at my beck and call which isn’t fair.
Paying full price was definitely a novelty, and the downside of completing work long term on fixer uppers is repeated visits to the same shops. Inevitably I was reminded why I don’t like to pay full price or go shopping too often because it’s sod’s law that whatever you bought has since gone on sale.
The only other thing I would have done differently is learn more DIY. Because I had help from family, we were often working on separate things at the same time to get everything done. This meant I wasn’t always gaining new skills. (Still it’s a good excuse to have family around if they don’t teach you everything).
Was it worth it?
I think it was worth it because…
1. I have a roof over my head.
2. My mortgage costs less than my last rent.
3. In fact my mortgage, council tax, energy bills, broadband and TV licence all total less than my last rent. Even if you add in my mobile phone and food, I’m still paying less than my last rent.
I did make myself house poor during the refurb as I quit my job to work on the project sort of full-time. I wasn’t earning la-di-da money, but buying a fixer upper meant I had spent about 10% less than I budgeted on the purchase. So there were savings to a)do the work and b)still leave me with rainy day money until my next job.
The advice from estate agents was that the improvements I had in mind could add about £20k to the value. Since I “only” spent around £5k on this work, I think that’s a valuable trade off.
They also advised me of the local ceiling price for the property I was buying so that I knew the maximum value I might achieve. Even then I would have struggled to spend more than the value I could add as it was a small fixer upper and I wasn’t making structural changes.
How Will I Know Where to Start?
Below are all the things I thought about when deciding what to change, and how much work I wanted to do therefore, or could afford to do. There might even be a few of you who have bought fixer uppers because it was the only way to get on the ladder, and you’re thinking “now what?” Especially if all your savings went on the deposit.
I gained most of this knowledge from watching masses of property shows over the years, so wherever possible I’ve mentioned the programme responsible. Everything I’ve included revolves around saving you money, time and stress. The tips are on structural changes, floors, bathrooms, kitchens, interior design for living and dining areas, interior design for bedrooms, upcycling and recycling, and outside space.
These might be urgent fixes, or they might be ideas for later that elevate the potential of fixer uppers. There are some general options to adding and optimising square footage that each have their advantages.
- Loft conversions
- Changing layouts
I’ve written more about extensions in my recap of Your Home Made Perfect. Some conservatories/extensions no longer need permission if they’re small, otherwise allow at least eight weeks for planning permission.
Roof extensions or a roof garden on a flat roof are another way to steal space. Expect to pay around around £800 per square metre for a roof extension.
If you do extend, make lighting integral to the design. Concealed light fittings can be economical in a new structure.
Maximise a small extension by having a diagonal external wall. A single floor extension at ground level doesn’t mean you can’t slope the roof; raising the ceiling on one side will give you more height and light.
If you can’t stand up in the loft, then a conversion is not impossible, but only if you get planning permission to raise the roof. You need at least two metres at the highest point and then different types of dormers add space.
Most roofs built after 1970 are trussed and awkward to convert therefore, so this makes it more expensive. Expect to pay five figures minimum either way.
Putting bathrooms in lofts cost the most because you have to reinforce the floors to cope with the weight, plus the suites cost more than decorating any other type of room. Stacking bathrooms is the cheapest way to install as they take advantage of the existing plumbing above or below, but obviously not all existing layouts will accommodate this. A macerating toilet doesn’t rely on existing plumbing though.
Basement conversions need the foundations checking and they need insulating and waterproofing of the walls and floors. Unless there is already some kind of cellar space, creating a basement will likely be the most expensive way to add square footage and is only for the bravest.
In my recap of Sarah Beeny’s Renovate Don’t Relocate, Sarah argues that changing the layout improves space better than adding rooms for their own sake. Especially if adding makes other areas cramped.
Chat to estate agents about what features are priced at a premium locally. Do you want to pay more for a house with a hallway? Or carve out a hallway in fixer uppers that are lacking one to add value?
If you make downstairs open plan then you must create a fire escape upstairs e.g. your windows have to be compliant. This usually means a fireman could fit through wearing apparatus. Be careful of this if updating windows in older properties.
There’s no rule saying you have to mimic the existing style of a window if you are putting in first time double glazing, or replacing shot windows. Change an entire window if you have to, but whoever fits the windows has no responsibility to guide you on changing the style completely. Take the lead in optimising the light and insulation with a new design.
If you’re not using an empty fireplace, don’t be afraid to build storage into it instead of ripping it out. It doesn’t have to stay fireplace shaped!
I didn’t knock down any walls in my refurb, probably because I’ve watched too much of The Property Brothers. Developers Jonathan and Andrew Scott (they’re twins) have had more TV shows than I’ve had roast dinners. They have years of experience of buying and adding value to properties through renovating and refurbishing.
Here are some of the fun surprises I’ve seen them encounter on their show My Dream Home when knocking down walls:
Electrics or heat sources inside the wall that need moving
Walls that turn out to be load bearing
Walls that have radiators on the other side
On the last it might be more expensive to cut down the radiator or change the heating than it is to move the wall in the first place.
One couple spent an extra £2k moving doorways, but they also made their doorways taller, so I reckon marry someone short if you must marry at all. (You’re welcome for that stellar advice. I’d say don’t tell Jonathan and Drew as they’re both over six foot, but then they have the experience to DIY this sort of thing on the cheap!)
If it’s too expensive to knock down a stud wall, you might be able to knock a pass through instead that doesn’t interrupt anything structural.
- Uneven floors
- Working with concrete
- Underfloor heating
- Wood versus laminate versus tile
- Carpet versus rugs
Uneven floors. Lay subfloors on top to create an even level, especially if you plan to lay new flooring throughout. You need the floors from room to room to be the same level. If you have defects in a cement floor in one room for example, the cheapest and quickest fix for this is to lay a false floor and then your new floorboards etc., on top.
When removing tiles you might find more tile underneath, incredibly sticky glue, or concrete slab. Have a budget contingency for surprises.
Working with concrete
If you’re changing levels, wires in the concrete make it an expensive endeavour to break up the concrete while preserving any wiring. You also have to break floors up from a sideways angle if there’s a floor below or you’ll damage the plaster of the ceiling underneath.
One option to converting a space with a concrete floor is to simply polish. George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces featured an example of this in a Bordeaux home that used to be a garage. The polish preserves the raw texture but is cleaner and more domestic.
This also means you’re not losing inches laying stuff on top and can avoid the cost of adding floor to your floor…I suspect this is better suited to a small space in our climate compared to the weather they receive in Bordeaux though. One of the self-builders on Grand Designs: The Street opted for polished concrete as a cost effective durable floor for a large space, but I expect the rest of the house was more energy efficient than existing houses.
This might have long term cost benefits, but causes less upheaval in an extension than trying to lay under existing floors.
On Grand Designs: The Street (mentioned above also), one self-builder’s pipes burst in freezing weather damaging the concrete floors. Mind the time of year and the potential consequences if you can’t turn the heating on ASAP because of other works.
Alternatively consider materials that are naturally warmer underfoot. Designer Aidan Keane sadly passed away, but he had a gem of a show called Big House Little House following renovations at opposite ends of the scale. He recommended that wood effect plastic flooring in a very sunny room looks cheap when sunlight hits it, so either go for real wood, or if using plastic, avoid wood effects. However, wood effect tiles look better than laminate, are harder wearing, and also hold heat quite well. If you get cold easily, prioritise the latter.
I got the following two tips from Love the Place You’re In, a programme where a property developer and an interior designer give advice to existing owners who are tackling refurbs.
- If you want to know what a wood floor will look like varnished, wet your hand and touch the boards. This darkens the wood and gives an indication because varnish will darken the tone also.
- Don’t sand a floor unless you are ready to lacquer it immediately. If you leave time in between you risk needing to sand it again if anything gets spilt. One volunteer on the show dropped crisps on a sanded wooden floor and found they left a permanent grease stain.
Carpets versus rugs
If you are haggling over fixer uppers with horrendous carpet, see if the owner will clean the carpets as part of the sale, or ask around to borrow a cleaner.
Bicarbonate of soda removes some odour. Leave it, and then hoover later. I tried Shake ‘n’ Vac too, but the fragrance is temporary as you might imagine, so this can become a money pit. If the smell doesn’t improve, then the only thing to do is rip it all up.
If you can’t afford carpet for a large space, or want to change to hard floors throughout, then rugs will soften the acoustics and add warmth. Hard floors in fixer uppers that aren’t insulated with neighbours on both sides might be uncomfortable if you crave warmth.
Choose thick carpet with underlay downstairs, or in any part of the house that will get the most footfall, otherwise it will be threadbare in no time. Floorboards creak less if you pad them with carpet. Underlay also acts as a vapour barrier, and can stop smells rising from concrete since concrete is porous.
In bedrooms, a felt-backed carpet with no underlay might suffice and will be cheaper overall therefore. Don’t forget to have cash to pay the fitter on the day if needed (or a tip otherwise).
Matching coloured suites are out of fashion, but question the trauma of ripping out a good condition bathroom unless you are in a hurry to add value.
Here are some steps if you do decide to redesign.
- Decide where to put the bath first as this takes the most space. Try to use dead space behind doors and underneath windows where sinks or toilets wouldn’t have leg or elbow room.
- Think of what people see when the door is left open (not the toilet ideally, especially in case someone forgets to lock the door).
- Tile is only really necessary where water can splash around the shower/bath/sink. Don’t just copy where the previous tiles were placed (unless you’re trying to hide damage from removing the old tiles).
If you don’t want to learn to tile, or already know you passionately hate grouting, a tile panel is quicker to put on and quicker to wrench off in future. There’s also no regrouting and little potential for mould in between.
A pattern on one wall only keeps design regret at bay otherwise if you’re conservative, or if the mixture of tiles ups the cost compared to buying plain tiles.
- If you change the lighting, consider where your head would be when you’re in the bath. There’s nothing relaxing about staring into a lightbulb. Don’t go out of your way to change the lighting for this reason though (there’s always candelit baths!)
- Consider any other pet hates. I can’t stand cupboards directly above sinks because something always falls out when you open the door scaring the bejesus out of me and usually making a mess too.
In a perfect world, shower controls would never be under the shower, so that you can adjust the temperature without a shock. I also can’t stand screw taps; levers are more hygienic as they’re easy to knock on and off without touching them directly. Old screw taps also tend to seize up, or require Herculean strength to turn off.
Here’s seven economical ways to change a kitchen.
- Minor updates
- Buy off the peg and customise
- Buy discontinued
- Choose texture
- Update lighting
- Subtract rather than add
The smallest thing that makes a big difference in an otherwise usable kitchen is to simply update the style. Replacing the handles on cabinetry modernises dated units and costs hardly anything in time or money.
I also covered my doors and drawers with DC Fix from Wilko for about £5 per roll. It’s self-adhesive vinyl and if I can unscrew a door and stick a pattern on straight then anyone can. (My desire to craft is usually disproportionate to my level of skill). It doesn’t get cheaper than that and the only way to get a new look for less would be if someone gave you their unwanted doors. Everyone who saw the finished result assumed I had bought brand new doors and drawers.
Buy off the peg and customise
These carcasses are a cheaper type of bespoke kitchen, but still require a joiner to make the doors in your style. Find a car body shop that will spray paint wooden furniture to create glossy finishes on MDF that look like ceramic or plastic. Genuinely glossy materials cost far more.
If you want to change the finish from gloss (not wood) to matte, you can sand down the doors with an electric sander and then paint. (Hire or borrow the sander if it’s the only time you’ll ever use it).
To paint over glossy or varnished wood, use Zinsser’s B-I-N primer. I didn’t need it for my refurb, but a relative used it on their decorating project afterwards and it provided the perfect base for their new colour. The bigger tins are cheaper per litre if you have a lot of wood to cover up.
On Big House Little House someone managed to buy an end of line kitchen for £700. I mentioned Grand Designs: The Street above and that also featured an end of line bargain (installation not included). These are reduced so heavily (besides the retailer wanting rid of the stock) because they might include returned items. They also might not include replacement parts or instructions. That’s part of the fun though, right? Right?
Worktops vary wildly in cost and even the most expensive have practical disadvantages. Honed granite cleans easier than polished granite because the shine shows up everything, but granite generally requires a second mortgage. A synthetic veneer that wraps over an existing worktop can mimic the look of granite, but still expect to pay four figures.
Wood needs to be regularly sanded and re-oiled throughout the year, so it costs to maintain. It has other advantages though; burn marks can be sanded off for example. And if you’re retiring a wooden worktop, consider chopping it up and reusing as shelves.
Plastic counters are usually cheapest, but not as hard wearing. One way around this is a patterned worktop as the texture will hide marks and damage from the eye.
The same principle applies to all the surfaces.
Dingy kitchens in fixer uppers might need improved lighting rather than a full facelift. Task lighting that turns on under cupboards when chopping and cooking makes a world of difference to function, but can also bring an old kitchen into the present year.
The Property Brothers say people wrongly space their kitchen spotlights evenly under the cabinets for the sake of symmetry. They should really be spaced where you want the pool of light, not just because there’s a cabinet there.
Architectural lighting is when you can see the effect of light, but you can’t see the lighting fixture itself e.g. lights above cupboards. This is more a style element and the bulbs can be awkward to change, so you may find this superfluous. If you want to copy a lighting scheme you’ve seen elsewhere, pause to ask whether it’s practical. The best value design looks good while being functional.
Task lighting wasn’t really viable for me because I had a) a small kitchen anyway and b) no upper cupboards as the wall is thin and can’t take weight. I opted for a main ceiling light with directional lamps like these instead, so I can still aim a light somewhere specific if needed.
Subtract rather than add
In a brand new design, it might be cheaper to skip kickboards and plinths. Leaving this free space beneath the cabinetry also expands the floor to the eye. This enlarges a kitchen without actually adding any square footage. Beware that this space can also become where all your dust and food crumbs go to party.
Kitchen showrooms encourage us to add all sorts of bells and whistles, but many things in life are improved by simplifying rather than adding. Think about what you don’t need.
Important tip! If you are changing flooring and the kitchen, and there will be no plinths, then you must lay the floor before the kitchen installation. The floor needs to reach wall to wall.
Does style matter?
Before I dive into styling the other living areas, let’s get one thing straight. Style is important even if you think you have no style.
Even someone who doesn’t consciously aim for a style has one; likely it’s eclectic, mismatched, well-loved, but it’s still a style none the less. This is your chance to put a stamp on the biggest thing you’ll ever own. Independence is as much about expressing your identity as paying your bills.
Alternatively, if you want to increase the value of your asset through renovation or refurbishment and decide to sell, the style will impact on that sale. Give it due consideration when redecorating instead of gifting yourself a white box with a mish mash of belongings inside. (Unless your style is Scandi minimalist who can’t find their shoes).
Interior Design In Living And Dining Areas
Here’s what I’ve covered below:
- The rule of three
- The best value paint
- Wallpaper problems
- Camouflaging TVs
- Dining room drama
- Curtains and blinds
The rule of three
I learned a grand chunk of my interior design know-how from several years watching the BBC’s Great Interior Design Challenge. They’re big exponents of the design rule of three when it comes to colour. This is the principle that suggests devoting 60% of the room to one colour, 30% to a secondary colour, and 10% to an accent colour. This gives all kinds of leeway to play around and take risks.
Dark colours can shrink a space, but the rule of three can uplift a dark 60% (say, aubergine) with a brighter tone (bright blue perhaps).
Designer Orla Kiely suggested in one episode staying in the same colour family such as three shades of red. The accent colour is also an opportunity to splash anything you like that you’re too scared to cover the whole room with, like orange or gold, or flamingo pink.
The best value paint
We used good ol’ Dulux in my house, but that was mainly because it’s what was already lying around at a relative’s. It was going to turn if it didn’t get used up and I couldn’t afford to buy new paint for funsies. Luckily the wonderful people in TV land have tested the other paints out there for you.
On an episode of Supershoppers Farrow & Ball paint came out as slightly preferable for application, finish, and the ease of washing off stains. Farrow & Ball is priced accordingly.
Dulux came in second in their test, so it’s still a winner for smaller budgets. (I’ve got a big recap of Supershoppers coming for the Spend Better section of the blog. Join the mailing list for that update and for ideas to save in other areas besides fixer upper bargains).
On an episode of Shop Well for Less, Wilko paint was even cheaper, had good coverage, and crayon washed off easily.
To test colours, instead of painting directly onto the wall, paint a piece of lining paper to create a large sample and move it around the room throughout the day. Then you can see what it looks like in different light.
The following treasure trove of tips came from Love the Place You’re In:
Textured wallpaper is the cheapest fix for lumpy walls. Otherwise a lining paper might provide a smooth surface for decorative paper. If there are bad holes that can’t just be papered over, you will need filler. Buy premade filler rather than mixing your own if you’ve never bought it before and/or don’t expect to use it much elsewhere in the refurb, otherwise it will go wasted.
Buy wallpaper rolls with the same batch number. Different batches have minor differences in pattern if printed at different times.
If you plan to hang a lot of pictures, don’t choose a densely patterned wallpaper. The pattern works hard all by itself without adding more busyness on top.
A wallpaper that repeats the pattern every five or six inches saves wastage compared to a pattern that repeats every metre.
Don’t start hanging in the corner because walls are rarely 100% straight. Your pattern will start travelling up or downhill most likely. Instead start more central, draw a plumb line and get your first piece straight. Then work outwards either side.
Some of us simply don’t want our television the primary focus of the decor, but hiding it in a cabinet might not be the most cost effective. If you have a chimney breast or a view, make that the focal point rather than a TV. You can even fake a chimney breast on another wall by painting a panel of a different colour to the adjacent walls. This tricks the eye into making the middle section seem 3d.
Alternatively, hide a TV on a dark background.
Dining room drama
In a dining area or the luxury of an entire dining room, designs usually err towards relaxing with a touch of drama to add interest when entertaining. Low level lighting or candlelight is the most economic way to create atmosphere, but metallic wallpapers and glossy tables also reflect light dramatically.
Restaurants use white tablecloths for a similar reason. Although they’re easy to stain, any light bounces up off the white and illuminates our face, so it’s more flattering than coloured cloths. Add colour instead through tableware and place settings.
A small round table only needs one generous light overhead. A row of pendants illuminates long tables better. The light fixture should always be above the table no matter where the table is in the room. It’s pointless having one light in the middle of the ceiling and the table to one side.
Curtains and blinds
This is a choice that balances light and privacy. If you are overlooked, Venetian blinds let light in without putting yourself on display. They’re also easier to wipe clean than fabric blinds or curtains.
It can also be cheaper to get a customised blind via somewhere like Blinds2Go than to get curtains made for an awkward window. Windows are a bit like worktops in that they come with a huge price range. I’d expect to pay more for a lining for warmth and to shut out light. Unless you or someone crafty you know wants to attach a lining with a home sewing machine.
Otherwise I got blackout curtains from Wilko that do the trick. Cheaper materials aren’t always suitable for ironing, so steam any creases out instead. Be advised that anything velvety will shed.
New curtains sometimes have spring i.e. when you pull them back, they refuse to stay and try to “spring” closed again. If you don’t want the clutter and cost of adding hooks and tiebacks, steam the curtains with a hot iron on the side that you open. Don’t touch them with the iron. When the material cools down, it should move wherever you want it, not where it wants! Don’t do this if unsure about the fabric etc, but steam is generally fine compared to actually ironing. (Another Love The Place You’re In tip. Have I mentioned I love retro TV?)
Interior Design in Bedrooms
Once again I defer to the designers from the Great Interior Design Challenge for the following advice.
- Nighttables are practical and frame the bed with symmetry, even if they don’t match
- Without nighttables, a rug wider than the bed acts as a frame too
- Contestants made nighttables out of a tea tray cut in half, a milk crate, a crab pot, a suitcase, a modified chair etc, so think outside the box
- Think about what you can see from the bed if there’s enough space to choose which way it goes
- Lighting at eye height rather than overhead is more flattering
- Contestants made lamps from books, vases, and fruitbowls, so lights don’t have to match
- Clutter isn’t calming, so give yourself storage
- Colours shouldn’t be too bright otherwise you can’t relax
- Yellow also makes you look sallow or is too energising
- An oversized headboard adds luxury (and can be made on a budget)
If you can’t afford to redecorate the whole room, transform the headboard, hang pictures, or apply wall stickers for less.
When deciding where to hang pictures, framing a picture within an open doorway will entice people into that room. So don’t hang pictures in line with a doorway if you don’t want guests to peek inside, but use it where you want people to feel free to go in, like guest rooms (and bathrooms).
Remember rules are made to be broken. In theory an accent wall that’s patterned or wallpapered would not usually be the first wall you see when you enter. However it is in my bedroom because the first wall you see is also the largest and only uninterrupted wall. Given the choice between wallpapering the first wall in sight and a wall with windows or architectural features, I’d skip the latter.
Upcycling and Recycling Ideas For Every Room
I mentioned above making nighttables or lamps out of unusual items. If you have the creative itch to get crafty for the first time, then upcycling in your first home is the perfect opportunity regardless of skill or budget.
If you want to decorate the outside of a round mirror, put a bowl upside down in the middle to create a perfect circle for you to work around.
You can paint the inside of a vase with normal wall paint to make a coloured glass vase on the cheap.
You can decorate cushions or towels with your own designs using bleach. Lay the fabric flat. Put a bin bag inside the fabric so the bleach doesn’t go through the other side. Draw your design on with the bleach. Leave to dry and then rinse; the design will be left behind in a lighter colour.
Painting fabric furniture with watered-down chalk paint and then wax gives a leather effect for a fraction of the price.
Washing landscape photos with white emulsion makes them look more like paintings if your casual weekend photography is blah.
Turn any unwanted family vinyl into bowls. (I’d check the resale value first in case it’s a collectible). Heat a record in the oven, put it inside a bowl and it will melt and cool into a bowl shape.
Remember not everything has to be used as intended. A screen can become a headboard, or a coloured kitchen splashback on a bedroom wall behind a bedside table will create a lighting effect when bedside lamps are on.
Alternatively, a renovation can pay for parts of itself if you remove any materials you don’t want to reuse which can then be sold. Take scrap metals like copper to the scrappies, or wood and carpet offcuts might find a new owner at a carboot or on Facebook Marketplace.
Important safety tip! Anything you do with your own materials, make fire retardant.
Pebbles and broken slate are cheapest for garden glowups and they don’t need any skill to lay. (Lift from the knees! Those bags are heavy. Try to move them on the ground if it’s too much to carry, and definitely ask for help). See if friends and family will donate their newspapers after reading as a weed barrier. Put it under pond liner, make drainage holes, and replace the gravel on top. Voila! No more wilderness.
Evergreen plants like heather require no replanting or maintenance apart from watering if like me your fingers are very un-green.
Consider a waterproof storage bin instead of a shed as this will strip less cash and space.
A garden on a slope can theoretically be levelled, and the only expense involved might be time and energy. Or if you can’t flatten the whole thing, you might be able to create flat sections instead.
If planning permission or the budget for an extension is a no-go, then a garden room can be a solution for extra space in future. Expect to pay four figures for a prefab. I’ve seen an eco toilet, sofa bed, desk and kitchenette fit into a 6x4m insulated log cabin before.
A Plan Of Action
Once you’ve queried the above with the decorator that lives deep inside you, follow these steps to put your thoughts into action. The first step of how to start tackling fixer uppers comes before most of us assume it does.
How to plan before you start
Don’t touch anything without first making a list of priorities and thinking about which work depends on completing other things first. Make your first task either very easy, or the thing you’re dreading the most, depending on what’s most practical.
Ticking something off quick will mean you don’t lose the will to live on day one; the same goes for killing the hardest part first.
Don’t plan to work when you’re tired as you’re more likely to make costly mistakes as you lose concentration (and it can be dangerous!)
When to stick to the plan
If you tend to change your mind a lot in the name of procrastination, but think you’ve finally settled on a plan, get someone to hold you accountable. Tell them your thought process.
That way if you become indecisive and everything grinds to a halt, they can remind you why you made your previous choices. They can challenge you not to dilly dally whether it’s because you want things to be perfect (spoiler alert: there’s no such thing) or you’re afraid to embark on a piece of the work.
You can even write down your plan and sign it as a promise to yourself that you’ll try not to change your mind again with no alternative solution on the horizon without good reason. Designer Gordon Whistance used the same tactic with TV clients to make them steadfast.
As Loki and Thor would say, get help!
Enlist friends and family, or start hiring.
- Get at least three quotes for comparison
- Ask for references, or get recommendations from people you know
- Get a written agreement of what will be done/what’s included/the estimated timeframe
- Don’t just go with the cheapest
- Check trade associations to see if member firms have any previous complaints
- Never pay in full in advance
If you hire anyone and can’t be around 24/7, also leave all the information they need in order to get on with their work e.g. what colours belong on which walls etc.
When we’re clueless but can’t afford to hire someone, a masterclass in learning how to tile or wallpaper is a compromise so we can learn ourselves.
Whoever does the work, expect dust everywhere. Even a little bit of sanding, tiling, or drilling can generate muck. Close doors where you can to stop dust spreading, don’t wear your best clothes, and cover or remove anything you want to protect.
This is also a good excuse to hold onto your wallet while you get any structural or repair work done done first and then shop for your interiors after.
Choose your styles
There will be no more Fine Line and Harry Styles jokes today I promise. (His interiors must be a whirlygig of fun if his fashion is anything to go by though!)
I’m channelling Gordon Whistance again for the tips below.
Create a mood board of what you think you like. Include colours, textures, types of furniture etc. Use any natural features as a guide. In period fixer uppers, use the era it was built as inspiration instead of shoehorning in a style.
Designer shops are fine for browsing for ideas. Don’t be tempted whether you can “afford” anything you see or not because there are always high street copies for a fraction of the price. Browsing should also help you learn to match what you see with the look you want to achieve.
Lighting Tip! Drum shades have upright sides and look contemporary. Coolies are lampshades with slanted sides and therefore look more old fashioned. If the most complex interior design you can handle is “I guess my room looks like it was decorated before/after 1995”, then the right lampshades will plant your decor in the past or the present.
Familiarise yourself with different schemes like shabby chic, industrial, or minimalism. These three schemes have lots of potential for upcycling or salvaging materials.
Shabby chic for example is more about customising than buying finished pieces. This gives you a lot of freedom, but involves a bit of creativity from you. Backgrounds tend to be pastels and flat whites; the reason you see a lot of china and cream items within shabby chic is because they add depth to light backgrounds. Look for secondhand cut glass for glamour.
Minimalism can obviously be budget-friendly by default, and industrial schemes also tend towards stripping items back or finding them in their raw state which has savings potential.
Opulent design schemes can be replicated on a smaller scale e.g. buy a teeny tiny chandelier for the light and use luxurious textures instead.
How to dress a room
Try to source the biggest items first. The easiest way to dress a room is in layers. Start with the largest pieces of furniture and then work your way down in size to the smallest items.
There are a few simple styling rules worth knowing that will serve you for life. The rule of three applies to styling objects as well as colour. Grouping the same or similar items in threes automatically looks good. Similar can mean complimentary textures or patterns; they don’t have to be the same item. If the style is oriental or East meets West, then the rule is pairs instead.
Use the golden triangle instead for placing items against walls. Whatever is at the top is the smallest/narrowest and then as you go down the wall, items should get bigger with the widest at the bottom as the anchor. e.g a small light above a larger mirror above a wider fireplace.
These styling rules should see you through life however many refurbs and renos you tackle.
Don’t feel you have to follow these steps in this exact order either. If we are a long way off having our deposit, but love it when preparation meets opportunity, then I would devote time to forming ideas about the styles you like and learning your way around who sells what.
It doesn’t cost anything to start creating a mood board using images from online. I wouldn’t buy anything at this stage since you don’t know what the final space will be. That way you can pour more into your deposit upfront. It means though that when opportunity strikes, you can start quicker on tackling the inside as you’ll be more confident already about your interior design options.
Final tip! To scavenge what you can for free, visit the same locations that builders and construction companies use and go direct to suppliers. Timber yards, reclamation yards, warehouses, tips etc., may have offcuts of wood, cladding and other materials available for free.
Are Fixer Uppers Worth The Savings To First-Time Buyers?
Buying fixer uppers for a first home can be worth the savings if the pros of this kind of project align with our priorities and if we’re suited to the challenge. Consider whether the project will make you house poor, although a budget will also largely depend on our lifestyle goals and how we need our home to function for us going forward.
The changes we make depend as much on money as our imaginations. You can do anything…But you likely won’t be able to afford to do everything. It is definitely a worthwhile solution if the alternative is not becoming a homeowner at all to the detriment of your finances.
I’ve said it before on the blog and I’ll say it again, but whether you prosper or flounder with this property malarkey is largely down to managing expectations.
Expect to go overbudget, and not to finish on time (but this is okay because you planned a contingency at the start, remember?)
Also expect to get stressed temporarily
And expect the odd mistake (basically: always measure twice. Then again. And again. And get someone else to check it).
And good luck! Thank you for reading this far in such a long post. It took even longer to write, so please do let me know in the comments what you found helpful in this epic on fixer uppers. Ask any questions if you are stuck on your first-time buyer journey whether it’s about fixer uppers, or other parts of the process.
I’m not a broker etc but I’ll answer whatever I can from experience. I spend a lot of time creating this content because I remember what it’s like to have to try and learn all about this property shebang, and I am forever thankful that the internet and property television were invented!
If the hardest part of being a first-time buyer for you is saving your deposit, then jump on my mailing list. I’m sending out weekly tips at the moment on how to rocket your income and your savings. I’ve written a lot about property so far, but there will be lots of blog posts to come focusing more on finances. The weekly email is also the best way to make sure you don’t lose track of everything new on the blog.