Sarah Beeny’s Renovate Don’t Relocate has a mansion’s worth of tips for first-time buyers, even though the volunteers on this TV show already own their home.
Property developer and renovations expert Sarah helps the show’s existing owners redesign instead of sinking the cost into moving. She’s zapped this kind of magic before with shows like Double Your House for Half Your Money. This time the participants had much smaller budgets to renovate. While some of them were spending six figures, the bottom boundary was £3000. This is more achievable for more of us.
I rarely meet a property show I don’t like. There’s often no reason you can’t apply the examples to buying your first home on a smaller scale. The point is to examine a house for its potential. For a first-time buyer, a house that ain’t perfect that we can lightly renovate at our leisure might be the difference between living with our parents forever and climbing the ladder. And bears are good climbers, no?
Before this I recapped Sarah’s How to Live Mortgage Free also which is more about self-building, tiny homes and other ideas for alternative living. I thought that would be my route since I didn’t earn a great deal. I wanted to buy in the South East close to family, and the banks and I couldn’t agree that I was capable of paying a mortgage even though a mortgage payment would have been less than my rent. Buying a fixer upper was the answer to linking up my deposit, chosen location, and a mortgage offer.
Here’s what I’ve covered below:
- Managing Expectations To Ensure Success
- What You Can And Can’t Replicate From The Show
- How To Buy A Property Project At A Discount
- Funding The Work (On Your Own)
- Avoiding Keeping Up With The Kardashians Levels Of Envy
- How To Save On Materials
- Ways To Link Spaces Together
- Unusual Solutions To Design Problems
- Mistakes To Avoid
I’m not a builder or decorator, and hadn’t attempted anything like my refurb before. I still don’t claim to have the expertise of someone like Sarah who has been flipping properties for years. I just wanted a space of my own and to say goodbye to the constant threat of eviction. So I stepped off a cliff and took a chance on a house that needed resuscitating. We don’t know what we’re capable of if we never try.
Managing Expectations To Ensure Success
Lots of us approach buying with a risky principle: that we will graduate to something bigger and “better” in future. The two aren’t always related. Changing an existing property commonly involves an extension to add more space. But adding square footage doesn’t automatically solve problems.
Good design solves problems, and sometime we don’t need a bigger house. We just need to reconfigure an awkward layout. If this all sounds daunting, it’s still usually less work than building an extension for the sake of it. It can almost certainly be cheaper. Crucially, rethinking a less than ideal house can close the budget gap that stops us buying at all otherwise.
Investing in a current house also saves the cost of moving again and ideally would also increase the value of your asset. Most of those featured in this series mention that they bought their homes knowing they would need elbow grease.
In the introduction, Sarah says a ridonkulous 7 out of 10 homeowners are unhappy with their homes. This is a bit of a kick in the face when so many of us would do anything to have our first property. Short of selling a kidney on the black market perhaps.
At the end of the day, unless you build your house yourself, you might need to make some adaptations. So long as we expect our mortgage might come with at least some future jiggery pokery, we won’t be disappointed. At least having your own home means you can finally arrange your environment to suit you.
I wouldn’t have been able to afford my first home if I hadn’t spruced up an ugly duckling. I’ve added in some of my own tips below from doing my own refurb and consuming so much on property over the years.
What You Can (And Can’t) Replicate From The Show
The show films the owners in their home to see how they use the space. While you probably won’t be setting up cameras, you can and should analyse use of space. If you don’t have a renovation budget when you move in, don’t panic. The alternative is to live in a space first before deciding what really needs adapting. After the first year, you’ll have a better idea of where you spend the most time and what to renovate.
The show also uses technology so Sarah can walk them around a redesign of their home. Unfortunately, I can’t send you Sarah Beeny or a giant floorplan of what your house might look like with changes.
You won’t necessarily have a lot to renovate anyway, and it’s much easier to visualise small changes. The Pareto Principle suggests 80% of your results in any endeavour should come from 20% of the effort. So do the one thing, or several small things that have the biggest impact instead of trying to build a palace in a day. Or you know, Rome. I get my adages confused sometimes…
Since you can’t have Sarah Beeny renovate for you in reality unless she clones herself (or you go on TV!), I’ve got the next best thing. This is one of many posts to come on the blog about rearranging layouts from her shows and others. I did all the work on my house just by watching property shows. I’ve taken the time to watch nearly everything so that you don’t have to.
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There’s no such word as can’t…But I can’t tell you what these homeowners spent
I haven’t included what the participants spent because we should really determine our own budgets. You can blitz £5, £25 grand, or £250,000 to renovate a house…Like Parkinson’s Law, a task can really expand to fill whatever endless budget is available. It can also be squished in the other direction too.
The people on the show were in a range of properties and spent vastly different sums to renovate. While I’ve given a guide to some changes below, the total bill really depends on what you’re changing in combination. It also depends on how much you renovate yourself, and how slowly. I was definitely in the sub £5k category, so it is possible to makeover some houses with four figures. I didn’t move any walls though.
How To Buy A Property Project At A Discount
Seeing the problems these owners have with their houses is great inspiration. It gives us the criteria for knocking wonga off an asking price.
Here are the niggly things that give lots of freedom to haggle:
Main entrances that aren’t at the front
Poorly designed entrances
Lots of teeny tiny rooms
No decoration for years
Poorly maintained outside space
More than two levels
No main front entrance
Most people expect their front door to be at the front of the house, funnily enough. Look for houses that have their main entrance on the side, back, or leading into a potentially inconvenient room. You might find you don’t mind the door where it is, but that most other buyers do. Conversely, if you find it inconvenient too, that doesn’t mean you have to live with it forever. Save up to put the door where you fancy.
Poorly designed entrances
A poorly designed entrance generally can be a strike for most would-be buyers. If the house has cramped or dark hallway this doesn’t give viewers a great first impression. It doesn’t have to stay cramped and dark once it’s your home.
Not everyone will consider a house with steep stairs. Stairs can be made less slippy simply by changing the textures underfoot and if there is only a banister, add a handrail opposite.
Lots of teeny tiny rooms
If a house has lots of little rooms and you are open to making them…um, open in future, then you’ll have wiped out half the competition who can’t be bothered.
No decoration for years
The longer it is since the house has been decorated, the more you should be able to haggle. 1970s wallpaper anyone? This sort of discounted property is for you if you are adamant you don’t want the hassle of building work. Sometimes a house is just badly decorated, or stuffed with the wrong furniture in the wrong places. If we’re willing to update the decor, bring lighting into dark rooms, and get creative with furnishings that maximise space then we can bag a bargain.
Poorly maintained outside space
It can be a real struggle to find properties within budget that have outside space. Keep your eyeballs peeled for outbuildings or neglected gardens, as other buyers will be put off clearing any of this.
Sometimes feel like your many possessions own you? Do you have dreams of being smothered by everything you own? No? Just me?
If there is no built in-storage anywhere in sight, some viewers will have to write a house off. Have a good clearout while you’re renting or living with family. Ebay and carboot unwanted items to add to your savings pot. Then you can invent solutions when the house is yours, and when you have less to store anyway.
More than two levels
This is a nice problem to have considering how many of us would like to have any floor at all! Some buyers can’t wrap their head around upstairs lounges or narrow townhouses. Get to grips with upside down living and don’t veto these houses without taking a look. That’s exactly what some other prospects will be doing, which means less competition for you.
See if the current owner is storing a lot on the floor. Hiding the floor with too many belongings makes a space look smaller than it is. Floor to ceiling storage frees up the floor so you can breathe.
Funding The Work (On Your Own)
What if I use all my savings on the purchase?
A savings journey doesn’t have to stop when you buy. If this sounds like prolonging deprivation, then you need to find value in your spending, rather than thinking of saving as being all about excluding the things you like.
…and only use the scrapheap of life for scavenging materials to renovate.
The first episode’s couple took on extra work for their first year in their new home. This enabled them to save up for the programme. Most of us face burnout if we work six days a week, or two jobs or more long term. Most of us can also likely cope with a little extra graft in the short term. Put your added earnings in a high interest account. If you’re working harder, make your wages work harder too.
One couple was still saving for new furniture, so they had a mattress on the floor. A garden table and fisherman’s chair substituted for a desk in their lounge. I love this kind of pioneer spirit. No one is going to smite us if we don’t have a full house of perfect furniture on day one. It’s hard to furnish a house we haven’t lived in yet anyway. Don’t feel pressured to decorate the whole house on credit cards in the first week. Settle in and camp out. Save your pennies for the right pieces when you have a genuine idea of what should go where.
Alternatively, if you’re scouring unique pieces for free or secondhand, this gives you time to find something that clicks.
What if I don’t have a partner…?
Or a partner who works two jobs?
Buying a house by yourself is sad times for some, happy days for others. No one gets anywhere by listing all the reasons why we CAN’T do something.
We have plenty of earnings potential if we are not pouring time and energy into a relationship. Our spending priorities are entirely our own and no one can erode our willpower to save. Love can affect bank balances like friends on a diet: you will either thrive together, or fail together.
If you’re single, be happy there’s no friction with a partner that isn’t saving as much as you. There’s no one influencing you to blow cash on a loved up holiday, or a takeaway here and there. There’s also no one to argue over paint colours with and you can make decisions with a clear head. Less cooks, and all that.
I also don’t want to wee on the parade of anyone planning to buy a house with someone. This might well be to your benefit depending on the compromises you make. Life does not come in one size fits all. One person’s disadvantage is another person’s advantage. It’s all about mindset.
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Avoiding Keeping Up With The Kardashians Levels Of Envy
What are some design tips for decorating virgins that don’t burn down the bank?
When watching a lot of these shows, it’s easy to end up thinking “my house will never look like these!” Unless you have applied to be cast in one of these programmes, this shouldn’t be the aim. Instagram is full of filtered and airbrushed selfies from people who’ve been through full hair and makeup with a professional stylist and photographer (while pretending to have just rolled out of bed). Just like IG, the finished homes on television have been dressed and finished with the camera in mind.
The homeowners on these shows were cast because they were super invested in the end result. They finish things to a high spec because they know that it’s going to be filmed. That might act as an advert if they want to then sell. (It used to be running a joke that every house on MTV’s Cribs went up for sale after appearing on television).
They have the input of experts on renovation like Sarah, or architects like George Clarke. There’s a production company guiding them to present a beautifully lit showroom. We’re living in an age where the title Keeping Up with the Kardashians has lost all its irony…Viewers were meant to find the family aspirational, even if the name alludes to that unhealthy habit of “keeping up with the Jones'”.
Luxury on a budget
Here are Sarah’s principles that will make you feel like you hired an interior designer to renovate despite a baked beans budget.
- Be brave and bold
- Find your colour comfort zone
- Use the 60-30-10 rule
- Use the B-N-N rule
- Use images for reference only
- Go 50-50 when blending styles
Be brave and be bold
Ask: do I want a home or a museum exhibit? Your house doesn’t have to look like something out of a magazine. (Just like people, houses in magazines don’t look like that ALL the time).
If we want a home to be proud of, think about timeless design principles rather than wishing for an unlimited budget.
Sarah says BE BRAVE! Often when a look doesn’t come together, it’s because we’ve played it safe. There’s no impact in being shy with your design.
The trick to using bold patterns on walls and floors or furnishings is to surround it with neutral colours. This lets the pattern stand out without swamping the room with clashing colours.
Find your comfort colour zone
On the flipside, putting bright primary colours next to white makes them look aggressive. There are lots of neutrals you can use instead of white to make the contrast less blinding.
Or place slightly darker or lighter bright colours against white to avoid chickening out completely. To find your boundaries, look at a bright swatch of your chosen colour. Then move either direction darker or lighter through the paint palette. Eventually you’ll reach a shade that isn’t overwhelming.
Use this to update a white kitchen, or if you already own white furniture that you can’t afford to replace.
Or perhaps you want to try the white minimalist look for the first time. This adds a splash of colour without feeling like you’re being attacked by your decor!
If you’re looking to source white furniture, then I think this is ideal to display any beautiful items. The white becomes a canvas for knick knacks and memorabilia.
If you don’t own much to display though and dislike clutter, then emphasise choosing furniture which works best as storage. You can choose something more exciting than white in that case and make something functional a showpiece.
The 60-30-10 rule
If you’re clueless about colour, this rule makes most of the decision for you. This is where you use one colour for 60% of the room, a secondary colour for 30%, and the last 10% is for an accent colour. Making the accent colour the brightest is a way to experiment with colours we’re too afraid to paint floor to ceiling.
The B-N-N rule
To apply the 60-30-10 ratio to a bold colour or pattern, Sarah has a B-N-N rule: bold, natural, neutral.
To contrast a bold colour to best effect without headaches, choose a natural material for the room like wood. Then choose a neutral colour for the rest of your canvas. It’s difficult to go wrong with this trio.
Use images for reference only
Online photos and magazine shoots can help us cement a style rather than attempt to copy someone with far more money.
If you struggle to decide about individual pieces, collect images of entire rooms that you like. Refer to these when you shop instead. This helps us picture which curtains go which sofa etc if our imagination is failing.
I have no trouble identifying a style in a completed room. However, I found when shopping that I sometimes struggled to picture whether individual pieces would fit a style. The more interiors I looked at, the easier this got though. I would try and guess the style of items before checking the name (which usually gives it away).
What if you are finding furniture with the input of the bank of mum and dad? Or your significant other can’t agree? Then choose 20 images each and put them together to find the things you chose in common. Use the things you both like as a base and then you can add touches individual to you on top.
Go 50-50 when blending styles
Otherwise it looks like we didn’t commit either way. They also need to be complimentary styles like minimalism and the industrial look. Good luck blending styles completely at odds like minimalism and shabby chic.
In one episode I spotted Sarah presenting my IKEA folding dining table with drawers as a storage solution. If you shop around, your home might end up looking like it’s fit for television after all! Do what’s best for you. The more immersed you are, the more good design ideas will attach themselves to you.
How To Save On Materials
- Check online auction sites for reclaimed flooring or tiles
- Ask for the end of line stock and then haggle like you’re in a Moroccan market
- If you can’t afford to render a dull fireplace or rip it out completely, detract attention by drawing the eye elsewhere with colour, texture and pattern
- There are lots of wraparound solutions in cheaper materials that mimic granite for a fraction of the price
- Similarly, walls can be covered in stone alternatives made from foam
- Stone veneers are far cheaper, lighter and easier to put on the wall than real stone
Salvaging wood, or buying wooden furniture secondhand from different sources can end up looking very mismatched if more than two of the woods are different. One way around this is to varnish some of it to match darker pieces, or paint most of the pieces. Stripping varnish is a headache, but Zinsser make B-I-N primer which allows for painting over varnish. I found it cheapest in Screwfix.
Ways To Link Spaces Together
Colour is your friend as always. Sarah says take two colours and in one room make one colour the dominant colour. So you might have grey walls and a furnishing here and there in yellow. In the second room, make yellow the dominant colour in paint or wallpaper, and the furniture or accessories grey instead.
Plastic rugs can also make garden seating look more like an extension of your living room. The roof can also be extended with an awning that retracts when you don’t want any outside shelter.
It’s common to decorate in green to bring the outside in, but what if you don’t like green? Take your living room colour outside instead. This can mean painting a fence, or for less maintenance, apply the colour to outside furniture and pots.
Unusual Solutions To Design Problems
Who says you need plumbing for a toilet? Or that you can’t put another room in the garden?
What if you didn’t cover your pipes?
Or your bed folded away? A foldup wall bed takes up less room than a sofa bed for guests, but can also open up bedrooms during the day.
The other space saving and light loving solutions below include:
- Extending tables and table toppers
- Decorating rooms with your fashion
- NOT using under the stairs for storage
- Lights inside furniture
- NOT going open plan
- Hanging gardens
- Macerating toilets allow a toilet even when the plumbing is in the wrong spot
- Instead of chasing the pipes into the wall in a new bathroom, exposed copper pipes can be a style choice as well as hanging space
While we’re adjacent to industrial chic as a topic, exposed brick darkens a space instead, so avoid this in small rooms. This tip didn’t want to fit in anywhere else, but it’s worth knowing that this trend has limitations!
Extending tables and table toppers
- Instead of finding a permanent home for a dining table that will fit friends around now and again, extend a smaller table when needed
- If an extendable table is out of budget, a folding MDF topper is cheap and easy to make
- I’d add a round or oval topper to make a square or rectangle table more sociable
- Vice versa, to sit more people at a round table, create a larger top with corners
- You can sand cheap wood like chipboard then varnish it dark to make it look more expensive
Decorate rooms with fashion
- If you own a lot of clothes and accessories, and want to change the look of a room often too, then use your belongings to decorate the room
- Make arrangements of items on surfaces or turn hanging accessories into wall coverings
- I recommend jewellery trees on the wall as a form of artwork
- A large pegboard gives you a place to hang your bits
- Choose colourful pieces to add colour to the room on a rotation without you having to commit to a colour on the walls for years
- You could also use this in the short term to help you see if there is a colour you’d like to have in the room more permanently
We rarely use wall space on our stairs for effective storage; displaying star items gives them a home while making your decor quirky and unique to you:
- Sarah suggests shoeaholics make their collection part of the decor by tucking them behind a rail on the wall going up the stairs
- The same idea would work with scarves and belts
- If you just have a lot of accessories but they’re not worthy of display, then Sarah suggests a liftup bed instead
What if under the stairs wasn’t storage?
- In a dingy hallway, consider removing as much as possible from under the stairs instead
- Painting the space white with pops of colour will open and lighten it up
- Alternatively put a light inside your storage
- Don’t spend your time and money on a massive overhead light or cluttering a space with lamps if you’re trying to see better inside a cupboard!
- A bed desk allows a large hallway (or small second bedroom) to be both guest room and study
Regards putting lights inside storage, the same applies in bedrooms, dingy or not. They don’t need a lot of light for obvious reasons, but it can be frustrating rummaging in your wardrobe in a dim room. If you haven’t got the space or the budget to add lots of lighting, it doesn’t make sense in a bedroom anyway. Put a light inside furniture instead.
You don’t need to go open plan
We assume to reinvent a space we have to knock down all the walls, especially as open plan living has got very trendy. This style of living isn’t necessary for everyone though, and using screens to divide a space when you want might be more suitable.
Folding shutters let lots of light through while letting you close off a space to separate work from play temporarily. On the flip side you can remove internal doors to make it easier to go from one space to the next without having to go completely open plan.
- If you snag a decent sized but unloved garden, then this could include a self-contained garden office, hobby room, or even guest bedroom in future
- If you have little or no outdoor space, a hanging garden in the kitchen means we can still grow herbs or flowers
Mistakes To Avoid
Don’t try to do everything at once.
The first episode’s couple decided to rip out their kitchen while rejigging their living room. They thought they could afford to do this because they planned to put in a second year of working six days a week to pay for the new kitchen…But when they started work in the lounge, they found some damp plaster and rotted joists under the floorboards.
If you are already working every hour of the day and you hit anything unexpected, you will have no room to manoeuvre financially. We might want to renovate our entire house at once because the work can get messier than a pig rolling in schiz. However, tackling the house step by step avoids overstretching your budget.
You are much less likely to get fed up with the whole shebang if you only have to solve any surprise problems one by one. Keeping the process as chilled as possible will give you energy to earn a little extra on the side if needed. Whereas if you are already up to your eyeballs in stress, the last thing you will want to do is more work, even if that is the shovel that’s going to dig you out.
Alternatively, if the work required just involves a bit of paint or finishing tiling, then you can speed ahead by working on two rooms in one day i.e. do some tiling while paint in another room dries.
Don’t hang wallpaper starting in the corner
Walls are rarely straight, so if you start in the corner and try to line up the next piece with the first, you will find your pattern travelling either up or downhill. Hang your first piece more central and work outwards either side instead.
Don’t try to make a space something it’s not
Every home on the show is suffering because sometimes just because we call a room a dining room doesn’t mean we end up dining there. Or we do all our socialising in the kitchen despite thinking we would luxuriate in our lounge just because it’s bigger.
If you are using a space for something other than it’s intended purpose then it’s better to renovate that space than to force yourself into another part of the house where you don’t naturally gravitate.
Ask yourself why you avoid a part of the room because there must be an underlying problem whether it’s the decor, or lack of light, or poor use of space.
Don’t bedazzle and then shoehorn belongings in after
The design should support your existing life. If you know you have a poison that takes up a lot of space, make a home for your vice first. If you spend a lot of time cooking and have masses of kitchenware, the first priority is finding solutions that will either display this, or hide it all away. Any other design considerations can come second.
Similarly, if you cleaned out your wardrobe and still own more clothes than anything else, then the bedroom should revolve around a solution for storing these outfits first.
Renovate Don’t Relocate
Now you know why I watch so many Sarah Beeny TV shows. I like to think in terms of what’s possible:
You CAN avoid disappointment by managing expectations at the start
You CAN expect a little elbow grease always
You CAN solve problems with better design instead of extensions
You CAN wing life until you know how you use a space
You CAN use free resources after (like this blog post!) and reserve a small budget for the few changes that will make the biggest difference
You CAN bag a cheaper property by spying the cons that put other buyers off
You CAN do a project at a pace that suits your finances, not someone else’s, and look for novel ways to boost your savings
You CAN create a home that fits your personal definition of success, rather than one set by billionaire celebrities
You CAN get materials cheaper in the right places
You CAN do whatever you want (even hang a garden in the kitchen!)
You CAN avoid the mistakes others have made before you
Whatever stage you’re at in the above, I hope there’s details there that will help get you where you need to be next. I haven’t gone into detail in this post about how to fund your adventures. For help with that, you’ll want to exhaust the savings section of the blog.
If saving is a habit but it’s the buying process and the bank worrying you, my recap of Cherry Healey’s Property Virgins touches everything you need to know.
There are more property posts on the way plus posts focusing on getting the best value for your money. I send weekly emails to all the Bear Savers and Earners on my mailing list with tips to boost your savings and income that don’t always appear on the blog. You’ll also be kept up to date with what’s new around here, so subscribe below if you want more ways to arm yourself before tackling one of the biggest stages of your life.
What channel is Renovate Don’t Relocate on?
If you’re wondering where you can watch Sarah Beeny’s Renovate Don’t Relocate, then as I write this series 2 is airing on HGTV (Freeview). To catch up, watch online on dplay for free. I’ll update this post when series 2 has ended.
Series one of Renovate Don’t Relocate was on the Really channel instead. I don’t think that’s available to watch on demand now. I hope therefore this recap has all the information you need and saved you the time of watching all 20 episodes(!) of the first series either way.
One other thing that struck me about this show was how many of the participants needed space at home to work, even if it was for only part of the week. When I became a freelancer at home, most people I knew acted like I was planning a mission to the moon. I really think the future of work for more of us is going to involve needing a work haven in our homes, especially in light of recent events. Let me know in the comments what your plans for the future are at home and at work and if you have any questions.