Renovation Blog, Part Two: What have we got ourselves into?

After basking in the rosy glow of having won the bidding war for our new home (get innnnn), we realised that we had to get down to the serious business of surveying the building – which (if like me pre-house purchase, you have no idea what I’m talking about) is when someone comes to inspect the property and assess it for any problems that you will need to deal with as the owner. As a very old house, we soon clocked that the usual modern-build HouseBuyer Report wouldn’t cut the mustard and that we needed to send in the Big Guns, aka find someone to carry out a full Building Survey. After some searching around, we found a great local surveyor who specialised in Georgian buildings and before we knew it, we had a list as long as one arm of things that needed fixin’. Our main fear had been that the house would be declared structurally unsound and we’d have to withdraw our offer. Fortunately for us, it’s a pretty solid house and isn’t going to collapse in a heap of rubble any time soon, although there are a few stretches of timber that will be treated for suspected woodworm. Ho hum.

Despite the solid bones, the house is still in need of some serious TLC. The previous owner was an elderly antiques collector who had lived there for the past twenty years before passing away and, I suspect, possibly found it quite tricky to maintain in his later years. He must have had a good set of knees though to get him up and down all the stairs! Judging from the million nails that Jan extracted from the walls on our last visit, we think that he must also have filled the house from top to toe with paintings – which I kind of love!

Anyway, the list of things that we want to repair or bring up to a modern standard is fairly hefty. It’s fair to say we’re becoming well-versed in the language of period houses – last summer I couldn’t have told you anything about K11 tanking systems or stone lamination! Here’s a rough summary for those interested in the nitty-gritty of old house renovations (if not, skip ahead!):

Cosmetic changes:

  • Bathroom renovation, including removing a plaster wall in the two story extension on the first floor. This plaster wall is to be reconfigured, to create a separate walk in closet, and a utility room.
  • Repair of the sash windows where wood has rotted. Replace broken glass panel on the second floor (done according to the original Georgian design and using reclaimed antique glass with Listed Building Consent) 
  • Treatment of stone lamination on exterior walls, and the chimney stack
  • Repair the stone hood to porch
  • Replacement of tiled and slate roof coverings where they are damaged
  • Repairs or replacement of the casement windows on the rear extension, as these are in a very poor condition
  • Kitchen renovation 
  • Removing existing carpets, and restoring original wooden floors where possible
  • Repair the bottom of the front door
  • Reattach skirting boards where they came loose within the property, and replace any that have been damaged by damp
  • Take down the front downpipe, wire brush, repair and re-erect. This is currently leaking onto the exterior walls, causing their deterioration (including lamination). Replace the lower section plastic segments of the downpipes with metal sections of the same design as the upper sections. Clean or similarly repair the rear downpipe and gutter arrangement, as they appear blocked and cause penetrating dampness to the south east corner of the first floor drawing room.

Structural changes:

  • Damp-proofing treatment:
  • Plaster to be removed to full height in the basement and varying heights in the ground floor
  • Installation of a horizontal and vertical damp-proof course and a K11 tanking system to the basement walls and the kitchen floor
  • Re-render and skim the walls with a lime-based breathable plaster, fitting thermal insulation board dry lining where required
  • All accessible timbers throughout the property to be treated for woodworm using fungicide/insecticide preservative
  • Electrical rewiring throughout the property including an integrated fire alarm system and new lighting, plug, ethernet and access points
  • Plumbing to be updated in the kitchen and new bathroom/en-suite 
  • Internal insulation of the two story extension 
  • Installation of new chimney flue lining
  • Replace the former cole hole to the cellar with a V-shaped ventilation system, to stop dampness from entering the basement while allowing for ventilation to occur
  • Possible replacement of caps to parapet wall, and the installation of damp proof courses beneath the caps and over the head of the parapet wall, to reduce the risk of penetrating dampness coming down vertically

So yeah, there’s quite a bit! Are we mad? Definitely not ruling that possibility out. After all, neither of us has renovated a house this old before. Or any house, for that matter! I suspect that, after taking on this lovely house, we’ll probably want to live in simple new-built white box for the rest of our days. Although, I’m not sure I really mean that. I’ve never found they hold quite the same magic as period buildings, brimming with quirks and the patina of those who have lived there before us. On one of these windows in the photo below (our bedroom to be), we found that someone had etched in tiny swirly fairy writing the name ‘William Pearce’ into the uneven glass – I have no idea if it’s been there for 50 or 200 years. I can’t wait to discover more details like this!

Anyway, the building survey was way back in October and, after a brief moment of wondering if we should opt for something a tad more straight forward (and lots of contractor visits and quotes to work out if the renovation was affordable), we decided just to go for it. We feel it’s a wonderful opportunity to steward such a beautiful old house and breathe some new life back into it. It has a really friendly atmosphere – I can’t help but imagine that the previous owner was like the rosy-cheeked Narnian-esque old Professor and would be happy to see this home full of life and colour and people again.

Here are some photos of the house as it looks currently:

Living room
The kitchen which will be removed and replaced. The floor will be extended to make room for a dining space.
Entrance hallway
Our bedroom
Spare bedroom
What will become our office/studio space
Courtyard garden with a hidden face in the ivy

I just realised I don’t have any photos of the current bathroom on my phone. At the moment, it’s quite an awkward shape sitting parallel to a long corridor that leads to another small room. We thought that this could be reconfigured to make better use of the space available and so our builders will remove the non load-bearing wall between the bathroom and corridor/extra room. They will then reconfigure that wall to create a bathroom, utility room and an additional space leading off from our bedroom that we will probably use as a walk in closet. Originally we wanted to turn it into an en-suite but, after some thought, it seemed a bit pointless to have two lovely bathrooms when it was mostly just the two of us (and family in future if we decide to go down that road) in the house. At this point, we would definitely find the extra storage more useful. Our plumber will make sure all the plumbing is installed for an en-suite to give some flexibility down the road and also if should we sell the house in future and that’s a bonus. So hopefully this grand plan will help us make the most of the new bathroom area!

Next time, I’ll write about our first (rather chilly) weekend camping in our new home but I hope this blog gives some background to the work that we’ll be carrying out. We’re grateful to be working with contractors that have come highly recommended from other Georgian house owners and who so far have been brilliant and really helpful. Time for all hands on deck!!

House Reno Part One – Upping Sticks to the Wild West

My husband Jan and I think we’re doing something a bit mad. Of course, in the grand scheme of things, it’s definitely not that radical. Couple leave London for the country… a tale we’ve seen play out on many an occasion before. However, this time we’re 28 and not 35 with a herd of toddlers in tow. Lockdown has quite possibly sped up this process for us! Our decision to move did happen quite quickly. To cut a fairly common story short, here’s how it played out: went to the countryside with friends, stopped by for a casual recce in beautiful Wiltshire town on way home, stumbled upon mysterious old house for sale in need of some tlc, the global pandemic meant we could now work permanently from anywhere (perhaps that part doesn’t happen too often), we had a pint in the pub, shrugged our shoulders and said, why not? To be fair, there was quite a bit more thinking (and prayer!) through the decision to casually up sticks and move to what feels slightly like the Wild West. But there also wasn’t that much hesitation before we went for it. Low and behold, eight months later we finally exchanged last weekend and now proudly own our very own 250 year old fixer-upper.

On the rare occasions I’m now sitting on a bus (writing this just as lockdown number three starts to slowly lift), I watch as my beloved London passes by – merging from Ethiopian corner cafs to pretty terraced streets winding around little squares and twelve different eras of architecture reflected back at me in glossy glass buildings – and wonder just how much I’ll crave this lovely rumbly city when we’re gone. This is the city I was born in and then moved back to when I was 18 for university. Despite being a metropolis of 9 million people, it feels very safe and familiar. I know how one part merges into the next and all the little backstreets in my 3 mile radius and how not to interact with people on the Tube.

Nevertheless, the wind of change is blowing through our little corner of Stoke Newington and after almost ten years in London (six for Jan), we can’t wait to set down boots on new turf! For the sake of internet safety, I probably won’t mention exactly where we’re going but it’s a lovely small town nestled in the valley on the border between Wiltshire and Somerset. In one sense, choosing this place does feel quite random – neither of us knows this corner of the world and we don’t have an existing community waiting for us. Normally the first question we get asked in London is, ‘Wiltshire, huh? Nice! Family out there?’ To which we reply, ‘Nope, we don’t know a soul!’ Fortunately, our friends here and families are keen to come and visit and we’ll now actually have space for people to stay too. It’ll be a fond farewell to the joys of blow up mattresses crammed into the living room and a welcome hello to having loved ones stay for long weekends with space to stretch out both arms. We really hope that, with some effort, new friendships will grow out of our home too. When we first did a recce to check out the town and surrounding area, I was really struck by how friendly everyone was. It was really easy to strike up conversation in the pub (the good ole days when we had a break from lockdown last summer) or out walking around and about. To Jan’s bemusement, I asked almost everyone who would chat to us if they enjoyed living here. The uniform answer was either ‘Been here my whole life, wouldn’t change a thing’ or ‘Moved here from London, should have done it ten years ago’ which definitely ignited our curiosity. To be fair, this is not the place for avid ravers or anyone who needs Pad Thai at 3am. It’s definitely more a country-rambles-along-the-river-pub-lunch-followed-by-cream-tea type place but that suits us down to the tee. I’ll miss the galleries here in London but seeing as we spend the majority of time in our neighbourhood anyway and not in the centre, I don’t *think* I’m going to experience them that differently on the days we head back into town. My friend who moved to rural Wales a few years ago says London is all the sweeter (sweatier?) for not being there all the time. Plus, London isn’t going anywhere so we can pivot back in a few years if pining after city life. Does this sound like the swansong of someone nervously leaving the city? Somehow, I suspect we won’t be back… but never say never.

So, why this particular corner of Wiltshire/Somerset? My mum and dad always thought this was a beautiful place and had come out here themselves a couple of times so it was vaguely on my radar. Bath is not far from our new digs and I’d always thought it a stunning city too – although possibly (definitely) lacking in afore-mentioned Ethiopian cafes. Still, what it lacks in metropolitan cuisine, it makes up for in friendly people, nature, oxygen and eye-wateringly lovely architecture. (Luckily we’re not a million miles away from bigger hubs, London is only 1.5 hours by train and Bristol is just around the corner. There’s an airport nearby. You know, all the frenzied calculations city dwellers make when leaving the Big Smoke, blissfully unaware that we will probably hunker down in our new rural abode and never be seen ever again anywhere with a Pret.) The airport, to be fair, was quite important to us as Jan’s family live in the Czech Republic so we wanted to be able to hop back and forth without a slog back to London.

First recce around town.

Without a doubt though, the house itself was the main catalyst behind the move. It did help that it was somewhere friendly and beautiful and affordable. We had been prepared to spend much more on a property in London for about a quarter of the space so we couldn’t quite believe our luck when we found this hidden gem and realised it wasn’t a completely unrealistic opportunity. Walking around it for the first time, antennae wobbling furiously at all the decorative Georgian details that had miraculously remained intact during the 70s annihilation of period features, it wasn’t hard to see this lovely house come to life once more. It was a probate property, meaning that the previous owner, an elderly antiques collector, had passed away. The house felt like it was waiting for us to crack open the windows and let air back in again. I also liked that the lion knocker on the front door looked a bit like Aslan, it gave us good vibes. The house itself is five floors tall (going to keep fit on those stairs!) including a cellar, which we plan to fill with general crud and lots of sauerkraut. It has three bedrooms, one of which we’ll turn into an office/studio for us both to work in. There’s a little courtyard with high stone walls, a holly tree, giant ferns and a face that peeks out through the ivy. (When Jan told me he’d found a face in the wall, I was glad to discover it looked fairly amicable and not as creepy as it sounds).

Anyway, a week after that first visit we were back on the Great Western Railway headed out to see the house again. About two weeks and umming-ahhing after that, we made an offer. There was some bidding – apparently the eagle eyes of another London couple and someone else besides had spotted it too – but eventually a month or so later we found out that we had managed to win it. Blimey. Now, after eight months of surveys and conveyance solicitors and a mountain of paperwork, Pearce House is finally all ours. Last weekend we zoomed up to collect the keys and camp out for the first night in our new home, whippet and all. In the next blog, I’ll include photos of the house as it looks now (in need of some tender loving care and several licks of paint!) and run through the l-o-n-g list of things that need doing. If you enjoy house renos, stay tuned!