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Like many first-time buyers, my partner and I took on what estate agents like to refer to as a 'Project' when we moved into our North London flat a year ago. It was the usual trade-off between space and surroundings: we got an extra room and some much-coveted outdoor space, but along with it came extra trouble and a punishing crash course for us both in what makes a property feel like home.

A year on, several dozen handyman visits, a couple of botched jobs and skiploads of rubble later, we've slowly started making inroads into creating a space to be proud of, and there are so many things I wish I'd known when we moved in. We're still learning, but I've picked up some valuable lessons along the way. Let's start with the big ones...

[Image: cuttlefish]

You will never 'learn to live with it'!

If your surroundings matter to you, putting off improvements is not something you'll be able to endure for very long, so be sure you can afford to make any big changes within a year or so. Leaving things on the to-do list for much longer than that will drive you slowly mad, and the phrase 'familiarity breeds contempt' will take on a whole new meaning.

That charmingly uneven floor or endearingly quaint built-in wardrobe will quickly start to make daily life a misery if you keep putting off fixing it. So if you see anything at a viewing that you know will have to go, think about the work it will take to have these issues fixed and look into costs before you commit to buy. 

Make friends with locally trusted tradespeople

When I moved in to 'The Project', one of the first things I did was to register with various websites that allow you to solicit the attentions various tradespeople in your area. The idea seemed solid enough, but I quickly learned that this method gives very mixed results, and have concluded that it's one of those areas that the internet just hasn't got right yet. Or to put it another way: if you're kinky for cowboys, I couldn't think of a better dating site for you... 

The annoying truth is that when it comes to plumbers, builders, handymen, plasterers and their ilk, reputation is still by far the number one pimp. Neighbours are of course a brilliant information source but if you've not met any friendly ones yet, local online forums can be every bit as useful. Just make sure their credentials check out once you've had a suggestion - and always ask to see an example of their work. It's generally also a good idea to only work with tradespeople who quote for a job, not by the hour, which can lead to runaway bills.

Finally, if you know anyone who has a skill you can use - whether it's putting up wallpaper, installing shelves or even driving a van, now is the time to become particularly close friends with them! A van is invaluable if you're looking to do your place up, especially if you want to dabble in freecycling...

Nice furniture does not a beautiful home make

It's tempting when you move in to a new place to break the bank on some gorgeous furniture and hope that it will solve all your interior decor needs, but it's far more important to focus on the decor and repair of your property first. Then, if you can still afford the lovely sofa or bookcase, you'll do the furniture justice - it'll simply fade away in a drab-looking room. Don't be afraid to turn to freecycle, cheaper furniture stores or family for your first set of furnishings!

Negotiate!

Whatever you might hear to the contrary, no prices are fixed when it comes to doing up your gaff. Don't be afraid to haggle within reason when having work done, considering both your needs and those of the person you're hiring. In a big project you'll need to be sure you can stretch a little further if a costly complication occurs during the process, and you should make sure you allow for that possibility. 

Have Fun!

Doing major works on a house, especially when you live there and have no way of escaping the chaos and debris that it entails, is stressful. But don't forget to enjoy the creative process!  Spend as much time as possible in cool parts of town where the restaurants and bars have innovative and interesting decor and you might just get some ideas. There are countless blogs and magazines dedicated to interior decor, and with a bit of exposure you'll soon find you've become an expert without even knowing it.