18 Apr 2024

Victorian Vibes: A Dream Home Makeover

Having embarked on a stunning renovation project, Rebecca Johnson, who works in property PR, takes us on a captivating journey through the transformation of her Victorian flat. Here, she shares the highs and lows of renovating her own space, offering insights into the process and the inspiration behind her decisions.


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What inspired you to take on this project?
We bought the flat with the idea of doing a side return extension. We liked the idea of taking on a project and, hopefully, making a profit on our first home.

Have you always wanted to pursue your own project?
Sort of! It was a bit of a case of not finding anything in the budget we really liked. It was in the grand plan, but we thought it would take a few years to save up. The pandemic accelerated our savings plans, and it meant we could start the work two years after moving in.

How and why did you choose this property to renovate?
It was actually only the second flat we viewed. It was getting dark, and the family who owned it were at home with their kids; it was all a bit chaotic, and we were there for maybe 10 minutes. As soon as we left, we thought yes, we’re making an offer. The house was in good shape and very livable – though not at all to our tastes. However, it was a good balance of somewhere we could live for a while to save and not feel precious about completely gutting it when the time came.

What style and age is the original building?
It’s a Victorian end-of-terrace, semi-detached house. We have the ground floor.

How did you combine the original building’s style with the extension?
We didn’t do anything too wacky when it came to the design; it was a fairly standard side return. There was a very basic extension already at the back of the house that had been done previously under permitted development; it was completed pretty cheaply. So, while we didn’t extend any further into the garden, we did take down that extension and essentially rebuilt it with the side return.

What was the vision and inspiration behind your new home?
The main aim was to turn the flat from a two bed to a three bed, and create an open-plan kitchen/living space at the back of the house. One of the key things we were set on was dropping the kitchen floor to align with the patio – we wanted to step out into the garden, not down, and that also gave us added height. The builders fought us a bit on this (excavation, even for one step, is time and labour intensive), but we stuck to our guns, and are so glad we did.

How did you approach finalising your design brief?
We made the initial planning submission with a picture window at the back and double doors. Once the walls were going up and we stood in the space, we knew it wouldn’t give us enough kitchen space, so we revised the application and went for a standard window instead. It was a great decision; having lived there a few years now, we know the room gets very warm, and having a window seat we couldn’t open just wouldn’t have been practical. Plus, we had to have the extra storage.

How long did it take to gain planning permission?
It was a rapid process – a couple of weeks from start to finish. We had some neighbour objections but nothing substantial. The only change we had to make was lowering the pitched roof by about 3cm.

The build

Were there any challenging aspects to the project and build?
It was all a bit of a challenge, to be honest! I was four months pregnant when we started, and a month later, I was called for jury service, which then lasted three and a half weeks. Fitting that around a full-time job and a build project wasn’t ideal.

The hardest part we found was the communication with the builders; so many times we were given little-to-no notice about things when needed to be on site (for instance, the bath we selected was promptly delivered and fitted within a mere 24 hours). Other things were ordered way in advance (such as the shower for the first fit) and then not touched for months. When it came to fitting, it wasn’t 100% right, and we couldn’t return it. Communication was challenging.

Did you project manage the build yourself?
Yes – because it was an investment, we had a strict budget, and we couldn’t justify having a PM. We completely see their value now, though.

Did you work with an architect at any point in the process?
We had the plans drawn up and submitted by an online architecture service. It was fine, but we found some aspects quite frustrating, and their attention to detail was lacking. While this was ‘a standard side return’ to them, it was all our savings and a huge project to us, and we just didn’t get the service we needed or hoped for.

How did you approach material and product specifications?
The building materials were completely down to our builders. They gave us three choices of windows, and we chose our favourite. We stipulated that we wanted to keep the original glass doors, which they weren’t thrilled with (they weren’t a standard size, which meant the frames had to be bespoke).

For the internal furnishings, we chose absolutely everything ourselves, down to radiator valves (we bought the wrong ones three times; thank goodness for Facebook Marketplace). This was a challenge because, until the walls were built, it was very hard to imagine the space, and in 2021, there were still a lot of suppliers you couldn’t visit in person. I did a lot of moodboarding, which helped.

Are there any particular materials that you would recommend to others looking to renovate or self-build?
We decided to go for an IKEA kitchen but got bespoke worktops. Everyone is amazed that our kitchen is from IKEA; the worktops really elevate it. We did the same with the bathroom – a more expensive wooden vanity with an affordable basin and tap. Choosing where to spend the extra cash can make a big difference to how the finish looks.

How long did the project take?
We were told three months (we moved out and rented nearby), and it ended up being an extra three weeks, which isn’t bad at all. We probably moved back in a fortnight too early – we had snagging on things like the painting being done when the plaster was still wet, for example. But by this point, I was seven and a half months pregnant, and our rental couldn’t be extended. We moved back in during summer 2021.

Did you remain within the original budget?
We did well with the budget, and the build came in as planned, so we spent a bit more on extras, such as the built-in cupboards and shutters for the front room.

Please provide an overview of both the interior and exterior finished space.
Where to start? The garden is an area we use so much. We put a pagoda at the end of the garden and a patio/BBQ space right outside the patio doors. We love sitting at the back and looking at the house, especially when it’s all lit up in the evening.

Inside, the open-plan room is where we spend most of our time. It’s just the right size for the three of us and we have just enough storage.

We commissioned the hallway cupboards/wardrobes after the build from a local woodworker who’d just finished college. We specified exactly what we wanted internally, so they fit all our stuff and utilise what was quite a dead space.

For our bathroom, we wanted terrazzo-style tiles from the get go. I was keen to have something really bold; it’s a relatively small space, so I wanted it to have the wow factor, and the bright yellow walls really do this. The Metro tiles are the cheapest you can get and you couldn’t tell. We spent more on the floor tiles and again stipulated they ran up the bath to make the space feel bigger. The tiler didn’t want to do this, but we are delighted with the result and glad we pushed.

Our bedroom didn’t change too much; however, we did take out the chimney breast, and the door to the courtyard was replaced with a window. It’s the darkest room in the house, so we didn’t want to add big wardrobes.

The front room – or ‘cocktail lounge’ as it’s affectionately known – was originally going to be our bedroom, but it just felt like such a wasted room. Instead, we now have a desk and a separate living room with a sofa bed. It’s a lovely space to be in during the mornings, as it’s where the sun comes through. I spent a lot of maternity leave mornings in here!

Finally, the hallway initially had an extra wall, making everything much darker. Again, it was something our builder pushed back on, but it was just a non negotiable for us.

What does the local community think of the refurbishment?
We did have a few choice words with neighbours; one still doesn’t talk to us! But I don’t think we could’ve done any more. I personally went round with our plans and spoke to everyone. We gave so much notice and were very considerate with a few requests they had. We invited them all in to see once we’d finished, and they were all very complementary.

Is the finished space everything that you hoped it would be?
Absolutely. It’s exactly our style.

What do you love most about your new home?
The open-plan living space opening to the garden is exactly what we wanted. We’ve had so many parties – it’s such a great entertaining space.

What’s your favourite room and why?
Possibly our son’s room. It was the extra bedroom we added, and I just love the space. The skylight brings in so much light, and it’s the perfect size for him. Also being right next to the lounge means his toys mostly stay in there.

Is there anything that you would have done differently?
We would be less trusting and triple check everything. You, unfortunately, can’t trust everyone to do their jobs and have the same work ethic you do – stay on top of everything and push back when you aren’t happy.

Would you do the whole thing again?
Yes, actually, we are about to! We feel a lot more confident in what we’re doing this time around and will be on top of every single aspect. We will also be having a PM, so I’m hoping that will be life changing.

What advice would you offer to anyone looking to renovate or self-build?
•  Check how many party walls you’ll need. It didn’t even cross our mind that being an end of terrace with a row of houses backing onto our fence meant so many more party wall agreements were necessary. We ended up needing five, so it got quite expensive!

•  Choose a local contractor. Ours – as we later discovered – actually operated more in the Oxford area, so the business owner didn’t come to our site much. When he did and for the days that followed, everything went to plan. Between those visits, there were a lot of silly errors and mistakes by his locum staff and it made it a lot more stressful.

•  If you don’t get help immediately, call back and speak to someone else. We had an issue with Thames Water over a manhole, and the first person we dealt with was so unhelpful. It threatened to put our build on hold. I just hung up and called back later that day and had a completely different experience. We got it sorted in record time, and it was purely down to the person on the other end of the phone.

•  Speak up when you think you’re right. I had noticed that the bathroom tiler hadn’t left an access point, but I figured he knew what he was doing. Turns out he didn’t, and we had to fix the problem after. I wish I’d flagged it as soon as I spotted it.

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