Tackle home renovations like a pro

You have done your homework thoroughly, researching the market and current trends in the area and gaining a clear understanding of the renovation process you have in mind. You are not discouraged by the time and dedication required nor the plethora of possible minefields, and you decide to take the plunge. What next?

Sandy Geffen, executive director of Lew Geffen Sotheby’s International Realty in South Africa, says that many novices who tackle the challenge don’t realise that their very first steps are likely to set the course for the entire project and can have far-reaching consequences way down the line.

“Few of us are building experts or professional interior designers but it’s important to make as many decisions as possible before you even bring in the professionals. This will not only save on costs initially when you are paying for their time while you dally over choices, but delays due to indecision or the unavailability of materials later on can be very costly and cause stress levels to soar.

“Have a clear idea of your desired final results as this will enable contractors to immediately advise about the possibility of achieving them and guide you if you need to consider alternatives. This includes decisions about cosmetic features such as colour schemes, fittings and finishes to ensure there is ample time to source products and, if necessary, order them.”

According to Tasha Rossen, area specialist in Sandhurst, Hyde Park and Hurlingham and veteran renovator with several projects under her belt, the selection of a building contractor is paramount.

“No matter how talented and creative they may seem, there are more important attributes to consider – their reliability, the ability to assess a situation quickly to find solutions when necessary to navigate unexpected curve balls – and finish as close to the quoted and agreed upon deadline and budget.

“It is therefore essential to do a comprehensive background check, including their completed projects and contacting all available references. Referrals from past satisfied clients are always valuable, so ask people who have recently used contractors.

“Also important is to find out how many other projects the company is currently working on because if they are juggling numerous clients, the chances of running over deadline are almost certain.”

She adds that most of the renovation disasters she has witnessed have been builder-related and could have been avoided if the home owners had done their homework.

Rossen also offers the following sage advice for sidestepping the worst of the minefields:

  • Do not time renovations to be completed near big holidays like Easter or Christmas nor for a big event like a 50th birthday party. That is a sure way to set yourself up for disappointment and ruin the occasion.
  • Being budget-conscious is prudent but never try to cut important corners just to save a few rand. It will come back to bite you later.
  • Accept that problems will arise, so be prepared to roll with the punches.

Geffen adds that if your renovation plans include expanding the footprint of a house by adding a brand new section, equal care should be given to the drafting of plans and the experience of a top architect is immeasurable.

Many people who opt for renovation do so because it can be a great way to get more home for one’s money, to move into an area that would normally be beyond budget or to adapt their current home to suit changing needs without having to sell and move.

Geffen says that although living elsewhere for the duration is always the best option, it’s not always possible and, although it can be exciting to witness the transformation, living on-site is never easy and it can also be downright horrendous at times.

However, she adds that there are steps you can take to make it bearable and to minimise the disruption as much as possible:

  • Plan ahead: You need to carefully consider factors such as your family’s space requirements and cooking and ablution facilities which may need to be moved around. It is therefore vital to have a concise schedule of works so that you can plan accordingly, especially for the times when you may not have water or power.
  • Create a retreat: Living on-site will be intrusive and at times it will even be unbearable. It’s important that there is one space that feels like a respite from the chaos, dust and debris of the building site. Even having just one room that can be kept clean, tidy and cosy will make all the difference.
  • Put site safety first: And if you have children and pets, you will need to be extra vigilant. Set out no-go zones and explain the possible dangers to children old enough to understand.
  • Have a back-up plan: There may be times when the site is completely uninhabitable like when the roof is being replaced or in very bad weather. Arrange alternative accommodation for these times with friends or family who live nearby or a cosy B&B in the area.
  • On site storage: You will not only have to store your own belongings but also the tools and building materials. If you don’t have a suitable outbuilding, consider constructing a shed or hiring a shipping container.
  • Ensure you have the right insurance: Advise your home insurer of the works to be carried out and find out if you need to amend your current home insurance or take out any temporary policies like site insurance for the duration of the project. And just because your contractor has public liability insurance, it does not mean you are covered.

Geffen concludes: “It’s inevitable that a renovation project will be a rollercoaster ride of excitement, optimism, stress and angst and I still have vivid memories of thick plastic curtains which effectively concealed the gravel and mess but were totally ineffectual at containing the dust.

“However, despite the inconvenience, it is also a very rewarding experience with several positive spin-offs: you will save money, you can oversee the process and keep things moving and you will also learn a host of new skills.”