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Everything you need to know about renovating your home

How do you keep your dream design and still come in on budget? Author and expert Fiona McPhillips, who learnt the hard way, teaches Fran Power a trick or tw


Fiona McPhillips survived and thrived on her renovation. Photos: Ruth

Fiona McPhillips survived and thrived on her renovation. Photos: Ruth

Fiona McPhillips survived and thrived on her renovation. Photos: Ruth

Anyone who watches Room to Improve, Grand Designs or any of the other house makeover programmes we're obsessed with knows that each episode drives inevitably towards one climactic scene. It's the moment when the starry-eyed home-improver learns that their dream project has run over budget and something has to go.

It's a staple of home improvement shows because it's true, says the author of a new book on how to survive the renovation process.


The revamped hallway at the house in Clontarf

The revamped hallway at the house in Clontarf

The revamped hallway at the house in Clontarf

"Almost everyone comes to their project with big dreams and much bigger ambitions than their budget, so the chances are that you are going to have to make some compromises," says Fiona McPhillips, whose book, Make The Home You Love (O'Brien Press, €24.99), co-written with architects John Flood, Colm Doyle and Lisa McVeigh of DMVF, is drawn from her own experience of the process.

"The TV shows," she says, "can be quite misleading because they've been fitted out and furnished for the show, and the professionals have probably been given a discount. So I think most people are quite shocked to find out the actual cost."

Fiona and her husband John bought and renovated a 1930s house in Clontarf in 2014, turning it from a four-bed into a five-bed home with an open-plan extension to the rear. Her own steep learning curve forms the basis for the book, which she hopes will save others facing restoration projects from wasting time, energy and money.

"You think you know what you're letting yourself in for, and you think, 'OK, I'm going to have to learn about boilers, insulation and roofing', but I had no idea about the extent of the tender process or about how long and head-wrecking the planning process could be," she says.

"At every stage of the process, you finish with all this information that hopefully you're never going to need again. So it seemed so obvious to write this book." The result is a helpful step-by-step guide to take the renovator from concept to completion.

Why an architect is your friend

Fiona's first recommendation is to employ a good architect, and, if possible, a quantity surveyor. While this might seem counter-intuitive to those aiming to bring a project home on budget, she believes that sometimes you have to spend money to save money.

"A lot of people are afraid of how much it's going to cost to get an architect or a QS, but our architect, John Flood, at least paid for himself in terms of trade discounts and bringing everything in on time and on budget," she says.


The extension in the Clontarf house

The extension in the Clontarf house

The extension in the Clontarf house

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Not only does an architect have the skills to capture what you want and translate it into a workable design, but their trouble-shooting skills can be hugely important too.

"It's not necessarily that all architects will save you the cost of their fee," says Fiona, "but if you run into problems, not having a professional overseeing your build will cost you money. So in terms of if you're not used to project managing projects this size, if you're not used to scheduling, if you're not able to pull your weight around tradespeople and builders, there are so many ways that things can go wrong. Timescales can move out and out and out. So you will save money in the long run."

She is speaking from experience. Her own renovation hit a bump when the builders lifted the floorboards to find the joists beneath were rotten. With the help of her architect - and hindsight - that hiccup became a blessing in disguise. Originally, they had planned to install underfloor heating in the main house, but that changed when they ran over budget and decided to install it in the extension only.

"But then we found the floors in the main house were rotten, and we were going to have to pour concrete for them anyway," she explains. "Adding the cost of underfloor heating was only a small increase on that. And then, we just had to find the extra few grand for it in the end, which I'm so glad about."

She also employed a quantity surveyor. "We had a QS do a cost plan. It was a one-off job at the start which came to, I think, €700," she says. "I don't think a quantity surveyor can replace an architect, just in terms of the whole project from the design all the way through, but if you don't have an architect, it's a really good idea to get someone to oversee signing off on payments to builders."

Take your time


The impressive kitchen. Photos Ruth

The impressive kitchen. Photos Ruth

The impressive kitchen. Photos Ruth

Not every house job needs planning permission. In fact, most extensions fall within the permitted 40sqm. But if you are embarking on something more ambitious, then the process can add months to your build schedule, and the costs for rental accommodation or storage need to be included in your sums.

Fiona and John's house went through an 18-month planning process which, while difficult, was helpful in the end. "I spent the whole time sitting in our overpriced rental looking at Houzz.com and Pinterest and planning, planning, planning," says Fiona. "And going over to the house and measuring just to occupy myself while we were waiting for decisions. I think if we had had a two or three-month planning process, we would have gone head-over-heels into floor tiles and furniture without really thinking about how they would work together."

Track your spending

Once your project is up and running, keep track of your spending. "Open a spreadsheet and put every single thing on it, so you know where your money is going," Fiona advises. "You're handing a large portion over to a contractor or architect, and every single penny of that has to be earned and has to be paid back by you, so it's really important, especially in the tendering stage, to know exactly where your money is going."

Managing the budget

There are usually two stages in terms of costs. First, when your initial designs, complete with all the frills, come back from your architect and are costed up. There is then a second round when you have sent your revised designs out to tender to construction companies. Each round will usually require compromises. For Fiona, it was no different. The initial design plans came in over budget - "by about 30pc. So we had to take a large knife to it".

Invest in the structure

But how do you prioritise what to cut and what to keep? In terms of initial design over-run, Fiona's advice is to invest in the structure of your house, the wiring, plumbing and insulation. "Work out what you can afford and spend it all, if you have to, on the structural work," she say.

"Get all the structural works done in one go while you have the professionals there, while you're putting in the wiring, the plumbing, the insulation. You can live without flooring or do your decor in time when you can afford it. It means you never have to go back to the drawing board in terms of structural work."


A budget-saving fireplace

A budget-saving fireplace

A budget-saving fireplace

Fiona admits it is tough to sink your hard-earned cash into items that you can't even see. "When you get your quote for insulation, for example, it's the most disheartening thing - but when you live in the house, it's the one thing that makes the most difference," she says.

Focus on fittings

Next in the order of priority of where to skim costs is your fittings. "I spent a lot of time looking at flooring and kitchens and really got the prices down," says Fiona. "We got the flooring we wanted in a sale. We took fireplaces out [of the budget].That's an automatic €1,500 saving. We ended up keeping the original 1930s fireplace and painting it, and I love it now, way more than what I was planning on putting in.

"We took a lot of things out as opposed to changing the structure or the level of finishes that we wanted."

The second round of cuts

In the current climate, with demand for labour and materials so high, prices for materials and labour can increase by 10pc or more by the time tenders come back, particularly if there is a time lag between applying for planning and received approval.

After Fiona had reined in their initial over-spend on design, the couple went out to tender on the construction and found they were still over budget by about €20,000. Fiona won't be drawn on the total budget but does say that it probably came to half what they would pay now, four years later.

They had already cut the big items from their budget in the first round, so this time around they whittled away their excess euro by euro.

"The first thing that always goes is hard landscaping," Fiona says. "In fact, I know very few people who get away with more than a very small paved area. It's an easy way to cut several thousand and still have the house that you want. We took out the landscaping and instead of paving in the front, we used gravel, which I much prefer anyway. We just went bit by bit through the budget until we got it down."

Other items that tend to get cut include en suites, walk-in wardrobes and utility rooms.

Become a sleuth

"When you get down to the real nitty-gritty, you can save a lot of money by sourcing things yourself, second hand or online," says Fiona.

"There are a lot of great hacks out there that you can do with Ikea furniture and fittings. You can make something look very expensive by splurging on one aspect of it, for instance, buying plain white porcelain sanitary ware and spending your money on taps. Expensive-looking taps on a plain €80-90 porcelain sink can look great. At that stage, you're prioritising what's important, and one item can make a whole room arrangement look expensive."

Fiona spent time hunting online for vintage buys. The secret, she says, is to be specific in what you're looking for, set your top price and stick to it. She recommends Adverts.com and eBay for second hand furniture and tracked down many a bargain, including a fine mid-century sideboard she loves.

Je ne regret rien?

Would Fiona do anything differently now? "There's nothing major," she says, pointing out that having a good architect helped hugely. "John guided us through everything, and when things went wrong and we needed help, John was there. So no, I think we made all the right decisions."

That said, Fiona never intends to move again - "unless we get that elusive lottery win. But even if we did, we're very happy. It's more than we could ever have hoped for."


What to put in your cost plan

  • Build costs Demolition, construction and associated costs, such as roofing. Don't overlook preliminaries, items that must be in place before the build begins - scaffolding, skips, for example - but are not part of your specification of works that you contract to your builder.
  • Prime cost (PC) sums If you use a standard form contract, PC sums, items that have not been decided on yet, but which you have control over, such as windows, doors, kitchen, is where you will cut costs from, if necessary, once the project has begun.
  • Contingency fund Usually between 5pc and 15pc but double that for period buildings. This is for unforeseen costs, such as rising damp or in Fiona's case, rotten joists. Do not touch it until you know no extra building costs have arisen.
  • Fees and contributions Professional fees, connection fees for utilities, rental and removal costs, if necessary.

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