My mother once found herself on the bus beside a woman who reads this column. Naturally enough, the conversation came round to interiors. Specifically, my own home. "I would love a glimpse inside her house," said the woman (meaning mine). "It must be lovely!" Mum was purple in the face trying not to laugh.
I live in a small terraced cottage in Dublin 8 with three men and a dog. There hasn't been a spare penny since 2009 (funny, that…) and it's all starting to look a little shabby.
That's why I was nervous when a 'houseologist' came to visit (yes you heard me, a houseologist). Eva Byrne is an architect who doesn't get involved in building projects. Instead she offers a consultation service that she calls "houseology". This is basically expert advice on whatever aspect of your home is currently bugging you. It costs between €180 and €360 for a one-off consultation (houseology.ie). She will advise on decorating and storage issues but also on larger projects involving renovation and structural plans.
Turns out, I needn't have worried. Byrne is undaunted by shabbiness. "If I was judgmental about people's homes, this wouldn't work as a business," she says, carefully stepping over the dog. We've decided the flow of light in the north-facing extension at the back of the house is the area in which I need advice. I also need new curtains, double glazing and a paint job.
But I don't need advice on that. I just need money.
The first thing that Byrne notices is the row of coats in the hall. As she points out, they are pretty much in your face as you come in the door. There's a two foot gap between the bottom of the longest coat and the floor.
Her suggestion is to lower the row of hooks so that they don't block your line of vision and soak up the light. I've already explained to Byrne that this is a low budget situation. I would like more natural light in the living room, but can't afford building work. "You've got to think about getting light into the house and reflecting it," she says.
The floor is maple hardwood, recycled from a church hall. To improve the light she suggests I might think about painting it, as she has done in her own house where the floor is a light blue-grey.
The photos of Byrne's house are by Philip Lauterbach (3.plpix.com) and I thought you'd prefer seeing the inside of her house rather than mine (sorry about that, Mrs Bus Lady).
"People can be reluctant to paint timber but a lot of wood in a space can be oppressive. It's still wood, even if you paint it."
Because the aim is to reflect natural light and bounce it around the room, Byrne points out that the windowsills (which have been chewed by the dog) could be painted in a pale colour. "Off-white can be good, but make sure it doesn't have too much yellow in it and you don't want it too grey either."
Likewise my cheap-as-chips kitchen, which is veneered in something that looks like wood, could be offered another lease of life.
"Paint that in off-white and the room will look completely different," she says.
All the experts seem to agree that, if you are having major work done in the house, it's worth considering the flow of light at the planning stage.
"A lot of people ask for triple glazing - it's great for insulation but it reduces the light so much that sometimes it's not worth the trade-off," says John Martin of Renova (renova.ie), a company that specialises in renovations. Another tip is to go for windows with slender frames, which can give you 20pc more glass than the cheap bulky window frames.
"Splay the reveals so that the part of the wall around the window spreads out like a trumpet and get the windows as high as you can - if they're flush with the ceiling, all the better."
He also recommends you avoid dropped beams because they create areas of darkness on the ceiling and introduce tall doors, ideally the full height of the room.
"First you look at the sun, then you look at the obstacles that are getting in its way, and then you work out how to remove them," he says.
The thing that I like about my houseologist's advice, however, is that all her suggestions could be done cheaply and with minimal disruption. And just to challenge her, I bring her up to my younger son's bedroom, which I tend to view as a pit of despair. She looks at the chaos, counts two harps, three guitars, and a keyboard, and suggests that I should stop giving him a hard time.
"Teenagers are untidy creatures," she says. "It looks like he's doing his best with the space - why not just relax about it?"
This is good advice and I'm going to take it. Sometimes the smartest thing you can do is nothing at all.