The Real Cost of Improving Your Home Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Real Cost of Improving Your Home

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A house with a pound sign superimposed.

Most of us spend quite a bit of time in our home, and so want them to be as pleasant an environment as possible. When we rent accommodation, any improvements are normally limited to a few posters and other decorative aspects. But becoming a home owner changes the nature and the limits of this game. It can be tempting to plan radical changes - do I really need that wall? What if I painted that door green? This entry aims to help evaluate the real costs - money, time, stress - of doing work on your home or having work done.

The entry scans a range of different types of work for five main factors that can give you grief, as well as giving you some examples of what can go wrong! Depending on your individual circumstances1, these will differ in importance to you. Although it is important to weigh up these factors before starting a major DIY job or getting builders in, it is even more crucial to do so before purchasing a home that needs work as you will have to make a relatively speedy judgement.

General Questions to Ask Yourself Before Starting or Purchasing

Do you have the time, money and possibly skills for the whole job? Nothing is worse than half-done DIY. Every time you walk past the unfinished project, the guilt and realisation of your own inadequacy will nag at you like a sore thumb till you move, have a break down or are booted out by your furious spouse. Break things down into logical chunks, or wait until you're ready.

Leaving yourself enough time to do things is very important - I remember having a week to decorate a room before a new carpet was to be laid. Sounds plenty of time, but I just didn't realise how much sanding, filling, sanding again, painting, painting again, etc. would be required - all after work until midnight or later. I ended up going at the paint on the door frames and skirting boards with a hairdryer before (and while) the carpet fitter laid the carpet...

Do you have to live in the house while the work is being done? Some jobs, especially those involving dust, withdrawal of essential facilities or other disruption, are one thousand times easier with no-one living in the building site. Pack your family off to the in-laws, get the work done before you move in, anything to avoid cleaning up every evening to see your home as dirty again the next day.

What sort of margin for error do you have? Doing any significant kind of work without the ability to tolerate, as a minimum, a 10% cost overrun and a 25% time overrun is very risky. Things will go wrong, and you will end up having to plough on regardless. Beware in particular the chain effect - when you change flooring you might need to change skirting boards - can the builders get the skirting boards off without trashing the bottom of the wallpaper? If you change the wallpaper will it make the doors look weird? And so on.

Have you worked out which jobs are dependent on each other? You have four separate tasks that will all take one week each. How long is your house going to be turned upside down for? Almost certainly more than one week. Having things done in the right order saves a lot of stress.

In my case, we didn't realise that we needed to replace the kitchen window until we had chopped down the tree that was blocking the access to it. A new window meant that it made sense to get rid of the strange inner sill, but this meant that the kitchen (which had already been ordered) no longer fitted the new dimensions. As this panel had the sink in it, this meant two weeks without a kitchen sink while we waited for the factory to produce the new part.

Do you have access to good professionals and other help? There is no doubt that the building trade has a reputation for poor quality work and sharp practice. This is often unfair, as there are some excellent operators out there, but how do you make sure that the people you are paying fall into that category and not the ones who make their living conning OAPs? The best way is to get one via a recommendation. Either from friends, or from one trade to another - so if you have your kitchen done and are thinking about hiring a painter, ask for them to suggest someone. This has two main advantages - firstly they will hopefully recommend someone of a decent quality, secondly, the professional in question will not want to create a problem for his colleague. You should try and maintain friendly relations with your builders - the odd cup of tea is a good investment. Having to change builders in mid job is a disaster that should be avoided unless you come across genuine cowboys. If this does happen to you, the first thing the second builders will say is what shoddy work the first lot have done, and how they will try to rescue things but can't guarantee the final result...

For DIY, the question is what support do you have beyond your local shop - does your dad know the ropes? will your mates come and help you on jobs where you need four sets of arms to lift something into place?

Risk Factors per Type of Job

Some work is simple, and makes you wonder why DIY wasn't invented sooner. Some work is strictly for professionals. Some rooms in the house aren't as important as others - you can live without a cellar, but can you live without a toilet? All of this changes the likely impact that it will have on your life, piggy bank and marriage.

Structural - Roof and Load Bearing Walls

  • Cost? As you'd expect really - not cheap. Roofs, especially on older houses, can be wallet-emptyingly expensive. For other structural work, it's not so much the cost of the job, it's more that doing such work normally involves knocking down existing structures.

  • Time? Long and unpredictable. If you have four weeks of high wind or rain, the work on your roof will not advance a jot in those four weeks. It may be possible to do other things in that period, but not always.

  • Dust and dirt? Fairly messy. Of course having a hole in the wall can help to blow the dust away...

  • DIY? Not unless you are Handy Andy2. Roofing is a fairly specialised art, and takes place quite a long way off the floor (unless we're talking bungalows). Brick laying, mortar mixing and foundation digging is not rocket science, but is hard work.

  • Risk? Considerable. If something is found to be 'wrong' with the structure of your house, there is almost no end to the cost and time obligations. Worst of all, you can't even write the whole thing off as a bad job and leave it to fall down, as the neighbours and the local authority tend to complain and then intervene and send you the bill. Be aware of planning regulations - anything that modifies the height or size of the house is likely to require planning consent, and if your house or the area it is in is protected, there will be many more restrictions on top of that.

Electricity and Gas

  • Cost? Things like dodgy wiring or plumbing in an otherwise renovated house can be very painful, as you watch builders lustily breaking up your nicely painted walls and ceilings, or ripping up your expensive flooring to get to the pipes and wires. Sometimes this can be avoided, but they often can't be sure till they start the job...

  • Time? Can take a while, depending on the extent of the job, what kind of state the original installation is in, and so on.

  • Dust and dirt? Can involve a lot of drilling and breaking open walls. As above, some wiring and pipes can be done by making fairly small holes and pushing/pulling if you have a conscientious builder.

  • DIY? You need to know what you are doing - you don't want to electrocute yourself. It is now illegal in the UK to do certain types of gas or electrical work unless you are qualified or you have the work checked. This is for a reason. DIYers should familiarise themselves with the Part P Building Regs for electrical work. Though there are many restrictions, smaller jobs are non-notifiable, and you can do some types of work and have them certified by an electrician. You can still add sockets and spurs to existing single circuits, for example.

  • Risk? Poor wiring and fuse boxes can cause shocking problems. Gas and incompetence is an explosive mixture.


  • Cost? Replacing windows is outrageous money. Shop around. You can also partly console yourself with the thought that you'll get part of the money back in reduced heating bills.

  • Time? The time required for the work can be quite rapid - a competent specialist could do a whole house in a week. The order time, however, can be anything from eight to twelve weeks. The work is also slightly weather dependent, but only if it's absolutely horrendous out. Never let a builder take your old window before the new one is ready - there should be no reason for this, and it can cause all sorts of other problems. If you change a window, it can be worth adding a proper sill, if it's an old model, as otherwise the wall below can be damaged by rain.

  • Dust and dirt? Manageable.

  • DIY? Not really for replacement windows - replacement insulation as a stop gap is easy enough.

  • Risk? Not too bad. Be aware of planning regulations where relevant.

If you're having doors put in that require walls altering, make sure your window company is up to the masonry part as well as just the window installation. In my case they arrived on time and put in all the windows perfectly in only two days, but totally cocked up the opening for new French doors. Once the doors are in it's very difficult to straighten out the sides of the aperture!

Heating and Boilers

  • Cost? The parts are expensive. If what you have is old or inefficient, you will see an improvement in your bills though.

  • Time? Really depends on what's being done. Underfloor heating means you would probably need to leave the house for the time that it is being put in.

  • Dust and dirt? Could be a fair bit of drilling involved.

  • DIY? Not really - if, for example, you made a false move with a radiator system which resulted in the water being released this would be very bad. Getting the pressure in the system wrong would be catastrophic and dangerous.

  • Risk? Not opting for a large enough hot water boiler is a common source of disappointment. Also the new boiler/old pipes interaction can be a bit fraught - see the quote below but also the problem where you switch to a new boiler with more pressure and this makes the old pipes leak. Risks of inaction are also fairly high if you have one of the old boilers that put out carbon monoxide when badly maintained. Every year, more people than you would think die from this, although it's more of a risk in rented accommodation.

We thought we could just replace the old boiler with a more modern one. But the heating pipes and radiators were also old and we were informed that old, dirty pipes would invalidate the boiler guarantee. So all the pipes and radiators had to go too. And the low shower pressure we were getting depended on the hot tank, not the boiler, so the hot tank had to be changed for a new pressurised one. All the floors had to come up, the plumbers were in for a week, the gas man and two electricians for a whole day. The original estimate of £700 for the boiler had turned into nearly £6,000.

Internal (Non Load Bearing) Structures

  • Cost? Cheap to remove, whether you do it yourself or pay a burly bloke with a sledgehammer. Not too onerous to put in - a gyproc partition or a stud wall is reasonably simple.

  • Time? Pretty quick. Evacuating the pile of rubble, and taking it down the dump can take some time if you do the job yourself.

  • Dust and dirt? Any demolition of partition walls, little brick structures etc generates an enormous amount of dust.

  • DIY? Absolutely, but see the warning under risk. Building things like loft extensions is also doable, but needs careful planning.

  • Risk? The real risk is to knock down something you shouldn't have. This is one of the staples of those DIY rescue shows3 and could become very expensive.


  • Cost? Really depends on two factors: What do you need to do to the existing floor, and what type of new flooring you want. If you can lay your new floor over the old one, this will save you a lot of money if it is tiles or similar. Otherwise you might need a new concrete base, which is time consuming (the time it takes to dry). Otherwise, what you put down could vary from about £5 per m2 for a simple vinyl roll to £105 per m2 for an expensive wood flooring.

  • Time? A few hours for vinyl to a few days for tiles, carpet, wood. See comments above on preparing the surface.

  • Dust and dirt? Some jobs very dusty - if you're putting a wood floor on top of tiles, you need to 'roughen' them, which creates phenomenal amounts of a very fine dust. Polishing wood floors creates some dust.

  • DIY? Putting down vinyl, fake wood 'slot together' floors or indeed carpet, restoring wood floors - all within the reach of the moderate DIYer. New wood floor, floor tiles - more tricky.

  • Risk? One thing to watch out for in the UK in particular4 is the trend to take the carpet off and sand the floorboards. If the house does not have the appropriate insulation for this, it can create a real noise nuisance for people living in flats underneath, leading to a difficult situation. Another key risk is putting the new floor down too early and then needing to do some dusty or liquid work and ruining the floor.

  • The worst job ever was replacing the skirting boards. One of those things that seems so easy but in fact is a nightmare, especially with slightly wonky walls. I ended up stuffing the gaps with tinfoil and filler...


  • Cost? Relatively good value for money from a specialist, as long as you are not on a shoestring budget. Most of the cost is incompressible, so a lot of the value in having a kitchen designed for you is in the extra 10% on finishings and so on.

  • Time? The big time factor in a bespoke kitchen is the time that the factory takes to produce the bits. Allow eight weeks. Installation is very rapid - a couple of days.

  • Dust and dirt? Not a big problem, but if a kitchen does get dusty, it's very irritating to clean things like the buttons of the appliances and tops of drawers.

  • DIY? Possible in theory, particularly with flat pack kits. Difficult to go as good a job as the experts though - both in quality of installation and in terms of design. There can also be a lot of rewiring, gas or plumbing, best left to someone with the relevant qualification.

  • Risk? If the factory or the installer puts holes in the wrong panel or makes a similar error, this can delay your kitchen being finished as a new bit has to be ordered. Very irritating. A decent firm should offer a temporary solution if this happens.


  • Cost? Not cheap, especially if you need to move the plumbing around.

  • Time? Can be done quickly, which is fortunate, as having a working bathroom is even more important than having a working kitchen, as you will quickly discover if you let things drag on. A worthwhile tip when installing a new toilet is to remove the cistern first, then tile/decorate the wall behind the bowl while using a bucket of water filled from the bath to flush it. Then you're only left without a toilet for the time it takes to swap the bowl.

  • Dust and dirt? Not so bad. Generally an easy room to wash down.

  • DIY? Definitely, with the possible exception of the plumbing, although the materials for this have got a lot easier. See this bathroom specific entry for more details. Be careful with tasks such as putting in new lighting - only some types of lights are approved for use in damp areas. The rest of the electricity should be left to experts.

  • Risk? Shoddy work can create serious problems - leaks can ruin floors and even ceilings, poor aeration can create mould, poor wiring can create unusual pointy hairstyles. Choosing the wrong shower is a common mistake, you must make sure it is compatible with your boiler, water pressure and so on.

  • When the suite fitter took out the old bath, he also removed the old fashioned overflow pipe that went through the outside wall. I asked him to please fill in the inside and outside holes that this left. He didn't, of course. So now, when the wind is on the back wall, it blows through the hole and it always blows out the decorative bath panel, in spite of the sealant around it! What is more, I cannot get to it now, because the end of the tub is too close to the wall, and the hole too far in to reach!

Painting and other Decoration

  • Cost? Cheapish if you do the work yourself - if you go for the Changing Rooms effect, and go mad with the MDF5 you can have quite a big impact with a small budget. Expensive if you pay a professional.

  • Time? Painting is not too bad, particularly if you can rope in a few mates. Like wallpapering, it depends on a lot on the state of the wall and amount of preparation needed.

  • Dust and dirt? Both amateurs and professionals will generally have one or two 'accidents' when painting. Make them small ones, and clean up as soon as you see there's been a splash. Preparation for plastering can be messy.

  • DIY? Definitely, because most of it's not that hard and because there's no guarantee, unfortunately, that a professional will necessarily do a much better job. If you have the cash, painting ceilings might be the exception to this as it is rather grievous6.

  • Risk? Not too bad - just remember that you need to finish what you start, so once you rip off the first bit of dodgy wallpaper in a fit of enthusiasm, you need to do the rest. It is possible to make a mess of plastering, wallpapering, even painting. Either you accept that that was the best you could do, camouflage it in some way or start again. Be aware that if you call in professionals in these circumstances they are contractually obliged, when inspecting the work/damage to make tutting sounds and disparaging comments about amateurs.

Gardens, Sheds and Patios

  • Cost? Fairly cheap, particularly if you are willing to be patient with plants (buying seeds or small plants is much cheaper than buying fully grown trees). Major structural changes - concrete to soil, for example, or sloping to terraced, are not cheap. A shed in a kit is not that much money - decking or patio can be done fairly cheaply.

  • Time? Inversely proportionate to cost for most planting. Obviously, it needs time to grow. Having said that there are some quick wins - tidying up an overgrown garden will make it look better in a few days work. A significant time factor can be disposing of the green waste created unless you have a home composting bin. Removing tree roots is hard work, as is moving significant quantities of earth or rubble.

  • Dust and dirt? You'll be dirty, but your house won't be necessarily.

  • DIY? Patio could go either way. It's doable, but it's easy to leave a rocker (a paving stone that tilts back and forward) - most other garden tasks you're better off doing yourself.

  • Risk? Be careful that what you plant isn't going to impact excessively on your garden or your neighbour's house/garden. Bamboo is pretty, but the roots can go through a fence no problem. Conifers7 grow very quickly.

Sometimes, even what seem to be simple tasks can go pear-shaped:

Two years ago we had our garden landscaped, and asked the chap to put in a hard standing for a possible future greenhouse. We bought a greenhouse, the instructions said that it should be laid on a perfectly horizontal base. No problem, I thought and went to look at the original effort. Well, it was visibly not horizontal and was a good 8cm lower at the back than the front. I enlisted the help of the plumber/handyman who was installing a new bathroom for us. He said 'no problem' but you'll need to pay for a load of ready-mix concrete. When the requisite quantity was delivered it was insufficient. So another load was delivered and the delivery man kindly gave us some extra free of charge. Well the builders didn't use the extra but dumped it in our old bath. We had to pay someone to help lift the bath into the skip. Furthermore, the new concrete base was still not perfectly horizontal, which meant the window frames of the greenhouse could not be made to fit snugly. This further means that the roof section doesn't fit properly on the base section and can't be secured with the pins supplied. Hence, I hope we don't have a hurricane.

Furniture and Storage

  • Cost? There are some very cheap solutions, and then there are Louis XVI wardrobes.

  • Time? Most of the options available are fairly speedy. A flat pack chest of drawers, for example, will take the best part of the day to purchase, manhandle8 and put together. Furnishing a room needs planning, preferably including a little map or newspaper on the floor for the dimensions, or you'll end up feeling cluttered. See this entry on dining areas.

  • Dust and dirt? Not a problem.

  • DIY? Completely revolutionised since the invention of the flat pack and the advent of a very well known Swedish company . Any one can put this stuff together, whether it is from them or their competitors. All you need is patience, a reasonable amount of space and in some cases a fair bit of force in the wrist and arms. Why anyone would opt for the old style shelving now is a mystery to this researcher, unless you have a natural alcove.

  • Risk? Low. It is possible to break flat pack furniture when putting it up9 - the cost of one more plank is not too bad, but having to go back to the shop... For some debutant DIYers, this might be the first time they need to drill a hole in the wall (to stabilise bookcases and so on) - don't forget to think about where the wires and other pipes are.


  • Cost? From very expensive for fancy spotlights or chandeliers, to virtually no money for those paper globes and a standard bulb.

  • Time? For an electrician, no time at all, for you, once you've done one or two, it doesn't take so long. Perhaps an average of two hours per light fitting. The most difficult part for cheap lights can sometimes be getting all the wires in the plastic cup that hides them and that should, in theory, fit neatly to the roof.

  • Dust and dirt? Minimal.

  • DIY? Easy enough, provided that your ceilings are solid and your wiring is in good nick. A safe job provided that you are methodical about turning the juice off and on.

  • Risk? See above remarks. If there is dodgy wiring in the house, changing a light fitting may well be how you find out - if the bits hanging down are not composed of good quality copper and plastic10, call an electrician.

The Order of Things

In an ideal world, if you have a house where everything needs doing, and assuming the various tradesmen are available at the right time11 You would do things in the following order:

  1. Structural, windows
  2. Electricity and gas
  3. Heating, internal walls
  4. Decoration, lighting, bathroom and kitchen
  5. Floors, furniture

Realistically, the garden is often one of those jobs that gets done on weekends over a long period, once the house itself is finished. However, if you live in a terraced house and there is no access to the back garden other than via the house, you might want to think about what major garden works will do your floor as builders tramp through the house carrying concrete, soil or what have you.

Even if you get the 'order of things' right, you will probably still have to deal with the phenomenon of the 'finishing off week'. Building is the perfect trade to see in action the management dictum that states if it takes one hour to do 80% of a job, it will take another hour to get to 90%, another hour to get to 95% and so on. You will be globally happy with the work, but a few last things need a spot of paint, sockets need putting on, waste removing etc. Yet your builder seems to think they have finished. Now is the time to politely but firmly ask them to tidy up these loose ends, and to do it quickly so you don't have to have their stuff lying around and can clean the floor without them walking across it in their big boots. They should do this before you make the final payment.

1Some have more time than money, others are more stressed by living in grime.2Carpenter and all round handyman made sadly famous by the television series Changing Rooms.3Bill's knocked down the load bearing wall to make his lounge wider and hasn't been able to finish the job for five years - vote now for whether we should help Bill or...4Because the houses weren't designed for this - they were designed for carpet everywhere, and that includes the bathroom.5Medium Density Fibreboard.6The Pope had to chain Michelangelo to his ladder to make him finish the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.7Especially the infamous Leylandii.8The 'flat packs' can be very heavy/unwieldy.9It's tempting to solve many flat pack 'doesn't quite fit' issues with brute force - sometimes this works, sometimes there is a loud cracking sound.10Old ones could be aluminium and cloth - these can cause short circuits when they fail, and will be minimum thirty years old.11As if...

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