Vinz (42) and Gen (36), product management directors in the financial and information security industries, learned the hard way the importance of due diligence when planning a refurbishment for their newly-purchased property. What seemed to be a straightforward development left them in financial straits, with major project delays and little hope for a positive outcome. However, their luck changed radically in 2015 when they met a building professional who was able to turn the situation around swiftly. He carried out the works as expected and inspired the start of an online business in this field, delivering quality within budget and time frames for people in similar situations.
Gen recalls, “When we moved to London and realised we could probably own our own flat, that was the most exciting feeling. We went to see all sorts of places, old and new, just refurbished or dilapidated, big rectangular flats of 100m² with only two windows on the side, converted flats where space was wasted in corridors and odd angles rather than providing additional room for people. Then finally, on a rainy day in 2013, we came across a two-storey 1900s building in Queen’s Park. It was pretty run down, with old greenish carpets and a rotting bathroom, but it had seven windows in just 65m², offering plenty of light and the potential to become the perfect home for us. So we put the offer in and purchased it for £350,000 at the time.”
It took the couple six months to complete the purchase, after which they started paying both mortgage and rent for what they thought was a temporary situation before being able to move in. They predicted that eight to nine weeks would be sufficient to change the property’s layout, move the bathroom, create a spacious open plan kitchen and replace all the plumbing and wiring, as they were in a poor condition. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
After showing the flat to a number of builders, they chose in the end to work with J, who suggested a sensitive way of converting the loft and offered many relevant design ideas for bespoke flooring, windows and more. He came across as an intelligent, competent, very communicative person, so the pair ended up trusting him.
To start with, some of the layout changes he suggested required the consent of the freeholder. The structural plan he came up with was overdesigned so it was rejected as his engineer did not see the point of making an impactful intervention on an old fragile building.
After three days of unapproved work on site, while the house was still gutted, J disappeared with the deposit and the first instalment, without ever returning on site.
This was a very time-consuming process and after 18 months of staying in very expensive short-term accommodation including a shared property, AirBnb, hostels, holiday rentals and a Travel Lodge, there was no hope for Gen and Vinz of moving into their new home in the foreseeable future.
With their initial budget rapidly outstripping their initial calculations of £55,000, Gen says, “We contemplated selling the place as it was, losing money, suing J, and calling the police. Our life became miserable because we could not see any way out of this situation. We could have worked with another builder but we were very afraid of failing again.”
As life has a way of working out, one night Vinz met Mike on a football pitch. He was a civil engineer who offered to help them and set their project back on track.
“We sent him all the project details and he quickly came back telling us that it was possible to obtain consent from the freeholder’s engineer by adapting the structural design to his requirements. He also provided us with a reliable estimation for the project costs, so that we could choose the right builder for a fair, reasonable price from those he knew and worked with on a regular basis. The budget was neither too high nor too low, because worse problems can arise when builders cannot make some profit from the work. Mike was also able to manage the project and direct the construction for us in just eight weeks.
“From that moment on, our home started to take shape and our life improved. We slept better, longer, we were nicer to each other, made plans and enjoyed the fun part of the project where you get to choose the floor, tiles, doors, taps and bathroom fittings, and more.”
Mike managed the site and guided Vinz and Gen by advising on the right time to make decisions, where to shop for products and services and how to fix problems that looked unsolvable to them. For example, he identified structural issues in the existing building as there were rotten wooden joists because of a long-neglected leak in the original bathroom, and acted on them. He took care of securing the existing chimney breasts that were cut and had never received any maintenance since the original alteration, and he helped patch a leaky roof that the freeholder refused to fix.
“We redesigned it completely, knocking down all the walls. Then for the redecoration process, we took inspiration from online pictures with Italian fittings and finishes. We didn’t go to a specific website, but rather googled images of kitchens, bathrooms etc. and chose the ones which matched our style.”
The open plan kitchen is the room in which they spend most of their time, alone or with friends, so it was important to create plenty of space by removing a load-bearing wall. They also enjoy the large bathroom which now has underfloor heating and all the comforts that they could not find in any rented place.
The centrepiece became the space where their sofa is. When it was delivered and they cleared out the space to position it, the open plan suddenly became more welcoming. The Italian leather sofa by Natuzzi is one of the most important features of the house and it enabled them to invite guests over again.
After spending a total of £120,000, the current worth of the property is approximately £500,000.
Gen adds, “Mike transformed a nightmare into a journey in which we rediscovered the enthusiasm and the joy of creating our new home. We couldn’t help becoming friends, sharing take-away burritos eaten on dusty floors amid bags of construction material, paint buckets and dirty cloths.”
The couple were pleasantly surprised by the difference between J and Mike’s approach. After some research, they learned that what happened to them wasn’t unusual, so they decided to start with Mike a digital construction company called houseUP, which guides other people through this challenging process, leveraging their experience to offer better-quality services.
For tips and advice on your self-build project, visit the National Homebuilding & Renovating Show from 22-25 March at the NEC in Birmingham.