Step by step

A cosmetic revamp turned into a full blown renovation challenge for a couple in Yorkshire when they bought a house in a familiar coastal village

As a planning and development surveyor, Helen Massey had a good idea of what to expect when she and her husband Pete bought a run-down cottage on a Yorkshire cliffside.

The property itself, though in desperate need of renovating, has one of the best locations in picturesque Runswick Bay, near where Helen grew up, with uninterrupted views of the sweeping shoreline and open sea.

What they didn’t bargain for, however, was just how challenging it would be to get all the building materials up the steep, narrow steps which wind their way to the front door.

“We knew everything would have be carried up by hand, but it still proved to be a much bigger deal than we thought,” says Helen.

“There are 45 steps from the bottom of the village to the door, but they are very steep and often squeezed between houses. At one point there was a chain of people standing on the steps handing bags of sand along the line, and it took hours to carry things like the concrete mixer and all the building tools up to the cottage.”

But Helen and Pete are used to challenges. They have renovated many properties before and while this one had a unique set of issues – including damp walls, a steep hillside location and rotten roof timbers, Helen’s positive mindset meant that no problem was unsolvable.

Although they were living two hours away and had to take it in turns to spend the weekends there while overseeing the build, Helen and Pete still managed to run full time jobs and look after their two young children. “We rarely do things by halves,” says Helen. “My family has roots in Runswick Bay so I knew this house from being a child and had always loved it. The painter Ashley Jackson once painted the view from the balcony, but I never imagined one day owning the property behind it.”

Helen, who runs a holiday let business, and Pete, who has his own electrical agency, wanted a place where they could escape to during the summer; the cottage was perfect.

But when they bought it in September 2015 they knew they would have to make massive changes to it before they could consider moving in.

“The house had been on the market for longer than it should have been,” says Helen. “It was habitable but needed upgrading and I think that, combined with its awkward location, had put off a lot of potential buyers.”

The interior was dark on the ground floor, and dated elsewhere. There was also just one bathroom and, with a growing family, they wanted to think ahead and include a second shower room.

“I knew there was a lot of work to do. It was not just a case of rewiring and redecorating.”

The cottage not only stands in a conservation area, but also comes under a North York Moors Authority restriction which determines the style of windows, fencing and other external details.

“It’s to make sure the property is in keeping with the style and heritage of the fishing village,” says Helen. “For example, we could only have white picket fencing outside.”

There were no restrictions inside, however, so Helen and Pete were able to take the house back to a shell. The first job was to rip everything out. The boiler was in a cupboard, there was a full chimney breast which had no purpose in the main bedroom and it all felt very damp.

“The cottages we have renovated before have usually been traditional fishermen’s cottages which can be pokey and do not lend themselves to a family set-up. The location of this one meant we had to get it right first time,” says Helen. “You have to have everything well planned out and for timings to be carefully arranged. If you get it wrong it can cost you dearly.” It was one of the reasons Helen and Pete decided to take the house back to a shell.

“It’s usually better to strip something out completely and rebuild it rather than try to repair things,” she says. “The back and side of the house on the middle floor, for example, was dripping wet. We took off the plaster to find solid stone interspersed with reclaimed timbers which were originally ships’ beams. Over the years these had absorbed so much moisture that it was seeping into the plaster and running down the walls. The only way to rectify it was to rebuild the walls.”

They also asked the builder to shore up the hillside at the back of the house with two tons of concrete and steel, creating a terrace
and retaining wall with enough space for a storage shed.

“We knew the builder, and knew he would do a great job,” says Helen. “He pulled up floors, took off the plaster, replaced every single window, built a balcony, put on a new roof, rebuilt the back wall and redid the plumbing. Nothing was left to chance. The main part of the renovation took eight months, but we are still making improvements – particularly outside.”

The property is deceptively spacious, with four floors that include a bunk bedroom in the attic. When Helen first saw inside, this floor consisted of a tiny storage area, just big enough for a bunk bed, and a staircase behind a stud wall. By knocking out the stud wall and lowering the bedroom ceiling directly underneath, the builder created enough space for a larger bedroom in the roof area.

“It’s amazing the difference you can make simply by rethinking the internal layout and opening up the spaces,” says Helen. “In a coastal cottage it’s all about the light, and the more you can bring into a property the better it is. It’s amazing what can be achieved when you put your mind to it.”

Some of the building materials and larger pieces of furniture were stored in the village hall for a month so they were readily accessible as and when they were required.

‘The locals were fantastic. We can’t thank them enough,’ says Helen. ‘We learned to be kind to the builders and locals. In a small community you need to get everyone on side and work with the teams. You have to be prepared to make compromises and keep the lines of communication open. If people understand why you are doing something and you keep talking to them, they will be very supportive on the whole.’

Once the renovation was complete, the finishing touches quickly followed. The kitchen is now a light, open plan living area filling the whole of the ground floor, with a half wall dividing the units from a dining/sitting area. To make best use of space they had a bench seat built into the back of the units that face into the room, and a pantry created in the corner for storage.

A former bedroom is now a second bathroom to cater for the growing family, and the entire house has been decorated in light ‘coastal’ colours.

“Runswick Bay is really popular with tourists but being at the top of the village means we enjoy privacy as well as spectacular views,” says Helen. “I love the fact that our patio is like an extra room in the summer, and we can throw back the windows to bring the outside in.”

After all the building work, the décor and furnishing seemed easy, says Helen.

“I chose tongue and groove panelling on some walls to create a coastal look, and used lots of soft, neutral tones in the paint colours and soft furnishings to reflect the colours of the sea and sky. We wanted the children to have a sense of home from home. Now it’s all done, we absolutely love it here. It’s a perfect family home and a wonderful place for the children to forge the kind of happy memories I still have as a child growing up in and around Runswick Bay.”


  • ✱  Plan everything carefully so that the work is all done in sequence and no-one is waiting for someone else to finish their jobs. This includes making sure materials are all on site before building work begins so that no-one has to wait for deliveries.
  • ✱  When you are renovating a property in a challenging location, be kind to your builder, who will have to go the extra mile to get the work done, and appreciate the local residents who help to make it happen and have to tolerate the disruption.
  • ✱  Take advice from your electrician over sockets – you always need more than you think you will need, and they will also offer advice on the best positions. Make sure you have double sockets on every wall – even in the bedrooms – to allow for moving furniture around in the future.
  • ✱  It is worth investing in a full survey of an older property to highlight the amount of renovation work that will be required. This early investment could save thousands of pounds in the long run and form the basis of a realistic budget for the building work. Always add at least 20 per cent extra to the estimated budget to allow for hidden or unexpected extras.
  • ✱  Some furniture was delivered before the house was renovated and had to be stored in the village hall for a month, until Helen and Pete were ready to carry it up the steps. “We had to use our imagination to find ways of getting the bigger pieces inside – either through windows or hoisted up onto the balcony and then manoeuvred up the narrow staircase,” she says.
  • ✱  Old cottages often have steep narrow, twisty stairs which can be difficult to negotiate with large pieces of furniture. Where possible, choose furniture which will separate into two or three manageable sections, or measure the access and furniture carefully before committing to a purchase.