The old saying – ‘don’t move, improve’ – is not only true, but it also keeps me in work!
Most of my professional building work is home improvements and extensions on all types and ages of properties, and it gives me a lot of satisfaction, as so often you’re helping people to love their homes again.
If you really like where you live but feel you’re outgrowing it, here are my top tips for what you should do before thinking about upping sticks.
1. Declutter and reorganise
I visit a lot of houses. I have a sixth sense to know where teaspoons are kept in every kitchen I enter. But the problem in many houses (including my own) is that they’re too cluttered and sometimes filled with furniture that doesn’t fit the space, perhaps from previous moves or things you’ve inherited. The very first thing you should do it reorganise the space you’ve got.
To declutter, book a clear weekend when you have no other plans. Start in a corner of the room and work through your piles of stuff one by one. Play some music, rope in a friend, hide your phone so you’re not tempted to procrastinate, and make decluttering your sole focus. For example, I recently cleared out 100 books I didn’t need any more and left them out one Saturday for passers-by to take from my front garden wall – it’s a great way to meet your neighbours, by the way! We also did a car-boot sale to get shot of even more things we didn’t need. If you’ve got a sofa that’s too big and blocking a doorway, for example, get rid of it.
Buying furniture and better storage to fit your room is a darn sight cheaper than moving house.
2. Look at your layout with fresh eyes
Buy some graph paper (2mm square if you can find it), measure up all your rooms and plot the rough dimensions of your house on the paper. Remember, you’re not an architect and it doesn’t need to be perfect.
Imagine your space cleared of all furniture. Think about how you use the rooms you’ve got and where you might have redundant space in your home that just becomes a dumping ground.
This is what I’ve recently done with my home. We needed a bigger dining table but didn’t think we had the space. However, once I started drawing our layout on paper, I realised if I removed the wall between our kitchen and study (which in reality had become the junk room), we could have a much larger kitchen and living space, without needing to extend. Likewise, through a few graph-paper scribbles, I managed to fit in a good-sized en-suite bathroom in the corner of our bedroom without sacrificing too much space, and without losing another room in the process.
3. Convert your loft
Once you’ve sorted your internal layout, think about going up into your loft space. Again, this is really worth doing before you think about extending, as it’s not only cheaper, but chances are, you can do most of it through permitted development and building regulations, rather than needing planning permission, saving both time and money. I’m currently in the process of doing a loft conversion on my own home to add two bedrooms and a bathroom.
The most important factor to consider is head height. There’s no official minimum height for a room in terms of building regulations, but I wouldn’t want to go under about 2.2m. If you’re thinking of a loft conversion, commission an architect early on to assess your space. For example, you may not think you’ve got enough height but they may be able to suggest innovative, engineering solutions that free up more head-height. Don’t feel you need to go with a specialist loft conversion company either. A good, trusted builder will be able to follow architects’ plans.
To find a good builder, my number one tip is to seek recommendations from local friends who have had work done. If you don’t know your area so well, try the Federation of Master Builders’ website (fmb.org.uk): My family have been members of the FMB for over 70 years and their strict membership criteria should provide you with consumer confidence.
4. Extend your home
The majority of my work is extensions. Most houses built in the early 20th century had tiny kitchens and, these days, the kitchen is the heart of most homes. A rear, side, or two-storey extension is a great way to add value to your home if you have the space for it.
While it’s good to engage an architect early for a loft conversion, for an extension, if you know a good builder, ask for their advice on extension options first. Your builder should be able to advise you on what possibilities you have for extending under permitted development. There are also many online guides on planning permission and permitted development that you don’t have to be experienced in the construction industry to understand.
5. Build underground
The most expensive way to increase your living space is via a basement extension. Personally, there are a number of reasons I wouldn’t recommend a basement extension, but specifically, they can be very expensive and no matter how well you get on with your neighbours, it’s often a sure-fire way to sour that relationship. In my experience as a builder, I’ve seen the results of many communication breakdowns between neighbours over construction issues.
However, if you love where you live so much that you don’t want to move, but you really do need more space and have exhausted the four options above, then perhaps consider a basement extension. But bear in mind that the construction costs mean you’re unlikely to recover the outlay when it comes to selling your home.
As with a loft conversion, it’s best to bring an architect in as early as possible to advise on ceiling heights, natural light, feasibility, and other ways to use underground space.
If you have a semi-detached or terraced house, you’re highly likely to need a Party Wall Agreement with your adjoining neighbour, for a loft conversion, extension or basement. The party wall is the wall that connects your house to your neighbour’s. It’s worth reading up on it here before you plan your work, and I have known of cases where both neighbours were planning building works at the same time, so only one Party Wall Agreement was needed .
And my final top tip is that if you want to keep your neighbours (and builders!) on side, deliveries of freshly-baked goods always go down well.