Property Renovation Lessons I

Gather ye round students.

It’s a peculiarly British fascination that we own our homes. Your home is your castle.

The default setting for those with spare-cash in their middle-years appears to be adding to your castle, working up the property ladder or buy-to-let. Yet it’s a route full of pitfalls, and BTL is fast becoming a mug’s game. MrsShrink and I have been fortuitous in turning a £20k deposit in 2014 into a £52k deposit this year (~38% annual return). We did this by buying a fixer-upper and working our socks off in our spare time. MrsShrink comes from a family of serial renovators, and spent some time learning painting and decorating with a professional family member. I come from building trade stock, and have plied the hod and trowel. I know which end to hold a hammer. So here’s the lessons from along the way that we applied to our second house purchase and renovation.

Location Location Location

  • Buy the worst house on the best street in the best neighbourhood you can afford

Classic Sarah Beeny this one. Waiting for the rough looking house to come up can pay dividends, however there’s plenty of property developers also looking to do this who probably have cash on hand to swoop quickly (1). As an alternative look at what has been on the market a long time, work out why and knock them down for it if it’s overpriced. That unappealing quality avocado bathroom could be £15k off the asking price for a fed-up seller. The primary issue here is that due to Sarah Beeny, DIY SOS, The Renovation Game etc every man and his dog thinks they’re a property developer by ripping out a 30 year old fitted kitchen and banging in a Wickes’ budget MDF job (2). Shame that.

  • Check the location using Rightmove’s school checker, look for local shops and public services like bus stops, libraries, parks etc (3).

This again is partly straightforward. Even if you don’t have kids being in a good school catchment improves resale, although worth bearing in mind that schools can turn around quickly. Less thought about are bus stops; schoolkids yelling outside your house can pretty quickly turn a night shift worker potty. Likewise parks and outdoor sports areas.

  • Check the local streets on your councils planning portal and local area development plan

Is your neighbour about to be converted to an HMO? Is that spot of derelict land at the end of the road turning into a block of flats with no parking allocated. This is exactly what is happening a few streets over from us, and the next-door owner is currently selling up as their current uninterrupted view over the city is due to be replaced by six stories of students. Those planning applications may be the prompt for the sale. Also check your councils local area development plan (or equivalent). This may suggest (as for our current location) there are planned infrastructure, zoning or conservation changes which could dramatically impact the appeal of an area.

  • Check long term floodrisk maps

Published by the government, this shortcuts going through the purchase process only to find on your surveys that your new dream home floods any time we get fair-middling drizzle. For England see here, Wales here, Scotland here (4, 5, 6).

  • Google Streetview is your friend

Check the roof, neighbours gardens for a sense of upkeep of the local area, evidence of building work and other nearby extensions. Four doors up may have a single storey extension that makes getting your planning permission in five years time that much easier. What’s the rear access like? Does Streetview show the rear lane blocked by idle taxi drivers?

  • Check the street at rush hour and mid-evening.

This is a bit involved, hell some people buy houses without seeing them! However if you go to a house viewing at 2pm on a Saturday the quiet tree-lined street with great school access may be a different picture to the school-run mummy-chariot car park. Likewise mid-afternoon could get very different to mid-evening if your excellent local gastropub has less than polite clientele.

Kerb appeal

It’s not just about from this (1):

to this:

Though that first impression counts. If the house looks down at the heel then a clean and a coat of paint may do wonders. Here’s a short list of what else to look for:

  • Doors and windows – wood/ PVC/ aluminium?

Is the wood rotten? Is the PVC discoloured or warped? Is the aluminium corroded? Are the windows double glazed and if so what state are they in? If there is misting inside the windows, like below, it suggests the double glazing has ‘blown’, and is no longer sealed (7). This will still be warmer than single glazing, but lets less light in and obscures your view! Budget at least £500/window for decent replacements (8). Sash windows and wooden casements will cost more, but sash are more desirable and wood will last a lot longer if maintained. On older properties original sash windows can be retrofitted with double-glazing by specialist companies, and this can work out cheaper than having new units made (9). Finally, check the state of the external locks, as many insurance companies will give you better rates for a BS-standard 5 lever deadlock.

  • External walls – clad/ brickwork/ render/ pebble-dash/ stone/ other?

We’ll start with brickwork as in many ways it’s simplest, and most of it also applies to stone. Older and underburnt bricks can suffer from years of frost damage and degrade, a process called spalling, so check for evidence of failure like below (10). Stone will also erode over time (particularly limestone in acid rain, and sandstone mislaid with a vertical grain) (11)

Check for evidence of degradation of the mortar in joints which will require re-pointing (12).

Look for external cracking. In previous centuries lime mortar was used which allowed a degree of flex in the joints due to it’s softness, but as building has moved to stronger and easier concrete/ cement the joints have become inflexible and unyielding. Cracking can have multiple causes but it usually down to building settlement. A degree of settlement is normal over the course of a properties lifetime, and particularly after periods of heavy rain or prolonged drought when the soil underlying the foundations moves. Small cracks are nothing to worry about, but bigger ones may suggest faults with the foundations which can require costly underpinning work. When next to gable walls it may suggest the wall is pulling away from the rest of the house, requiring insertion of wall ties and structural work. If around windows/doors then it may suggest rotting, movement or inadequacy of the sill. If in doubt get a professional survey.

 (13) (14)

Render can have similar issues with cracking as above, but is utilised to offer a layer of protection to the underlying stonework. This was traditionally used where unfinished structural stonework was rougher/ cosmetically poor, or in exposed areas – coastal etc. Breathable lime-based renders were used on older buildings, and replacement with concrete can cause damp issues. Newer buildings have concrete render, which will usually last about 20 years. Certain areas of the country (in my experience Cornwall particularly) have issues with render staining which requires cleaning (15). Budget a couple of thousand pounds, plus VAT and scaffolding costs for a re-render (16, 17).

Pebbledash and roughcast are essentially a different form of render where pebbles are sprayed on or added into the render. It came to be used during the Arts and Crafts Movement, but is often associated with ’20s and ’30s housing where it was used to cover cheap and quick brickwork (structurally sound but not aesthetically pleasing) (18). It offers a greater degree of weather protection than standard render. Don’t write off a pebbledash home. Removal is time-consuming (read expensive), but painting can make a huge difference (16)

Cladding is it’s whole other separate post. Replacing cladding is a good way to bring an out-of-fashion exterior bang up to date. Cladding may require planning permission under permitted development rules, or further consideration in conservation or national park areas (19).

  • Check for cavity wall injection points

Cavity walls, where there is an air gap between the inner and outer skins of the wall, became mainstream in the 1920s (20). The two skins are tied together either with bricks placed perpendicular across them, stones, or now with metal ties. The original usage was to prevent the passage of moisture into the building from outside. Insulation in the cavity became compulsory in the 1990s. In older houses is became common to use an injection method to insert insulation into the pre-existing cavity, leaving behind tell-tale holes where drilled (21). Cavity wall insulation divides opinion. The added insulation can in principal save a fair amount on heating. I dislike retro-fitted cavity wall insulation due to the potential for air and moisture-bridging, especially across damp courses lower down in the wall. This allows moisture to track across where there was previously an air gap, or through osmosis past the damp proof course. In modern houses the damp proof course sits below the insulation as it is inserted during construction, and with the use of modern backed insulation boarding it is less of an issue. Do your own research.

What lies above?

  • Check the roof

I won’t go into different roof materials, again it would be a whole other post. Stand on the other side of the street and look at as many elevations as you can see. Are there any slipped slates/ tiles? Any missing ridge tiles? These can all be sources of leaks if the roof lacks underlay (22). Most tile roofs can last 50 years if maintained, while slates can last a hundred (23). Budget £5000+ for new roof. This could escalate if the underlying joists and rafters are warped, damaged or rotten, indicated by a sagging area of roof. If the whole roof appears bowed under weight then it may be less of a worry; this is usually the result of replacement tiles being heavier than the originals, gradual settlement over time, or the effect of weight following a period of heavy snow (24).

Damaged or degraded flashing is a common cause of a leaky roof. I would bring binoculars to look at the roof when I was viewing a house. Lead is generally used and is very durable, but can fatigue or come loose. More rarely zinc, copper, aluminium or galvanised steel has been used. Budget £1000-1500 as a minimum for remedial work including labour, materials and scaffold (25, 26).

Chimneys… where to even start? Apply all of the brickwork damage section here, particularly spalling. The heat expansion and freeze/thaw effects combine to result in rapid degradation. Check for mortar breakdown around flashing at the base, a common source of ‘falling damp’ which is water leaking down the chimney breast. Check for vertical cracks in the chimney, vegetation, nesting animals, degraded cement caps and loose chimney pots or cowls. All can cause problems (27, 28). We’re currently trying to have our chimney repaired as preventative maintenance, with quotes between £1500-2500. Getting the agreement of our neighbour as it is a party wall has proved troublesome (rented property). We can’t go ahead until we have their agreement, but hopefully they’ll go half.

  • Check the gutters, soffits and fascias

Again a multitude of materials and a cause for ‘falling damp’. Traditionally gutters were cast iron and painted. These with maintenance can last many, many years. For a short period there were asbestos and fibre gutters, before moving over to PVC or plastic forms. These don’t last as long but don’t need the maintenance (and are cheaper).

Firstly, check for vegetation or any signs of blockages in the gutters themselves. This causes rainwater to overflow (a cause of damp), but is easily remedied with a ladder (or if you really fancy get a bloke with a pressure washer). Then check downpipes and ground-level drains (gullys). Are they securely attached and are they all connected. Again a common cause of internal damp is a leaking external downpipe (29). I hired an aluminium scaffold tower for a week for £120 this summer and had a great old time digging years of rotting vegetation and a few carcasses out of our blocked gutters, before rodding out the downpipe and running new ground-level pipes. I also took the opportunity to repaint our soffits and fascias. Cheap fixes and maintenance preventing future problems.

Your guttering will be attached to the fascia, with the soffit covering the underhang (30). These used to be made of wood, which would need to be periodically painted. In more recent years they’ve been replaced with PVC. Sometimes this covers and is fixed to a wood board, or is fixed to the older fascia or soffit. Watch out for where people have covered a rotting old fascia with PVC to hide it, as it will continue to rot and the guttering will fall out.

The hidden costs

  • Check utilities services

What do I mean by this? Check where the stopcock and meter are externally if it’s obvious. Check where phonelines enter the building. Both can be a pain to track down. More importantly – check the drains! Where does the external surface water drain to? Are there obvious access hatches to inspection chambers? Learn from my error, when I spent a wintry December week breaking up our concrete yard and digging down two feet to expose a broken salt-glaze pipe containing 12 foot of backed-up liquid faeces. If you’re planning to rework a property then knowing where the utilities is essential for plumbing planning.

  • Check the garden for Japanese Knotweed & other pests.

Look for the plant below, Japanese Knotweed. The effect on the value of the property is massive. It’s an invasive non-native species which is classed as hazardous waste, and any land containing it is counted as contaminated. It’s difficult to get rid of, spreads like wildfire and grows up to 10cm a day (28). A survey by YouGov and Environet UK estimates that 5% of UK homes have Japanese Knotweed (31). Finding Japanese Knotweed will knock 10% off that value of the property (31, 32, 33). Also take the opportunity to spot for evidence of wasps nests, bats, rats or mice.


So that’s outdoors briefly covered. In part two I’ll cover indoors, reflecting on what to look for in your first and second viewings when considering a house, and the mistakes we did and didn’t make.

The Shrink








Quarterly Returns Q2 2018 – A Tale of Two Cities

For my first quarterly return, I’ll lay out the basic plan for the future, and then tell a little story of hindsight.

Quarterly return posts will supplement my monthly Financial Dashboard, but with a different focus. While the Financial Dash mainly deals with my day-to-day, week-to-week goals, budgeting, the Quarterly Returns will cover investments in detail and look at my yearly targets. Here I will track purchases and sales, document my investment strategy, and discuss re-balancing and changes over time. Inevitably there will be some overlap, but I’ll try to minimise this.

Eventually the plan is to display some pretty graphs of exposure, increase over time etc. As I’m still developing my spreadsheets, for now I’ll just make a nice list.

Q2 Returns:

  • Cash Savings Accounts £400
  • Investments £0
  • Esoteric tat £3000


Yearly Targets:

Goal 1: Build an emergency fund.

As per the r/UKpersonalfinance flow chart, I’m working towards building an emergency fund (1).

I currently have a month’s outgoings in our joint account, and working towards two months. I’m chipping away at this, but now I have a month’s worth tucked away (and completed some fairly massive life-costs) I’m going to target debts.

Goal 2: Pay off debts

At the start of Q2 my short term debts were £2.5k to family and £4.3k on 0% interest credit cards. These are now £1,250 and £4.1k respectively. The aim is to bring my credit card debt down gradually, but as it’s at 0% for another 2 years I may indulge in some stoozing (2). I can also now close two redundant credit cards now I have no upcoming credit applications.

Goal 3: Reduce superfluous outgoings.

I’ve managed to reduce my living costs (see below), but an area for future work.

Goal 4: Commence investing!

The target for Q3.

A Tale of Two Cities

Inspired by Ermine’s tale of a dumb property purchase, here’s mine (3). This is a story of opportunity cost, the British love affair with owning our own home, and how as a person sometimes buying is not the right thing to do.

As mentioned in my Musing On… Mortgages post, MrsFireShrink and I were lucky enough to purchase our own home in our mid-20s. There are plenty of reports and opinion pieces currently doing the rounds, detailing how a third of my generation “will never own a home”, how it’s a housing crisis and changes must be made to the broken market (4, 5, 6). Wind back to 2014, and those worries are starting to bubble to the surface, but not yet in the public consciousness.

In those heady, pre-Brexit, pre-coalition-of-the-contemptible days house prices are still rising. Property is still a sure thing. We’re over the 2008 wobble, Dave Cameron is in charge and ‘the city’ and financial markets are looking bullish. Every man and his dog is flipping the equity from their own home into a nice little BTL side-hustle, an earner for retirement, inheritance for the children. The market looks nice and rosy, house prices always go up, right…. right? (7):

Enter stage-left MrsShrink (then MissFrugalStrongIndependentWoman) and I. We sat and planned our future together. I was living in work digs, 150 miles from MrsShrink. These were particularly miserable NHS digs, built after the war and updated when things broke, sometimes (for example see 8). Lying on my lumpy single bed as snow, rain and hail came through the single-pane aluminium-framed windows (which you couldn’t shut properly) I dreamt of a home to call my own. Heating that wasn’t on flat out, 24/7, even in midsummer. An oven that worked, A gas hob younger than me. A fridge lacking CFCs, etc.

The saving grace of these digs was that they were cheap. Really cheap. 90% of my earnings was paying off accumulated student credit card and overdraft debt, or sitting in our first, joint, savings account. MrsShrink and I knew nothing of investing, and to this day MrsShrink is fearful and does not trust the markets. Our plan saw me moving back to join MrsShrink in the city we had studied in, which we had both fallen in love with.

MrsShrink was equally frugal. She had moved in with a friend who had recently bought and was renovating a small terrace. While it was uninhabitable she was staying at his parents, paying a tiny rent, but not ideal accommodation. 6 months in and she was desperate for her own space.

With a small gift from MrsShrink’s mother we had enough for a deposit. The city we studied in was located in the South. An ex-naval city, bombed in WW2 and with high unemployment. Lively, cheap to live in, plenty going on and lots surrounding. Rows of identical, overengineered victorian terraces meant housing was around the national average despite being in the South. Early on we decided we wanted something old, with features, with potential but a manageable project.

The house

We spent six months viewing 20+ houses. We watched perfect houses get snatched up by people outbidding us. We viewed some real shitholes, rotten floorboards and collapsing joists. We stretched a bit and leveraged to 90% LTV on 200k. We planned to be there until we had kids, so fixed for 5 years. In 2014, everyone predicted an interest rate rise.

Eventually we found a place. It was a bad house on a good street, with agents pushing for much more than it was worth. In an area of high demand it had been sat for a year. [Warning sign]. It was vast, full of old features and 10% over budget. It also stank of fags and had some qwalitee 90s additions. Faux plastic panelling and fibreboard partitions anyone? [Warning sign]. The electrics had recently been done (cheaply) as had the central heating (cheaply). [Warning sign].

All this didn’t matter. We were in love with it. We could own this big house on this lovely street, all our own! We’ll renovate it, start a family, make loadsa-cash.

The troubles

We put down an offer for 5% under asking, which was accepted after a bit of haggling. We organised a full structural survey. This showed some damp and rot in the downstairs structure, so we went back to the vendors and knocked another 5% off. We were now on (just) budget. We weren’t fazed by this, every old house needs some work, and for houses where the vendor has been there over 10 years a survey may be the first time anyone looks for problems for a while.

The survey also stated that the walls were covered with thick wallpaper, as were the ceilings, and so the structure was impossible to examine. Fair enough said we. [Error]. As first time buyers we were a quick sale. Besides we were now desperate to be in. We wanted our house. [Error]. We completed within two months.

Walking back into the house for the first time, we were hit by a wall of fag-smell. Didn’t matter, we loved it. We held a party where we provided pizza and equipped all our mates with wallpaper stripping kit. The nicotine/tar ran out of the walls in rivulets. We all got contact high. Once we removed six layers of wallpaper and wood chip (spawn of the devil) the resultant 120-year old plaster was absolutely dead, falling off in chunks.

So it continued. I won’t document it all, but selected lowblows included:

  • Undiscovered rotten joists
  • Woodworm
  • Live bakelite or cloth-wrapped wiring throughout which hadn’t been removed, just run as parallel circuit
  • Replastering throughout as rooms sequentially were found to have collapsing or damaged plaster
  • Drains collapsing, prompting the stack to back up and digging out 12ft of liquid shit in midwinter
  • Fibreboard dropped ceilings in bedrooms hiding fire damage
  • Asbestos boarding
  • Boiler wired through twist-and-tape off a socket, with no fuse
  • Porch collapsing due to rot hidden behind a fascade

Lots of the work I completed myself. The sleet helping to wash off six month old faeces was a particular joy. We dropped about £15k over three years completely renovating. I hate to think what it would cost in labour, as I did 10+ hours a week on it in addition to my 60 hour work week.

The move

Three years into owning our home I was offered my dream job, one that I didn’t believe would ever happen, working with some of the top people in the world. Snag; it’s 150 miles away in another city. After discussions, I moved to pursue it, with MrsShrink following when she found work. We spent the following six months finishing the house to a high standard travelling the 150 miles at weekends. We never got to appreciate the fruits of our labour.

Facing financial pressure, paying rent and bills on one home and a mortgage and bills on an empty one, we let it out. The tenant was a young professional with a young child, highly qualified, working in my field. Responsible we thought. [Error]. The high end finish did not remain smart. The deposit did not cover the damage.

With the tenant out and again paying for two houses we put it on the market. We had to port our mortgage to avoid a hefty 5% early repayment charge. An asking price offer made within a week of listing fell through three months later, days before exchange. Another offer fell through a month later. We finally accepted an offer 10% under asking price six months later. We completed two months after that, exchanging on our new property on the same day.

The moral

Why am I telling this story? Through sweat, tears, blood and new grey hairs we made £15k net profit. About what the house would have gained through local market forces anyway. We have more equity in our new property and gained a lot of experience for the purchase of the current house:

  • Don’t overlook flaws because of love unless you’re willing to pay for them in time, stress or money
  • Don’t assume that a survey finds everything (or is even worth the paper it’s written on)
  • The more layers of cosmetic presentation/ furnishing/ detail in a house, the more it can hide
  • You may not make money on property
  • You can’t tell what tenants are like until you see how they live
  • Market estimates are dung; something is worth what people are willing to pay for it
  • Get paperwork evidence for everything
  • Houses naturally depreciate over time, they fall down if uncared for

Ultimately we learnt the hard way that early in life mobility for work can be a greater asset than equity. The British romanticism of owning our home hamstrung us and tied us to a financial obligation. As young professionals we could have been better served by considering our mobility as an asset. Don’t settle down until you really know you’re going to. There endeth the lesson for 20-somethings.



The Full English Accompaniment – The London and BTL Bubble?

What’s piqued my interest this week?

Being an absolute N00B at investment, Monevator’s blog post this week on global prime property investment was fascinating (1). Property investment through trusts or funds have offered solid returns over the past few years, but is something not generally considered by Joe Bloggs on the high street. Nor is dropping a casual million on a prime property in Chelsea (or more likely Brixton these days). A much more common statement in the provinces is the goal to own a couple of properties to let for a bit of income in old age/ on the side. Surrounded by professionals in work I hear this at least once a week, but the landscape is changing (2).

For the past couple of years tax laws commenced in April 2016 have gradually put the squeeze on the buy-to-let portfolios. This has included removing the ‘wear and tear’ allowance, and from this month mortgage interest can no longer be deducted from capital gains for BTL, reducing potential profits (3, 4).

Tougher lending rules from the Bank of England also mean that those buying a BTL with a mortgage will need to provide more stringent evidence that they can afford it (5). Energy efficiency rules have also changed, requiring landlords to ensure their properties meet E rate EPC standards (a challenge for many a draughty converted Victorian pile) (6, 7).

Why does this matter to the wider market? Many of the analyses I’ve read suggest that most landlords with just one or two houses, those with an extra property as a bit of side income or ‘accidental’ landlords, are moving out of the market. Gone are the days of easy cash for a BTL using flipped equity from your main home (8). This hasn’t deterred the professional landlords, indeed most are planning to increase rather than decrease their portfolios.

MrsFIREShrink and I have recently been looking to sell our previous home, and purchase in the new area we have moved to for work. The market here is buoyant, with more buyers than properties, but it seems to buck the trend. Elsewhere property prices are stagnating or at the very least holding their own (9, 10). A good friend who works in property in NW London informs me things there are very bad… very bad indeed.

A trend we have noticed locally whilst viewing properties has been a rise in a dichotomous split. Very few good homeowner residential houses appear to be coming on the market, but there has been a dearth of run-down empty residential houses. These aren’t the untouched since the ’70s care-home-funders (rare), or the probate bargain basement bombsites (also rare). They’re clean, cheaply furnished and fitted, reasonably located and appropriately maintained, often with little in the way of updating to boiler/ insulation/ central heating, and missing original features or flashy new additions. Are these the single-property landlords getting out, we wondered? Are these sales providing a lifeline drip feed of property to an otherwise slow market? Has the Bank of England/ Gov played an absolute blinder by crowing about interest rate rises long enough (with minimal change) to scare out those whose BTL portfolio would creak under pressure, and therefore save a future property crash? Are government economists that good at calculating socioeconomic dynamics?

No individual can predict property price change. Discussing the above with the same friend he told me he was happy about the changes. For too long, says he, property has gone up and up, and people could buy with little fear of loss for those making daft decisions. Now in his words – “it’s a market again”.

Happy weekend!

The FIRE Shrink

Side orders: – Matched Betting side-hustles – useful apps to consider, I’m investigating Mint – what it says in the URL – Happy 4th Birthday Quietly Saving!