Where Do You Even Start With Home Renovations? We Ask An Expert

Wanna get all Room To Improve? Here's how.

Denise O’Connor

It’s no secret that the current housing market in Ireland is an absolute joke, and prices continue to soar for small, old and dilapidated properties. Many simply aren’t in a position to buy a home that’s move-in ready, while many more have been put off by the fact that a lot of the affordable houses out there are stuck in a time warp. It can be difficult to see the potential of a house when it’s old-fashioned or ill-laid out, but most of the time, it’s there if you can just see the vision. I asked architect and MD of Optimise Design, Denise O’Connor, where the hell to start.

Budget first

“It’s really worth asking for some advice about how best to allocate your funds. Make sure it’s from someone who’s impartial, as family and friends may be too emotionally invested to help you make objective decisions. We advise clients where best to invest in their homes but you can seek the opinion of a building contractor,” says Denise.

Careful, though. “Improving or updating one area of your home is going to highlight other areas that need work, so proper planning is essential. Without a plan, you risk starting a snowball effect of work needing to be done. Separate works are unlikely to compliment each other, you’ll waste money and won’t be adding value to your home.”

Insider tip: There’s a rule of thumb that says when deciding on a budget for your new kitchen you should spend 5% of the overall value of your home. Spend more and you risk not getting the money back, spend less and you may not actually be adding value.”

Daniel = you when your reno plans get underway

Where do I begin?

I ask Denise what’s the first thing they ask a prospective client. “We ask them for a brief outline of what it is they are hoping to achieve; we ask what’s not working and what their frustrations are, we also visit them at their home so that we can learn a little more about them and how they like to use and live in their home. By identifying why the house isn’t functioning we have a clearer idea of where to focus and more importantly where to invest the budget.

“Often I see houses where the owners felt they needed more space, and without really trying to figure out why the house wasn’t working, built a large extension, which instead of solving the problem compromised the existing house.”

Where do people tend to go over budget the most? “Working to a ‘wish list’ rather than a ‘budget’ is often the cause of overspending. It’s really important that you set a realistic budget and that you are prepared to make trade-offs along the way. It’s very easy to get carried away!”

Denise’s advice? “Put aside sufficient contingency funds to cover unexpected expenses, for example, discovering damp or structural issues. Be open about your budget with your architect, designer or contractor. They will help you to modify the scope of works to align with the amount you have to spend. In my experience regardless of how much clients have to spend, compromises always need to be made.”

Is an interior designer a must?

Not necessary, but extremely helpful, says Denise. “It really depends on how
comfortable you are tackling things like colour choices and furniture selection yourself, and how much time you have to devote to it. I’m mindful of the interior elements of the design and will consider things like furniture layouts, as well as suggesting finishes and style of things like flooring, kitchens and windows.”

What if you have no idea of the aesthetic you want?

Do your research, and have visual clues for the pros. “Sites like Houzz, Pinterest and Instagram are all fantastic resources for gathering inspiration for a home improvement project. These sites provide unlimited access to global sources of inspiration and can even interact and communicate with the designers, suppliers and manufacturers. But I find that some clients can become overwhelmed by all of the options as there is simply too much choice.” That’s where enlisting the help of the experts can be worth it.

What’s the most difficult thing clients find about renovating?

“The build is an unstoppable process and this feeling that once you start there is no turning back is probably the most unsettling part. Be as organised as you can be; your contractor will have a program of works which can guide you to when critical decisions need to be made.

My advice, however, is to have all of your decisions made before the work starts on site – my experience of going through the process myself has confirmed it’s the best single piece of advice I could give anyone taking on a home improvement project. Once the build starts you’ll feel under pressure, there will be distractions and emotions to deal with, so you won’t be at your best when it comes to making decisions.”


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What type of work maximises the value of the house?

“The key to significantly increase the value of your home is to make the most of the functional living spaces. This might mean sacrificing formal areas such as dining rooms to create more space for family living areas and open plan spaces. These kinds of upgrades, if planned properly, will pay off as family living is now firmly centred on large combined living and dining areas, making them a huge selling point. Attic conversions are another way to increase the value of your home. The addition of a bedroom and bathroom can increase the value of your home by as much as 15%. Unless you plan to add a dormer window or Velux style roof lights to the front of the house, an attic conversion is exempt from planning permissions.”

What grants are available, and how do you go about getting them?

Free money is not to be sniffed at, after all. “There are grants available for things like upgrading heating systems and insulating an attic. Details about
all of the grants that are available to homeowners can be found on the SEAI website. Before you do the work to your home it’s a good idea to have a BER assessment done to examine the energy performance of your home, carried out by BER Assessors who have registered with SEAI.”

Be warned though, most of the time you have to outlay the cost of the improvements, and then receive a refund. We upgraded our boiler and windows recently, and got a significant chunk back once we filed the relevant documentation.


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