Top 5 Dos and Don’ts of a Home Renovation From a Real-Life Couple

Top 5 Dos and Don’ts of a Home Renovation From a Real-Life Couple

Londoners Nadine and Juls, who started revamping their first house just before the pandemic, share their tips on planning, budgeting, and DIY.

When Nadine Bacchus-Garrick and her partner Juls bought their first home in April 2020—a two-bedroom Victorian terrace in South London—they never expected to be undertaking a renovation in the midst of a pandemic. "We got the keys the week the UK government announced the lockdown," says Nadine. "We were excited, but also worried about the shops closing and being able to start the renovation."

Nadine Bacchus-Garrick and her partner Juls are in the process of documenting the renovation of their first home on the Instagram account @rona_renovation. "This is totally new for both of us," says Nadine. "Juls is a leather craftsman and makes all his products by hand, so he’s handy, but I have a background in PR and work in a stationary office job. A lot of the men in my family work in trade, though, so I had a rough idea of what to expect."

Despite the challenges, the couple were keen to realize their dream home as soon as possible. "People less fussy than we are might have just given it a lick of paint," admits Nadine. "When we investigated thoroughly, though, we discovered that it needed a lot of structural work, and a lot of the work that needed to be done was hidden."

There were rotting joists, holes, damp, and haphazard electrics. "It was built in 1901 and just wasn’t up to 2020 living," says Nadine.

One of the major challenges of the renovation so far has been a plaster shortage in the UK due to lockdowns. "It was stressful," says Nadine. "There was a little group of us from the renovation community tipping each other off, and we had to get up at 4 a.m. to line up for plaster!" As a result, finishing the plastering of the main bedroom was a major milestone. "This is such an exciting landmark for all renovators, as it means you can finally think about decorating," wrote Nadine on Instagram. "I will never take plaster being available in shops for granted ever again!"

As they began the transformation, Nadine was put on furlough and wanted something to occupy her time, so she started an Instagram account, @rona_renovation, to document the progress. "The account has become such a lovely part of my life and has brought nothing but positivity and happiness," she says. "I’ve met brilliant people, and it’s also been a really practical source of advice."

The couple moved into the partially finished home in September 2020 and are about halfway through the project. Below, they graciously share the major takeaways from their experiences, though the work is far from over. "I have some big pipe dreams about what I want to do next," says Nadine. "This isn’t our last project. After doing this, I can’t imagine walking into a house and loving it exactly how it is!"

Tackle the Bathroom First

"My number one tip is to do your bathroom first, even if you’re living in your renovation," says Nadine. "All the other essential things you need, you can freestyle—you can set up a kettle, microwave, or camp stove in any room, but you can’t freestyle a shower! So, throw money and time into getting the bathroom sorted as you won’t regret it. It’s so nice to be able to finish a really labor-intensive day in a nice, new bathroom."

When the couple started the renovation, it was near impossible to get supplies from hardware stores shut down by the pandemic, so they began by gutting the house—namely, the bathroom. During the process, they discovered rotting joists under the floor, which all needed to be replaced—an issue that had been flagged by a surveyor before they purchased the home. "It’s definitely worth investing in a structural survey to give you an overview of what might be wrong with the property to help you budget and plan the renovation," says Nadine. 

"Seeing our bathroom completed was huge, as it was the first room we finished," says Nadine. "I designed and planned it so meticulously and put my heart and soul into the research. I also bought a lot from eBay, which was quite scary and felt like a bit of a gamble!"

Porcelain Superstore tiles and cream paint from Little Green Paint Company set off a La Redoute vanity and Tap Warehouse basin. "Our bathroom wall lights from Dowsing & Reynolds are still my favorite thing in this room," says Nadine. "At this point, my love for them is low-key creating a problem, as no ceiling light fixture can compare." 

The floor tiles were chosen to emulate the type of concrete floor found in contemporary Mediterranean interiors. "There are so many gorgeous patterned tiles out there which are way more interesting, but I really can’t trust myself to be content with them in years to come," says Nadine.

Set Priorities With Your Builder

"Speak to your builder about structural ideas that you have early on, and go for the ones you feel passionate about in the beginning of the renovation," says Nadine. "You may want to knock out a wall, remove or reinstate a chimney breast—but you can’t go back and do those things; you have to do the messy jobs at the beginning."

In the first week of the renovation, Nadine and Juls—with the help of Nadine’s stepfather—knocked through a wall to make one open-plan living and dining space. "It would have been insane if we were living in the house amongst the dust and rubbish, but we know that’s the reality for most renovators," says Nadine. "Thankfully, we were able to form a bubble with my mum and stepdad, and we lived with them for a few months so we didn’t have to live in the rawest part of the renovation when there were no electrics or plumbing." 

Don’t Lose Sight of Your Own Style

"Social media can be a great tool for inspiration, but it’s important that you stay true to what you like," says Nadine. "I’ve seen some cool decor on Instagram that’s really colorful and quirky, but Juls and I are drawn to simple, Scandinavian-style interiors, and I want to create a sense of calm in our home."

"As a Black couple from London," she continues, "we’re also very keen to weave in some of our own culture. Your home says so much about who you are, and it would be odd for that not to be a common thread. We’d like to collect things over time through travel—probably art and textiles. I’m half Jamaican, and I’d love to go there and source pieces for our home. Juls is Nigerian, and I want to do the same thing there."

Most of the floorboards in the main bedroom needed to be replaced. "Juls has been on a floorboard crusade this week, trying to solve the puzzle of how can we make this work and keep costs down," wrote Nadine on an Instagram post. "Many trips to reclaimed wood places were made, floorboards were reconfigured once and then again, but he did it!" They also salvaged original floorboards from under the tiles in the bathroom.

Nadine describes the overhauled bedroom as "serene and simple." The walls are painted in Farrow & Ball’s Strong White, and the radiators were an eBay purchase.

The bedding, mirror, bedside tables, lights, and planter are all from UK furniture retailer MADE.com.

Keep a Seriously Detailed Budget Plan

"Keep a record of your budget—and don’t try to make your budget stretch to money you don’t have," advises Nadine. "You’d be surprised at how easy it is to forget that when you’re renovating. If there’s something that’s over your budget, you have to accept that you might have to do it later or do it in a different way. We have a detailed live spreadsheet for budgeting—I even put lunch on it; that’s how granular it got!"

"It’s also a good idea to decide early on what things you must have and what you can compromise on," she continues. "For me, I was hell-bent on having wall lights in our bathroom next to the mirror, as it’s always been a bugbear of mine that I can never see my makeup in the evenings. It meant that the electrician had to run extra wires, and Juls thought it was all a bit pointless...but for me it was worth it. I also wanted brass fittings in the bathroom, but when I costed it up, I couldn’t financially justify it. So, I scrapped that idea and just got chrome, which I love now. It’s important to not get carried away." 

"The first thing you like is often the thing you should choose," says Nadine. "I ordered hundreds of tile samples for the bathroom, and I went with the first one I liked. The same with paint samples. I’ve tested every neutral shade out there, and it’s always the first one or two that I go with. Don’t overcomplicate things, and trust your instincts."

Invest Some Sweat Equity

"Roll your sleeves up, and do a lot of the labor yourself—it will save you hundreds of pounds," says Nadine. "We organized our own skips and filled them ourselves, which was no joke! It was physically intense, but it saved us money. I also asked millions of questions. The closer you are to the process, the more empowered you are to make better decisions." 

Many of the original fireplaces had been filled in, and Nadine and Juls decided to inject some old-school charm into their home by opening them back up. "It was a grim job," recalls Nadine. "But, we're super pleased!"

The bathroom required major work early on in the project, including demolishing a brick chimney breast. "The entire bathroom had to be redone, and it was a slow burn ripping the existing bathroom out," says Nadine. "I wouldn’t say I’m fussy, but I’m not the type of person who volunteers for grubby jobs. I didn’t flinch at doing some of the disgusting jobs here, though, as it's our house."

"I surprised myself by how gritty and dirty it got, and how willing I was to get stuck in," Nadine continues. "It’s a really good reminder of how capable you are. We asked my stepdad, [who’s a builder], for advice, and if we couldn’t reach him, we found the answers on YouTube. The lesson is that you really can put your hand to most things with the right attitude, a bit of bravery—and YouTube."

Related Reading: 6 Questions You Should Always Ask Before Hiring a General Contractor

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