A Renovation Nightmare

Sydney couple Ali Watts and Damien Stewart knew they had to work fast to buy their home in January, 2010. The unrenovated, deceased estate property had attracted more than 40 parties to its first open for inspection.

Surrounded by bush and featuring an inground pool, the house had great bones, was close to transport and the potential seemed endless.

Their bold pre-auction offer of $1 million, good for one day only as Ali was going to be in India on auction day, was snapped up.

The renovation plan

‘We both like a modern, simplistic look with an Asian feel,’ says Ali, who chose a deep Japanese-style bath for the main bathroom and Travertine porcelain tiles.

The ensuite features a bronze metallic shower wall, nifty built-in cupboards and a double vanity.

‘We chose a plain white kitchen not only for resale value but because I like a minimalist finish,’ she says.

Bathroom after renovation with oriental style tub, Handyman magazine
Luxury features in the bathroom include a deep oriental-style tub

Saving with DIY

Damien, who hadn’t done much DIY work before the reno, worked on the garden and built a small deck near the front door.

Together the couple installed a $5000 flat-packed kitchen in the granny flat instead of paying $12,000 for a builder.

Says Ali, ‘The privacy screen on the back deck was going to cost $3000 but Damien did it for $500.

‘We also ripped out the old kitchen, pulled out old nails and did all those other fiddly jobs that take lots of time.’

Making a start

Ali and Damien had an architect draw up building plans for the reno and double carport, knowing that council approval could take far longer than the already extended settlement date.

After moving in, they decided to refurbish the upstairs bathrooms.

Says Ali, ‘I had some money on the loan in our offset account and we thought it would be easy to do these rooms while still living in the house.’

Hooked on renovating

James from Qbic Constructions & Design did such a great job on the bathrooms that Ali and Damien were bit by the renovating bug.

Ali says, ‘We decided we couldn’t stop then as it felt funny having only part of the house done. We thought we would enjoy the home for longer by doing all the renos straight away.’

Being a former home loan lender and business banker, Ali knew that they could access more funds via a development loan and successfully applied for $300,000.

Their original builder James was booked elsewhere but recommended a former employer for the job.

Middleton Design installed a new kitchen with ceramic benchtops and glass splashbacks and constructed new built-in storage in one of the bedrooms, the dining area and study nook.

Opening up the house

The couple wanted to capitalise on the expansive bush views which resulted in an open-plan layout with glass-panelled bifold doors opening from the living and dining spaces onto a big deck.

Downstairs Ali and Damien planned to reclaim a large area under the house to create a granny flat and covered outdoor space.

The flat would comprise a sleek white bathroom where the old laundry and toilet used to be, a new flat-pack kitchen, compact living space and bedroom with built-ins.

It could be used as a guesthouse or rented out for extra income.

Outdoor area with bifold doors, Handyman Magazine,
Bifold doors extend the living and dining areas to the new back deck

Where it all went wrong

Unexpected costs soon ate into the loan budget and far more.

‘There were so many unfactored expenses,’ says Ali. ‘The granny flat needed another $40,000 because we had to dig down to make the ceiling the legal height. That’s not something we thought to plan for.’

The house, built in 1945, also needed extra spent on drainage and other major plumbing works as well as upgrades to meet new mandatory environmental requirements from the council.

‘We had to install thick glass windows and metal awnings to comply with bushfire safety and other BASIX (basix.nsw.gov.au) regulations,’ says Ali.

‘We should have researched more thoroughly before starting the reno.’

In addition to building surprises, the architect’s plans had to be redone and the added financial pressure soon took the shine off the work.

Before they knew it, the reno budget for their $1 million dollar home had blown out to $500,000, about $200,000 more than expected.

‘I think timing is a big issue,’ says Ali. ‘When builders aren’t busy they charge less, when they’re busy and in demand they charge what they want.’

Damien agrees their timing perhaps wasn’t good and there was no provision made for unexpected costs.

‘Of course everything costs more than you think it will and everything takes longer than you think it will.’

A loungeroom before a renovation, Handyman Magazine
The living area had worn carpets, dark wall panelling and dated light fittings

A living area with a fireplace after a renovation, Handyman Magazine
Hopper windows flank a newly installed fireplace in the modernised living room

Surviving the blowout

The couple’s relationship survived. ‘I think what made it easy for us is that we have the same taste and trust each other’s opinions. That’s half the battle with renovating,’ Ali says.

Ali and Damien now have a tenant in the granny flat but it’s not enough to service the mortgage and repay the renovation and development loans.

‘We have to sell or rent the whole thing in the next six months but I have no regrets because this has been a great learning experience,’ Ali says.

Worn and dated exterior of a house prior to renovation, Handyman Magazine,
The windows were disproportionately large and the exterior was showing signs of age

Exterior of a house after a renovation, Handyman Magazine, DIY
Clean modern lines transform the new rear exterior and give it instant appeal

Mistakes we made

Ali believes the house will recoup the costs long term but in the short term she’s not so certain.

‘It’s the sort of house someone will walk into, fall in love with and be happy to pay the price. But in all honesty we overcapitalised, so this isn’t a success story.’

Ali suggests talking to other homeowners to learn from their mistakes before you renovate.

RESEARCH COUNCIL regulations to avoid future costs.

RENOVATE IN STAGES and don’t get carried away. ‘This also lets you road-test tradies before a major renovation.’

on a good kitchen and bathroom. ‘Choose classic fittings and colours.’

GET INTO DIY for the fiddly jobs to save on labour costs, such as painting and landscaping.