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Doing Up the House - a First Time Buyers Case Study!

We have just bought an old house built in the 1930s.  Now the work begins.

We knew any house we bought would require a certain amount of graft to make it our own. As a general rule, I had once assumed that the older the property, the longer the list of ‘projects’ would be.  Having now viewed relatively modern homes in states of disrepair, I don’t think this necessarily holds true. In any case, even properties we saw, that were ostensibly in good order, had aspects we would have wanted to change and personalise. The crux of it, is that remedial and repair work will always take priority, but that doesn’t negate the importance of other projects in due course. 

Painting the kitchen
Painting the kitchen

Make a list

With this in mind, we found it useful to draw up a list divided into long, mid and short-term projects to tackle around the house in the first couple of months living there. At first, we handwrote the list, which was fine for definite items, such as skimming over each and every Artex ceiling (characteristic of older properties). However, it soon became clear this should be a live document, that we could chop and change as necessary. For example, ‘re-carpet living and dining rooms’ changed to ‘refurbish original wooden floors in living and dining rooms?’ after we had a peek at its condition; many items moved between categories as the extent of work to be done became clearer.

When we bought the house, we were happy there was nothing requiring immediate attention. The boiler was in good condition (when no safety certificate was available, we had it serviced before exchange on advice of our solicitor) and there were no known water leaks. Tenants had been living in the property until exchange, so for all intents and purposes, whatever working condition the house was in, it was liveable.

The Kitchen (Part I)

That being said, we hadn’t clocked a large crack in the kitchen ceiling, spreading from wall to wall, on first, second or third viewings; perhaps it was much smaller then, or (more likely) we just weren’t looking upwards. Luckily, we commissioned an independent building survey of the property which reassured us the area was dry, so the damage was likely due to a historic leak in the upstairs toilet. Also at this time we noticed that the kitchen extractor fan did not vent externally, meaning fat, steam etc. were being spat out onto the ceiling. As mentioned above, skimming over the ceilings was always on our ‘to-do list’, but the necessary repair made this room top priority.

Painting the ceiling
Painting the ceiling

Finding a Plasterer

To find a plasterer, we initially asked friends and colleagues for recommendations.  After that we had a good search on Google and eventually found a number of potentials.  One thing that surprised me was that it was almost impossible to get any plasterer to come to the house to eyeball the job – everything was to be done via email, from sending pictures and giving dimensions of the crack, to the size and condition of the whole ceiling. It didn’t take long to find a plasterer who wanted the job.  Due to the cause of the ceiling damage, he scrupulously made sure I had checked the crack and bulging area were dry and not “coming away” when prodded. Only after he was satisfied that the leak was indeed resolved did he go ahead with the repair and skim-over. He charged just under £200 which I thought was quite reasonable and he left our kitchen clean and tidy.

Time to dry

We then planned to leave the ceiling for a few weeks after it initially dried, to make sure no damp or bulges formed in the plaster that would indicate a persistent leak. This was handy, as life certainly got in the way of any progress on the home maintenance front at this point. However frustrating it was, it did teach me to accept slow progress: the ceiling didn’t need to be painted immediately, we would do this when we had time to do it properly and to a high standard.  We did however manage to order and install new, clean filters in the extractor fan. Using this as normal when the plaster was bare allowed us to check if the fan venting onto the ceiling was causing damage. We have “fit extractor fan with external vent” on our mid-term project list.

After four weeks of bare plaster, we were satisfied that all was OK and bought two tins of kitchen-grade, ‘Timeless’ white paint. White, we reckoned, would give us considerable freedom when we it came to deciding on the colour of the walls after stripping away wallpaper (see The Kitchen, Part II) and would certainly lighten what can be a dark kitchen.

Painting the ceiling

My boyfriend and his father intended to paint the ceiling over the course of two days, but managed to finish in one. With a high ceiling and with lots of counter-top appliances etc., protecting the cupboards, appliances and work surfaces was a priority. We bought extra-large dust sheets, which fastened to the walls above the kitchen cupboards and draped over the worktops; old curtains covered the floor.

Cooking was relegated elsewhere for the day. Luckily, my boyfriend had a table-top oven which I set up in the conservatory for a slow-roast supper. Failing this, it would’ve been a good day for a takeaway. In between coats, we could remove the dust sheets and potter around in the kitchen, but ultimately it was out of bounds for the duration of the weekend (or so we anticipated, in the end it was only one day).

After the first coat (primer, watered down by 30%), my boyfriend and his father bought an additional tin of paint in anticipation of it needing three or four coats. However, after the second coat (allowing four hours of ‘drying time’ in between) it looked perfect. Knowing that the wallpaper would soon be removed, there was no need to apply frog or masking tape to the coving when painting the ceiling.

Next, the walls…

In the course of the job, my boyfriend and his father stripped away parts of the wallpaper where it was peeling. This exposed a patch of mould on a wall backing onto the shower. We concluded this could either be due to a historic leak in the shower that was now repaired (as the area was dry), or a smaller leak that was still ongoing. We photographed this, brushed off the roses of mould and left it. In proceeding weeks, I continued to photograph the area to check if the mould returned to the same extent. Taken on my phone, these were time-stamped, but if a physical photo were taken I would make sure to date these. To be on the safe side, we also bought a damp-meter. The account of our work on the kitchen walls is continued in Part II.