Renovating our House: What I’ve Learned and My Advice for Renovators

“If we ever renovate again, I would…”
“Our next house, we should do this…”

These are words Mr Nerd and I have uttered to each other many a time as we’ve been ankle-deep in renovation rubble here.

I am still FAR from a renovating pro, but we’ve learned a lot of things through trial and error from renovating our 70s fixer-upper – a house we bought after being lured by the real estate listing tagline proclaimed ‘Ideal Makeover’.

No not my house, unfortunately. A timeless renovation in the beautiful modernist home of interior stylist Karen Kelly Tarasin. Photo by Prue Ruscoe for InsideOut.

We bought the Crap Shack when we were 24 and promptly plunged into fixing it up. I mean it when we said promptly and plunged. We didn’t even open the bottle of champagne and the goodie box from the lovely real estate agent; we were so excited and full of enthusiasm we were already in renovating mode; slapping up some terrible DIY render on the dark brown face brick in the 70s kitchen. To give you one example of our ‘trial and error’, while the DIY render in the kitchen brightened up the dark kitchen temporarily, we ended up having to scrape it all back and have it professionally plastered years later when we redid our kitchen for good!

As we edge closer to January when we can start our Scyon Walls makeover (you can read about what we plan to do here) we’ve been clearing away bushes and junk from around the sides of the house, ready to get the cladding ready, and have also been thinking about paint colour themes. But in the meantime I thought I’d share a few of the lessons I’ve learned from renovating. Would love to hear what advice you guys have, too.

Things I’ve learned from renovating – step 1. Removing old fish/mosquito pond should be a priority.

Look at the big picture of your home.

This is one thing we DIDN’T do when we first moved into our house – look at all the rooms as a whole and how we’d like the whole space to work cohesively. And in a house like ours, that is mostly very open-plan, that is extra-important – considering how one room should complement and work with the next so the feel flows. For example, you might rethink putting a graphic orange and black 70s-style feature wallpaper up in your hallway if your hallway is visible from your Millennial pink-dining room. (Or you might not! Of course it’s up to you, and if we all did and liked the same thing our houses would be very boring, but I think part of making a house feel relaxing is having it all work together to some degree). The same goes for thinking about how the outside of your home will relate to the inside.

From Australian Plunge Pools.

Before Pinterest, Instagram and interior design blogs, I used to cut photos of interiors I loved from magazines and scrapbook them. I still have those scrapbooks! It makes me smile to see how much my taste has – for the most part – changed. Remember when there was a trend for kitchen splashbacks to be those really colourful blue, red, yellow, green and orange Mexican tiles, all mixed together? I remember thinking if I could design my dream kitchen, then that is what I would do. Why would anyone EVER want anything different in their kitchen? I thought wondrously when I was 17. Now my taste is very different!

THEN: “Height of chic,” uttered 17-year-old Maya.

That said – and now here I am going against what I’ve just said, but bear with me! – I think it’s so natural for your tastes and personal style to grow and change with time and what I liked at 24 is, for the most part, completely different to what I like now. And an eclectic, layered look full of pieces and art that you’ve collected from different periods in your life (and that mean something to you) is really cool. It can also say more about ‘you’ and the people who live in the house than an on-trend-to-the-minute look you’ve designed solely on Pinterest.

Constantly re-evaluate WHO you are renovating for.

How long do you plan to stay in your house? Do you plan to sell it in a year or two? Do you want to start a family there and stay ten years? Will you rent it out? While there are never any guarantees in life and you never know what your circumstances might be in five years or even a year’s time, we constantly ask ourselves how much longer we will be in this house for when we are considering whether to take another step with its renovation and assessing whether it is worth doing (and how much we should spend). It will also help you make decisions on what you should do to your home in terms of appearance and materials when renovating. Say you’d love to do a patterned tile or green kitchen but you plan on moving overseas in a year and renting the house out – it may not be the best pick.

I would never do a light or glossy tile floor if you have pets or kids!

Our entry foyer. Photo by Heather Robbins.

We lived with our house’s old 70s ceramic white tile for years and while it wasn’t the worst or ugliest tile floor in the world, it showed every bit of dirt, hair and food. I don’t think I would ever put in a light-coloured or glossy tile floor if I was renovating. Flooring finishes that tend to conceal rather than highlight dirt (yay!) are my jam – floorboards, patterned tile, natural stone, vinyl planks that mimic the natural look of knots and whorls (hiding any marks! You can see my posts on how we covered our old ugly flooring with Karndean vinyl planks here).

If you’re in a smaller home like a villa, an apartment or a condo (like these lovely ones listed here), I would recommend keeping your flooring choices cohesive and limited – I would say just one or two flooring options max (plus tile for wet areas). Limiting your flooring and having the same kind flowing through your place throughout will also give the feel of a bigger, more free-flowing space – like this apartment below.

Photo by Element5 Digital via Unsplash.

Don’t overlook the exterior.

It can be quite easy to be focusing so hard on the interiors of your home that you overlook the outside. But the exterior is the first impression people get of your home, and the first thing you see when you get home after work! It makes sense to have it feel uplifting. The façade and gardens are just as important as the rest of the home and aren’t something to be compromised on – it can (hands up if you’ve ever been a home open, taken one look at the façade of the house and left before even setting foot inside?) The façade of your home should reflect you, your lifestyle, personality and the way you like to live (whether it incorporate a veranda with rocking chairs for wine, an alfresco table for dining and board games, a lawn for the kids to play on or a fire pit. Scyon Walls have some brilliant façade inspo on their site – visit here. I also love hunting around on Pinterest.

Renovate everything as best as you can.

I’m not saying you have to spend an absolute fortune on finishes and high-end stone benchtops – I’m talking about firstly buying quality, long-lasting materials as often as you can and secondly paying attention to crafting all the details in your renovation as best as you can – whether it’s the mitring of tile or the laying of a path. The devil is in the detail, as they say! I think we have almost a duty to our homes to do everything as well as we can, not just for ourselves while we live in the house; but for the people who will live in the house after us.

Mr Nerd put in these limestone edged planter beds not long after we moved in and they’ve handled the years well!

Doing a hodge-podge job of something will ALWAYS bite you on the butt later! And chances are you’ll need to replace or fix it sooner than you had expected. Worth doing right from the start. I need say no more about our DIY render efforts. I am SO looking forward to covering it all up with Scyon Walls cladding in January.

Enamel paint yellows with age – choose water-based.

Ah, those hours and hours I spent meticulously painting our doors, frames and skirtings in white oil-based enamel paint. While they looked spectacular (there is something about the smart glossiness of a shiny door next to a matte plastered wall that just makes an interiors scheme look more polished and more expensive) I don’t know if I would paint doors and trims in oil-based paint ever again, because it almost always tends to yellow with age – meaning you have to redo all your hard work! Choose water-based and you won’t get the same supreme gloss as enamel paint but they’ll still look really good.

Choosing the right white paint can make or break your interiors scheme – trial sample pots!

White walls will always be lovely, timeless and versatile – but choosing the right white paint can be so tricky. Pick the wrong paint and the fresh room you envisioned can come off look daggy, yellow or dimly blue and depressing – argh! Make sure you get numerous trial pots, pop them up all over your house and check out how different whites look in your home morning, noon and night. I actually just wrote a whole post on how to choose the right white paint which you can read here.

Perfect white paint in this home. I wrote about my friend Carla’s amazing home here. Photo by Heather Robbins.

Enlist a professional whenever you can.

Mr Nerd would do everything DIY if he could and he is one of those people who tends to be naturally handy. I, on the other hand (I’m far less handy, and also more lazy) always want to hire a professional for the big renovating jobs! We come to a compromise by looking at each ‘renovation scenario’ in our house, getting quotes and toying up whether we should hire a professional or do it DIY. We take into consideration these factors:

– a professional will do a better job
– the blown-out time for DIY (do you really want to spend your next five weekends doing this?)
– the mess!
– DIY may appear to be the cheaper option but you may end up spending a substantial amount on hiring or purchasing the right tools
– the risk of doing something incorrectly or poorly
– the ease (the EASE!)

It is true when they say good tradies are worth their weight in gold. By the way, if you are in the Perth metro area and looking for tradies, my bud Elise and her husband are in the process of starting a directory of qualified, vetted, highly recommended family-friendly tradespeople called 24/7 Tradies. Still in the last stages but in the meantime you can also check out their Instagram @247tradies where they share and recommend great tradespeople in their database.

Get three quotes.

I know we’ve heard it so many times it’s a little boring, and yes I know getting people out to quote can be frustrating, but every time you want to do something, you won’t regret taking the time to get three quotes. We are constantly blown away by the difference in quotes from different tradespeople and companies. That said, the cheapest quote may not necessarily be the right choice. Use your gut and choose your tradies based on a combination of their quote, recommendations, their previous renovating experience, how well you clicked with them and how comfortable you think you would feel discussing any (potential) problems with them.

Buy the best benchtops, tapware and cabinets you can afford.

Photo by Heather Robbins.

The things you use the most and that need to stand up to a lot of wear-and-tear – get the best quality you can. It doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune (our timber kitchen benchtops are affordable pieces of laminated ply from Bunnings but we really like them – you can see our kitchen renovation here).

What’s your renovating advice? What have you learned? Is there anything you would never do again? Maya x


Author: Maya Anderson

When Maya Anderson was thinking of a name for her homes and design blog, nothing seemed more fitting than House Nerd. Obsessed with everything to do with houses, renovating and interior design, Maya is a features journalist by training with a background in print and a focus on homes and real estate. She has been renovating her 1970s house since forever, loves dogs and can eat her body weight in dumplings.

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  • Oh yes, it’s definitely worth getting three quotes!

    We knocked out a load bearing brick wall and part of an old chimney. The first guy who quoted said he could do it himself in two days for five thousand dollars. Yeah… nah. We ended up paying more than twice that, for three guys from a specialist wall removal company, who took three days and did it properly. They apparently receive lots of calls from people who went with the cheap option and ran in to trouble. A good reason to do it right first time.

    • Agreed. I made the mistake (once) of hiring the cheap guy and I was ready to kill him 2 days later. In my defense I have to say that I really, really wanted to hire the guy who charged more than twice as much because my gut was telling me this was a dude who would have done it right – but at the time, I was church mouse-poor and I simply could not afford it. || Puppy Nala and 2 murdered duckies are making me smile.

      • Oh no Alena! Ugh I have definitely been there (both with wanting to murder a tradie, also with being church mouse-poor). I could have loaned you Nala, the duck-murderer. She would have put an end to the cheap guy for you for sure.

    • Holy moly Shannon that is a massive difference between quotes (and quoted labour) but I have no doubt you would have dodged a bullet with the first guy! Lucky you trusted your gut! I also get a little wary when a tradie seems overly confident (but in a bad way). Definitely a good reason to do it right straight up – pay peanuts, get monkeys as they say.

  • These are all great tips. I just recently covered up my custom stained concrete floors with a tile and the tile is showing everything – Including water spots, etc. I wish I would have put samples down for a few days to see what it really looked like with use!

    Love the design elements and thoughtfulness!

    • Thank you Heather! Oh what a bugger about your tile and that you couldn’t put down samples :/ We were lucky that a local flooring shop was happy to loan us (decent-sized) samples of vinyl when we were trying to choose a colour for our vinyl – we were even thinking of going almost-black with it and having the sample quickly changed my mind on that one, it showed up so much so quickly. But I think EVERYONE renovating (even pro designers! have made a design decision at some point or other that they would definitely change the next time – part of the learning process!

  • My 3 things from my renos thus far:

    1) As you say, the devil is in the detail. Learn how to get really good at cutting in with an angled brush whilst painting. Putty up those gaps. Let your OCD loose and line those tiles up perfectly. So many little things that, when taken care of, make a room look so much more finished, but you can’t quite put your finger on why it looks as good as it does… It’s those 1%ers.

    2) A sympathetic reno is the best reno. If you have a wonky old 1920s weatherboard house – where nothing is straight, level, symmetrical, or consistent – think about what is going to add to the character and charm of such a place. How do you enhance its highlights whilst minimising/reducing the impact of its faults?

    3) Realistically categorise the jobs you need to complete into:
    – those you can do yourself,
    – those you’re prepared to have a crack at yourself (figure it out as you go, learn some things, invest in a few key good-quality tools, break inexpensive things, waste nothing more than you’re prepared to lose), and
    – those that are outside the realm of time frames and skillsets; call in a tradie.

    And a bonus point: Cheap is fantastic if it doesn’t feel, look, or behave cheaply. As soon as it does, go the more expensive option.

    • Oh 100 percent agree. Especially with the OCD tiling. It makes such a big difference. We have friends who paid a company to do their bathroom reno. The guy tiled full-height to the ceiling but didn’t start the full tile at the top – he actually left a funny little gap and it looked so shit. And when you walked in even though they’d bought beautiful tile and a lovely freestanding bath it was the first thing that drew your eye when you walked in. They’d spent so much money and it was such a pity.

      Also I totally agree on your other points – particularly that a sympathetic reno is the best especially when it comes to older houses. So much better to embrace the imperfections and the charm and work with them rather than trying to cover them up. So many times I see an old house where they’ve tried to make everything perfect and symmetrical and it just doesn’t gel. I sometimes wonder why people buy old quirky houses when it seems they’re so intent of stripping it of its charm. There is a historic house near us I wrote about for The West once that was completely modernised, ALL the character features torn out or covered up, and I felt devastated when I finally saw inside – if I was a bolder person I would have said to the guy why didn’t you just build a new house rather than ruining this one?!