Making Money from Rental Property

As you may remember, I have a flat in Fulham that I have tenants in. Right now, while I work towards a masters in Architectural Conservation, it’s also my only reliable source of income and back in May I had to make the difficult decision to evict the tenant that moved in at the end of January. On paper it all looked completely fine, the tenant was an older woman in a wheelchair who was moving to London to be closer to her family. My flat is modern and complies with all the regulations for disabled users, so no problems there, no wild parties. One careful lady user. Or so I thought. All the negotiations between the estate agents and myself were done with her son and everything went smoothly – but with every tenancy there are teething problems, little niggly complaints and questions because the manuals for various appliances have been misplaced. There was none of that. He also asked to have a key safe fitted to the front of the building so that her carers could let themselves in. I knew she needed help so this seemed a reasonable request, but I should have known this was a bad sign!

I emailed several times to ask if his mum was settling in ok and then thought I really should meet her and ask her myself. So in May I arranged to visit and was met by a carer who presented me with a list of problems and things she wanted me to sort out. Then I was handed a pile of post that hadn’t been forwarded – and then I spotted the dining chairs, you can see one of them above. Three of them, collapsed in pieces on the floor. The post was the council taking me to court for non payment of council tax! By this point I was barely able to breathe.

She had lived there for three months.

Luckily the dates of the tenancy agreement proved that I was not responsible for the payment of the council tax. The son – who by the way, is a barrister – was most apologetic, but pleaded ignorance over the dining chairs. What he did explain though, was that his mother had five carers a day: the first helped her out of bed and gave her breakfast, the second gave her lunch, the third (the only one they had a constant relationship with) spent the afternoon with her, the fourth gave her dinner and the fifth put her to bed. Oh and she also suffers from vascular dementia. My tenant wasn’t capable of toileting herself or of opening the front door, so to sort out the ‘repairs’ I had been told about, we had a complicated arrangement between myself, the contractor, the third carer and the son (it’s starting to sound a bit like a film title…) because the contractor refused to go into the flat alone – no surprise there. How could he take responsibility for the welfare of a disabled woman he had never met and be on site alone with her? He could be accused of anything!

He did have a good look round though and told me that my ‘careful lady user’ had taken the kitchen cabinet doors off the hinges and ruined the carpet in one of the bedrooms! And here’s the crunch, she wasn’t causing the damage because she was confined to a wheelchair. All the damage was being caused by her rotation of carers, who clearly sat down on chairs so hard that they collapsed and slammed doors so hard that they came off their hinges. And here’s the next crunch, they had no obligation to me as their contract was with the person they cared for.

So, I evicted a granny in a wheelchair.

The check out inventory showed damage that included needing to replace the mattress, the carpet and the kitchen sink. What? They’d broken a pendant light fitting and of course, the three dining chairs. They also removed four pillows and an ironing board and for some unknown reason, put a passcode on the tv which now needs to be reset by the manufacturer at the cost of £179. AND didn’t use the shower for six months – my tenant was given a bed bath every day (hence the new mattress) – so the valve had seized and that too needs replacing.

We won’t go into the decorative order…

To date – so more than two months on – I have had no response from the barrister son. No acknowledgement of the the check out report – or the request for retention of the deposit – and bonus, a bill for non payment of the utilities bills (which I can luckily prove are not my responsibility.) Yesterday I found out that to raise a dispute on the deposit I have less than one month to apply. The estate agents have contacted him on my behalf and get a very charming response about how busy he is. Clearly the legally binding tenancy agreement isn’t worth the paper its written on when you’re a barrister.

Clearly he is swatting at me as if I’m a fly.

Clearly I am taking advice from a solicitor.

And clearly this guy can fly off.

I will report back.

Inside van Gogh’s House

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to spend time in a room that was once inhabited by a famous artist? I’m not talking about a museum or a stately home, but about a private family home not normally open to the public. How atmospheric would it be? Would you feel the presence of that past inhabitant?

Vincent van Gogh aged around eighteen

Ramsgate was home to Vincent van Gogh in 1876, he was twenty-three and taught at a boys school located in Spencer Square. He, another master and four boys boarded at a house further round the square and it is his room, in this house that I was given the opportunity to style.

Vincent was a prolific letter writer – the letters were published some years ago – so the homeowner could pinpoint very easily from his own words which room had been his and I had a hunch that if we opened the room as a fundraiser and part of a wider event celebrating van Gogh being held in the square, people would be interested enough to want to see it.

The homeowner was really enthusiastic about bringing Vincent’s room to life and we spent quite a bit of time analysing his letters to decide what we needed to highlight and what we could downplay. As the room no longer has a fireplace and has modern fitted carpet, there were certain aspects of the bedroom that were definitely not true to period, so we had to work with those and create something that would enable people to see past the current family use and back to a time when the property was a boarding house for a boys school. There would have been no electricity, possibly gas lighting and possibly running water to the scullery in the lower ground floor. Each room would have been heated by a wood/coal fire. Other than the views described by Vincent in his letters from his window “looking over the rooftops,” that would have been it for creature comforts. His bed would probably have been narrow and the mattress thin. As he was a young man when he resided here, perhaps this didn’t matter and was just part of the experience. We know from his letters that, “these are happy times, these days in Ramsgate,” it’s nice to think that for someone so troubled by mental illness in his later life, for this time at least, he enjoyed where he was and what he was doing.

This is the first time this house has been open to the public and as I spent time quietly in Vincent’s old room, dusting picture frames and polishing glass, I felt a real sense of sadness that this great artist is remembered more for his turbulent life and ‘cutting off his ear,’ than for the relationships he had with those he held dear – and for the skill and knowledge he had of his medium.

Being in this room, Vincent’s personal space when he was just starting out; there are only two pen and wash drawings from his time in Ramsgate, made me feel that we’re doing him a huge disservice. As we all become so much more aware of the invisible pain of mental illness, I think it’s important to remember that van Gogh, like all suffers, was more complex and diverse than just the fragility of his mental state. His use of colour and the landscape around him was joyful and intense, he created what he saw from the inside of it, it wasn’t just a casual observation. He wanted to express the way those things – colour and subject – made him feel. The body of work he left behind is not just the product of a troubled mind, but of an analytical, technically gifted paint experimentalist.

To call him and the other modernist, impressionist and post-impressionist painters artists doesn’t acknowledge the way they pushed their medium to its limits. Only a couple of decades earlier, painting was about faithful representation; the skill of the artist was in creating the accurate likeness of the subject. That changed in the mid nineteenth century when artists wanted to express what they thought about the subject matter by making the texture of the paint part of the visual honesty of the painting. It was challenging to the viewer and it wasn’t immediately popular – but it opened people’s minds to the idea that paint is a component of art; it is not invisible and the way it is manipulated is a skill that should be celebrated in its own right.

Van Gogh more than celebrated his paint, he revelled in it. We can feel in his work the heat of the sun, the sparseness of the bedroom, the shade from the brim of his hat. It is this translation of feeling to canvas, the directional movement of his brushstrokes and the quality of his paint colour that makes his work universally recognisable and for that courage of purpose, we should remember him.

Making Money From Your Home

When I moved to Ramsgate last summer I knew I would end up with a different type of client base; Ramsgate is a coastal harbour town and it has a lively tourist trade. My current local clients are involved with tourism and have holiday lets as part of their business. One of the clients has a large rental property (which sleeps nine in the main house and four in the attached flat) listed on AirBnB and was really frustrated with the poor engagement he was getting from the listing, so I offered to review this for him.

AirBnB is something of a buzz word at the moment and seems to be a bit like marmite – you either love it or you hate it. As both a host and a guest, AirBnb works best if you consider it as a community that you contribute to and work at to uphold the values that are clearly stated in their terms and conditions. It’s about creating a home from home and welcoming guests to an area that you know well. It’s also about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and making sure that your property lives up to expectations because the photographs on the listing are the reason that guests decide to part with their cash. You have about 2.5 seconds before they scroll through to the next listing to convince them that this is the place they want to stay.

To give my client a good idea of the way AirBnB could work for him I analysed the listing and then I did the same thing to the house. Prior to the review I found that the pictures were dark and not descriptive of the rooms. The order of the images was jumbled and confusing. The lead picture was the view, so not of the house at all and the text didn’t offer any ideas to the type of guests that the property was suitable for, so in checklist form:

1 Define your Market In an area where there are many other short term let properties available, it’s vital to know what kind of guests your listing will attract. With big properties (anything with more than four double bedrooms and several ensuite bathrooms would fall into this category) you are likely to attract families – either extended multi-generation or friends away with their children. Groups of friends are also likely to look for larger properties for special weekends away. If there are several receptions rooms as well, then it’s safe to say that you can accommodate the needs of varied age groups.

2 Assess your Competition Scroll through the AirBnB listings for your local area and find out how many other properties there are that can accommodate the same number of guests as your house. Look at the pictures they feature on their listing, do they make you want to stay there? Read some of the reviews and decide if you can deliver comparable – or better – guest accommodation.

3 Review your Property Now that you have a feel for the type of guest your property is likely to attract and what other hosts locally have to offer, you need to do the hard work and decide if your property is up to scratch. It’s really important to be honest with yourself, would you want to stay there? Because if you don’t like what you see, why would a guest? It might be that a simple rearrangement of furniture makes the space more functional. You may need to freshen up some paintwork and remove some of your ornaments or photographs. The property needs character but not to be so personal that a guest might feel as if they’re intruding. This is a balancing act but it’s important to remember that it’s the photographs that will bring your guests to you, so appearance is everything!

4 Photographs You don’t need a professional to take your pictures – and an iPhone does do a pretty good job – but you do need a good eye for composition. It’s as simple as that. If you can’t see that the curtains aren’t hanging straight and that the bedlinen is crumpled or worse, dirty, then you need help because the images on your listing need to be aspirational. They need to suggest to your guests that they can linger over a meal or sit in front of the window and admire the view. They need to show comfort and function. This is the only chance you have to sell what makes your listing unique in your area.

5 Price Again you need to be honest with yourself. Is this listing a second income or is it just paying for the maintenance of the property? Do you want as many guests as possible or are you just thinking of hosting at times that are convenient to you or to bolster the local visitor economy? Being an AirBnB host is labour intensive, you work HARD on change over days (my flat in London is listed when I am between tenancies) and there are lots of email conversations with upcoming guests. If you want to make the best possible income from the property, then price it lower. Seriously. Your competition is not only AirBnB and holiday lettings but the local hotels; if they have a room rate that is lower than your imagined price per guest (ie a double room is £89 and you want to charge £50 per guest,) they will get the booking first and you will pick up the ‘no other options’ visitors – which means you have no idea until the week (or sometimes two days) before they arrive that you are going to be running around like a mad person.

6 Personal Contact Taking the time to meet your guests, introduce them to the property and to give them a bit of local knowledge is one of the main attractions of staying in an AirBnB property. It really adds to the excitement of a trip away and it’s this that always features in the reviews guests write. Their words do as much to sell your property as the photos do. If you don’t want to have that level of involvement with your guests, AirBnB might not be for you.

It pays to consider what you want the property to do for you. AirBnB really generates interest in a local area but you have to monitor the way your listing behaves and to make a business of it, you need to respond to the information you are given. The bottom line is that you get out what you put in – guests notice the effort you make and will certainly be critical if they feel something could be better. You must also make sure that AirBnB in your local area isn’t subject to restrictions. Some cities (London, for example) have a limit on the number of nights per year or the number of listings in an area, so it is possible that AirBnB might not be able to offer you the right type of listing platform for your goals; analysing the market you intend to host in is very important.

My clients ‘new’ listing has now been live for eight weeks. In that time he’s had an 80% increase in views per week; it’s generated twelve enquiries, eight of which have gone on to book the house for their holiday. Sometimes a fresh set of eyes makes all the difference.

The Make-Do Kitchen Makeover

As you know getting refurbishments done in a house that you live in takes time. And in my case with having to re-wire the house as part of that process, there is an order to the schedule that I can’t do much about. The kitchen, which is the last piece in the puzzle – and a space that annoys me intensely – is all about being patient. Which of course just adds to my annoyance!

So to refresh your memories, the kitchen is a melange of textured fake plaster on the walls, fake terracotta tiles on the floor, pale blue mosaic splash back, (which has the potential to be nice but because they’ve been really badly fitted, just isn’t) maple effect shaker style cabinets and fake black granite work surfaces. It’s a dated and challenging space because there is very little natural light, no heating and things are just falling apart a bit. Funnily enough this kitchen is the same one as I have at the flat in London – there, I ripped out the work surface, the flooring, the splash back and repainted the cabinets, which just goes to show you how quickly things age (it was only fitted ten years ago.)

This kitchen is in marginally better nick but it needs to last until I redo this area – which is the major part of the refurbs because it involves realigning floor levels, flattening the poxy little porch, excavating the ground to the rear to create the foundations and extending across the whole of the rear elevation to create a studio space for me to work in that will give a better connection to the garden and double as a spare bedroom. It will bring in more light and give the house a much more flexible lower ground floor. When we’re all at home we often have visitors and it’s the living space that gets hammered. Reconfiguring the kitchen/dining area will also create a space for an additional relaxation area. At the moment there is nowhere to play music (and as my son owns seven guitars, two synthesisers, a mandolin, a zither, a ukulele and a zazz (not sure of the spelling!) the lower ground floor would really be fantastic for that. But that is down the road a bit, not least because I’m studying right now.

The first part of the process was the messiest and I still have a bit more to do – stripping off the horrid textured fake plaster, you can see it above on the opening around the cooker… In some areas it was just a wallpaper but in others it was a plaster effect, so the stripping was pretty slow going, but oh my, the walls look so much better without their rough texture.

There was a lot of filling and sanding to do afterwards, which is really worth taking the time over because a smooth, flat wall updates a space so much. I have the contrast right now of walls that are smooth in the kitchen and walls that are still textured in the dining area and it is incredible to see how much more considered and calm the smooth walls look in comparison to the textured. They also bounce light around now which is much needed in this space.

It would be easy to assume that the texture would reflect light, especially because it is coated in a shiny paint finish, but it does the reverse. It draws attention to each ridge of plaster so the affect is one of shadow and imperfection – not of a surface that acts as a reflector. The walls have been painted Slaked Lime Mid, by Little Greene which is a soft dove grey. It’s a warm but fresh off white and in any other space I’d probably love it. In my wretched kitchen the lighting plays a big part. Grrr.

Next up was painting the cabinets and I went all around the houses with what colour I was going to go for. To unify the splash back with the rest of the scheme I initially thought I would go for a pale grey-blue. But then the floor would still be a complete contrast – and I did not want to draw attention to that! So I opted for a grey-white.

I also experimented with how I prepped the surfaces.

Rubbing alcohol! Who knew!

So easy, it removes all the airborne cooking grease immediately, no hard rubbing and no horrid fumes. This is the same stuff as used for massage and clinical tests (to clean the skin) so as I had some in the cupboard, I thought I’d give it a try. It worked a treat, what a revelation!

And I also experimented with spraying the unit doors and would say that you really need to put time into getting the consistency of the paint right. My mix was too thin. It went on beautifully and then slid straight off! The finish would have been lovely but in the end I opted for brush painting because I didn’t want to waste paint in experimenting with how much I needed to dilute it by.

It’s not been the quickest of jobs and to all my friends who have seen the kitchen without drawer frontals and in its two toned state, thanks for bearing with me, but I have to say it’s transformed the look of the room.

It’s certainly lifted the space and created a much lighter room, but with the very harsh lighting I have in the kitchen, the cabinets, painted in a colour that I usually love, (Strong White by Farrow and Ball) look flat and a bit clinical. Obviously when the end wall is finished this will give a different look to the overall room, but the two colours which on paper swatches (big A4 sized swatches) looked great together, don’t quite hold hands the way I thought they would. On the cabinets I used the acrylic eggshell finish and found it really nice to work with. It is a water soluble paint which actually has an oil base; the oil is water dispersible like bath oils, which makes it a little bit more robust. I’m hoping in a kitchen this will last the distance.

All I need to do now is get rid of that horrid fake crystal drop pendant fitting and update the light bulbs in a bid to make this space go the distance. Other wise I’ll end up repainting the walls and the cabinets in a never ending quest to find colours that work in the room when it’s the space that’s the problem and I just have to be patient until I can change it!

A Quick Cloakroom Update

The bathrooms and cloakrooms in this house clearly never got the love they should have done. Another small area that I haven’t photographed is the lower ground floor cloakroom. It didn’t even have a sink! I was shown the ‘room’ when I viewed the property but it was used for storage, so the fact that there was no sink wasn’t obvious until I got the keys. I assumed they’d taken it with them, bizarre – but if people can take light fittings and fridges, why not sinks? When my solicitor asked them to provide a replacement, they said that it had always been like that! So, no pictures of that room and for several months it has been the receptacle of step ladders and paint tins, but no more!

I bought a wall hung vanity and hand basin online and a tap to go with them for the princely sum of £93 and yesterday it was connected up! I wonder how long it’s been since that room was plumbed? If it’s never had a sink, then this means it’s the first time it’s actually been a proper cloakroom. In a house that is 152 years old (or thereabouts) it’s quite funny to think this is a first! I’m chuffed.

As with my ensuite this is essentially a temporary measure – but this will be in place for much longer as I won’t be doing the lower ground extension for another couple of years. It will be a complete reconfiguration involving both the kitchen and my studio, so I’m not able to take that on yet. I don’t have the funds right now and I’m also studying so my workspace is doing a double duty.
Because I do spend a lot of time at my desk, I want to enjoy being in the space – even if it’s a short term fix – so the walls in the kitchen and dining area are being stripped and this cloakroom update is a part of that process – getting things the way I want for right now.

Let’s be honest, I did not want to spend any money on it at all! But I didn’t have a mirror I could move from somewhere else in the house and with no sink or tap, there were things that had to be considered, so the online research was all about size, cost and style – the least offensive, the best price and the right size for a room that is 610mm x 1650mm. The lighting is harsh and as it is off the utility area, it isn’t what you’d call welcoming, but it is close to the kitchen and my desk – and the closest WC to the garden – so I wanted it to be functional. Another thing, because the pipework was capped off with gaffer tape, there were a few nasty niffs from that area which I didn’t care for! So, spending even a tiny amount to get rid of stench had to be considered a good thing.

The paint colours went through several incarnations. I had some pink that I’d bought for a different property and then *chickened out* decided not to use, so that was first put on the walls, I mean I had 2.5 litres. But, I didn’t like it here either, I think this colour just needs more natural light and both areas I’d tried to use it were lacking in that. Then in the process of finding a vanity I found one that was supposed to be black (of course it isn’t, it’s a dark wenge effect) so decided to embrace the idea of high contrast and realised I had, as always, several dozen tester posts in various off whites and earth tones. The tongue and grove paneling became an off black and the wenge effect vanity and oak mirror add a little warmth to the deep tone. I got out the spirit level and measured a random grid on the walls and then just brushed each patch on in a different colour. The lines aren’t completely straight but nothing in this house is, so I decided to embrace that too.

What I’ve ended up with is a cloakroom with character, that I managed to pull together for about £150. It won’t look anything like this when the reconfiguration is done, but spending a small amount to make a space functional over the next two years or so, is money that has improved an area that wasn’t usable before. I could have ignored it completely but the idea of nasty smells just wafting out from time to time didn’t thrill me either. On balance it’s one small improvement that actually pleases me a lot.

Temporary Measures

Some of you may have noticed that I’ve never shown pictures of the bathroom or ensuite. There is a good reason for that, they’re both hideous. And this isn’t just a matter of taste, it’s much more to do with the fact that whoever did the work in the first place was quite happy to go for the cheapest method possible, so the ensuite is carved out of the bathroom – which would have been a really rather lovely bedroom at some point in the building’s history. But now that all the pipework is in that part of the house, there’s really no point in me relocating the bathroom anywhere else, so I am left with two rooms that are ugly and vulnerable – both have issues with leaks because the work has been done so poorly – (which doesn’t show in a building survey because a new mastic run makes it look like it’s in good repair) until such a time as the builder can put me on his schedule. It looks like February… but holding my breath would be a mistake…

The textured plaster effect is actually wallpaper, so it’s coming away at the joins of the strips and in the corners. It doesn’t matter what anyone tells you, the high steam levels in a bathroom will make wallpaper come away from the walls. I mean, my old friend the wallpaper steamer uses exactly that method to encourage wallpaper to part company with the wall, so even modern ready-mixed wallpaper paste will eventually succumb to the invasive nature of steam. See what I mean about the cheapest method of updating? This was done so they didn’t have to do a skim of plaster to the walls. You’ve probably guessed by now that I won’t be keeping this wallpaper…

I won’t be keeping that bathroom suite either. The loo cistern has a big crack across the top and the hand basin is too deep for the plans I’ve drawn up for the new ensuite (hoorah.) And now you can see the full extend of the mosaic tiles. They are the cause of the leaks in this shower. Whoever did the tiling has stretched the mesh backing to the mosaics, which come in squares of about 300mm. The adhesive can’t grip onto something that is stretched because the tension of the mesh won’t bond and this has made the grout lines crack…

Don’t get me wrong, I like mosaics. I love the Mediterranean but loving the Med is no excuse for slapping every wall with textured effects because guess what? All it really is is a cover up for laziness. Beware. Mosaic tiles are tricky to install, if the grout lines aren’t straight, this is how you can tell that the adhesive bond is likely to be substandard and there will be issues where water penetration is concerned. You will also have quite a job to make good walls that have been covered by this type of textured wallpaper – it is used as a disguise. In this case though, I knew I would be changing the bathrooms as soon as I could, so I took that on board…

To get me to that point I decided that as shiny paint is my pet hate, (and even worse, shiny Magnolia paint) it had to go. So enter the ‘what colour will make fake Mediterranean mosaic tiles look less fake?’ dilemma. I considered greens and browns that would tone with those in the tiles and then came unstuck because my bedroom is blues and greys. I considered various blues and found that they changed colour in the lighting so much that I really didn’t like them in situ. I really don’t like yellows… not that keen on terracotta in this space either… Step forward good old navy blue, or Stiffkey Blue by Farrow and Ball to be precise.

And then I had the ‘exciting’ idea of painting the tiles in a metallic paint to disguise them. Disguising the disguise, hmmm, good thing this is temporary. I settled on a bronze colour and then went off to get my preparation layers. The tiles need to be primed.

I looked at various options and felt my brain glazing over. This is temporary, how much prep did I really want to do? In a nutshell, the shiny surface of tiles requires preparation for paint to adhere successfully. There are different formulations, either oil based or water based will work, but in a bathroom I was best off using an oil based primer. Most primers are coloured and generally have to be brushed on. I didn’t want brush marks, so I selected a spray primer that was colourless and just about asphyxiated myself applying it. Blimey o’riley, I had to go off and have a little sit down.

Then I cut a sponge into a square much the same size as the tiles and started by sponging the bronze onto the mirror frame. The grout lines on this were so wide that I did get quite a bit of paint on the grout, oh boo! Repairs were done with an off white eggshell paint, so again I was disguising the disguise, something that I wasn’t all that happy with.

Initially I was thinking I would paint the tiles in the shower enclosure as well, but having done the frame and splash backs, I’m not so sure now. And this area is constantly wet, so I really don’t know how long the paint will adhere. I think I’ll live with it a few weeks and see what I think. Right now, I’m mildly pleased with the results, not sure if that’s quite enough to want to do more.

The moral of the story is when someone tells you not to bother painting the tiles because you won’t like the effect – and if that someone is a professional decorator who knows you well – they’re probably right!

A word on paint coverage: the decorators I’ve worked with over the years have often mentioned that they don’t like working with Farrow and Ball paints because they’re a thin consistency. What that means is you can build up layers which is fine if you want a chalky finish, but not fine if you need to touch up the paintwork or if you’re painting over a dramatically different colour. To get around that it is very common for decorators to get colours mixed into trade paint bases – because they know the performance will be better and more reliable. Having moved recently I don’t have a decorators merchants around the corner the way I used to so on this occasion I did buy the Farrow and Ball paint from the shelf. And guess what, it is thin and it doesn’t cover well. Going from magnolia to dark blue was three coats. No wonder decorators don’t like it, when time equals money having to do three coats is another half day or more on the same job. Sorry Farrow and Ball, much as I love the colour, I was disappointed with the coverage.

A Small Room Reveal

On the top floor of my house there are three bedrooms; the two belonging to the children and a tiny single room that I thought they could use as a study – the room with the mango custard floor. It was relined at the same time as the children’s rooms were redecorated and rewired, so technically it is finished.

lined and rewired

preparing the walls

Except that I couldn’t decide how I wanted to decorate it. Other than painting the walls an off white, I hand’t given it much thought! Except for getting rid of the mango custard floor, of course. You will have heard designers say this before “it’s really hard being the client,” there’s so much choice and I can be decisive for my clients in a way that I can’t be for myself. So the decision making process has been slow for this little room. That and the fact that I didn’t really want to spend any real money on it. Then we had a string of guests and needed an extra bed, so a sofa chair was purchased to be housed in the little room. The desk that had been in my daughters room at the previous house also needed a home, so that too is in the little room. Then we needed some shelving (thank heavens for the summer sales) and all of a sudden this little space was getting dangerously close to becoming the unwanted objects corner.

A decision had to be made because the more stuff going in there meant the less space to manoeuvre when the decorating was finally planned. So while the children were on holiday I moved everything out into their bedrooms and got cracking.

My guilty pleasure over the summer of house moving and unpacking has been a programme called ‘Escape to the Chateau.’ Oh how I love Angel’s decorative style – and it got me thinking, I’d thought of doing something very similar to one of her schemes, but had never had the right space to do it in…

Enter the box of wallpaper samples.

Over the years I’ve amassed hundreds of wallpaper samples for clients and the rejected ones all ended up back in my studio. In the moving process I had gotten rid of quite a few samples that I knew I would never use (dated, not to my taste and probably discontinued by now anyway) but none-the-less there was a sizeable collection of many different colours and patterns. I started sifting through and found that I could gather a collection of blue/grey samples that was a good start to a feature wall. I calculated that the wall was twelve samples wide and seven samples high, but here’s the annoying thing, they’re not all the same size, even a standard A4 varies from one supplier to another. Was I going to cut each one so it was exact? Groan.

As I pondered this I realised that the walls weren’t in any way regular; neither the ceiling nor the floor were level, so I decided I would just go with it… and cover up any messy joins if I needed to.

The tools I used were a cutting mat and Stanley knife, wallpaper paste and a brush, a damp sponge and a printing roller to smooth out any air bubbles. I also used a spirit level to set my plumb line and I did this one column into the wall. I decided not to start in the middle because of the varying sizes of the samples and felt that there was enough going on for it not to look anything other than a part of the design to have a narrower column at the window end. This will also be covered by a curtain in time, so I really didn’t focus on that the way a professional decorator would have done.

I pasted each sample individually and worked two at a time so that one was softening while the other was being put up. The paste allows for quite a bit of repositioning and straightening, so any real unevenness could be moved gently. I then sponged each piece to get it smooth and rollered from the centre out to remove air bubbles. There were some joins that were really off which I could do nothing about, so I cut out flowers from other scraps I had kept and used those to cover the gaps.

It’s a very bold wall. But now this tiny room has an identity and is the patchwork room, it’s a bit of a time capsule too because papers that we’ve used in other homes are also on this wall and various childhood books and some toys have also found their way in there. The colours have been the unifying link and that’s fun as well, because I’ve popped in to find that the children have added a few things to the space. The curtain will finish it in the same faded blues and greys – but I have to get out the sewing machine yet!

What Colour is Grey, Really?

When I was stripping wallpaper back in May, I discovered that the plaster walls in the master bedroom were pretty well intact, I really loved the subtle grey-toned colour and the wallpaper was very willing to come off and be disposed of. Just as well, because it was ‘not to my taste’!! One thing I did find though was that there had been an alteration made to the rear wall at some point. A door had been put in and then taken out – and made good rather badly. So I had this scarred surface very clearly visible in my bedroom and it was even more obvious after the decorators had sanded it back and filled the worst of it.

In the back of my mind I was thinking I could play around with some paint and see if I could disguise it at all.

Because the rewiring still has to be done in that part of the house, I didn’t want to go as far as getting the room fully redecorated. And because of that, I’m reconciled to the idea that I may not be able to keep the plaster walls, it’ll depend on how much making good needs to be done after the re-wiring happens. So this idea of disguising the worst of the imperfections has been simmering away and I woke up on Saturday deciding that today was the day…

First things first these walls look grey, don’t they? I thought I’d analysed the colour quite carefully, I could definitely see tiny particles of red oxide and burnt umber, but the overall impression was grey. A stone grey, so earthy toned, but a grey none-the-less. They so aren’t!! My grey whites – and I have so many tester pots I thought this’d be the easy part – were all way too sooty, or blue/green. So I added a grey-pink, too purple. Then I got out the colour charts and did a proper assessment and the overwhelming result was that the walls are almost apricot in tone! I was totally off beam with this… Suddenly you understand how tiny particles of seemingly unrelated colour contribute to the shade one can see – and grey is the most deceptive of all!.

A quick trip to the decorators merchants and I had a supply of colours delighting in the names of Clay, Portland Stone, Roman Plaster, Julie’s Dreams and Hollyhock. (

I started with the mid tones of Portland Stone – a grubby, sludge beige and Clay an ochre, yellow beige. These were my base. I cut a bath sponge into pieces about 3cm square and I sponged the colours on and mottled them together. Them I did the same with Julie’s Dreams, but leaving areas where it was much lighter in tone so that the effect was more open and then stippled in the Roman Plaster – a red oxide, to add depth and help it blend with the walls. Over this I stippled Hollyhock, a soft white.

I really had to work at this. If an area was too uniformly one colour, it looked flat and not at all like the walls surrounding it, if I overdid the blending it looked cloud-like.

In the end the layering of colour was totally random and it’s really just a happy accident that it looks the way it does! What I did discover when I repaired some other areas where there were patches of plaster (the chimney breast wall, which is now partially obscured by my wardrobe and some repairs around the door frame) is that I had made it much more difficult for myself with having used the grey paints before I assessed what colours I actually needed!

The pink plaster was much easier to disguise than the grey paint I had already used. Hmmm. So the paint effect on the exposed pink plaster was much quicker to achieve and looks much closer to the surrounding walls. When the wardrobe is pulled out at some stage I will do all of the area where the fireplace was removed and hopefully remember this!!

What I have now decided is that if the bedroom does have to be re-plastered in areas after the re-wiring is done, I don’t have to necessarily get rid of my plaster walls. I’m happy enough with my paint patching that I could do this again if required. Best buy more paint then…

Stripping Wallpaper

I bought a wallpaper steamer. I bought scrapers and rubble bags and dust sheets. I naively assumed the wallpaper would just leap off the wall. Ha! Not likely. The shiny paint when it gets hot from the steam is like stringy cheese, or mutant’s slime depending on the colour of paint.

It stretched out, clinging to that sodding wall as if it was being ripped from its mothers arms. And then underneath all this was the wood chip paper that as my daughter said, ‘looks like the old fashioned B&B’s we’ve stayed in on the Isle of Man’ (harsh – but fair) which also had no interest in leaving the wall – and then under that was the 70’s floral with a light foam surface – and then plasterboard. Not sealed, just straight onto the plasterboard. So, impossible to remove with out damaging. Waaaww. It was such hot work that I couldn’t actually see out of my glasses, they kept steaming up! And them the steamer would overheat. Below is about two days work – my fingernails were more effective than the scraper! I gave up.

Oh my god, now I understand why decorators charge what they do.

A few days later when the wardrobes were being removed – yes, they are all gone, *do a little dance* – I discovered that underneath the wallpaper in my room (a very interesting collection of 80’s textured plaster effect in orange and a floral sprig with a blue background – and the lovely feature wall of chocolate and silver blooms) was grey lime plaster. Isn’t it sad when something as mundane as grey plaster is exciting? I got excited. I started pulling off that paper and it just fell into my arms. It was meant to be.

I got the steamer out again but discovered that a wet sponge and patience was actually more effective – and much less hot! I developed a technique: slide the scraper under the top layer of paper, removing the shiny paint, strip that off, wet the area exposed. Move to another spot and do the same thing, go back the first place and wet the area down again then, attack! Lo and behold it came off cleanly and easily! I am now completely hooked. A friend of mine said he loved stripping wallpaper, which I thought was a bonkers thing to say. Who could ever love something like this? But oh my, when you get good results, it’s fantastic!

And exposing that plaster has completely changed how I’m planning on decorating my bedroom. I’m going to keep the plaster exposed. All it needs is filling, patching, sanding and sealing. Hello, rough luxe! Alright, you might just have to bear with me on this.

And, you will have noticed that there is a big patch of pink plaster where the fireplace was taken out, so there is a bit a remedial painting to do.

I actually do have decorators on site at the moment. They’re doing the top rooms – including the study (which has more wood chip paper covered with shiny paint) and a beeoootiful mango-custard coloured floor! My word, were these people colour blind?? Who ever would look at the colour and say ‘it’s perfect’? but, again that has changed the way I’m going to decorate that room. I’ll paint the floor and put one of the rugs I currently have up there.

So, already I’m making changes that respond directly to what the house is giving up.

And here is the first bedroom – of the wood chip over 70’s floral foam topped paper – lined and ready for decorating.

The front bedroom is ready too, so the decorators will finish these two rooms this week and then I’ll get the electrician back to do the second fix.

This is the point that you realise it is worth spending the money on getting someone to do the lining for you (and in this case the stripping too.) Would I have persevered if I’d been living in the house already? Given that this was my first experience of stripping wallpaper in a house that has only had surface decorating done in the last (at least) 20 years, probably not. I was too worried about damaging the plasterboard and thus making the whole thing much more difficult to sort out. It’s taken three decorators three days to do this – (8am-4pm.) I imagine that it would have taken me a week to do each room and I can’t hang wallpaper, so I’d still have had to get someone in to do it. The mess is quite fantastic, currently we’ve removed about ten rubble bags of paper waste from these three rooms alone. I’ve also cleared four from my room, so if I’d been living in the house, this level of refurbishment would have been very invasive. Obviously if you move into a property as soon as your purchase completes, this is something you have no choice about, but these are the kinds of things that sour a house move pretty quickly and it really pays to consider what level of refurbishment you think you can cope with. This is just re-decorating and it’s been hard work. If you hate disruption, maybe a house that needs work done to it isn’t for you.

Next, I need to contact the carpet fitter…

Let’s Start at the Top

After I got the keys, the first couple of visits to the house in Ramsgate were about taking lots of measurements and coming to grips with the fact that it wasn’t quite as I remembered it at the rear of the house…

While I was waiting for the purchase to complete I planned all kinds of projects that would turn the house into a gem. I really love stripped plaster and exposed brick, I’d want some of those. I love painted floors, I’d want some of those. I love bold wallpapers and I have a thing for vintage lighting, I’d want some of those too – and I got excited about having all my things out of storage again; my big dining table and church chairs, my chandeliers and armoire, a wicker sofa and gardening tools. Oh, I had a lovely time spending money that wasn’t going to stretch quite far enough to do everything on the list… So the reality of that first visit shattered a few of my lovely dreams.

This is the breakfast room (and will be my studio) and immediately to the right is the kitchen, the weak spot of the entire building – it’s dark and has no connection to the garden – but I’m not all that bothered because the first time I saw the place I knew that I would want to do a kitchen extension to improve this. I had thought that as a temporary measure I could slightly reconfigure, move the sink and put in french doors, but I hadn’t even spotted that the ground and floor levels don’t line up. That’s what happens when you view a house in the dead of winter and it’s too cold to spend any real time outside poking into the positions of windows.

Inside, the kitchen window is 900mm above the floor, outside the kitchen window is 400mm above the ground. Naturally this is causing issues with damp – which would obviously be solved by doing the extension – but there will be a lot of soil to move and groundworks are expensive; this is not something that can be done as a temporary measure.

Now you can see my dilemma. This area at the rear of the kitchen is really unlovely – and when I first viewed that didn’t concern me at all – but if you’d asked me a few weeks later what the rear of the house looked like, I’d have said it was the original brick. Clearly it’s not, but I didn’t even notice – and I’m used to looking at buildings with a critical eye. And what about that garden gnome?? Is he a keeper?? They left so much junk behind.

So, how best to spend the money that I do have right now? I’ve decided I’m starting at the top and working my way down. With both children abroad from October I realised that if they moved to a house that had had nothing done to it, they’d go away and not even know what their bedrooms looked like. That pulled me up quickly, they wouldn’t even know what they were coming home to – because the rooms are not staying as they are now.

The children’s bedrooms are at the top of the house, they’ll have their own study (the fourth bedroom) which will have a daybed for friends to use when they stay over. All of these rooms came to us with fitted wardrobes that I was just never going to keep, never ever! So, they have been dismantled and will be discarded. I tried listing them online for sale – no takers. I tried offering them to a charity, they didn’t want them either. Take note, if you are buying flat pack furniture, no-one will want them when you no longer want them. There is no resale value and you will have to pay to get them removed. Yay, me. Yes, I could pay the council to remove them, but I’m not able to get them out of the house on the prescribed day by myself, so this is not an option either.

Next will be the bathrooms and my bedroom. The bathrooms are a total reconfigure as they’ve carved up the rear bedroom on the first floor to create an ensuite and family bathroom. The line to the far left of the shot is the wall they’ve added to create the ensuite, the bathroom is L-shaped. It’s badly thought out and awkward, so this will be an invasive process but not completely mad as the pipework is all in place. What they haven’t done is put in an extractor fan in the family bathroom. This is now a regulation for any bathroom refurb, so there will be re-wiring to do and in the course of this whole process each floor will be re-wired and linked when we get to the bottom of the house and do the kitchen extension.

Just in case you’re now thinking I’m completely crazed and have taken on a wreck, there are plenty of areas in the house that are simply decorative updates. I’m not keen on shiny paint on walls, but the stairs, landings, front room and my bedroom only need a refresh and I will likely tackle them myself. I have light fittings for all of them already and with those small changes this house will take on a new identity.

In fact, I’ve already started… in my room. More on that another time.