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. (https://www.littlegreene.com)

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.

Finding my Home

I made the decision a few years back that when the children finished school I was going to head to the coast. I wasn’t going to pine for the days when my children were small and school was the focus, no if they could be off having adventures, then so could I!

But then I got stuck, which part of the actual coastline did I mean? I’d looked at properties in Rye and if you’ve followed the blog for a while you’ll know I came very close to buying there. In the last year the property market down in that part of East Sussex has really stalled and I got nervous first that there was very little I liked (and I would be settling for whatever I could get) and second that I would find it hard to sell on when I was ready to move. And what if I didn’t actually like living there? Then what?

So I started looking in Suffolk; I have family there, but property was moving so fast in that area that I never even got to view any of the properties I earmarked. And then I thought about Essex because I also have friends there – but my heart wasn’t really in that search and then someone suggested Kent, by which point my search area was so diverse that I couldn’t compare the specific properties objectively. Confused of Dulwich, please step up!

The only way forward was a very pragmatic process of defining what criteria I wanted for my new home. It had to be in a town – not a village – with beach access walking distance from the house. It had to have good transport links to London; nowhere further than 60-90 minutes from the centre of town. It had to have three or more bedrooms, it had to be spacious enough in the communal areas that I could have guests regularly so that the teenagers could arrive with a crowd and not cause a problem. It had to have outdoor space for the dog and I wanted it to be pretty. It had to have reasonable street parking and be walking distance to the train station. It had to be sound – no complete wrecks, I just didn’t have the budget for that – and in good enough decorative order that I could move in without doing works immediately. (This last one was flexible but what I really didn’t want was a property that needed to be modernised; they’re as costly as wrecks.)

Then I started to refine what that might mean for locations and Rye, my old favourite was right on the boundary distance wise. Suffolk was completely out because the coast is on a branch line from Ipswich and the areas I liked were driving distance from train stations. The Essex coast is the same. Brighton of course, is the most obvious choice because it’s only an hour by train, but I’ve never been that interested in living in Brighton, it’s a bit too hen and stag nights for me. So that was when Kent raised its head and lo and behold the high speed links to France travel right through Kent (Rye is accessed by the same line,) which suddenly made this part of the world more accessible and late last year I went on a recce to Ramsgate.

And what did I find?? A very nice little town, a bit scruffy but with a handful of lovely restaurants, cafes and shops, a Royal harbour that was the departure point of the Little Ships operation to Dunkirk in WWII, sandy beaches hugging the cliff face on which the town is built, very lovely housing stock and lots and lots of building work going on. Hmmm, for an interior designer that was interesting…

Then I looked on internet property listings and found that the prices in Ramsgate were within my budget – and there were some pretty houses for sale. I went down to stay for a weekend.

I had a really nice time.

I went back and viewed two houses. I had an offer accepted on the one I fell for and was so excited! But then it transpired that there were no consents for building works and the house was listed. It’s a criminal offence to alter a listed building without consent… So after a few weeks of watching the situation unravel and having to consider the possibility of being fined because of the sellers negligence, I pulled out.

So the search began again and this time, it all went through. I’m now the proud owner of a four bedroom house in Ramsgate with a big garden and – bonus – it’s not a listed building! Naturally I want to do work to it and as we’re not moving down for another six weeks I’m hoping to get a couple of rooms redecorated before the removal vans pull up outside.

Glass – The Great Divider

Ask anyone about what they think of glass used as a material or finish and you will get very divided opinions – traditionalists consider it too modern; modernists too minimal and up-cyclers too clean. It’s never going to tick every box but I think we can agree that one thing glass does fantastically is let light in. Earlier in the year I mentioned clients who I had ‘talked into’ putting a wall back in their downstairs living space, which had been carved up by an architect some 17 years ago and was now not meeting the family needs.

I persuaded them that a glass wall would allow the space to have an element of privacy as well as maintaining a connection throughout – it would allow the space to function as three independent areas while still being linked visually by the wall itself. Happily they loved the idea and we reconfigured the entire downstairs – moving the kitchen to the rear and creating two reception areas to the middle and front which the glass wall would enclose. The tv snug is the central space which takes advantage of the lower light levels and it is this area that is formed by the glass wall – but it the front room into the bay window that has really been transformed. Previously the kitchen, this space is now a grown up and relaxed place to sit and read or chat. It’s taken back a sense of the grandeur of the architecture (very high ceilings) without any of the stuffiness that some Victorian buildings seem to possess.

What it’s also done is allow us to re introduce the stairs – which had been consigned to a ‘coal chute’ by the architect in favour of over sized doors. It was so interesting to see how they used the space before the wall went back in – the middle area was the dining room and the furniture was against the wall, the kitchen was to the front with the units against the walls. The space was incredibly limited in what it could do and the architect had only added to this; the ‘space’ was only used for movement. And here’s the thing, if a building is already tall emphasising this will make the rooms feel narrow; when people walk through a space like this they follow pathways – even if there isn’t one – they don’t venture into the space because the height is telling them that it’s not generous enough for them to walk wherever they want.

People don’t trust space that they don’t understand. Weird but true – I’ve put walls back in before because the space (another downstairs) had been opened up completely and no-one ever used the middle of the room (the junction point between the original rooms) – ever. Just putting back in the piers where the walls ended and creating an opening with a column effect gave the entire downstairs a sense of structure and all of a sudden the space became more relaxed; it felt like it could breathe again.

With putting the glass wall in, the rooms now get walked into and around because the furniture is arranged across the space and not just along the walls. This makes the space more visually interesting and also more flexible – there are now two seating areas as well as the kitchen-diner. Nothing feels cramped but there is definitely more furniture in the space than there was before.

The interesting thing for me as a designer is how this space will look in 10-15 years time. Might they feel then that a solid wall would be more practical? It’s possible – and because of the way it’s been constructed, they could certainly do that, if they wanted. But think about glass internal walls in office spaces or hotels. It’s that element of curiosity that makes them interesting, the fact that you can glimpse what is happening 5 or 10 metres away adds a drama to an otherwise blank canvas. And so it is here, because the wall is also a window it both contains and disappears. Best of all, with the lights on, the furniture glows and the space looks a bit like a jewel box – or a glass bauble. Your every day solid wall doesn’t do that. So I’m willing to bet that because the wall is glass, it’ll still be looking good.

From This – To This

After much hard work I can finally reveal the transformation that has undergone the flat I purchased in June. I’m thrilled – but it wasn’t without its stresses – I have learned many lessons as ‘the client!’

If anything progress was made more difficult by not having a buffer between client (me) and contractor. Reflecting on the process has given me a totally different understanding of my role as designer. I find it quite straightforward to be decisive for clients; for myself, not so much; the agony of not having quite finalised something and knowing that my indecision could potentially hold up the workforce. I never do that for a client!

When I viewed the flat and decided to buy it, it was a bland and ‘generic’ space; lots of cream and beige, very inoffensive (such a damning word!) What that really means is whoever did the initial design for the space sucked all of the individuality out of it and turned each flat in the block into an identikit replica. I genuinely believe that it is possible to create a space with personality without a high price tag, so this mass-produced look is one that feels like the designer has lost interest and isn’t actually invested in giving the end users an interior that a) looks good and b) functions well. All of the finishes were low cost – and after ten years looked a bit rough around the edges. It was light and spacious though and that was the element that sold it to me – as well as the location very close to the river and the sense of tranquility in an area that is quite heavily trafficked.

looking toward the front room

What I wanted for the flat was a look that had personality and warmth, I wanted to add more individuality and to create a space that related to a more design led aesthetic. I earmarked the ‘big ticket’ items (flooring, appliances, carpet and work surface) and decided to use finishes that would age well, I want to see if in ten years time the place still has a more considered feel to it. I don’t mind if the floor is a little scuffed and the carpet a little scruffy … in some spaces it is this lived in feel that adds to the success of the design. And this is my challenge to myself, how will the flat look when it’s been used for ten years?

So, what’s been the biggest lesson? A bespoke finish isn’t going to be quick, so I was unrealistic to think it would be achieved on a short refurb schedule.

I specced a herringbone wood floor – it took two weeks to fit. I specced hexagonal tiles for the bathroom – it took six days to tile two walls ( a space 1.70cm x 1.90cm!) Each straight edge (into the corners and trim) had to be cut, that was 200 cuts which took almost a full day. I specced black tap-ware for the bathroom and kitchen and due to changing specs I couldn’t get them without ordering from Italy and waiting for their summer hols to end, so no plumbing until the beginning of September. Needless to say the tap-ware isn’t black.

I got really frustrated with myself at having to have fall back options for the fall back options (the work surface is plan d!) and that meant the work force were critical of my choices – not that it was any of their business, but it dented my confidence – for a client they would never have questioned it. I discovered that the bedrooms were longer than the largest size of carpet (a 5 metre width) and so had to order nearly double the amount to finish them. I looked at ordering more wood herringbone but in terms of cost there was no saving and that would have added another ten days to the fitting dates (so additional labour costs) – the carpet went down in an hour and a half.

The most stressful part of the process was doing a job I don’t normally do and measuring the space for the tiles. Needless to say I miscalculated (in the teeny tiny bathroom) and ended up short – the handbasin wall short to be precise. I went back to the supplier to find that the whole shipment had gone to a developer and they weren’t getting more stock until September. ARGH. NO No no. The suppliers were amazing and tried to track down an alternative (which wasn’t quite the same colour white) and we had about a square metre to finish on one wall that would stand out like a sore thumb. I sent them a photo and effectively begged them to check the warehouse…THEN miraculously they found enough to finish our job just lurking somewhere in the back of their football stadium sized warehouse. What? The week before they had nothing left. How does that happen?? That was an awful week.

The thing I have learned from this as a designer is that it’s the build process that absorbs the lead times of the order schedule. We weren’t doing any building works, so there was no buffer between ordering and delivery. They guys needed everything on site immediately and for the most part we had an easy time with the delivery process, but some things we just didn’t allow for. The work surface for example. I was going to use a quartz (plan a) but the cost was way more than I expected (and I spec this for clients frequently) so we looked at Corian (plan b) and the colours weren’t what I wanted, so I looked at an acrylic surface (plan c) and found that as supply only it was more than the quartz when we factored in the labour costs. So I ended up settling – very halfheartedly – for a laminate. I have never specced laminate in my entire career as an interior designer. Who knew what a steep learning curve that would be! The width we needed wasn’t standard and it had to be ordered in. It took two weeks, which meant that the kitchen was the last room to be done; we had no running water for about four weeks, just a bucket under a stopcock. Joyous!

But it’s all over now and the place is being marketed for tenants. I’m also going to list it on Airbnb – let me know if you’d like to stay sometime!

Advice to Property Sellers

Finally, finally after thirteen months, I’m a property owner again. For those of you who don’t know, the one I now own was property number four and it seems appropriate for me to offer some insight into why this has been such a difficult process. Considering the property press is quick to say it’s a buyers market, why exactly did I have such a hard time getting back on the property ladder?

Purely from my perspective, I think it’s to do with the fact that the media seems to focus on the buyer. It’s the buyer who has to have finance in place, the buyer who has to arrange for a survey – and any other reports that need to be done – the buyer who pays the stamp duty and who has the bargaining power of pulling out of the transaction if they’re unhappy. It’s the buyer, therefore who causes the problems. Or is it?

My finance was in place; I sold my house last June. I have a great surveyor in London who can turn his report around in five days, I have a great building contractor who comes to viewings with me to keep me focused and not let my heart pull the strings. I trust the advice of my solicitor and know that she acts in my best interests and then it all falls apart again. So where is the weak link?

Property Number One had two commercial units attached to the title and the vendors renegotiated the leases with the tenants during the time that the property was marketed for sale without consulting their solicitors.

Property Number Two had an incomplete lease lodged at the Land Registry (even though it was share of freehold) and the vendor wouldn’t take the responsibility to rectify it.

Property Number Three had a short lease which needed extending (and I agreed to do this as part of the purchase) but wouldn’t allow me to contact the freeholders or negotiate with them on my behalf unless I paid them a ‘consideration.’

Property Number Four was bought in shared ownership so the title was only 75% in their name and I was told when my offer was accepted that they were in the process of buying the final 25% so that I would own full title. The owners took five months to sort this out!

In every case the vendor wasn’t ready. Their paperwork hadn’t been run past a solicitor to check if there were any outstanding issues. They hadn’t considered the time that this would take nor even if this would hold up the sale. And this is all before the opposite side (the buyer) gets involved. Remember, this has to be done whoever you sell to, it can’t be bypassed – because solicitors are trained to look for irregularities. They’re risk averse, if they’re unhappy with something, they will tell you they think it’s unwise to proceed. The old caveat emptor (buyer beware) still holds true, so if you move forward against their advice, on your head be it. It pays to read everything in the solicitors report carefully because this tells you who the energy supplier is, who the local authority is, who the alarm is maintained by, who the tv service is supplied by, who your landlord is – if the property is leasehold. All the nuts and bolts in one big file; it’s the paper version of the property you are buying and it’s all information supplied by the seller.

As a seller the person you have most contact with in the early phase is the estate agent contracted to market your property. And of course you pay them a commission for this, so they are keen to demonstrate their skill. There’s often a lot of contact to keep you updated about viewings feedback, to keep your spirits up if progress is slow and to adjust expectations if the offers are not quite at the level you hoped for. But – and it’s a big but, their advice doesn’t form any part of the legal contract between you and the buyer. This is the role of the solicitors. The estate agent brokers the deal to act as the negotiator between seller and buyer and once an offer’s been accepted, they’re there to keep the lines of communication open. That’s it.

As a seller if you’ve told the estate agents anything about the property that you’re uncertain about; this is interesting to them but it isn’t directed at the right person because they can’t instruct any further action. The person you should be discussing this with is your solicitor. And as a general rule of thumb if anything was an issue when you purchased the property – and wasn’t resolved by your solicitor as part of the purchase – it will still be an issue when you sell. It won’t have sorted itself out while you get on with the business of living there – IT WILL STILL BE AN ISSUE WHEN YOU SELL.

Very often I’ve heard friends agonise over the buyers of their property and how they’re mucking them around; making so many demands and asking for all kinds of things to be included in the sale. There’s certainly room for good manners in this process, but for the most part when the finance is in place and the reports have all been read, there’s nothing much for a buyer to do but wait. If they wait too long, they get frustrated (and that’s when all the demands creep in; they feel they’re owed some special treatment for being patient.) Sellers have to ask themselves if they could have done anything to reduce this.

The estate agents have a part to play in this too. As I discovered when I collected the keys to my new flat, they hadn’t realised the owners had never sold a property before, so they really didn’t have any idea what was expected of them. This is the big divide – if you don’t know the paperwork needs to be ready for the solicitor before they can start the conveyancing – who is responsible?

In most cases to sell a property we have first to buy; it pays to remember the agony of trying to secure the property in the first place. In other words, remember what it feels like to be the buyer. Would you have liked the person you bought from to be more amenable? Perhaps the question sellers should be asking themselves is, ‘how can I help my buyer with this purchase?’ If you really want to sell – no, if you are committed to selling – you’ll need to do just that.