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DIY renovating tips

New homes and major renovations, Central Coast, Newcastle and Sydney

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Renovating your house can be a personally and financially rewarding undertaking however it is often fraught with frustration and stress. Depending on your time, skill, inclination and budget you may like to DIY. Most DIY renovators are actually DIWT (Do It With Trades). They manage the job, do the demolition, select the colour scheme, source fixtures and fittings, remove and install simple fittings and other simple jobs. However, unless they are really skilled they contract the specialist trades of bricklaying, carpentry, electrics, plumbing and tiling. The following are some general tips that may help to make the process a little easier for you.

Note: Before you get too enthusiastic we recommend you read our overcapitilising with renovations article.

1. Preparation

Move out of home unless it is a very small job. The renovation will be dirty, dusty noisy. The power and water will go off and when it doesn't you'll have tradesman scrutinizing your breakfast and observing your bathroom habits.

Keep neighbours on your side. This is an impossible task but do what you can by informing them of noise and inconvenience. To pacify them, consider giving them gifts at appropriate times (like earplugs, champagne and a night in a hotel.) If they get really stroppy, just tell them how your renovation will increase their property value.

2. Research

Find out all you can about everything

  • Surf the Web for advice and researching materials, appliances and fittings. Print out pictures of appliances so you can see how they look. Study home magazines.
  • Start a neat file of fittings, appliances and design examples that you like.

Draw up a wish list.

  • Get the household together and discuss the building. Together draw up a wish list in order of preference.
  • Get advice. Ask architects or builders to look at your site and sketch to give you a ballpark estimate.

3. Design and Style

Keep renovations in character

Consider the architectural integrity of your building. If partially renovating, keep the style similar, or in character with the original house (including the car port and garage.)

Don't be excessively trendy or ambitious.

  • Fads fade, but a simple elegant style in neutral colours (and subtle patterns) is timeless.
  • Don't be too ambitious unless you are loaded.

Use colour carefully and thoughtfully.

  • Collect samples and play with combinations. Only use three colours in a room, two if the room is small.
  • Light colours will not go out of fashion (or fancy) as fast as strong colours. If you want to use a strong colour, use it in small areas, as punctuation, so if necessary it can be easily changed.

Period and older style homes are hard to cost control

  • Best get a fixed price from a builder.

Think how you can maximize space or the sense of space.

  • No matter how much space you have, you are likely to want more. Prioritize your space requirements for each room.
  • The less corners, lines and intersecting surfaces, the greater the visual flow and the more pleasing and less expensive it will be.
  • Try and keep as much of the floor visible by raising cupboards off it.

Give great consideration to the front exterior.

The exterior presents the first statement about you and your home.

Put your money in the right places

Put your money firstly where the water is (bathroom and kitchen renovations), then living and master bedroom.

Higher ceiling looks better.

Higher ceilings will cost a little more you will recoup that in resale value. Paint them the lightest colour possible so they look even higher.

Consider the resale value of the property after building.

Don't over capitalize ie spend more money that you will get back when you sell. Make sure the total value of your house plus new building is not greater than the value of the smartest house in the street.

Only renovate if the basic structure is sound.

If you have to repair the basic structure it is likely that your project will be too expensive and you will overcapitalize. Either reduce your plans significantly or sell and build a bigger house elsewhere.

Consider your future requirements.

Think how your proposals will fit into your present and future lifestyle . Will everybody be able to negotiate stairs? Will you need more car space later? Will extra rooms be required for children?

Consider ventilation and air flow.

Open living spaces are cooler than boxy rooms. If possible try and design the floor plan so that you can see right through the house, from one end to the other.

Try to stick with first choices

Any changes you make during the building process will cost you more money.

4. Layout and Sketch

Get good drawings done.

The more detailed the drawing the easier it will be to build. Consider drawing up a rough sketch yourself to show an architect or builder. If you don't use an architect and your renovation is sizable, consider using a draftsperson to draw up plans.

Avoid small boxy rooms.

Open plan design costs less than a series of rooms, creates a sense of space, and is better for ventilation.

Changing the configuration costs money

Keep as much of the original configuration of your house because changing it usually means new plumbing, electrics and possibly alteration to wall construction, windows and doors. Sometimes it's possible to swap the kitchen and bathroom around with out much cost because the plumbing is not radically changed.

5. Architects and plans

Consider an architect

  • If your renovation is major, use an architect, and one that is experienced with the style and level of renovation you desire.
  • View images or their previous work.
  • Talk to their previous clients.
  • Suss them out. Can you form a constructive, working relationship with them? While they are the expert, you are the user. Will they be too precious about changes to their proposals.

Make sure you can read plans.

If you don't understand something, ask questions (however dumb you might think they are) and have a look at this article: How to read plans.

6. Budget and Resale

How much to spend?

  • How much to spend depends on how long you want to keep the house. No point in spending a huge amount if you are going to sell it within a couple of years.
  • Set an affordable budget. If on a restrictive budget, spend the money where the water is ie kitchen and bathroom.
  • Allow 10% for contingencies.

The simpler the house the less expensive.

  • Every corner in walls and roofs cost more money, likewise every door and window.
  • Custom made, name brands or imported items will costs a lot more than local off the shelf

Don't compare costs too much

Costs increase each year- what your friends paid 2 years ago is unfortunately no longer relevant .

Break down costs

Break down costs, right to the fitting and fixtures- so you know where the money is going.

7. Legals

Check your contract

  • Understand every aspect of the building contract.
  • Consider having a penalty clause for late work
  • Consider having a clause on how to deal with disputes (via independent arbitration)
  • Check the schedule of payments. A builder cannot charge more than what is in the contract (unless you agree.)
  • Consider having a solicitor check out the building contract.
  • All works approved by council will be inspected by the 'Certifying aurthority' (council or a private certifier) -    inspections are paid for by the property owner at the council application stage and are mandatory at various stages during construction but if you feel you need the opinion of a professional during these regular inspection you can engage a private certifier/inspector for reassurance
  • Don't sign a contract until plans and specifications have been completed (and if applicable, approved).

Holding back payments

Make sure there are holdbacks in the contract and ensure the last builders payment is a large amount and not paid till all work is complete otherwise it is difficult to get the builder back to finish off those last little items.  Include a hold back in the payment to builder or critical trades where the quality of the work is not 100% immediately evident and especially trades that are associated with water entry ( eg tiling, roofing, windows).

Incomplete work, incorrect or substandard work

  • Don't pay for a building stage unless it is complete.
  • If you believe work is sub standard, discuss it immediately with the builder or contractor. If no action is forthcoming, maybe get a 2nd opinion, take photographs, send the contractor a registered letter advising him of the complaint and contact the relevant building regulation authority.

Council Permits and Caveats

• Council permits

You will require a permit if you change the footprint of the house, change the position of exterior windows and doors, make structural changes, or alter the roof line. Permits are also required if you change the plumbing diagram or you are altering load bearing walls. However if you move the plumbing slightly within a room, a permit can be avoided if no extra toilets are required. (Often a kitchen and bathroom can be swapped around with minimal change to the plumbing diagram.)

• Caveats

If your house is old or was part of an estate check with your solicitor on caveats that might prevent you from expanding your existing structure.


  • Any building work worth more than $12,000 requires home warranty insurance.
  • Home Warranty protects the owner (either the original or subsequent owners) against

Non completion of the building contract due to death, disappearance or insolvency of the builder, and failure of the builder to correct faults, (which are deemed by law to be the builder's responsibility for a nominated warranty period.)

Construction and Public Liability Insurance is a must for owner-builders.

DIY, Builders and Trades

DIY, or use a Builder?

Do you have the time, skill and inclination for DIY or DIWT (Do It With Trades). If not, get a builder.

Selecting a builder and tradesperson

This can be a difficult task because many tradespeople, perhaps because their skills are in high demand, do not see the need to act professionally (for example: by calling you when they are running late). They often operate on their own time and many have absolutely no awareness of neighbours and the environment (and will often leave their mess for you to clean up). Some will get upset if you criticize their work, rather than try to correct their mistake or explain why they have done the work a certain way. So... given that there are professional tradespeople out there, and that you do have some choice:

  • Check references. If a tradesperson doesn't want to give you a reference, don't use him or her. Either they are no good or too precious. When checking previous work, ask the previous client:
    • were they happy with the work?
    • was it on time and on budget?
    • did the contractor clean up?
    • did the contractor accept suggestions or criticism?
  • Don't necessarily take the lowest bid from a builder or contractor. If a quote is well below the others it could mean the contractor is cutting corners.
  • Always have a 2nd choice for contractors.
  • Make tradespeople contact you if they cannot turn up. If they don't, fire them and use your 2nd choice.
  • Establish ground rules if necessary on smoking, music and rubbish (e.g., who cleans up and where rubbish will be stacked).
  • If your tradesperson is working on an hourly basis, ask them if they come with an apprentice, because you will have to pay for them too.

Working hours

  • Be clear on timelines - for when and how long they will be working.
  • Be clear on their daily working hours and start time which must never be before 7 am (unless you live far away and have NO neighbours)

Keep communication going

  • Be clear with your builder about the lines of communication with him and their trades people. Advise them of the level of information that you require regarding what is happening
  • Specify position of underground services as written on original plumbing and electrical diagrams
  • Find out if the driveway will be kept clear, and when the power and water will be off?


Keep records

  • Keep an expandable folder with individual folders inside for each category of work
  • Log decisions from phone calls and meetings.
  • Take photographs, especially of plumbing while it is exposed


  • If DIY or DIWT, work out the building schedule ie the order of which all building is done and check it with the tradespeople.
  • Make sure your materials and fittings are requested in time for the trade that needs them, but early otherwise they may take up room and slow down work. Or if they are laying around too long, they might just, wel... disappear (ie get stolen.)
  • Ensure the order of trades is correct and that they complete their work at the agreed time (ie in time for the next trade).
  • Understand the building process or the trade by observing and reading up on their particular work.
  • Try to stick with first choices- changes cost time and money


Set up building inspection at the correct time for architects and council inspectors (eg Council Plumbing Inspectors for basic and final plumbing.)


  • Think very carefully about furniture layout so outlets they are conveniently placed yet hidden as much as possible.
  • Mark the positions for the electricity outlets and media jacks on the wall.
  • If the house is 60 years old insurance companies may require rewiring.


  • Hire a colour consultant if you are not competent at selecting harmonious colours
  • Make sure the surface (especially timber and render) is well prepared.
  • Use premium paints and ensure that correct paints are used for exterior surfaces and weather affected areas.
  • Save some paint for touch ups.


  • Make sure the structure is strong and stable enough for a new floor, especially if laying over on old one. You may have to restump (adding galvanized white ant protectors).
  • Timber floors may need to de delivered weeks before laying to acclimatize them to the local humidity conditions - see this web site for more: www.timber.net.au.


  • Avoid natural or white aluminium windows. They make the house look cheap and signal no style.
  • Retain door and window position where possible: It saves money and may avoid getting a council permit.
  • Consider cleaning: Some windows have removable sections for access for cleaning the outside. A narrow balcony under windows can provide access for cleaning.


• Does it just need a clean?

If the roof is sound, cleaning it with hi pressure water spray or repainting may be all that's needed.

• Do you have sufficient ventilation and heat dispersal?

For flat roofs with little space for insulation, consider a double roof with a layer of air in between. For gabled roofs, insulation plus a rotating air vent is very effective.

• Use anti leaf fouling guttering when building amongst trees.


  • Don't go up on wet roofs.
  • Control children on a building site.
  • Use eye, ear and face protection when necessary.
  • Don't use unfamiliar power tools.

Renovating can be an extremely satisfying undertaking - you get to appreciate and be proud of your own effort and creative decisions. However the renovation, be it DIY or by an experienced builder, will usually not go completely smoothly. There is likely to be some unexpected difficulty that will frustrate the daylights out of you. But you will eventually deal with it and move on, to the next step. That's the nature of renovation.