Top tips to avoid going over budget and over time on your home refurbishment

  1. Define your brief

To enable your design team and builder to deliver the finished home you want, you will need to be transparent and open about what that is. Before appointing your team, write down your “strategic brief”. This is not necessarily what you want your new kitchen to look like or where specifically your new bathroom should go (those discussions come later), but the key things you want to achieve: “a brighter space with a better connection to the garden,” “an extra bedroom,” “somewhere quiet for me to work when I am at home” etc.

It is also essential at this early stage to set clear boundaries in terms of budget and program. How are you funding this project? Any time constraints on mortgage/loan payments will affect your cash flow? Will you need to pay VAT? And on the flip side, how much will these works increase the value of your property? It is remarkable how better utilisation and organisation of the space that you already have can improve resale value.

In our experience, client briefs tend to fan out in many directions, sometimes contradicting themselves and often changing throughout the course of the project. This is understandable and often an enjoyable part of the design process, but it is crucial to keep sight of your original ambitions as a reference point to refer back to – allowing you to see the wood from the trees when you are in the midst of your project.

  1. Engage with the right people

There will be no shortage of designers, consultants and contractors vying to be appointed to your project. On residential projects, an architect will often take in the broader project management role and advise you on any other consultants you may need to appoint when you need them and, most importantly, how much they will cost. It is necessary to know this from the outset as it can impact your project budget.

As we oversee projects day-in, day-out, architects are well placed to help you build your project team. It pays to work with people who know and have a strong trust in each other created through previous project experience, which is always more reliable than an online review.

You should ask everybody you intend to appoint for testimonials from previous clients. Most reputable firms will provide them, and satisfied customers will be more than willing to give them. You should also review your consultant’s Professional Indemnity cover to ensure that it is adequate for the size of your project.

Fear is one of the main reasons home-improvement projects are never realised, which is why building trust with your team is so important. Meet with them, and don’t be afraid to ask tough questions. Many industry bodies list accredited consultants (for example, the RIBA Chartered Practice list for architects or the Federation of Master Builders for contractors). Whilst these accreditations ensure a basic standard of experience, qualification and regulation, nothing compares with one-to-one engagement to develop a trusting professional relationship. And the great thing is that once you find a consultant you like and trust, they will have their own trusted network, which you can tap into.

  1. Understand the programme risks from the outset

Ask your project manager, architect or contractor to develop a project programme before they start work. This will demonstrate that they have considered programme risks, how they interrelate, and, importantly, target dates for overall completion, as well as the completion of each element of work.

It is a cliché that all building projects take longer and cost more than anyone expected at the start of the project (the UK government automatically adds 1/3 to their budgets and programmes once received); however, it doesn’t have to be that way for you. Residential projects are not oil pipelines, and typical risks will be known by a competent consultant (again, why it is critical that you engage with the right people).

Some common causes of delays to watch out for:

–                Stretched planning departments often take longer to decide on minor planning applications than the statutory eight weeks. Discuss with your consultants if your project can be carried out under ‘Permitted Development Rights’ or if it is sensible to allow time for a ‘Pre-Application Consultation’.

–                Negotiations over Party Wall Awards. Make sure your team are organised and submit any required Party Wall notices in good time. These can take months to negotiate and can get costly if each neighbour dissents and appoints their surveyor (whom you will need to pay for). Please don’t leave it to a formal notice landing on your neighbours’ doorstep. Engage with them at the start of the project and discuss your proposals over a glass/bottle/magnum of wine with them.

–                Bats! Or any protected species such as reptiles, badgers, dormice, hedgehogs etc. Do you have any house guests? If so (or even if there is a potential that they could be present), your programme will have to take into account surveys and mitigation. For example, if it is suspected that you have bats, a surveyor will need to sit outside your house (at night) for three separate nights between April and September, and you cannot start specific works until they have been identified as a mitigation license agreed with Natural England. Ecological concerns like these can add months to a project.

–                Older buildings will often have heritage constraints, and separate permission is required for work on Listed Buildings. Time will need to be allowed for specialist surveys and consultation with the local Heritage Officer at the start of the project.

Once you have a project programme, monitor it and update it regularly. Discuss potential time savings or delays with your team as the project progresses. A good project manager will often be able to think of creative ways of saving time lost in one area by adjusting the program in others.

  1. Don’t go it alone

We’ve all seen the Grand Design’s episode where the homeowner fires his professional team and main contractor to save money for a designer kitchen, attempting to manage the project and sub-contract out the works to complete before their new baby enters the world – please don’t let that person be you. There is a good reason for the existence of professional consultants and main contractors. Through training and experience, they can foresee significant issues before they happen and manage the project to minimise risk, all the while making sure that you comply with the complex web of statutory legislation (building regulations, planning law, health & safety law etc.).

Saying this, if you are a trained carpenter and have taken a year off work to build your off-grid eco-home in the woods – go for it!


  1. Make decisions early

… and don’t revisit them (unless necessary). To understand a project’s actual cost and scope, it is imperative to front-load your design decisions rather than waiting until you are already on site. Changes to built elements are far more costly (financially and in time) than on paper.

A detailed and coordinated package of design information and work schedules at the tender stage, with as few “TBCs” as possible, means that your builder can accurately price the work, and your building contracts will be watertight. Works contracts are complicated, and when it is clear what has been allowed for within the contract documents, any on-site variations will be more quickly and accurately priced. Allow time for your team to prepare this detailed information and avoid the temptation to rush to start building.

As you can imagine, it is common to change your mind on some parts of the project when you see them in person rather than on paper or as your circumstances change. This is no problem and allowed for in most building contracts, but make sure that changes are instructed through the appropriate contract mechanism (not just directly to your builder) and that your architect explains any knock-on implications, such as time and cost. Any change will have a ripple effect that needs oversight and consideration. For example, a seemingly simple change such as a desire to change your hob from electric to gas could require the installation of a new gas pipe through the ceiling, which will then need to be ventilated. To accommodate this, you may need to lower the ceiling, and if so, you may need new cornices around the room (and let’s hope they weren’t elaborate plaster ones).

As with all projects, open, honest, and straightforward communication with your team is critical.

You are the boss of your project, but to make informed decisions, you should always listen to your consultant’s advice, even if sometimes you choose to ignore it!

We wish you the best of luck making that leap from your vision to reality!

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