From raiding skips to stalking online marketplaces, calling in favours and even copying the neighbours, resourceful homeowners are saving a packet on their renovations.
With an expanding family, Mark O’Connor and his wife Niamh sold their Ashtown duplex in August 2020, buying a three-bed semi in Glasnevin in need of modernisation.
“We wanted to build a rear extension and refurbish the existing house as soon as we could,” says O’Connor. With a toddler and baby in tow, speed was of the essence. From a budget of €120,000, the house needed to be rewired, replumbed, insulated and completely redecorated.
The 1950s house had a chilly E2 BER rating, and so, curious about Government retrofit grants, O’Connor sought a quote for the renovation, retrofit and extension from a “one-stop-shop” provider.
“One quote was €235,000 plus VAT and that didn’t include a new kitchen or painting,” he says. This was well beyond the family’s budget and included things they felt were unnecessary.
“We were not going to be able to just hand over the keys to someone and walk away, we didn’t have the budget for that and we probably didn’t need that either.”
In the end, they went with a builder who had done a job on a similar house nearby. “He came with pictures of what he had done on basically the same house, one road over,” says O’Connor. He made contact with these neighbours who were happy with the result.
Using their plan saved on design fees.
“We had already engaged an architect to design our extension but the plan the builder presented actually suited our needs and budget better,” says O’Connor. Happy for O’Connor to organise the electrical, plumbing, glazing and painting work himself, the builder started work in May 2021.
O’Connor had already forged ahead with the windows. “I thought, what can we do in advance of the build? What can we do that’s not really linked to anything else? Windows to the front of the house were fitted in February with accommodation made for the internal wall insulation that would follow.
Twigging that the house across the road was unoccupied, O’Connor approached the owner with a request to rent it for three months. “This meant we didn’t have to rent storage space for our furniture, we just carried it across the road,” he says. Moving out on a Sunday, O’Connor and his brother spent the three days before the builder came getting stuck in.
“We ripped out the old kitchen and wardrobes so when the builder came, he could start straight away. It didn’t save money, but in terms of timing, he was able to get ahead. We were paying €2,000 a month in rent, so I did anything I could do personally to speed things up.”
Working from home meant O’Connor could keep an eye on things and was on standby to make decisions.
“Before, I would have been gone at 7am before the builder came and decisions would have to be made over the phone, so that definitely helped.”
He enjoyed chipping in.
“If they were short two tiles, I was able to fly off and get them on my lunch break. I enjoyed doing that to be honest with you.”
He took charge of ordering the internal doors and sanitary ware too.
When it came to the kitchen, he got three quotes, the most expensive of which was €33,000, excluding appliances.
“We ended up spending €21,000 on the kitchen, appliances and worktop,” he says, which included discounted white goods. While the couple splashed out on new sofas, getting the house painted was a bargain. “My brother is a painter, he owed me money from years ago so he burned that off painting the gaff,” says O’Connor.
The couple moved back in mid-August 2021, just two weeks behind schedule. The total cost was €190,000, including VAT. The works included a 35sq ft rear extension with a kitchen and underfloor heating, new radiators and a new extended family bathroom upstairs, attic insulation, a patio, and new doors and flooring throughout. By leaning on contacts, neighbours, mate rates, hunting down bargains along with some elbow grease of their own, O’Connor thinks the couple saved about €70,000.
“I can see people are disheartened because they are getting massive quotes that are way outside their budget,” says O’Connor. He believes in the power of neighbours with similar houses sharing information.
“I’d be wanting to tell them, come over to our house, see what we did. We’ve done all the research.”
Doing things your way can prove satisfying too.
Tina de Faoite bought a period redbrick house in Glasnevin in 2008 with her brother Joe Whyte. Built in 1923, they knew the three-bed semi would eventually need some work. Bought at the peak of the boom, they lived in it for a while before moving out. After a decade renting it out, they decided to reappraise things around 2019.
“Do we sell it and get rid of it and cut our losses, or do we see how bad it really is and what kind of work is needed?”
They loved the area, but if de Faoite was going to live there with her daughter, the house would need to be renovated. A school mum friend who is an architect was called in to take a look. She advised de Faoite to hang on to it. That Joe was a plasterer by trade was going to help.
Two years and one pandemic later, the renovation of the house is ongoing, but the long road has been a satisfying and cost-effective one.
“We are still not finished because we are doing this in our own time, literally from our wages every month. We haven’t borrowed or anything,” says de Faoite. Replacing the single-glazed windows has been their biggest expense. Having shopped around for quotes, she made further savings by going for sash windows at the front and a plainer style at the back.
Plastering was going to be the big job. The walls are made of “Dublin rubble”, says de Faoite, and external cracks had led to water ingress and damp. With building sites closed during the pandemic, Joe was happy to keep busy doing a one-man plastering job on the house. Internal insulation boards were all salvaged or bought second hand.
“My brother is like an adverts.ie professional at this stage, it’s like his pastime,” says de Faoite. “Some people have Netflix and he has this. Even if he wasn’t the highest bidder or he was late to something, he’d say, ‘Look, I have a van, I’ll be there in a few minutes.’”
Spotting renovation works while out driving, he’d approach the builder for offcuts. “These builders just want to be rid of stuff and he might get a load of boards for nothing.”
The downstairs floor joists, riddled with woodworm, had to go too. “We have reclaimed joists from different jobs, we didn’t buy anything. These were things that were all going into skips that other people were taking out of their house. There was nothing wrong with them,” says de Faoite. Stair spindles were bought online for €50.
“Otherwise that stuff is going to landfill and I think that is such a waste.”
With a day job in finance, de Faoite was mindful of increasing costs post-Brexit. When hiring a plumber, she insisted materials were bought before customs arrangements changed. “I’m glad I did, because I saved a lot by buying the stuff upfront. It’s just about being aware of what’s happening and trying to hedge your bets.”
The new boiler was fitted by a local retired tradesman. “His price was way less than anybody else that we had quotes for,” says de Faoite. “I intentionally try to find people who have retired and want to work part-time — you might find someone who is out of the game but happy to do something where they are not under pressure on a big job,” she says.
Tiling, carpentry and electrical work was achieved by bartering with her brother’s friends. “Joe is doing work for his tradesman friends and in return, they are giving me their time for free,” says de Faoite. “Each of them had a key so they could just let themselves in and work on it in their own time. There is no foreman on site saying, you have to be there at a certain time. Everyone was just giving a dig-out.”
The meandering pace of the project has taken the pressure off, says de Faoite. Not having a hard deadline has also eased purchasing decisions. She has enjoyed snuffling out bargains in the process. She found a near-new suite of furniture online for €650, the same is now retailing for €2,000 with a months-long waiting time. She picked up a second-hand, but never used, bed for a quarter of the price.
“There is a lot of value to be had. It goes to economics and not wasting all the stuff that is already made.” Time is money.
“The tiling I got in a sale. It was 40 per cent off, I just waited.”
A fridge she paid a deposit on last year had doubled in price. “I said, ‘no, you can keep it. I’ll just get something else instead’. I will look online for something and I will even compromise and get something that will do.”
A downside of taking such a long-term approach, however, is the cost of rent.
“I’ve often thought of the economics of it and would I have been better getting a crew in and getting it all done? But I just know it would have cost and they wouldn’t have been able to fix a price they could stand over, and where would they even get the materials?” she says.
By going this route, the cost has been about a quarter of what it might have been, she estimates.
De Faoite is hopeful she and her daughter will move in by July.
“Once the shower is in, I’ll be down there, but it depends on when the plumber is coming back to finish it off. And the tiler wants his dinner bought for him: ‘Feed me my dinner and we’ll be square.’ It’s been very relaxed. It hasn’t been a stressful project. I can’t wait to move back in, we love the area, we have a fabulous back garden so we are hoping the sun will come and we can enjoy it.”