Mildly Grand Designs

Let me take you back to the nineties and noughties – to a young(er) Kevin McCloud on Grand Designs, to Changing Rooms, and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (if you’re into having your heart wrenched by Queer Eye on Netflix, I strongly recommend you look this one up).

Anyway, the mood is faded denim, MDF, inventive conversions, life improvement and sometimes pink power tools (on Extreme Makeover obviously, not Kevin). I lapped up these programmes growing up, along with A Place in the Sun: Home or AwayLocation, Location, Location and Escape to the Country. I still do, to be honest. I watch them differently now though, as my partner and I bought our first home in June.

They don’t tell you that it’s terrifying.


But terrifying. In the way that all very new things are terrifying. Years of watching other people buy or alter their houses doesn’t really count as preparation, especially when their re-runs and you’re aware of stuff like inflation.

We wanted to buy in our area of Hampshire (before it gets too attractive to commuter belt London) after a few years of renting. Neither of our parents have bought property since that classic home-makeover TV era, and we only told a few close friends we were considering looking. We were – and are – painfully aware that it’s a massive privileged to be able to buy. Also, we felt there’d be a pressure on it all working out, if lots of people knew.

So like wide-eyed innocents, we started viewing flats around November 2017 to get a sense of what our budget could get us. We used the Christmas period to work out the finances and arrangements, and then looked more seriously from January onwards. I think we probably viewed about 10-15 places (they’ve sort of blurred) and looked at loads more online. We saw a cosy little terraced house with no parking, and weighed it against an open-plan flat shelved on the 16th floor of a tower block. We visited purpose-built millennial starter houses (complete with astroturf) and considered various streets of 1960s suburbia. The Kirsty Allsopp voice appeared in my head, asking where we were prepared to compromise.

Then in February 2018, we walked into a maisonette (that’s a flat with it’s own entrance, I’ve now learnt) which we only got to view because the buyer had just pulled out. We knew it was right – like a punch in the gut. It’s the upper floor of a house built in 1898, which was converted and extended into two flats in the 1980s. It’s a bit quirky (like us), and surprisingly bigger than a lot of the modern builds we looked at, for less money. We even get a parking space and half a garden (the inevitable compromise, if you’re interested, turned out to be giving up an en-suite). We were stupidly lucky that it became available, and that we had seen enough by then to be sure it was right and put an offer in quickly. We had quite a long wait to move in but at the end of June, it happened.

We celebrated quietly, with friends and family coming over to see our new place at the weekends. Neither of us are particularly keen on social media and to be honest, getting the keys didn’t make it feel like our’s enough to yell about it. It’s now nearly December, and it’s just starting to feel like our home. Most likely because I’m writing this surrounded by exposed plaster. The real work has begun.

Our survey flagged various repairs (guttering, insulation) which we got sorted over the summer. We were repeatedly told to live in it for about 6 months before decorating, to get to know the space. Yes, this advice sounds a bit artsy but it has actually proved its worth.

Hallway (pre-decorating)
Wood-chip wall paper, artex and grey carpets (first step in redecorating – hang coat up).

The previous owner was here for nearly 20 years, and we could well match that (there’s confirmed potential for a loft conversation and room in the garden for an office…if we ever have the money). The downside is that we inherited her wood-chip wallpaper and artex ceilings. Also her teenage boy’s Black Sabbath inspired bedroom, which will be our joint office.

His black wood-chip textured walls…(our laundry)
Wallpaper Removal
Bye wood-chip…

So the first thing we’ve done is get the wood-chip and the coving off (note for anyone buying a property with wood-chip: we were told by a local property renovator that he knocks £5,000 off the asking price whenever he sees it). We saved some money in the purchase, which meant we could have the help of a decorator/handyman and his son. It’s hard to get this paper off the walls and we didn’t want to cause further damage by our inexperience. It’s really messy work (randomly, the chaos made me think of this 90s classic).

We’re getting the ceilings boarded, which is a precaution to keep any risks to do with artex at bay. We should hopefully have a blank slate before Christmas, so we can get our paint brushes out in the New Year – having now discovered the artistry of previous decorators on the plaster:

Original Plaster - 1898
Design drawn onto the original plaster, circa 1898.
1980s Doodles
Design drawn in the 1980s onto the plaster. The writing above says ‘Decorated 19 -12 – 85 3pm’

I’ll be describing more of what’s happening to this new home of our’s – it’s a slow burner of a project as we build our ideas, recover funds and fit things in round our jobs…

It’s more of a project than we expected to get into… I’ve been thinking a lot about a particular early Grand Designs episode, even though it’s nothing like this flat project of our’s. The one where the wife was very determined to have a Regency mansion house (built from concrete) complete with Orangery, and the husband loved her in such a way that he couldn’t stop her bleeding their finances and relationship dry to achieve this dream. I don’t think he was fussed about having an Orangery, he just wanted her to be happy. By the end of the episode, they were broken, the house was unfinished, and I never found a follow up (maybe they’re now blissful, who knows). It’s always been my cautionary tale about Dream Houses, people-pleasing, and partnership.

One thing I’ve learnt so far from our mini version of Grand Designs is that we’re not that couple. We’ve always functioned fairly evenly and called each other out on stuff. But this flat has, I think, already matured us – apart from the obvious fact that we co-own an asset and have finally organised a joint bank account, there are more subtle changes to how we work together. We’re deploying each other’s strengths better: I construct the emails, he’s better at smoothing people on the phone; I push to get things done, he pulls to consider and negotiate. We’re both individual wholes, with our own interests and behaviours, but we’re more recognised by others and ourselves as two halves of a unit.

I’m excited to document what happens next…

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