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‘I feared losing every penny I’d saved for 20 years’: A first-time homeowner’s renovation project

The wait for the money to come through was tough. Anxiety, exasperation and bafflement were common feelings

The beautiful thing about learning, or so the saying goes, is that nobody can take it away from you.

After securing mortgage approval and agreeing on a schedule of staged payments, we started making firm plans for our house renovation. The planets were aligning, or so it seemed, and things took off quickly.

This was when a lesson in perseverance, that I hadn’t expected to need to learn, began.

Before kicking off, we dug out the ferns that had grown through the damp (sometimes flooded) mud floor in what was the “good” sitting room. These were planted in borders and flower beds around the place as a reminder of where it started.


The plasterer was keen to get cracking. With a certain amount of his work needing to be done by a set date for grant purposes, I gave the green light. The old lime plaster was chipped off, and a hefty layer of an insulation mix made with hemp and lime was slathered on to the already thick mud and stone walls to provide some extra warmth.

The sash windows, repairs on which were also on the grant clock, were taken away in twos and threes to be refurbished. The contractor, who’d seen the job he’d intended to do before coming to us deferred, was also ready to go. Happy days.

At the same time, we were still in touch with the bank and solicitor about finalising the mortgage drawdown. Our understanding was that it would all be straightforward, given that the paperwork was in, and answers to any questions arising could be swiftly provided.

Between materials, wages, skips and “professional fees”, the savings were going out at an alarming rate. Nothing had come in but, nevertheless, we kept the faith.

The only notable structural changes we intended to make were to redo the roof on the rear extension and to remove a small front porch, both later additions to the main structure. Putting it plainly, both were rank, whereas the main body of the house was in pretty good shape given its age. They don’t build ‘em like they used to.

The two later additions were riddled with dampness and comprised a motley combination of brick, stone, concrete and whatever other materials were around at the time. There was a very sharp slope to the extension roof, which left the rear door at a height of about 5ft 9in, not ideal for someone standing 6ft 5in.

We filed exempted development (section 5) applications to the local authority. The first was to ease the slope on the back roof, providing scope to put in slightly larger windows which would allow in extra light. The second was to eliminate the porch and return the front to its original form.

Approval for those proposals came from the council after about a month. Meanwhile, the work was ticking along well inside. An electrician and a plumber came to do first fixes, the plasterer made steady progress, the woodwork was taken out and treated for woodworm and the once flooded “fern room” now had a damp-proof floor.

The first two of our four staged payment requests had gone to the bank, but we were still waiting for money to arrive. There was a stand-off over the status of the septic tank’s percolation area for a period. A third engineer, with more specialisation in such matters, was enlisted to address it. After that, it was on to minor quibbles about insurance, proof of which had long since been provided.

I was able to answer anything that came along within hours if not minutes. But my responses then went to the bottom of a pile and it would be a week or more before we heard back with the next one, given head office rather than the local branch was dealing with things now. It felt like death by a thousand niggles.

One request was for a letter from the insurer confirming they were aware that the place was unoccupied and being renovated. “As per our previous conversations, I can confirm we have covered the dwelling house on the basis that it is undergoing renovations at present and is unoccupied. Whenever the work is completed, and it is occupied, please let me know and I will update our records accordingly,” said the agent politely in reply.

Next, the bank wanted “a letter from the house insurance company confirming they are aware the house has a thatched roof”. The insurer replied, more curtly this time, to say: “I can confirm that we are fully aware that the house is thatched. Our premium fully reflects this.” It certainly does.

The wait for the money to come through was tough. Anxiety, exasperation and bafflement were common feelings and every call, text and email was jumped on in the hope it was the news we’d been waiting for.

The European Central Bank was pushing up interest rates fast and the fear was that my keen fixed rate would be lost and we’d be back to square one — less almost every penny I’d saved over the previous 20 years.

Ultimately, I blamed my own naivety for the stress. The carrot of grant money that needed to be spent by a certain point pushed me on and I foolishly underestimated how big a gap could come between submitting paperwork and getting to drawdown.

Those working on the house, to their credit, realised I was doing my best. Penny-pinching and the legacy of past frugality left us in a position to scrape and stretch for several months to just about keep things moving.

Then one day, just after I’d walked into the Drumcondra Lidl store, my phone rang. It was the solicitor saying she’d lodged half of the mortgage, less the legal fees, of course, into my account. I breathed a sigh of relief, dropped the shopping basket, and went for a pub lunch.

A lesson in perseverance completed and nobody was going to take away what had been learned.

Steven Carroll is an Irish Times journalist.