7 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting My Renovation

Cottage exterior in Cotswalds.

Courtesy of Ashley Chalmers / Photo Treatment: The Spruce

Anyone who has ever done a home renovation knows one thing is true: nothing will go to plan. Until you’re in the weeds of it, it all feels a bit abstract. Even after my husband and I closed on our historically listed cottage in the English countryside, people tried to warn us—and I just smiled and nodded. Sure, sure, I thought. That was your experience.

Well, over a year into the project, I can admit: I was wrong. I should have listened. I should have taken their warnings to heart, and I should have kept my expectations low—even lower than the awkwardly placed kitchen beam we’re not allowed to raise because a coven of witches made it historically relevant.

If you’re reading this and about to embark on your own home renovation project, heed my advice. This is everything I wish I knew before we started our renovation.

English country cottage mid-renovation

Ashley Chalmers

Renovating is expensive, and prices will only rise

The first time we got a quote from a contractor, I did a literal spit take. I don’t know what I expected the number to be, but it was significantly higher than I guessed. In fact, it was almost half of what we spent on the house.

Fortunately, he talked us down quickly and explained that this quote included every single thing we could do, and with the most expensive materials. We worked together to adjust and fit it all within our ideal budget, and it felt manageable. I'm able to accept that this is all part of the process. I know we’ll get it to a more agreeable place budget-wise—but I have a hunch it’ll still be higher than we ever imagined.

It will take a long time

There are a lot of jokes about contractors giving you an estimate and then adding a year. For us, that couldn’t be more true. We have been delayed by everything you can imagine: weather, historical societies, bureaucracy, and neighbors disputing access rights. You never know what will cause a delay, and that’s not even considering what the house itself will reveal to you and your team once you get started. 

I was first promised a finished cottage for Christmas…of 2021. Now, I’m just crossing my fingers that we’ll have it before 2024. 

English Country Kitchen Fireplace

Ashley Chalmers

It looks worse before it looks better

This is another one that might sound obvious, but we’re currently stuck in a stage where it looks really terrible. The place has been gutted, and the dust is starting to settle—literally. Dried leaves have blown in, dead bugs keep appearing, and it all looks mucky. But, each time we go for a walkthrough or get a picture from the team, the vision we had the very first time we stepped inside comes back. I have to believe we’ll get there eventually. 

Each time we go for a walkthrough or get a picture from the team, the vision we had the very first time we stepped inside comes back.

Don't get your heart set on anything

I’ve already detailed the story of how a coven of witches messed with my dreams of a perfect kitchen—and that’s been one of many curveballs along the way. Fortunately, our kitchen design process happened relatively early, and it set my expectations in the right place for the rest of the cottage.

I have hopes for built-in bunk beds, underfloor heating, and a bathroom that doesn’t even closely resemble the monstrosity that was first there. I also know any of it could fall apart. Am I ok with that? Yes, because I learned early not to hang my hopes on any one specific feature.

Cottage - original bathroom

Ashley Chalmers

There are a ton of people involved

Before starting our own renovation process, I imagined that you hire one person to oversee the whole thing, and they have a team of experts who come in and get the job done. That is not the case for us—it truly takes a village to complete a renovation.

We have a separate kitchen designer, who has his own joiners. Our contractor has an electrician and a plumber, and our interior designer has her own joiners. Our ‘stair guy’ is someone else entirely, and we have also consulted a solicitor, an architect, and a mortgage advisor throughout the process.

And yes, all of these people got involved before anyone even swung a hammer. 

Everyone has an opinion

When I asked my husband what he wished he knew before we started this process, he said, “There will be cynics and there will be cheerleaders.” This couldn’t be more true.

We had people scoff at the fact we bought a house in the countryside with no outdoor space. It's a fair point, but it's also not something that bothers us. We had others who couldn’t believe we’d even attempt to renovate a historically-listed building in England, and a few people who crinkle their noses with the obvious subtext: why?

But, we also had people walk in and get the same starry looks in their eyes that we had the first time we saw the place. We’ve had experts gush over doors, beams, and details we never would have noticed, and we've assembled a team of people who want to do this place justice just as much as we do.

Best of all, we’ve had friends who ask us regularly when it’ll be finished so they can come to see the final vision.

It'll all be worth it

At times, I might sound cynical and slightly jaded, but I promise, I'm not. The process has just made me more realistic, but no less excited.

While it’s most definitely been a learning process, it’s the cheerleaders who have kept us going—and the promise of the perfect cottage that will (someday… maybe in a decade) finally feel like ours.