We bought our first house, a tiny 100-year-old cottage in a middle-of-the-road Auckland suburb, a year before our first child was born. We loved it, and aside from painting over the lavender walls of the master bedroom (‘master’ is a tad grand. Basically the house had two bedrooms, one of which was slightly bigger than the other and had lavender walls), we were happy to have the cottage’s rustic roof over our heads.
Then came pregnancy and preparations for our first child. The urge to nest and make changes to one’s home before the arrival of a new person is very real. Renovations, however, are not for the faint hearted. They are also not cheap. So what should you consider when planning home improvements as a soon-to-be-parent, or with a kid or two already under foot?
Here are five questions we asked ourselves before swinging the hammer and busting down walls
Can we afford it?
While renovations should make your home more enjoyable to live in, if done right, they can also add significant value to your house. With this in mind, you need a budget and a solid plan. Once you have planned your project and organised some quotes, you should have a rough idea of what your renovation will cost. Now add a buffer, otherwise known as a contingency, to this budget - for unforeseen circumstances which will – trust me - make themselves known very quickly!
The cost of your project can be met by saving the money required, topping up your mortgage, or a bit of both, so your budget depends on how much you can personally afford. At this point it is wise to not bite off more than you can chew. You may feel like you really need an architecturally designed extension, complete with designer bathrooms featuring tiles hand-crafted in Italy, but a young family really doesn’t need the emotional stress that comes with money worries and over-stretched finances.
If you plan to save the money you need to pay for your project, set up a dedicated savings account for renos as soon as possible. Work out how long it will take to meet your goal and set up regular payments so your fund grows in time to pay for the project.
If you’re planning on using the equity in your home to borrow some money, talking to a mobile mortgage manager is a great place to start as they will give you a clear idea of how much you can afford to top up your mortgage by.
Will this project improve the health and safety of our home?
With budgets in mind, the next step is to look at home-improvement priorities. As our baby’s due date approached we were knee-deep in old wallpaper as we prepared the nursery for her arrival. (And when I say ‘nursery’, I mean the other bedroom - the one with ancient wallpaper as opposed to lavender paint). We decided to spend some money insulating and relining the walls, as a warm, cosy and dry house becomes even more important for babies and children.
A bit later down the track, another priority on our home improvements list was building a deck and new fence around the lawn that would provide a safe and contained play area for children. The peace of mind that this gave us was invaluable, especially in the early years of babies and toddlers. While children obviously need full adult supervision, contained outdoor play areas mean your toddler is safe to wander outside, protected from the driveway and road, if you’re distracted for a few moments with the needs of a baby. Plus, the benefits of outdoor play are numerous, so renovations that encourage indoor-outdoor flow in a home are really appreciated by young families.
Will this project improve our life?
Tight budgets all too often squash those ‘grand design’ dreams, but don’t be discouraged - we found that small changes made a big difference to life in our little cottage. Replacing the shower and vanity and giving the walls a fresh coat of paint made a big difference to our outdated bathroom - and was a significantly cheaper than a full refit and big structural changes. Small updates also meant we didn’t have to move out, which is a major consideration when you have babies and/or young kids. In fact, our basic bathroom reno was completed in just over two days. The kids and I trooped next door and borrowed their bath one evening, which felt both adventurous and neighbourly, and we brushed our teeth in the kitchen. Memories are made of moments like these.
Our kitchen received a similar level of attention – cupboards removed to make room for a dishwasher, shelving and pot hangers lugged home (strapped to the pushchair and passed as ‘over-sized baggage) from Sydney’s IKEA and blackboard paint to ‘update’ the pantry doors. Every time we walked into those spaces we appreciated the upgrade. The new vanity in our bathroom really did make me smile every time I washed my hands, and hanging up pots after our kitchen ‘make-over’ was deeply satisfying.
Is it practical, or just a fad?
Practicality is king when it comes to family life. By all means, salivate over The Living Channel, subscribe to all the interiors magazines and have a Pinterest board dedicated to your dream home, but when it comes to home improvements with a young family in the mix, functionality should take priority over fads. The good news for your budget is that simple and clean are on trend in interiors right now - the humble sheet of ply could become your best friend. But, back to the point, our current goal is to invest our money in making our home more practical for family life – decking, a more functional kitchen, better toy storage, a shed for the bikes etc - and we’ve got a savings account slowly building funds for the cutting-edge designer home (with sea views, of course!) we one day hope to live in.
Is this a wise investment?
Before spending big money on your home, you do need to ask are we over-capitalising? Some professional advice, from your bank and/or a property valuer, could be very beneficial at this point. Basically it is unwise to spend more money on your home than you could realistically expect to make back if you were to sell. This was our quandary by the time we were pregnant with our third child. Should we spend big to stretch out the walls of our little cottage, or should we sell up and buy something larger? We decided to sell and move, so spent a modest sum giving the house a final face-lift (we now switched focus to the exterior, doing some landscaping, painting the house and planting an alluring-looking vegetable garden) and jumped suburbs. Our home-improvement investments paid off in a quick sale and sizeable profit to put towards a bigger home. Hence, four months later we found ourselves once again insulating, re-lining and re-painting new old walls, in hurried preparation for bringing home another new person. And a few months after that we were putting in a new shower and vanity, but this time without the need to visit the neighbours for a bath. Because when you play the home improvements game right, it seems, your next house has a spare bathroom.