Property

Renovating a house: an expert guide

Restoration expert Owen Pacey advises on renovating a house – to preserve its original character and period features

Renovated house with beautiful planting in the front garden
(Image credit: Benjamin Rascoe/Unsplash)

Have you ever dreamed of getting your teeth stuck into a real doer-upper? Renovating a house is a long journey, starting with finding the right place in the right location, oozing with period charm and potential, to the final pay-off of a home for life. 

The benefit of renovating a house has much to do with the combination of the ‘good bones’ different house styles – whatever their period – can offer, whether that’s high ceilings, decorative internal architectural features like arches, or comforting wooden beams, and being able to really put your stamp on it. 

Renovating a house

Salvaging the best parts of a period home and embellishing it with your style and tastes is a surefire way to achieve a unique, valuable and, most importantly, liveable home. Expert advice is from Owen Pacey, founder of Renaissance London, which is popular amongst celebrity clients, including Mick Jagger, Orlando Bloom, Kate Winslet, and Naomi Campbell.

Be budget savvy

'There’s a reason why only a few of us are undertaking thrilling, once-in-a-lifetime passion projects like renovating a period property. The first and most important element to consider before starting this journey is your budget. 

'Renovating period homes can be time-consuming and money-draining, but if you plan extensively, you can stay within your projected spend. Factor in hidden costs like window repairs, plumbing work, roofing, and any unanticipated structural work. 

'Giving yourself a buffer budget will make life a lot easier and will allow you to make quicker, easier choices about interior finishes and furniture.'

Ensure you can make the upgrades you want

Pink mock cow hide rug, bookshelf to the celling and spiked chandelier

(Image credit: Graham Atkins Hughes)

'When it comes to setting off on your journey towards your ideal period conversion, it’s important to research the property of interest to make sure that once you’re in, you can make the changes you want to make. 

'In the UK, for example, you should check if the property is Listed before you buy, as buildings with Grade I or II listings are notoriously well protected from building works to preserve their character. Rightly so, but make sure you know this before you buy. 

'When gaining permission for building works, be prepared to negotiate. Every property should be investigated on a case by case basis, so any one size fits all approach to building permission can be questioned. The same goes for finding a trustworthy contractor. Ask for references from previous clients and ask to see a portfolio if possible. 

'Insurance is also non-negotiable when renovating a period home. I’ve thanked my past self for taking out good insurance on several occasions, especially after a design project for a client has been staged and is ready to be handed over. Insurance is a safety net, and accidents don’t discriminate!'

Look for good bones in a property

Stone fireplace with cross pattern and leaf texture

(Image credit: Graham Atkins Hughes)

'The chances are, if you’re renovating a period property, it’s because you love the architecture more than you love the scraps of dated wallpaper stubbornly clinging to the wall, or the carpets that haven’t been touched in 50 years. 

'The bones of the property need TLC, and your first step in any renovation project should be to augment and highlight the structural beauty of the property, beyond your vision for the color palette or the furniture. 

'Restoring the original plasterwork is a good place to start. Unless there is any indication of the original coving and cornice, do some research into designs that are sympathetic to the era of the property, and put it back into the rooms. This does wonders to elevate the space, giving it a sense of grandeur and refinement. 

'You can also ask to see inside neighboring properties that may have been better preserved over time to serve as inspiration for this kind of foundational design work. This also applies to doors and fireplaces, which provide fantastic opportunities to leverage the property’s historical aesthetic.'

Give a nod to tradition

Blue flower chair and matching blue and pink geometric rug

(Image credit: Graham Atkins Hughes)

'Under no circumstances should you feel that all the furniture you specify should be sympathetic to the style or era of the property. Of course, it’s a nice nod to a Victorian property to keep a bow-fronted Victorian chest of drawers in one of the bedrooms, but unless your project is a strict restoration, feel free to play with different design movements and silhouettes in the same space. 

'Period homes really benefit from a spike of contemporary color or a piece of modern art. The contrast elevates and amplifies the beauty of the architecture you’ve taken the time to preserve.

'For me, mixing and matching furniture from different decades makes for a dynamic, inspiring home. Generally speaking, I’d advise against mixing over three design decades to keep your home looking eclectic and interesting without verging on chaotic. I love to clash Art Deco with funky, angular pieces from the 1960s and 1970s.'

Get the lighting right

Wooden staircase, low hanging glass ball chandelier, large mirror reflecting into patio area

(Image credit: Graham Atkins Hughes)

'Lighting is the most valuable tool for any interior designer. Lighting can make or break a space, and period renovations benefit hugely from strategic lighting that emphasizes architectural features, artwork and furniture.

'Downlights are the most unflattering form of lighting for your home and your guests. Steer clear of these and opt for a range of lamps or pendant lights that accentuate the room and highlight key features. For example, hang a statement sputnik chandelier from an ornate, traditional Edwardian ceiling rose, or position some 1960s Nesso lamps by G Mattioli for Artemide on Art Nouveau side table for the ultimate lighting statement.'

Lucy Searle
Lucy Searle

My first job was writing a DIY column for a magazine for the over 50s (which seemed a long way off back then). I then moved to a DIY magazine as deputy ed, then freelanced my way around the homes departments of most women's magazines on the market before working on Your Home and Family Circle magazines as homes editor. From there, I went to Ideal Home magazine as associate editor, then launched 4Homes magazine for Channel 4, then the Channel 4 4Homes website before going back to freelancing and running a social media business (you can see where I had kids from the freelancing gaps!). I was tempted back to the world of big business by the chance to work with the great team at Realhomes.com, where I was Global Editor-in-Chief for two and a half years, taking it from a small website to a global entity. I've now handed the reins of the website to our American managing editor, while I take on a new challenge as Editor-in-Chief of Homes & Gardens.