Notes from the wreckage

Dilapidated houses come cheap, so why don't more people taken them on? Andy Frood soon found out
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Indy Lifestyle Online
My partner Jo and I quickly became disillusioned with house-hunting. We were looking in south London and wanted two, if possible three bedrooms for a maximum pounds 90,000 mortgage, and there was nothing that came near that. Demoralised after a fruitless weekend, we dragged ourselves into one last estate agent who showed us a picture of a large terraced house. There had to be a catch - this was a five-bedroom property on the market for pounds 100,000 - and I was right; the agent said it "needed a lot of work", by which he meant "it needs rebuilding". But I am an architect so I thought it was worth going along.

Now, I have seen some dilapidated places in my life but this redefined the word. The outside was almost covered by self-seeded trees and bushes and there was rubbish piled high in front. Inside I was met by an overpowering smell of dirt and decaying rubbish.The top part was filthy and the bottom floor - now the kitchen - did not really exist, other than to be marked at the sides, front and back by walls and bits of light peeking through the boarded up windows. But Jo announced that it was wonderful and three months later it was ours.

I had taken the view that, despite some fairly appalling surface damage, the bones of the property were sound and could be redeemed without too much structural work. There is always risk involved: there are always the unknowns that might be revealed on a thorough stripping out of the interior. But to a lesser extent this is true of all properties where carpets and emulsion paint hide a multitude of sins.

The lower ground floor was bare earth, exposed brick and joists and was full of rubbish and dog food cans. The other pressing problem related to the drainage: most of the rainwater, sink and bath water was draining into the house at ground level. The back garden had been used as a rubbish dump by the tenants (the house had previously been split into bedsits) and the drains were all blocked. This was possibly the worst part of the clearance exercise: layer upon layer of rotting old carpet, newspaper, food and bottles which made a playground for rats.

Next we had to clear the rubbish from inside.This ranged from furniture that was reusable to a cooker so encrusted with grease that it was impossible to pick up, large water bottles filled with urine and an assortment of insects infesting the carpet, plus layers and layers of general dirt.

The major concern was the state of the "kitchen". It was the source of the rat problem (yes, we had those too) and rat nests had to be removed, as well as everything else - including plaster and floorboards. But skip upon van upon skip load of rubbish later, the house had not revealed any darker secrets. It was essentially solid, despite a few holes in the walls you could stick your arm through.

The top floor was the least dilapidated: we cleaned it and set up camp in one room here for the next six months. I put in a sink - we had no hot water for the first three months - and we cooked on a Baby Belling in our room.

The work continued around us. We had a limited budget - around pounds 15,000 - and had to allocate this on a greatest-need basis. We spent pounds 10,000 on a builder to sort out the lower ground floor because by doing so we would eradicate the problems of further damp, structural damage and provide ourselves with another floor of habitable space. He put a concrete floor in, built partitions, and boarded and plastered the walls and ceiling. The remaining pounds 5,000 went on plumbing and heating.

The whole undertaking was put into perspective when one month into our "no bath or hot water" phase, my partner discovered she was pregnant. We now have a six-month-old daughter and a greater realisation of what a massive undertaking it is to renovate a really run down property. Her birth made us totally reorganise our priorities - stairs need banisters and floors need boards by the time she is mobile.

We are still letting the neighbourhood down but I can comfort myself that this property has turned a corner. We now inhabit two floors and have a kitchen and bathroom (luxury). The remaining two floors, between our living space (at the top) and the kitchen and bathroom (at the bottom) will be completed on a piecemeal basis, by us, at weekends, the work funded out of salary cheques as we go. I have given up setting deadlines.

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