Property: To make a killing put your life on hold

Renovating can add plenty of value to your property. But, as Fiona Brandhorst discovered, it means work, work and more work

"No pain, no gain" is little consolation if you're up to your neck in sweat and tears renovating a property. While some people manage to make vast fortunes on a house without so much as changing a light switch, others are more dedicated, spending months or even years restoring a house before cashing in on their investment.

Buying a rambling, unmodernised Victorian semi "as Grandma left it" was something Duncan Benge and Mariana Hardcastle vowed they'd never do again, but Duncan is the first to admit that their second foray into the world of renovation was purely "motivated by money". They paid pounds 134,000 for their house last summer just as the property market in south London was coming out of its nose- dive. Similar properties now start at around pounds 250,000.

"We reckoned we needed to spend pounds 60,000 on the renovations and we only had half of that," says Duncan. They agreed that most of the shortfall would be spent on labour so it made sense for Duncan to take a year's sabbatical from his business, sourcing antique furniture, to do as much of the work he could himself. Mariana, meanwhile, continued her job as an estate agent.

Having sold their flat quickly, they had to live apart with friends for four months while the electrics, plumbing, central heating and roof were renewed. Duncan worked around and sometimes with the professionals. "The plumber was employed on a day rate," says Duncan. "I didn't want him to waste time going off to the builders' merchant for parts so he gave me the list instead. I figured if I was around working all the time, they'd have to do the same."

Duncan and Mariana lived in one room when they moved in together with the "demolition site" around them. They didn't bother with a plan of action, the task was too big. They'd even taken a gamble on not having a full structural survey, relying instead on the "unofficial" advice of an architect friend that there was "not a lot wrong" with the house.

Duncan started decorating at the top of the house and is slowly working his way down. It took him three weeks to install the new kitchen from a "stack of boxes and various plans" only to find the ceiling had succumbed to damp from the room above and fallen in one morning at 4am. "It's still down, I can't face it," he adds.

Is it easy to become obsessed with the task when you've set yourself a timescale? "You have to be disciplined," explains Duncan. "You need to have time off but not too much or it's difficult to get the momentum going again."

Most of the decorations have been chosen with an eye to reselling the property, with a few exceptions. "The bedrooms have been painted in bold colours and the main bedroom will be furnished in a Thirties style as it's the period I specialise in. A gothic arch in the hallway will frame a gothic-style window I've found for the kitchen. But we've pandered to the need for Victorian features like fireplaces."

One thing Duncan and Mariana didn't budget for when they took on their financial proposition was falling in love with the house. "We probably won't be moving on as quickly as we'd intended," adds Duncan.

Moving on has never been a problem for Larry Griffiths, national sales manager for a gas company, and his wife Hazel, whose first renovating challenge came when they sold their clone estate house in 1980 on the outskirts of Peterborough to buy a five-bedroom Victorian detached house.

The house had ancient wiring, no damp-proof course and a "nail sick" roof where the tiles were just sliding off like sheet rain. Eighteen months and several large tins of emulsion later, they moved on again, with a sizeable deposit, to a sprawling 1920s bungalow. Intact with period features, including plaster swallows round the ceilings, it was so "unfashionable" at the time that it was practically given away.

Larry, 47, a former gas fitter, tackles most of the renovation work himself and when he can't, he always knows a man who can. Yet no one could rescue Larry and Hazel from the only bad property move they have made. Initially, they were delighted with the tiny terraced cottage that cost "peanuts".

However, it didn't take long to find that their bedroom window had a fine view of an abattoir. Three days a week the street was awash with blood. "The rats were the size of cats," remembers Larry. "Apparently it was all the protein going down the drains." They resold it, fully renovated, on a quiet day at the abattoir.

Larry and Hazel have spent the past three years restoring a Grade II- listed farmhouse. "The rules and regulations have nearly killed me," comments Larry, "all the work has had to be inspected, but I've learnt so much."

Making money is the motivation, but do personal relationships suffer as weekends are spent stripping and sanding? "You have to have the same vision," says Larry, "or you'd be walking down divorce street very quickly."

Duncan Benge would use the profit he hopes to make to have an easier life. "Next time, we'll have the money to pay someone to do it for us."

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