I blame the TV DIY shows

When Arifa Akbar bought a flat to do up, she thought she was in easy street. She was wrong
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Like so many first-time buyers in London, I had spent months searching for an affordable property, but found even the smallest one-bedroom, centrally located flats still out of reach.

Like so many first-time buyers in London, I had spent months searching for an affordable property, but found even the smallest one-bedroom, centrally located flats still out of reach.

So I thought a way to gain a foothold on the property ladder was to buy a place that needed some renovation and give it a facelift, which would hopefully add to its selling price.

I was inspired by the tide of DIY programmes on television that helped homeowners transform their properties, and I felt a bit of decorating and minor structural work was a challenge I could easily meet.

Last June, I came across a flat in Camden Town, North London, which appeared to have a lot of potential. It certainly fulfilled the golden rule of "buying for the location", being a 10-minute bus ride to the West End and a short meander to Camden Lock. It was on the fourth floor of a block overlooking Regents Canal.

Built in 1938 as a large tenement block for single, working women, it appealed to me for its security (it had a full-time caretaker), as well as its period features. It had large windows, a Belfast sink and a huge iron lift with a traditional wooden door and grating. I agreed to pay £153,500, lower than the average £160,000 cost of a first-time purchase in Britain.

With a scrapbook full of ideas, I added a "builder's budget" of £5,000 on top of its selling price, deciding that it was still cheaper than buying a flat that had already been done up.

After exchanging contracts in mid-August, I estimated it would take a couple of months of basic building work before it became habitable. I needed to board up the airing cupboard and add a basin. The bathroom door would have to be re-hinged to open the other way. There were windows facing the hallway that would have to be plastered to stop the hall light flooding in. And I decided to open it up the tiny galley kitchen to overlook the sitting room.

My brother's friend recommended a builder based in Finchley, who said he could do the job in no time. He brought in a friend and their work began promisingly. But three months later, despite much badgering, the flat looked in a worse state than ever. Despite my increasingly desperate phone calls - and rising panic at having paid most of his cash-in-hand fee already - he stopped answering my calls and eventually disappeared, leaving bags of old tools and debris for me to clean up.

I had not financed "unreliable builders" into my budget, and neither had I accounted for unexpected costs, such as an electrical check-up of the entire flat and the extortionate cost of tiling. Five months later, I had still not moved in. The bathroom door had not been put back on, the new toilet was not screwed down and the electrical sockets were hanging loose.

Richard Hair, the president of the National Association of Estate Agents, says that a substantial renovation project may end up being a financial gamble for a first-time buyer.

"First-time buyers may not fully appreciate the level of work involved to carry out a renovation project. They often forget about additional costs of things like electrical work or plastering, and may not yet have experience of dealing with plumbers and builders and all their pitfalls.

"They may have the utopian idea that the builders will turn up on time, for example. The prospect of a decoration party with friends sounds like great fun, but building work is beyond the potential of 80 per cent of people," Hair says.

After spending every weekend in crisis talks with builders, carpenters and electricians, I realised that my combination of inexperience, under-budgeting and bad luck made it a traumatic first-time buy.

I finally moved in at the beginning of this year. Already, I may have overspent by £3,300 with many important jobs outstanding, but the place is beginning to feel like home.


What I did:

* Estimated a renovation budget of £5,000, for installing the kitchen, bathroom and for other structural work.

* Hired a builder based on one personal recommendation.

* Paid the builder cash in hand before the jobs were completed.

* Imagined I could do a lot of the paint work myself as well as taking out the old kitchen and carpets.

* Wrongly imagined the flat just needed a simple paint job, which I could easily do myself.

* Gave the builders a set of keys and let them get on with their work, with no agreed finish date.

What I should have done:

* Drawn up budgets from quotations and factored in extra money for electrical work, plastering, tiling and accidental costs.

* Obtained at least three estimates, and viewed previous jobs.

* Requested an invoice at the end of the job and not paid "cash-in-hand".

* Been realistic about decorating; and the effort involved in removing debris from the fourth storey.

* Taken a builder to view the flat before the purchase to determine the extent of renovation costs.

* Given the builders a finish date; and reassessed the situation if they did not complete on time.