Alex and Paul sitting at their kitchen table in their newly renovated home in Peckham

The home the internet built

“People compare it to having a baby. You forget the traumatic experience because it’s great once it’s happened.” Buying a rundown house means you can literally (re)build your dream home - and save a pretty penny, too. But is renovating really worth it? Alex and Paul have spent almost three years working on their house in South London’s Peckham using the internet and their bare hands. We spoke to the couple about the transformation, how they lived in what was essentially a building site and what they’ve learned during the process.

How to do it yourself

Along with planning and buying, a lot of time was spent finding online tutorials and trying to do things themselves: “One thing I learned early on is there are very few things you can’t attempt,” says Alex. “I mean, not gas or electric work but other things. Like really simple plumbing and how to change a tap. It’s stuff you think might be easy so you look it up on YouTube and when you do it, it actually turns out to be exactly how it looked on the video.”

Piecing it together

“Half of renovating a house is problem-solving. Not the stuff you’ve done but the stuff you’re about to do. It’s that anticipation,” says Alex. “I don’t think renovating a house is just about the finished product.”

Old favourites

Just because you’re renovating, doesn’t mean everything has to be new. Particularly when it comes to furniture: “We love our Ritchie sofa. It came from our previous flat so we must have had it for about four years now. ”

New favourites

“The first thing we bought for the house was the Scott chair. It sat here for six months in bubble wrap, surrounded by brick dust and building materials then kind of emerged next to the marble fireplace when that was installed, and hasn’t moved since.”

The dark side

“The living room is my favourite,” says Alex. “It just works and the risk of going dark on the walls has really paid off. I knew before we moved in I wanted a really dark painted living room. I just really had that in my head.”

Making your mark

Alex and Paul completely transformed their house with the renovation, but their personality and taste really came to life in the decorations: “If I’m not trying to be coy, I would say that I basically have an unshakeable belief in my own taste,” says Alex. “I kind of feel that if I like it, it will probably go with everything else I like. So sometimes it might be a taxidermy monkey’s head or a pair of ice skates that attracts my attention, but I trust my instinct that they will work together.”

Something to laugh at

“I think it’s important to have stuff that makes you laugh and things that have memories attached to them – like my Grandmother’s vase on our bedroom fireplace,” says Paul. “I also quite like having at least one thing other people think is hideous. Maybe I need to talk to someone about that.”

What’s next?

“We really want a new bed. We love the Penn in oak. We also want some new bedside tables with smart charging. If I could change one thing about this house, it would be the amount of bloody cables trailing about everywhere.”

How to finish a renovation

And if there’s one piece of advice they have, it’s perseverance: “You get to the point where they think ‘I’m so over this and I can’t be bothered’ but you do have to keep going,” says Paul. “You will have days where you don’t like each other and you don’t like the house,” adds Alex. “Things will go wrong and you’ll have spent all your money but you just have to write that day off and start again.”

Renovation horrors

Though excited by the project, the realities quickly set in: “When we first moved it was horrific,” remembers Paul - a social media manager in the charity sector. “I was so horrified by what we bought I refused to leave the kitchen. I had to summon up the courage to look at the rest of the house.” And it wasn’t just the initial shock. The impact on everyday life soon took a toll: “When you’re living in dust, it feels like it’s never going to end. You can’t even clean up because there’s no point.”

A Christmas miracle

Despite the lows, highs were always around the corner: “The first Christmas, we had people over. The morning of the party we were still painting and putting things on the walls. But having all our friends and family over allowed us to enjoy the space for the first time.”

Everybody needs good neighbours

“We know our neighbours really well. We went into their houses and saw how they’d done their kitchens. The neighbours across the road have this layout and we asked if they mind us copying it because we just felt like it worked really well.”

Digital revolution

Snooping on your neighbours is a great way to find inspiration, but as Alex and Paul were working full time, they mainly used the internet to build their home: “It was all digital research and a lot of buying online,” Alex says. “We used online salvage yards and auction sites. By spending half an hour online, I found a shop that sells our radiators for £100 less than a high street shop. The thing is, you really have to know exactly what you’re after. I spent hours researching and measuring. But, I mean, I bought a door that was the wrong size and I just sold it online so nothing was too disastrous.”

Money, money, money

But curiosity and passion weren't the only things driving this project, there was a more practical reason, too: “Finance was a big part,” Alex notes. “You know when you look at houses and think “that’s the one” - this wasn’t that. It was a head decision, not a heart decision. We wanted a house and there were three in the area we could afford. One had been renovated so we couldn’t do anything to it. Another was so bad, it had bin bags in the windows. And then there was this one.”

Fortune favours the brave

“A lot of people were put off by how much there was to do which is why we got it under asking price which was quite rare in 2015.” When looking for a new home, Alex - an editor at an online fashion retailer - was sure of two things: he wanted a renovation project and he wanted to do it himself: “I’m fascinated by how things are constructed. I worked for a brilliant sculptor called Oriel Harwood when I was in my 20s, and she always said that job would remove any fear I had about DIY. She was right.”

Article written by: Carly-Ann Clements
Photography by: Anna Batchelor

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