June 6, 2023


Home Improvement

Carolyn Hitt: The global pandemic has created a DIY boom – Carolyn Hitt

6 min read

If there was a Holy Grail in human form this summer it is The Builder.

In the Da Vinci Code, Tom Hanks may have raced across the historical sites of Europe in pursuit of this mythical relic but that doesn’t compare to the quest many people are currently engaged in to find someone who’ll put up a side return extension sometime this century.

Talk to home-owners and they’ll wail with tales of six-month waiting lists to even get a quote on a new bathroom. Talk to builders and they’ll moan about shortages of materials and labour and the rocketing price of timber.

“It will be nice when it’s finished” is usually the mantra of the weary renovator putting a brave face on the utter chaos of a home makeover. Now it’s more a case of: “It will be a miracle to get started.”

Supply cannot meet demand. The global pandemic has created a DIY boom, a press release informed me this week, stating: “Many of us have been making an extra effort to make our homes even more luxurious and comfortable.”

In a bid to discover Britain’s most houseproud region, interior design company Dowsing & Reynolds crunched some data and found that Swansea came second only to Warrington in its enthusiasm for interior décor transformation.

Well done to the renovators of Reynoldston and all of you having a makeover in Mumbles.

That’s the PR speak version. A more prosaic interpretation is now that we know what it’s like to be stuck at home for months on end – and that it might also be our indefinite workplace – we’ve finally had to face up to all those DIY jobs around the house that need doing.

The ridiculous property boom which means house prices bear no relation to what people actually earn has also left most of us with the option of improving rather than moving. And that’s for those fortunate enough to be on the housing ladder in the first place.

For me, lockdown has meant I finally had to tackle the Big Crack in my pine end. And a kitchen damaged by a flood caused by a tap I left running while answering a phone call upstairs. (I went back to work and forgot about it for the next three hours until steam started enveloping my home office. An expensive mistake. Insurance policies don’t cover perimenopausal brain fog, sadly.)

Then there was the ancient bathroom clad in painted timber hiding God knows what, with a leaking toilet and a cold tap that – unlike the kitchen hot tap – could never run.

And the front bedroom in an artex ceilinged time capsule since the early 1990s.

And the unplastered hall and landing with a threadbare stair carpet.

But the Big Crack was the priority. Not only has it been the source of endless double entendres, it has caused a serious damp issue at the back of the house leaving the guest bedroom looking about as welcoming as Bates Motel.

Investigating the Big Crack revealed almost as many horrors as a Hitchcock movie. Not only would the back of the house need complete re-rendering and the replacement of all windows, I needed an entire new roof.

Being informed of this development, was the kind of moment that needed to be accompanied by a serious-faced Kevin McCloud delivering the classic Grand Designs jeopardy link: “Two weeks into the build and Carolyn is already over budget.”

But when it comes to cutting corners on home improvements the one thing you can’t really skimp on is having a roof over your head. I was reminded of its rather vital purpose on that stormy, scaffold-rattling weekend in May when nothing but polythene and a pile of rotten joists separated me from the Canton night sky.

The exterior builders have finished – and done a great job – but almost four months on from the start of the interior work, the only thing I seem to be at the end of is my tether.

Home improvement is a bit like childbirth, you only forget the agonising hell it entails when you’re cooing over the end result.

If it really wasn’t worth the pain, we’d all have been an only child. Same with doing up the house. It’s not as if I haven’t been here before with the original two-rooms into one kitchen renovation and the Dry Rot Living Room Drama of 2006 which saw the house dug down to its bare earth foundations.

This archaeological enterprise almost gave my previous builder a coronary when he uncovered a row of teeth grinning a sinister smile through the dirt. Once I’d convinced him I hadn’t buried my ex, he brushed them off and was relieved to find they were false.

This time, the removal of the bathroom cladding unleashed a petrified mouse. And there have been the same deprivations every building project imposes – the unmistakable soundtrack of Radio 1 and Black & Decker; a layer of mortar dust on every single surface and possession; beautifully plastered walls but horribly splattered furniture and that general sense of masculine invasion.

While I still don’t have a bath, shower or sink fitted, the absence of the toilet for a month has been the greatest challenge. My pelvic floor is now more concrete than any of those fancy surfaces on Grand Designs.

As for the interior décor choices, it’s supposed to be all the fun of mood boards and perusing copies of Living Etc, but it’s more the stress of constantly choosing stuff, not to mention being confined by undefined courier time slots and wondering if I’ll have the strength to drag in a “kerbside delivery”.

I have had to make more decisions in the past four months than a delegate at the United Nations. I’m already on my second 5m x 3m roll of bathroom vinyl because it looked completely different on arrival than on the website.

As for white paint, don’t get me started. It doesn’t do exactly what it says on the tin because what it says on the tin is something stupid like “Timeless”. Or “Milk White”, which you would expect to be creamy, right? Wrong, it’s greeny… as I discovered once my bathroom had been covered in a shade the colour of my complexion on being informed of the need for a new roof.

Whole books could be written on whiter shades of pale. Discuss it online and the Farrow & Ball fanatics will start boasting about their Wimborne White kitchens or their Mole’s Breath bedrooms. What they don’t tell you is half the time they’ve nipped down to Johnstone’s to get these fancy shades colour-matched rather than pay posh paint prices.

Every time I’ve been there, there’s been a woman whispering: “Can you do Mouse’s Back in matt please?”

My decorator, meanwhile, can’t see what all the fuss is about, especially when I blanched at his suggestion of painting everything the shade that would traumatise the F&B brigade… Brilliant White. Maybe he’s got the right idea. At least that does do what it says on the tin.

As I write this, in the only corner of the house that’s still vaguely habitable, I’m waiting for the builder to fit the bath that’s sitting in the middle of the kitchen. But now he thinks it might be too big. I’ve already sent the shower back because it arrived in chrome not matt black as ordered.

The thought of swapping the biggest box of sanitary ware I’ve ever seen is not quite on a par with New Roof-gate but it’s still worthy of another doom-laden Kevin McCloud update. “Carolyn was hoping to make a splash with her free-standing 1655mm bath but will she even get it through the door?”

And the builder hasn’t turned up. Again. Despite my increasingly forlorn and pleading texts. Too many other jobs to juggle for other desperate Welsh renovators.

“You can’t complain, at least you’ve got a builder,” says a friend who has been told her home makeover can’t start until July 2022.

“And it will be nice when it’s finished.”

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