How To Renovate A House With Young Children

Something I get asked a lot is: "How the actual heck do you manage to do renovation work when you've also got young children?!". The short answer is - six nights of the week, we don't sit down until 10pm. Boom! I could end this post right there. Instead I've got nearly 4000 words to say on the subject, so do make yourself comfortable :-)

First of all, I'd like to share some general advice about DIY renovating with a young family (Eva is 3 and Natalia is 1). Then, I'd like to share an overview of an average day for us, in order to give a feel for how this works out in real-life.

A family walk on Squirrel Beach

So, pretty much, there are two ways to approach house renovation with kids.

The first is to manage a team of contractors who do the work all in one go while you either live amid the chaos or move into nearby rented accommodation. You can check out my blog friend Melanie’s hilarious Pebbledashed Pad to get a feel for how this works in real life.

The second, which is our approach, is to do it really slowly yourselves. Tackle one project at a time in order to keep the dust and mess restricted to one room. And then sit back in, ooh, ten years time and admire all your hard work.

The back of our house

If you're trying to decide whether renovating with children is for you, then you might like to ask yourself the following questions.

1. Both children are asleep during the day. Do you a) sit down and put your feet up with a brew or b) grab the Home Strip, a paintbrush and a roll of clingfilm and quickly poultice the stairs that you'll be scraping lead paint off later that evening THEN run outside with the baby monitors, rake the flower bed in the front garden, throw down a load of lawn seed, rake it again THEN run inside, put on your painting clothes and dust mask and scrape a couple of stairs that you poulticed yesterday and clean up the resulting mess THEN run down to the cellar and put your painting gear in the wash THEN put away the laundry and tidy the lego and craft supplies away and prepare the dinner so you don't have to waste time in the evening cooking and doing housework instead of working on renovation projects...

2. Are you willing to live for several years with a master bedroom that looks like this?

Unless your answers are b) and heck yeah, then taking on a DIY renovation when your children are young may not be the best option for you!

Learn to love your eighties decor

One of the main issues about renovating with kids is that you can't realistically tackle the entire house in one go. You can't strip all the wallpaper from every room and plaster the walls (or pay someone to plaster them for you) all in one go, because do you really want your kids sleeping, eating and playing in a house with horsehair and crumbling old plaster dropping off every wall onto the carpet? Much better to tackle one room at a time, meaning you can close the door on the dust and chaos and be left with a house that is perfectly habitable, albeit possibly decorated in a style that you find visually fairly offensive. While I appreciate the fact that someone took the time to match the red, green and yellow curtains to the burgundy carpet, brick-red walls and ceiling and mustard woodwork in our master bedroom, it's a looong, looong way away from the soothing white oasis of my dreams - yet we've lived with it for twenty months, and will likely have to live with it for quite a few months more while we finish work on the stairs and landings, and then tackle the cellar ceiling insulation.

Our living room fireplace is quite nice, but the decor is not!

Mix your projects up

At any given time, we have a range of different types of projects on the go. Some are noisy projects that can't be done while the children are sleeping. Others have to be done outside - front and back garden projects obviously fall into this category, and often so do projects involving the dusty sanding or smelly painting of furniture. Some projects can be confined to a single room, while others are in communal areas (like our stair renovation project), meaning that one of us has to take the children out for the whole day, while the other stays home and gets covered in dust and paint. So every evening and weekend we check the weather forecast, check the sunset time, check our family calendar, and agree which projects we're going to work on this time. Right now we're stripping, sanding and oiling the stairs and landings, continuing to clear the front and back gardens and plant lawn seed, clearing the cellar in preparation for the first ceiling insulation, and making a chandelier for Natalia's bedroom. Andre's also fixing temporary secondary glazing to the windows, and I'm stripping one of the Victorian windows that I rescued from a neighbour's skip and plan to turn into a giant picture frame, and also making piping for Natalia's beanbags.

Renovating with kids involves a lot of clean-up

When you have young kids in the house who could either try and eat chunks of fallen plaster or else gather them up in a plastic kettle, transfer them to a backpack, take them upstairs and hide them under her pillow, and eventually store them in her sock drawer, you have to do A LOT of cleaning up. In fact, you often spend as much time cleaning up as you spent working on the project in the first place. You can't leave power tools and screws lying around because they'll respectively get used and eaten. You can't leave 130 year old dust on the carpet with the intention of vacuuming it up later because the baby will have rolled enthusiastically in it by the time you get round to it. If you're working on a room that you can get away with not using during the work then great, but if you're renovating a communal area then it has to be hazard-free by the end of the day.

On a related note, when renovating a room like a kitchen that most likely you won't have a second version of, you'll have to spend time creating a fully functional temporary version in another part of the house with a working sink, fridge-freezer, cooker and cupboards because feeding kids for several months with nothing more than a microwave and the bathroom sink isn't enormously practical.

Quick fixes v permanent solutions

You need to choose between quick fixes that will improve the appearance of your house in the short-term, and longer-term, permanent work. We painted our tiny kitchen blue and the woodwork white - previously the walls were yellow and the woodwork green, a colour combination that we just weren't prepared to look at for longer than a few weeks. It helped that the kitchen is teeny tiny (it's shoe-horned into a tower bay window) so it wasn't a huge amount of effort.

Our kitchen before and (temporary) after

We've also splashed some white paint on a few other walls, but what we haven't done is waste time painting every single room white on a temporary basis. Painting numerous walls with 12-foot high ceilings is no mean endeavour in itself - factor in miles of cornice, picture rail, dado and skirting board (Eva's bedroom had 60m of woodwork alone) and you're looking at a mahoosive task that would only have to be completely redone when the time came to sand, restore, prime and paint the woodwork, and strip the wallpaper, insulate, plasterboard, skim, prime and paint the walls.

If we'd painted everything temporarily, it would have taken up so many of our precious DIY hours that we certainly wouldn't have begun work on the stairs yet, and maybe wouldn't even have finished Natalia's bedroom. So choose your projects carefully, and get the right balance between temporary fixes and permanent work.

Find the right balance between renovation and family time

I've written before about how we find the right balance between renovation and family time. While we'd certainly get more done faster if one of us took the kids out for the whole day, Saturday and Sunday, weekend after weekend, while the other focused on the house, that wouldn't be much fun for any of us. So we save that tactic for the occasional projects that really can't be done with the girls in the house (sanding the staircase being a recent example), and instead do most of work in the evenings once both girls are asleep.

You really, really have to want to do it

An obvious one, this, but you have to actively enjoy renovation activities. I find oiling our wooden floors extremely soothing, and joke with friends that it's my equivalent of going for a spa day. Our semi-detached neighbours bought their house from a developer so it came ready done-up, meaning they spent the whole summer relaxing in their back garden watching their kids play, while on the other side of the fence we were sweating, loppers in hand, battling against a bewildering variety of recalcitrant and unattractive shrubs.

Sometimes they took pity on us and passed cold beers (and even, one particularly riotous Sunday afternoon, glasses of champagne) over the fence. But while it's certainly pleasing to sit back in the sun sipping a tasty alcoholic beverage, Andre and I are just not the kind of people who are happy sitting around doing nothing for too long when we could be ACCOMPLISHING THINGS :-) and we were perfectly happy to pick up the tools and get back to work.

Establish an efficient routine

When you're renovating with a young family, time is an extremely precious commodity. Right now I'm on maternity leave (while Andre works full time outside the home) which makes things easier because I can chuck some laundry into the washing machine and get dinner ready in between crawling round the living room on my hands and knees pretending to be a horsie and endlessly recounting the story of naughty Goldilocks ("Goldi must say please, Mummy! Goldi must share!" - bless my girl). But we also have a number of strategies to make life as efficient as possible which are equally applicable when we're both working full time.

We do a lot of batch cooking - big lasagnes, stews and pasta sauces. We eat together as a family and we all eat the same food - no wasting time making separate meals for the kids (toast is available if they won't eat the family meal), and eating at 6pm means Andre and I have the whole evening to work on projects. We tag team after dinner - one of us takes the kids upstairs for bath time while the other stays downstairs to load the dishwasher, clean the kitchen and tidy the playroom. Andre folds laundry and irons his work shirts while watching TV at 10pm after we've finished work (I'm happy to be crumpled!).

We have an online family calendar with shared to-do lists and shopping lists (we use the Cozi app, which I strongly recommend for getting organised). And we do pretty much all our shopping online, from DIY supplies to clothes and birthday party piñatas. Donald, our Amazon delivery guy, is so familiar with our routine that he knows not to knock on the door in the afternoon in case the dogs start barking and wake Natalia up, and the John Lewis delivery guy, who's been delivering parcels since I was pregnant with Eva (he was convinced I was having a boy - apparently he has a 9/10 prediction success rate - 8/10 now, dude!) apparently feels that he knows us so well that he's comfortable telling me that he preferred our front garden the way it used to look - in fairness, we are creating somewhat of a barren wasteland as we gradually clear away the laurel shrubbery to make room for additional parking. If I'm not in to take deliveries, our chilled out champagne-sharing neighbours usually sign for any parcels instead. Buying everything online means we don't have to spend any time on the weekends running shopping errands, which greatly increases the amount of DIY and family time available.

A typical day in the life of renovating with children

So, renovating with children involves taking it slow, maximising time efficiency, a lot of vacuuming, and the occasional glass of cold champagne. Here's how this translates into a day-in-the-life of a real family with young children undertaking DIY renovations.

Saturday, September 2013

8:20 The girls wake up. We have them on an 8-8 schedule rather than the usual English 7-7 because that way we can spend more time with them in the evenings without being rushed. Also it's blissful actually having something approximating a lie-in on weekends! Andre goes downstairs to let Enrique and Penny out for their morning bark and to get espresso and juice for us, and milk and snacks for the girls. During the week I drink my espresso from a pink china cup, and at weekends I use one of the cups from our Heal's white and silver wedding china set. I guess it's not surprising that giving Eva her cereal in the tiger bowl instead of the (correct) monkey bowl causes wails of outrage, huh :-) I lie around in bed being lazy, slurping my espresso, while Natalia roams around our bedroom shrieking excitedly and pulling all my clothes out of the chest of drawers.

09:00 We eventually make it downstairs and I make porridge for breakfast. Sometimes we have eggs, sometimes cereal, sometimes bacon and sausages, but today is a day for good hearty stodge. While we eat, I make a terrifyingly giant autumn renovation to-do-listusing our Cozi app.

10:00 I take a few photos of the progress we've made on the stairs, trying to match up the same angle as earlier pictures so we can have some good before and afters. Andre gets to work scraping yet more layers of lead paint while I take the kids upstairs out of the way. We're using a safe, dust-free method for removing the paint so it's OK for the girls to be in the house as long as they don't start eating any paint chips!

I get the kids dressed and we go up to the bathroom with the turquoise clawfoot bathon the top floor to brush our teeth. Eva brushes her own teeth and then brushes Natalia's teeth, which both girls find hilarious. Meanwhile I apply some Bare Minerals makeup and do something with my hair - I take 5 minutes to do this every day regardless of the circumstances. The kids swing on my hair if I wear it loose, so I've purposefully been growing it long so I can put it up or tie it back, and have become a master of the Cup of Jo style messy up-do :-) Today I do a plait thing at the front and then a rope-braid knot at the back, which sounds a lot more complicated than it actually is and only takes a few minutes.

During this time Eva squeezes a decent amount of handwash onto the edge of the bath and when questioned, explains that she's cleaning it because it's "grubby and dirty". Fair enough, kid.

We go back downstairs to the bedroom (in a house with three staircases, most of my time is spent either moving the kids up and down them from one play area to another or else scraping lead paint off them) where I log onto the PC (it's temporarily residing upstairs) and into my SquareSpace blog account to start making diary notes of the day with this post in mind. Eva sees the pictures of her rainbow cake on the screen and shrieks "there's my beautiful cake!". I strip the bed sheets from all the beds and run downstairs with them to the washing machine in the cellar.

We play in Eva's bedroom with her new dollhouse- most of her beavers and rabbits have apparently got dirty clothes so we wash them in the tiny dollhouse washing machine and get everyone dressed again. I'm not sure what my twenty-something self would have thought about spending a Saturday morning getting a bunch of tiny beavers and rabbits undressed and dressed again in a bunch of tiny clothes but it's a surprisingly peaceful way to while away an hour. Meanwhile Natalia pulls every single book and toy off Eva's bookshelf. She seems to get a lot of enjoyment from this so I just leave her to get on with it.

11:30 Andre's still working on the stairs - we're still in playing in Eva's bedroom, reading her favourite story, 'The Prince, the Mermaid and the Happy Ever After'. I like this story too cos I get to do different voices for all the characters, including Wilberforce the dragon.

12:30 Andre stops work and we all have lunch together. Usually we have a rotating lunch menu of toddler-tastic eggs, beans on toast or pasta, but today we've got some birthday food leftovers to finish off so we have baked Camembert, scrambled eggs for Eva, carrot sticks, grapes, tallegio cheese, crackers and mini breadsticks.

13:30 Natalia sleeps! She can usually be relied to sleep for two hours in her cot every day, which after months and months or sitting awake from midnight until 6am while she slept on me because she absolutely refused to sleep in her bed, I feel like I've blooming well earned. Andre finishes off his work on the stairs for the day and cleans up the mess while I tidy lunch away and clean kitchen. Meanwhile Eva has some quiet time in her bedroom watching cartoons on the iPad before going downstairs with Andre to paint and play with lego.

14:00 My turn to do some DIY. I head outside to the front garden and cut back two of the giant laurel bushes.

They currently form a huge unruly hedge that threatens daily to engulf our neighbour's house as well as lunging towards unsuspecting passers by, so we're working hard to beat them into submission. I fill four green bins with the clippings by dint of climbing into the bin and jumping up and down vigorously.

Meanwhile, Andre and Eva reorganise the utility room in the cellar, which has become so full of random abandoned items piled against the walls that the path through the room to the washing machine becomes narrower every day. We also need to make space for all the random abandoned items in the cellar room underneath the living room, which we need to clear in order to take down the plaster and lath ceiling and install insulation.

15:30 Natalia wakes up - I'm busy stuffing the last few bits of laurel into the green bins, so Andre takes both girls outside where they argue fiercely over whose turn it is to go on the swing. Enrique and Penny, who have been closeted away while Natalia naps in case they bark (Enrique) or yap (Penny) and wake her up, are released and bound around the garden joyfully chasing tennis balls (Enrique) and flies (Penny).

16:00 I spend half an hour on the phone with a friendly colleague who is helping me with some career counselling as I'm looking to make a few changes to my career. Meanwhile, the girls play in the playroom with Andre. We have a one in, one out policy with the messy toys, meaning jigsaw puzzles have to be packed away before the wooden blocks come out, which helps prevent the room from getting hopelessly trashed. We can't wait for this room to be transformed into our new kitchen diner, but this is a couple of years away yet.

16:30 Andre starts to make dinner, and I play with the girls in the living room. I have a wooden chest in there full of my childhood and teenage memorabilia, and I have a sudden yen to open it up and look through everything. Half an hour later I'm engrossed in old copies of Elle, Mizz and Look while the girls play with my He-Man action figures and my favourite doll, Claudine.

17:00 We all sit down and eat dinner together at the table - linguine with prawns, lemon zest, red pesto, and homegrown rocket from the garden. This is one of our favourite cook-it-in-15-minutes meals - the girls love slurping down their linguine strands.

18:00 We all head upstairs for bathtime. Usually we tag team between housework and bath supervision, but tonight we both want to see the girls throwing water at each other and giving themselves foam beards. After the bath, Eva rides around her bedroom on my back (I'm her horsie/dog hybrid at the moment), shouting whooah! calling me boy, and good doggie, giving me carrots, and putting me in my cage (behind the bedroom door). Ironic that she thinks dogs sleep in cages when our two pampered animals are currently napping on 400 thread count White Company bedlinen!

19:00 I tidy upstairs and make the beds up with the freshly washed and dried sheets while Andre installs a set of temporary thermal insulation window film in Eva's room. She has a large bay single-glazed window in her room and it gets very cold in winter - long-term we want to replace the windows with double glazing but haven't yet decided whether to go down the route of secondary glazing to preserve the original windows, new wooden windows, or new uPVC windows.

19:30 I settle Natalia down for the night without protest, and return to Eva's room to find that Enrique, dreadful beast that he is, has puked on our freshly made bed, so Andre has had to strip it and return all the sheets to the washing machine in the cellar.

20:00 Eva and I tidy her dollhouse, read a couple of books, tell her some stories about when she was "tiny", look at photographs of her on my phone, and then finally she sleeps.

20:30 I tidy the kitchen and playroom, pick up millions of sequins from the playroom floor, and then join Andre in scraping more lead off the stairs. I knock off a bit early to wrap a couple of birthday presents for Eva's friends, and transfer the sheets to the tumble dryer for the second time today.

21:30 We treat ourselves to an early night and stop work at half nine, rather than ten, collapsing on the sofa to watch Breaking Bad (we're part-way through season 3, so no spoilers please... *hard stare*). Apart from meals, this is the first time that we've sat down together and done nothing in over 13 hours.

23:00 Bedtime. Our mattress is like sleeping on a supportive marshmallow, and I'm asleep instantly.

So there you have it - a typical day-in-the-life of a family renovating a house with young children. No major, dusty projects with dramatic before and afters, but we actually accomplished quite a bit - a healthy amount of lead paint removal from the stairs, meaning we edge ever closer to the magic day when we can start sanding and finally oiling (psst... we're doing that right now!). Some useful gardening that again means we edge ever closer to our vision for the front garden. And some cellar organisation in preparation for our next major project - insulating the cellar ceiling. We didn't take the kids anywhere, but they were perfectly happy having a nice relaxing day playing in the family house and garden that we're working hard to create for them.

Are you renovating a house with young kids in tow? Do you have any tips? I'd love to hear them...