consults Cork engineer Kieran McCarthy on key property revamp considerations.
You've a head full of dreams as you eye that residence in need of renovation.
It could well be an affordable option, but lay the lump hammer aside for a moment and instead grab pen and paper to list the practicalities a doer-upper project will entail.
What skills do you need and what should you outsource? And just where can you cut costs and what splurges are justifiable?
Above all: Is pursuing derelict or semi-derelict property an investment or a money sinkhole?
Because that was the debate on sofas in living rooms across Ireland as the first episode of Cheap Irish Homes aired on RTÉ One last Tuesday.
Cork civil engineer Kieran McCarthy, who co-presents the show, looks at the situation from a professional perspective when I consult him on how to approach renovating an older building.
Walls and roof
“What I do is rather than wonder where the problems are (because it is guaranteed to be a long list) I look at what is good about the building — so I start with the walls,” the Midleton native told the Irish Examiner.
“These need to be in reasonably good structural order (look at the windows and door for tell-tale cracks).
"You will likely have rising damp and other moisture problems here but that is par for the course.
"Then I look at the roof to see how good that is (are all slates in line and all in place, is the lead in place, is the chimney cracked, are gutters intact?).”
If both walls and roof are in good order, says Kieran, “then you have the minimum you would expect”.
“If not you are looking at a major project (and price tag) rather than a more reasonable project which is more controllable in terms of supervision, phasing, complexity and costs,” he says.
Where to save
What aspects are safe to save on with a doer upper — and where can you feel justified in splashing the cash?
At a minimum, you need to comply with building regulations when renovating, the engineer points out.
“Beyond this the spend is somewhat discretionary — so a double-glazed A-rated window will normally achieve a better U-value than a modern aluminium double-glazed window even though the aluminium will look more sleek and cost considerably more.
"There are many such considerations,” he says.
What to invest in
But avoid a short-sighted approach, adds Kieran.
“One point I might make is value for money in the long term,” he says.
“A young couple renovating a new home can still (just about) comply with regulations by installing a gas boiler in lieu of fitting an air-to-water pump.
"Whereas the gas boiler will be cheaper upfront the air-to-water will save on ongoing heating bills for its lifetime so more upfront cost but more savings.”
What’s a crucial consideration in buying or renovating a home?
“One of the best investments you can make is insulation in that it is a once-off cost,” according to Kieran.
“It reduces heating bills, provides a more comfortable living environment, adds value to your home and protects the environment in terms of reducing emissions.
“You can certainly phase its installation so perhaps a room at a time if your budget is under pressure.”
And when should you walk away?
“Value is in the eye of the beholder but in most cases a good structure (walls, roof and ideally first floor) is a great asset to have and can be difficult and costly to fix if not,” says Kieran.
“Unless you have very deep pockets, a house without this benefit poses considerable risk.
"Most other items are less invasive, less costly and some are discretionary and can be phased in line with your cash flow.”
Kieran comes from a family of engineers, architects and builders.
He qualified as a civil engineer in 1996 and seven years later established KMC Homes which offers a turnkey design and build service.
“I honed my design, building and project management skills working for companies as John Sisk & Sons, PJ Hegarty & Sons and The Murphy Group (UK) and Joseph Lanes & Sons,” he says.
Inspiration came very close to home for his own one-stop shop service, based in Carrigtwohill.
“We really needed an extension, but my mother couldn’t deal with the hassle and stress it would have caused her and my father who were both working.
"I thought: There is something wrong with this picture,” he has said.
I compare our old semi-detached house with those that are built today and there is very little difference apart from a higher energy rating.
"We built the pyramids over 4,500 years ago and the best we can offer most people today is a rectangular shaped house with a sloping roof, I felt compelled to offer something better.
"I believe modern people have a right to live in a well-designed house.”
Spending many years working on renovation projects, Kieran’s company now focuses mainly on newbuilds.
And weekends over the past few months, for Kieran, were spent filming Cheap Irish Homes, for which Kieran travelled the country to advise participants on the engineering, building and design potential of would-be future homes.
The series aims to shine a light on a forgotten segment of the Irish property market but it illuminated a whole lot more for Kieran.
“What I discovered that I didn’t know before filming — and this has little enough to do with the houses I was visiting with Maggie — was the two-tier economy that exists in Ireland.
"I live in Cork and travel to Kerry and Dublin for the rare outing or holiday so travelling to inland towns in the West and Midlands I was taken aback by the deterioration of the towns and villages with little hope of a stimulus on the horizon,” he says.
“Without some sort of assistance these towns and villages, just like the Irish cottages nearby will become lost to us.”