After meeting my partner Daniel, we rented a one-bedroom flat which was perfectly located in the middle of rapidly gentrifying Dalston. It was affordable, even on our comparatively low salaries at the time: I was working as an assistant fashion designer and Daniel was retraining as a carpenter after previously cutting suits on Savile Row. We moved after four years, when I relocated to Paris for work. When we returned to London a couple of years later, we discovered that property prices and rental costs in south Hackney had gone through the roof.
We became determined to try to buy our own place as we knew that monthly mortgage repayments would be lower than rent, and we figured that with Daniel’s technical skills and our hands-on approach we could find an inexpensive flat and renovate it affordably, increasing the value of the property while creating a truly personal space we would love to live in.
Over the following 12 months we camped out around London with accommodating family and friends, paying mates' rates rent and saving up. Over the year we lived in a friend’s storage unit, the basement of my stepsister’s doer-upper, and a makeshift camper van built from reclaimed doors, parked down a Dalston alleyway; we were living out of backpacks.
Daniel’s parents kindly lent us money towards our deposit, without which we would never have been able to buy. We had a maximum budget of £300,000 but we also knew that if we did max it out we’d have no cash left to renovate, so we ideally needed to find a property substantially cheaper.
We were also dead set on the idea of renovating an ex-council flat. My sister was living as a property guardian in council blocks around east London that were awaiting demolition. She moved on every few months as the blocks were knocked down, and whenever we visited her we couldn’t believe how spacious and airy they were compared with new-build flats. Ceilings were higher, rooms and windows were larger, the materials and construction techniques used were solid and high quality. We loved that the unfussy aesthetics and mid-century heritage of these flats could provide a blank canvas for our ideas.
Initially we imagined ourselves living high up in a brutalist concrete tower block but were quickly overruled by estate agents who explained that mortgage providers won’t normally lend on properties over seven storeys high – high-rise flats are generally only available to cash buyers.
Most estate agents also told us that despite seeking an ex-council flat in need of modernisation, we were more than priced out of Hackney and they had nothing for us to see. We viewed several properties around Walthamstow, but we really missed the idea of being able to walk or easily cycle to work, which we both agreed was high up on our priority list and integral to the quality of life we were looking for. We also wanted to live as near as possible to an expanse of green space, as we both love spending time outdoors and were planning to get a dog.
When I first moved to east London a decade earlier, Clapton was still a little rough and ready. However, over time, as we visited and house-sat for friends living in flats and boats around the River Lea, we began to fall for the area. We adored the barely occupied wilderness of the river and marshes, stretching endlessly northwards out of London, as well as the intermingling of orthodox Jewish, Caribbean and Turkish residents, hanging out in Springfield Park alongside committed boat-dwellers from the marina.
When we spotted an ex-council flat on sale in Upper Clapton for a starting price of £250,000, we leapt at the chance to view it. The leaseholder had been renting out the property for several years and now needed to sell quickly. For this reason, the flat was selling via sealed bids. We initially won with a bid of £272,000 – we’d gone in fairly high as we knew the place was right for us and didn’t want to lose out. We later succeeded in negotiating down to £267,000, following a valuation from the bank.
Besides the location, we were attracted to the flat’s original features – large, wooden-framed windows and red-brick internal walls – and immediately saw the potential to remodel the layout and create an open, modern living space. Although the flat was technically one-bedroom, at 55 square metres it was equal in size to a two-bed starter flat in a new-build development. And although not the high-rise we’d originally had in mind, the third floor elevation gave us views across the city, even as far as the London Eye.
The renovation process took much longer than we thought and was painful at times. Firstly, there was bureaucracy to deal with: we had to apply for permission from the freeholder before making major changes. There were also some aspects where it was important to hire certified professionals for insurance purposes, for example the boiler replacement and electrics. After moving in, it took six long months of administration and organisation before we had the right paperwork in place to get started.
Aside from the boiler and electrics we elected to do as much work as possible ourselves in order to save money and avoid compromising on our ideas. Although this made our renovation journey much longer and more difficult, it also enabled us to explore plenty of exciting and unusual design and construction techniques, and execute everything exactly as we wanted. We both acquired tons of new skills and knowledge along the way. It’s probably worth pointing out that Daniel, as a registered tradesperson, has public liability insurance, without which we would not have felt as confident taking on as much as we did.
We both worked on the renovation alongside full-time jobs, sacrificing most of our weekends and holidays. Despite our efforts the process seemed achingly slow and there were moments when it felt like a massive weight on our shoulders. We watched enviously as friends got builders in and were WhatsApping photos of their gorgeous finished flats in a matter of weeks. However every small achievement made our space a little more special and more liveable, which gave us the encouragement we needed to carry on.
Room by room we reduced the flat to a shell – removing the entire original heating system and most of the electrics, as well as the bathroom, kitchen and flooring. We demolished the non-structural walls of the hallway and utility room to create an open kitchen/living space, and levelled the floor. We lived in the flat throughout the yearlong process, escaping only once for a fortnight’s house-sitting, which I remember as a huge relief. It was incredibly difficult at times, living without the basic facilities for washing, cooking – even for going to the toilet. I showered at work for a month and we spent an hour or two every week at the laundrette. As if it weren’t testing enough, my sister moved in partway through to camp out with us in our building site.
Eighteen months after moving in, we’d finally created a liveable environment with a functioning bathroom and kitchen; it took us a further year to install central heating. Although the major work is now wrapped up, three years down the line, we still have some way to go before we’ll feel satisfied that the flat is finished.
We've aimed to use natural and, wherever possible, reclaimed materials to renovate the flat. This isn’t the cheapest or easiest option, however the money saved through doing the labour ourselves compensated for the material cost of reclaimed granite floor tiles and oak parquet blocks. We’ve invested time and elbow grease in restoring the flat’s original features, scraping layers of paint from wooden window frames and brick walls to make the most of the materials already present in the property.
I’m most proud of our kitchen, which is based around a reclaimed stainless steel restaurant sink with a huge draining board. Daniel made solid wooden cupboard doors to fit beneath the steel commercial units. We matched these with a steel Indian kitchen rack and hand-fired Mexican tiles, so there’s a repeated contrast between industrial and rustic materials.
Our flooring is also pretty special. We’ve left the parquet blocks un-sanded for now and they are charmingly mismatched – we can decide whether to sand and oil them at some point in the future. In the kitchen area and the bathroom, the oak parquet gives way to 1950s multicoloured terrazzo tiles.
In the bathroom we designed a long, narrow walk-in shower to fit the small space. Constructing this together was the ultimate test of our relationship – we fired plenty of foul language at each other while trying to slot a gigantic pane of glass into a floor-to-ceiling wooden pillar.
Because of the minimal interior structure of the flat, we’ve also chosen to expose sections of plumbing and electrics using copper pipes and steel conduit, which looks great and makes construction more straightforward. We’ve stripped and re-enamelled the original radiators in bright colours which pop against the pale grey walls.
Renovating in a block of flats can be challenging: it’s essential to work only within regulated hours, keep disturbance to a minimum, and communicate your plans to your neighbours. Understandably our neighbours below, who were at home during the day, found some of the noisy work we did early on really difficult. We made sure to stop working whenever we were asked and tried to find times when it was okay for us to complete noisy tasks.
I think some of our friends and family are a bit confused as to why we’ve poured so much time and energy into such a small flat which might not have longevity for us – and why it’s taken so long! Despite the bumpy journey, the satisfaction of having created our own space and everything we’ve learned along the way has been a reward in itself. Living in a city like London, we’re all so used to outsourcing everything as we understandably place huge value on our free time. For us, trading in some of that time and freedom has enabled us to build our perfect space and gain a new set of skills and confidence to go with it. The teamwork has strengthened our relationship and we’ve always made time to clock off for a glass of wine and a pizza to celebrate our accomplishments at the end of a hard day’s work. It’s certainly not the right path for everyone, but for those who have some of the skills required, I’d definitely recommend taking the slow route and creating your own unique home.