Diary of a renovator: selective profligacy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 October, 2008, 12:00am

It's strange how you can be thrifty all your life but, when it comes to home renovation, spending big seems second nature. I put it down, in part, to unfamiliarity with what's involved. I mean who, unless they're in the trade or a Lockhart Road junkie, knows how much a toilet, window or wooden floor is worth?

Seasoned renovators may have a better sense of the fees contractors, architects and designers are likely to charge. And handymen will have a gut feeling about what a basic task should cost. I'm no DIY-er but it wasn't hard to choose when one contractor wanted to charge HK$75,000 for a paint job; another suggested HK$15,000 and the boyfriend said he'd do it for HK$10,000. I took the conflict-free middle path.

In my case penny pinching in certain areas has been rendered inconsequential by profligacy in others. There have also been unforeseen expenses and options I've chosen midway through renovation because:

I was being exposed to lovely kit.

I couldn't bear the thought of having the workers back a year later to upgrade what was already causing me doubts.

I was spending like a Mark Six winner anyway.

The windows are to blame for opening my inner purse. Soon after demolition began Joe, my contractor, asked: 'Are you sure you don't want to change them? Now's a good time if you do.'

We had never even discussed the subject before because, at the planning stage, I was obsessed with keeping costs down. My old T-bar aluminium windows opened, closed and kept out the rain but they were ugly, old-fashioned and cheap. Besides, the previous owners had punched air-conditioner outlets through the glass rather than make holes for them in the thick concrete walls. The gobs of silicon sealant used resembled solidified lard. What was a poor girl to do?

Having gone off-plan once made it easier to be extravagant the next time. Naturally, I'd want balcony doors to match the windows, especially with Joe asking, 'Are you sure you don't want to change them? Now's a good time if you do.'

Next were the air conditioners and water heaters. Seeing them covered in construction crud didn't inspire confidence that they'd ever work again. Besides, I told myself as the old goods were being carted off, here was an opportunity to buy energy-efficient models.

Oddly, being in debt made it so much easier to keep spending. And when the house started to look good I wanted it to look great. So I asked for a planter along the side of the house in which to grow bamboo, an iron gate with fancy Chinese latticework and a wood-and-glass awning over the main door to replace the canvas canopy that had collapsed. It'd be more trouble than it was worth to fix, I told myself.

Even without these pricey additions my costs would have exceeded initial expectations. When Joe drew up a quotation he didn't include the small things that add up, such as the installation of outdoor lights or a door bell. Neither did he account for costs related to carelessness: the boom box I lent the workers is now so dirty the radio dial is stuck on a channel playing music to skin the cat by; the bathroom I left intact is coated in muck because it was used to store construction materials; the step ladder is broken.

Then there were the odd jobs I added to the list to ensure good relations with the family next door. The neighbour of a friend in Sydney had built her a skylight to compensate for their year-long noisy renovation. I wasn't so generous, although I did ask the Cheoks what they needed fixed. In shock they said, 'Can you paint our balcony railing?'

A few days later they asked for their balustrade to be mended. When they wanted a hole in their wall plugged the charity ended.

It's almost a cliche that remodelling will end up costing twice as much and take twice as long. I'm 25 per cent over budget and two months behind schedule. 'You're lucky,' a fellow renovator insisted. She had reckoned on HK$400,000 for a flat revamp and ended up paying more than HK$1,000,000. I shivered at the thought and summoned the contractor.

'I'm sure nothing else needs doing,' I said. 'Now's a good time to bring things to a close.'

If you have renovation-related tales you would like to share, e-mail Xiu Fang at features@scmp.com