Two months ago, my boyfriend and I moved into a flat you could generously call “characterful”, “a fixer-upper” and more accurately, “the only thing we could afford”.

“So nice to put your own stamp on a place!” friends have said, because that’s pretty much all they can say when I show them ‘the murder staircase’, or the way none of the doors actually fit into their frames. “So quirky and original!” is all you can really offer when I point out that the garden has (surprise!) our neighbours’ bedroom window in it.

And they’re right, it IS nice to put your own stamp on a place. It’s an almighty privilege to have a place to stamp on at all, especially when you’ve spent most of a decade wincing at estate agents’ windows and believing you never, ever would. But with great privilege comes great pressure, and doing the actual stamping can be equal parts exciting, frustrating and confusing.

When people talk about how much they’d love to renovate a fixer-upper, what they tend to mean is somewhere romantically dilapidated, with charming rickety bannisters and original hearth tiles and distressed walls, like a bistro in a railway arch. Something like the house Ally McBeal bought to lovingly transform with Jon Bon Jovi. People imagine a scenario where they’d have a bottomless budget and also a convenient sabbatical from work, and spend their days wearing a paint-splattered shirt and presiding over a pack of subservient builders, eating a sausage bap while sat on an upturned bucket and posting their tile deliberations on Instagram Stories.

What they don’t mean is subsidence, or Japanese knotweed, or a bedroom with indelible green smears on the ceiling. They don’t romanticise the day you burst into tears because you bought the wrong kind of shower curtain, or the day you pull a string of melted cheese from your dinner and realise it is actually molten gaffer tape. And by ‘they’, I mean ‘I’. I didn’t.

But now, a whole two months into the renovation of one small flat, I am an expert! Naturally. Please allow me to share what I’ve learned.

One minute you’re a carefree pleasure-seeker who doesn’t know her cornice from her elbow; the next you’ve spent 45 minutes talking about extractor fans at somebody’s birthday drinks. No matter how firm your resolve, you will become a boring property wanker and you will love it. Look, here I am writing an article about decorating! Resistance is futile.
Pinterest, like alcohol, ought to come with a government-issued “use responsibly” warning: “Objects on the screen may be less attainable than they appear.” Yes, it can be a fabulous source of inspiration, but it is also a fraudulent shop window full of homes owned by millionaires, styled by professionals, lit by magic and filled with beautiful things you can only buy in Denmark. In 1902.

Instagram can be equally soul-destroying at times, it’s true, but at least interiors influencers are often happy to answer questions, share links and give tips. On Pinterest, there is nobody to tell you that their perfect glass lampshade shattered after a week, or that their children live in a wipe-clean hut in the garden so as not to mark the sofa. Plus there’s always a danger of falling into a hyperlink rabbit hole and never being able to find the stockist for that thing you love. Beware.

You just can’t. Seriously, abandon that dream now.
You begin with big dreams about all the cool, creative ways you will realise your vision, then immediately come up against 5,736 reasons why you can’t. There are reasons, it turns out, that people have dull things like carpet and paint instead of sexy things like stripped floorboards and bare brick feature walls. Reasons such as (in my case, at least) temperature regulation, sound insulation and woodworm.

Very quickly, life becomes a living iteration of that condescending Wonka meme (“Oh, you’re going to find a perfect mid-century teak sideboard for a bargain at a flea market? Do go on…”) and you realise you are just one in a long, long line of people who has had to compromise their vision and let practicality override originality. It’s okay. Real friends will imagine the parquet flooring in their minds, even as they enjoy the carpet with their feet.

Builders love to be incredulous about the fact that you, a non-builder who has hired them for their building skills, don’t know anything about building. For example, when you say something like “parquet flooring” and they laugh so hard they have to sit down and get their breath back.

The balance of power in your relationship with a builder is a tricky thing, mainly in that they have it all and you don’t have any. (See also: money.) For even the most practically minded person there will be moments when a builder is speaking but all you hear is the fuzz of a broken TV set, punctuated occasionally by words like “architrave” and “jamb” and “spondle”. Yes, you will nod, pretending to understand and be in deep consideration. You are happy for them to jamb the architrave with a spondle. Thank you.

If you’ve lived in rented, pre-furnished flats your whole adult life, there’s a certain pressure to burst out, like a butterfly from a chrysalis, with a fully formed signature aesthetic. It becomes very hard to know the difference between “I like this!” and “Everybody has this on Instagram!”

Pride and confusion will lead you to crave and/or boycott a long list of things including: green sofas, pink chairs, velvet headboards, brass plant stands, circular shelves, macramé, hanging wicker egg chairs, jungle print wallpaper and every single light fitting on Your personal taste will become a fragile, wavering thing. All it will take is for a friend to raise an eyebrow at a dining table and say, “Oh, do you like hairpin legs?” to throw you into a tailspin of self-doubt. Do I like hairpin legs? Did I even know they were called hairpin legs until a minute ago when she said that? Will people laugh at hairpin legs in years to come, the way our generation now laughs at floral borders and terracotta stippling? Oh god.

The good news, though, is that all the emotional seesawing calms down once your new stuff becomes (literally) part of the furniture, in the same way you’re less likely to change your mind about a tattoo once it’s part of your body. As soon as the dining table is covered in your own red wine stains, you won’t even think about the hairpin legs. Which were perfectly fine to begin with.

Half of the people you meet who have decorated a house will tell you with great conviction that yes, Farrow & Ball is worth the money. They will hold you urgently by the lapels and look deep into your eyes, whispering things about walls transforming around you like witchcraft as the light changes throughout the day, about magical new depths of colour and secret tones only visible to the affluent eye. You will end up convinced, frantically recalculating the budget spreadsheet to make room for 15 litres of Asphyxiated Trout, only to meet someone the next day who will tell you with great conviction that Farrow & Ball is a massive scam and you’re better off sticking with Dulux.

Studies remain inconclusive on whether the Farrow & Ball disciples are lying to spare themselves the pain of admitting it wasn’t worth the money, or the Farrow & Ball deniers are lying to spare themselves the pain of admitting it was. Neither team will cave. Nobody will ever know.

However stressful your renovation is, it will never be the worst. Not in the world, and not down the pub either. Mention your extortionate rewiring job and someone else will tell you their boiler exploded. Whinge about an overdue kitchen installation and someone will pipe up to say they went six months with no toilet and a tree growing through their wall. Alan Bennett had a lady living in a van on his drive for 15 years. You will never win this contest.
You can’t, in fact, because you will definitely burn through your budget about 40% sooner than anticipated, and find yourself making decisions like: “Which do I need more, a washing machine or a roof without a hole in it?” But this isn’t a bad thing because it means your home will evolve organically, maturing as you do and evolving as your taste does, rather than looking like a creepy show home from a catalogue dated ‘2019’. At least, that’s the official line and you must believe it for your sanity.
Furthermore, it is amazing what you can start to feel affectionate about, even in a few short weeks. For instance, our kitchen tap is plumbed the wrong way round, for reasons we don’t know and will almost certainly never be arsed to find out. We could live here for 20 years and I would still be swigging a glass of hot water and yelling “THAT FUCKING TAP” at least once a day. But already, I’m faintly defensive of our stupid tap. I’m almost fond of the wonky door frames, the murder staircase and the slime stains on the ceiling, just as I’ll probably be fond of all the various ways we will change it, improve it and invariably mess it up along the way. So characterful! So quirky and original. So nice to put your own stamp on a place.

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