Buying properties in Croatia


Renovation Work Abroad

Confessions of a Serial Renovator -
4 lessons to learn when doing renovations

In the past eight years, we've managed 11 renovation work projects in six countries. Here are several renovation work lessons that we learned along the way. In three cases, we identified the projects as "total gut jobs" from the outset.

Looking back, though, now that the last tiles have been laid and the final floorboards placed, I'd say you could safely use that phrase to describe nearly every one of these renovation work undertakings.

Look beneath the surface before renovation work

Let's have a look at the first of the three renovation work lessons, that our renovation work experience has taught us.

Lesson #1 when renovating an old property:

You don't have any idea how much demolition or reconstruction will be required until you've poked far beneath the surface.

An old-style house window in Croatia
Window on old house in Croatia - These houses are an attractive choice for property buyers to reconstruct or renovate it
We thought our new home in County Waterford, Ireland, when we purchased it nine years ago, needed a new kitchen, new bathrooms, and a fresh coat of paint. The inspector's report, which we commissioned before signing the contract, seemed to confirm this. He commented negatively on the "decoration" of the house (I'm not kidding), but made no mention of serious defect. We signed, closed, and hired a "decorator" named Noel.

Noel's first day on the job, he recommended we have someone come and take a look at the wood on the first floor.

"What do you mean, Noel?" we asked innocently.

"Well, you might have a little damp. Someone should take a look."

All of Ireland is more than a little damp, so we weren't sure what to make of this. We asked around…and finally a friend told us about "damp guys." We asked one to come take a look. He showed up with a screwdriver…which he proceeded to poke easily through the shutters, the window sills, and the floor moldings all around the ground floor of the house.

"Do you see this?" he asked, as he pushed his flat-head through another window frame.

"That's not good, I guess?" I responded.

"You've got rising damp. In some cases, five or six feet up the walls. Plus both wet and dry rot. It's all got to be replaced. The wood. The moldings. The shutters. The plaster."

Our two-month refurbishment had become a year-long gut job. We just didn't know it yet. Over the next 12 months, men with jackhammers pounded away the plaster from every wall in every room on the first floor. Carpenters tore out the wood of the windows and the floors. We wanted the renovated house to be as true to the original as possible, so we preserved every piece of wood molding, every shutter, every floor board we could. Then we had replacement pieces made to match.

The old, damp plaster was hammered away to reveal stone walls beneath. These were treated with a water-proof spray, inside and out. The new plaster was mixed with further damp-proofing agents. As was all the timber before it was hammered back into place.

No one thought it odd that our "inspector" had failed to notice the rising damp and the rotting wood.

Rely on yourself when doing renovation work

Lesson #2 when renovating a property abroad:

You're on your own if things don't work out as you expect them to. No Irish Better Business Bureau was going to bring our inspector mate to task.

Doing major home renovations and extensions
Your new property sometime can involve rather extensive renovations, depending on your requirements  (Image by

While the plasterers and carpenters worked away on the ground floor, we called in a plumber to get started on the bathrooms upstairs. He took some measurements…sized things up…and announced he'd charge us 1,200 pounds (at the time about $1,600) to install the tub in the master bath.

To be fair, it was a big tub. With claw feet. To be positioned strategically in front of the window overlooking the sheep field.

Still, we responded skeptically…certain we must have misunderstood. Perhaps he meant 1,200 pounds for fittings and fixtures for the entire room.

Nope. Twelve-hundred pounds for the tub.

When we relayed the details of the estimate to a friend in the office, she smiled knowingly. "Ah, he's chancing his arm."

This expression, which the Irish use often, we learned, dates back centuries and has something to do with a nobleman who, confidently, perhaps recklessly, risked, literally, life and limb by extending his arm to the king in a gesture of cooperation…even though, he realized, there was the real chance it might be cut off.

In 21st-century parlance, the phrase translates to mean something like, "I'll throw out this ridiculously high price and see if the sucker goes for it."

Indeed, we may have, had not our Irish friend set us straight. We found another plumber who installed the entire bathroom for less than the first guy's quote for the tub.

Seek local advice for renovation work

Lesson #3 when navigating a renovation work in a foreign locale:

Seek local advice.

Worn facade on an old house
Doing home renovations overseas can be a complicated process, especially
if you don't know what lies beneath the surface
  (Image by

This renovation of Lahardan House in County Waterford was our first. It was followed by the complete renovation of a 350-year-old building in Casco Viejo (into three apartments and office space for our staff in Panama City), the rehabs of three apartments in Buenos Aires (rental properties), the refurbishment of two apartments in Paris (also rentals), a 200-year-old casa in Granada, Nicaragua (still in process and not going entirely according to plan), then, two-and-a-half years ago, another apartment in Paris, this one for personal use.

By this time, we were feeling confident of our skills as renovators abroad. We've been around this block enough times now, we thought to ourselves, that this further effort in the City of Light will be a piece of cake.

We engaged a colleague to manage the work for us. He told us it'd take two to three months to do what we wanted to do and would cost 40,000 to 50,000 euro.

We closed on the apartment late June. Our project manager set immediately to work with a crew of six. We made plans to move in the first of September, understanding that the work probably would not be complete but having no choice, as we needed to be in place in time for the children to start school.

Meantime, we put aside 70,000 euro, allowing for "overages."

Late August, it was clear we wouldn't be able to live in the place anytime soon. Most rooms still had no flooring, and we were weeks away, as far as I could tell, from a kitchen.

We rented an apartment across town to wait it out.

October came and went…November… Our one-bedroom rental with a mezzanine space where the two children slept grew cozier as the weeks wore on.

Sometime in October we passed the 70,000 euro mark. Still, the invoices came. And now our project manager couldn't quite commit to a final cost. Neither could he explain why the original budget had been so far off. We'd made no big changes to the work specs…discovered no great hidden problems along the way.

Renovation work estimate is just - an estimate

Bottom line, the original estimates, for both time and cost, had been wrong. I'm sure not intentionally, but carelessly. We, foolishly, had accepted them without question.

Building house extensions
Keep an eye on your renovations and a tab on your costs,
or you risk your renovation costs running over
  (Image by

We moved in in December, in time for Christmas, though the kitchen wasn't finished, nor the bookcases, meaning mountains of books and boxes in the living room. The work was finally complete in February. The total cost (dare I quote it, for fear Lief may be reading this) was 120,000 euro.

Our guy in Paris, I guess, had an opposite strategy to his counterpart in Waterford. Rather than quoting a ridiculously big amount, to see if the sucker buyers (that is, we) might go for it…he'd quoted an absurdly small amount, assuming the sucker buyers would go for it and have no choice but to stick it out once the work had begun.

Indeed, were we going to ask his Romanian crew (who spoke not a word of English and little French) to aller?

The Romanians, by the way, did great work. We're pleased with the finished product. But, thanks to their boss, we learned…

Lesson #4 when renovating a piece of real estate:

The estimated cost for the work is just that--an estimate. If the total cost in the end is less than twice the estimate, count yourself lucky.

Kathleen Peddicord
Publisher, International Living

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