The Unsexy Stuff: Renovation Money Traps

Last blog I promised to share some of our real financial-renovation story, aka The Renovation Money Trap…  

The houses are designed, you have BA, and you’re ready to dig the dirt. When this finally happens, after all that planning, it is cause to pop a few corks!  From herein, the cash tap is open and on full pressure as it all starts pouring out.

When people budget for a reno, they usually do a reasonable job of estimating the construction costs, and all the fun, sexy stuff including kitchens and bathrooms. What they often underestimate, or just plain miss (because they didn’t show us THAT on The Block), is the cost of consultants, engineers, council fees, utilities, and services. Then there are the holding costs: interest is the big one; but also rates and power.

As a rough guide, for our current reno (i.e. lift two-bedroom cottage, build kitchen and living underneath, refurbish existing upstairs to four bedrooms, ensuite and bathroom):

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  • the costs of the construction and renovation of the building are $300K;
  • we have another $30K for landscaping, driveways, and aircon; and
  • another $30K for consultants (engineers, surveyors, DA plans and lodgement, town planner), civil works (e.g. drainage), utilities, and services.  

This is an investment property, so if you’re building your dream home with dream fittings and finishes, or  adding on large decks, pools, second living areas etc, your construction costs will be significantly higher.

Of the construction costs, about 55% of that was spent in the first two months: lifting the property, excavating, pouring the concrete slab, framing, electrical and plumbing rough in, and installing doors and windows. The stuff that is not the least bit sexy or insta worthy!

Taking us to about 70% spend are the internal linings and external cladding, and that’s before we’ve even started on kitchens, bathrooms, laundries, bedroom robes, painting, floorboards, or landscaping. This is where quick flips, with no structural changes, have the advantage. They avoid the big costs and just do all the sexy stuff for immediate gratification.

The short story is: If you’re doing major structural changes, more than 70% of your budget will be eaten up by things that aren’t visually exciting. No-one ever appreciates the quality of your foundations! Having said that, if you add two bedrooms, a new kitchen, two bathrooms, two-car garage, and external street appeal in an inner-city area crying out for beautiful four-bedroom houses, you should get that 70% back in equity instantly!



Hey Reality-TV Reno Shows: Why Tradies Are Just Not That Into You.

I’m surrounded by tradies. I have a partner who is a builder and a brother who is a chef. They would rather look at a hirsute plumber’s sweaty intergluteal cleft, than waste their spare time watching a reality show about their jobs.  

I get why they hate the idea. Who wants to go to work for 12 hours every day and then come home and relive it all again on TV?

Let’s restrict the conversation to DIY build shows and the objections of our resident builder: Mr Raspberry Doors, and his top reasons why he refuses to join me on the ‘reality reno’ couch:[read more=”Read more” less=”Read less”]

  1. Unrealistic timeframes. It takes the wardrobe and make-up department longer to get the crew camera ready, than it takes to frame, clad, waterproof, screed and tile a bathroom. Everytime I try to sneak the show on, I am met with howls of derision. “That’s BS.” “Well that will look shit in 6 months.” “You wouldn’t want to buy that house”.  He’s right.
  2. Financially speaking, there’s no skin in the game. Ok, so they blew most of the TV station’s budget on trite wall-art quotes like “dream, believe, achieve” and blew the rest on challenges aimed at creatively save the day. They don’t have to ring the banks, refinance their own house, or do a fire sale. There is no risk of losing their house or taking a crippling financial loss. The “stress” is manufactured for the magic of television.
  3. There are more crew in the background than there were extras in Ben Hur. A normal job site is very un-reality TV. With the wide pan of the camera, did you notice the two novice renovators sanding a patch here and painting a patch there, while the 40 hardworking and skilled tradies wearing high vis do all the actual work, including covering up their patches?
  4. Never mind about the endless admin and financial management. A team of network-TV staffers will do that. Most of the budgeting is just done “in my head”, and they spend, spend, spend until an accountant (not paid for by them) steps in with a novelty-sized calculator to point them in the right direction. Don’t worry about the countless hours spent analysing budgets, cash flows, and doing forecasts.
  5. Compliance isn’t an issue on reality TV, unless you get on the wrong side of a surly supervisor. In real life, compliance issues are the major cause of stress and delays. Much of your time is spent waiting for service providers to get infrastructure for water, power, sewerage, and data, then waiting some more for local government to respond to requests for changes, plan sealing, and the list goes on.
  6. Viewers get an unrealistic expectation of EVERYTHING. Until reserves are revealed, you will never witness a fraught discussion about the cost of: the land, the architects and engineers, civil works, council subdivision fees, infrastructure, or holding costs, let alone the amount of time, stress and effort that goes into getting all of this done. Yawn.
  7. Professional tradespeople train for four years to get the basic skills they need and work long hours under tough conditions. These shows make it seem like everyone rides off into the sunset as a professional builder/painter/tiler in 12 weeks. While there is a lot of follow-up spotlight shone on the ones who land glam media jobs, how many of them actually do the hard yakka to become a qualified tradie once the cameras stop rolling?

So I hear ya, Mr Raspberry Doors, and I do get it…. doesn’t mean I’m giving up this guilty pleasure though!

Next blog, I’d like to share some of our real financial-renovation story.


Renovating and styling for a holiday rental

Channel 7 Hotel Rules, Instant Hotel, Day 1, Location 1, Terry & Anita’s house, West End, Brisbane.

So you’ve got a sure-fire, money-making idea. You want to cash in on the hot instant-hotel market and turn your investment property into a home-away-from-home for modern travellers. If you fancy yourself as more Dorchester than Fawlty Towers, there’s a lot more to turning an investment property into a profitable holiday rental than meets the eye. Turning a profit means keeping the bookings turning over, and to do that you need those all-important five-star reviews. Here’s what you need to consider to keep those back-to-back bookings rolling in.


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Bathrooms, bathrooms, bathrooms

Have you got enough bathrooms for the number of guests that your property can sleep? If you can’t fit as many full bathrooms into your renovation as you’d like, then at least consider separate powder rooms to avoid that awkward queue for the toilet.


Stylish, modern spaces

Modern and stylish doesn’t have to mean cookie-cutter boring. Strike a balance between making spaces modern, yet keeping them interesting. Tell a story and bring a theme. At Zen in West End, we have a chilled eco vibe, and we tell our renovation story by showing the ‘upcycled’ pieces of the house, like the stunning timber vanities. Be yourself, and be consistent. Our thing is a chilled, renovated space, so perching a disco ball (or a stuffed albino peacock called Percy) over the back deck—because we’ve seen someone else do it—would not fit with our theme.


Breakout spaces for guests

We have a front verandah, a front patio, a big outdoor patio, and a daybed. This gives everyone somewhere to disappear to.


A good night’s sleep

Never underestimate the value of a good night’s sleep to your guests. Tired guests with sore backs don’t enjoy their holiday and they don’t give five-star reviews. Buy the best beds you can afford and the biggest allowed by the space. If you can fit a king-sized bed in, there are some awesome options that give you the added flexibility of splitting it into two king singles.


TVs in bedrooms

Guests may be looking for a house that gives them the space to enjoy time together in the evening, but not many groups want to face each other first thing in the morning. They’ll probably want to get a cup of tea and go back to bed to read or chillax with the TV, just like they would in a hotel.


Bathroom storage

There’s nothing worse than having nowhere to put your toiletries in your instant bathroom. Make sure you have adequate benches and shelves for toiletries, hooks for toiletry bags and face washers, and enough towel racks—preferably the kind that don’t fall off the wall the moment you walk in—for everyone to hang their towel.


High standards

Don’t be afraid to: have high standards, deliver a premium service, and reflect that value in your pricing. You want to attract quality guests who will appreciate what you’ve delivered. Remember: “the bitterness of poor quality lasts long after the sweetness of cheap price is forgotten” (Benjamin Franklin).




Delivering a 5 Star Holiday Home

Channel 7 Hotel Rules, Instant Hotel, Day 1, Location 1, Terry & Anita’s house, West End, Brisbane.

There’s nothing like showcasing your luxury holiday rental on reality TV to give you a jolt into making your house camera ready. But you don’t have to be on TV to make sure your own ‘instant hotel’ holiday home is a perfect holiday for your guests. Here are our top tips for creating instant hotel success.


Let’s start with the obvious list:

  • super comfy beds
  • spotlessly clean house
  • enough bathrooms for the number of guests
  • stylish modern spaces
  • everything in working order (e.g. light bulbs aren’t blown, TV remotes accounted for and batteries working, dinner and glass sets full, etc).


But what about the less obvious? What is going to make your holiday rental really stand out from the crowd?

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Know your market. Your holiday rental is your brand, and you are selling time there as a commodity. It should go without saying that you must understand your target market, and then provide everything that group could possibly expect and want.


Go the extra mile. We provide a gift of flowers, bottle of wine, and rose petals for the outdoor bath. People want to live large on their holidays, and it’s those special touches that makes their stay valued and special.


Add a touch of luxury. Everyone deserves luxe on their holidays. We provide luxury linens and sourced beautiful natural linen sheets (much to Juliet Ashworth’s amazement), bath salts and candles, and a gourmet selection of teas and coffees.


Go local. Our gift baskets include a beautiful selection of locally-sourced supplies to show off and support our talented community. Choose what your community is known for and hone in on that, whether it’s artisanal food, boutique arts and crafts, or a nod to the beauty of the local environment.  Our version of ‘local’ includes photographs taken by me, and prints from a local artist.


Beautiful toiletries. Give the gift of cleanliness. If you can source locally supplied all the better, but the idea here is to provide that metaphorical cleansing of the old and embracing the holiday zen away from the routines of home. Many people will bring their own toiletries and won’t use yours, but if you arrive somewhere and are looking for these basics, there’s nothing better than finding something unique and beautiful to use.


Get off to a great start. When guests arrive, make sure they have enough supplies to immediately relax with a cup of tea or coffee, and a biscuit. We give a packet of Tim Tams, because most of our guests are from overseas, and Tim Tams are quintessentially an Aussie thing.


Set the bar high. One of my favourite sayings from corporate life is ‘under promise and over deliver’. I don’t use wide angles to highlight how spacious the living area and back deck are. I prefer people to arrive, step inside what effectively appears to be a small cottage facade all the while thinking, “OMG, it’s not really big enough for all of us”, and then watch them gasp in amazement when the expansive back area opens up to them like a luxury Aladdin’s cave.


Set expectations up front. Communicate well, especially with people before they arrive. Give them a very honest assessment of whether the space is suitable for them. Don’t go all salesperson on them and have them arrive thinking they can play cricket in the backyard when really it’s only suitable for bouche or jenga.


Remember that people are spending their precious annual-leave time and holiday budgets to stay with you to relax and recharge. Respect that, and don’t mislead them.

Follow these tips, do it your way, and you’ll be sure to build a reputation as a five-star instant hotelier!



Designing Queenslander Reno #5

As I mentioned recently, both of these extensions will tap into the unique character features of the original houses.


With a similar internal layout to House 1, but some differences in the facade, we are trying to pin down the history of House 2. We’re pretty certain it is also pre-1920, so stay tuned on that one!


The facade of House 2 differs to that of House 1 next door. It has a hip roof with a full front verandah extending under the eaves and screened with lattice. It is a DA condition that the house frontage retains the lattice feature on the verandah. Paired posts frame the centre of the verandah, and the front central steps run symmetrically up to the entry.  It has sash windows, but most of the internal features are the same as next door.

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The front door, with breezeway above, opens to a central passageway with arches, that runs through the centre of the four-room core. This house used the two front rooms as bedrooms with rear dining/living room. It has a very similar extension to next door, again adding a small kitchen and bathroom to the back of the house.


Like next door, we will make this a comfortable and modern family home by adding ducted air conditioning, but we’ll follow the heritage in the house, which was perfectly designed to circulate air in the hot Queensland climate. We’ll add more louvre windows and retain and add heritage breezeways and fretwork. We’ll keep the existing character, whilst bringing the home into the current century.


The plan is the same as next door, but the colour scheme will be different. Where next door will be modern and bright, this house will be modern and elegant. The feature colour will be a serene deep blue, with modern gold accents for a luxurious feel. I feel like the future inhabitants of this house will be an older couple; maybe down sizers after a contemporary low-maintenance home, with a classy space to entertain in and rooms and bathrooms for children and guests to stay over.


Lighting and Electrical Plans

During our first reno. I did very little planning for electrical. I bought a couple of beautiful pendant lights, drew them in different colours on top of the floor plan, and gave it all to the electrician. He did his best to fill in the blanks, but with every question he asked, my coloured ‘electrical plan’ overlay looked more like a child’s squiggle doodle, and inevitably things were missed.


I have since learned to draw lighting and electrical plans with the help of some great software, but in the back of my head has always lurked the question, “What if I hired a professional lighting consultant to do these plans?”

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So for our last renovation, I bit the bullet, and hired a lighting-design consultant, Jason from DesignFilter. We met and went over the plans. I shared my design schedules and selections. Hey presto, I had an electrical and lighting plan that I could confidently hand to the electrician, and a schedule from which I could start locking in the purchase of fittings (knowing I wasn’t missing any).


Just as importantly though, with Jason on board, I had expertise available to bounce things off. I saw a brilliant sale on some architectural downlights. Prior to impulsively swiping my credit card, I sent him the make and model and asked if they’d be a good substitution. The answer was an emphatic ‘no’, and provided with lots of reasons why.


I selected the feature pendants myself (I LOVE pendant-light shopping), but everything else was selected by Jason, with lots of thought about colour temperature; LED-dimmer compatibility; and function, flexibility, and consistency.


With a reno, it’s likely you’ll need to do a second pass at your plan. Until the builder and electrician get into the roof and wall cavities, you won’t always know what you can do. Once the electrical rough in commenced, we had to swap some downlights for wall lights, remove some dual heat lamp/exhaust fans, and change the placement of a few lights.


It’s a good idea to get your lighting consultant across these changes, so that the electrical and lighting plans can be updated. A bit of time passes between the electrician doing rough in, and doing final fit off, and you want to avoid a lot of head scratching and time wastage over the wiring that was actually installed vs what is shown on the original plans.


My advice is simple, pinterest beautiful light selections to your hearts content, but hire a professional lighting consultant early in the design stage.  They will make your lighting dreams come to life by drawing up a lighting and electrical plan that ensures all your requirements are met, and allows your home can be properly wired before the internal walls are lined.


Designing Queenslander Reno #4

I love character houses. They throw up lots of challenges, but reward you with a beautiful feeling of satisfaction when you respect and pay homage to their past, while at the same time welcoming its character into the modern era.

The new house will pay homage to its past, retaining original features like its VJ walls and timber floors. Overall it will be modern, bright, and vibrant. The lively colour scheme will reflect the vibrancy of the family who end up living here. The dominant colour scheme is a cool pale blue, chosen for its fresh, but calming, effect. Some contrasting bright and cheerful mandarin highlights will add a burst of fun and happiness, complemented by some modern copper metallics and warm timbers, to add warmth and cosiness.

We’re yet to trace its exact origins, but records show the original bungalow was built pre-1920. It’s your typical Queenslander cottage, elevated on stumps and built in tin and timber. It has a front verandah and a street-facing gabled timber porch. The step-rail stairs run parallel to the verandah, and it has casement windows with skillion sunhoods.  

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The front door, with breezeway above, opens to a central passageway with arches that runs through the centre of the four-room core. This house used three of the rooms as bedrooms and the fourth room as the lounge room. Kitchens, bathrooms, and laundry were external to the main cottage. A later extension added a small kitchen and bathroom to the back of the house. It’s dingy and unattractive and luckily post 1945.

The plan:

  1. Remove the existing kitchen, bathroom, and back stairs.
  2. Move and raise the house to habitable room height (we’re big on ceiling heights of at least 2700mm).
  3. Frame underneath and build internal stairs at back of house.
  4. Renovate upstairs: frame the existing lounge room to become bedroom four. The porch under the gable will become the ensuite to the master bedroom. Build robes and desks into bedrooms. Brand new bathroom and separate toilet.
  5. Build underneath: open-plan living, dining, kitchen, powder room, laundry, and tandem garage.


We will deliver a beautiful character-filled house to the market. It will be stylish, functional, and best of all for busy families: it will be low maintenance. I see an active family living in this house, who will embrace the use of bold colour and patterns in an easy-living quality house that blends original character with a modern, open-plan extension, and some surprise designer touches.























In with the old ….. and the new! Our inner-City Brisbane Development

So we’re off. Step one in a multi-staged project to renovate two original pre-1945 cottages that must be retained due to the fact that we’re in a character-overlay area, and build four terrace-style townhouses, which will all will be four bedroom and three bathroom residences.

A LOT of planning, design, documentation, and budgeting has gone into this project so far.

Join on us on Instagram to check out our progress. I promise these won’t be your typical beige, cookie-cutter developer houses. There will be the wow factors you expect from Raspberry Doors, high-end finishes, colours and patterns, and each house will be uniquely different.




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How we got here, with these houses – on this land, is explained on the Projects page, but for where we’re going and our design vision, stay tuned!

Here is an overly simplified version of our project staging, based on development conditions:

  1. Move and raise the houses. This requires the site to be levelled and some bulk earthworks (foundations for piers, etc)
  2. Civil works, draining, and electrical distribution
  3. Concrete slabs
  4. Frame under the houses
  5. Apply for subdivision. The houses will both be freehold, and the townhouses will be on a separate duplex titles
  6. Complete newly renovated Queenslander houses
  7. Commence build of townhouses
  8. Stage, style and sell



















Making room for the past: How to renovate creatively by upcycling

deck-003a8833-webWhen I initially heard the term upcycling, the first thing that came to mind was the boys and girls in fluoro lycra puffing and panting their way up Dornoch Terrace in the morning.

As far as it applies to my version of building and renovation, upcycling is really about finding a new purpose for something that no longer serves its old purpose, with a dash of creativity thrown in.

The story of the house is definitely richer for mixing the old with the new. Here are some of my upcycling victories.

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If you had seen the beautiful hardwood—which had been supporting the 1940s extension—you would understand. Instantly, when the rough-sawn hardwood was cut, we could see the beautiful grains and colours and the potential to include them in the renovation. We dressed the timbers, then assembled and glued them together. Voila! Vanity benches. We sanded the tops of the benches and applied a stain. In doing so, we added a new chapter to the continuing story of the house.

The closed-in front verandah was being opened, so the beautiful front door had to go. It had seen too many comings and goings to take its stories to the tip. We found a place for it as the door opening onto the back deck. It was definitely worth the effort, despite the painter being less than thrilled at doing the repair and repaint.

Promising I would find a use for it, I quietly retrieved the traditional lattice—which had until now been screening the outdoor laundry—from the top of the skip. When the new patio went in, I used the salvaged lattice to hang flower pots above a new bench seat, adding another tale from the old house to the new.

When it came time to furnish the outdoor deck, my entire furnishing budget was already spent – inside(oops). Not to be defeated, I sourced some beautiful jarrah chairs from Gumtree. With some glue, a sand and a stain, and some new cushions, they blend right in!

Opportunities to take redundant parts of an old house and repurpose them —whilst also preserving history—are only limited by your creativity and problem-solving abilities. kitchendoor-003a7182-web timbervanities-003a7893-web lattice-20130811-web




Verticals and double roller blinds in duck egg on sliding door and louvres. Roman blind behind door.


I confess I do love a bit of diy, but I had honestly not considered I would take on window coverings without professional assistance.  But what do you do when you run out of cash and need window coverings STAT?

Despite the gorgeous natural light,  I realised the neighbours could see everything so leaving the windows naked was not an option (frankly, there are some things you cannot unsee).

For the original cottage I’d chosen linen curtains that softly drape and pool on the floor, but for the new extension I wanted a different, modern finish.  Enter DIY Online Blinds (

Countless options – check!  Fantastic price – check!  Easy – check!
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I’m a bit of a sucker for a lucky dip, so buying blinds unseen, from the comfort of my couch, was a dream come true (you can order free samples if you prefer). Barely able to contain myself, all I had to do was:

  • Select my blind
  • Measure each window
  • Choose my custom finish (fabric, chains, brackets, roll direction)
  • Greet the delivery guy, and install them myself.


The delivery turned up quickly, and it was labelled and boxed in logical packages – which made it a breeze for me to follow the installation directions. Installation was really simple (don’t be daunted, you CAN do it).

I was so impressed, I jumped straight back online and ordered DIY Online Blinds for every other window. Now I can sit back with a glass of champagne–purchased with some of the savings I made–and admire my DIY Online Blinds handiwork!

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