Here’s how to stop yourself slipping into a frazzled meltdown as you plan your grand designs.
Renovating your home is exciting! This is your big chance to put right all of those annoying little idiosyncrasies that have irked you since the day you moved in. Not many people get to make such drastic changes to their home so, if you’re on the path to making it happen, all the best! You may be looking to renovate your new house because you’ve just bought one (congratulations, mama!) or because, like me, you want to make even a rented place your own (all families and kids have their own tastes and needs), so here are some dos and don’ts. I just gave my own house a makeover, so these are my freshly-gleaned bits of advice for a Hong Kong home renovation.
Inspire yourself…but be realistic
This truly is the fun part! Who doesn’t love embarking on a daydream quest to transform your place? Maybe you could channel a modern elegant townhouse or a rocky Italian villa. How about a Californian beach mansion? But hold your horses! If you live here in Hong Kong, chances are you’re probably looking at slightly more modest proportions and, with the best will in the world, a mansion it ain’t. Forget about the charms of character features or sweeping vistas if you don’t have them. Find pictures similar to your space or you may be disappointed with the end result.
Making your home work for you
First thing’s first: what do you need more than want? Especially when it comes to your space. You must consider how you use your apartment. We downsized from a 700sq ft space to a 350sq ft one and, while this really is an exercise in tiny living, we discovered that there are areas of a larger home that you only use for a matter of seconds in the day, if at all. In Hong Kong especially, it’s worth considering how you can double or triple up on usable spaces. Observe your routine to tailor your home to you and your family. For example, in the image above mirrored wardrobes transform this dining area into a dressing area, complete with makeup and jewellery.
Space out “the space”
Now you have thought about what you need from your home, translate that into the layout. It is possible to knock down walls — even weight-bearing ones if you replace them with columns, beams or part-walls. In small Hong Kong apartments, opening up space can make all the difference. Our flat originally had two bedrooms but we wanted to keep it as a studio with a sofa bed, mostly to maximise on the sea view. However, we decided to keep part of the original bedroom wall to divide up the space and create a kind of hallway. As our living room becomes our bedroom, every room is actually a really decent size. We have found the last few months that it is a pleasure to live in, as the space functions well for us.
Read more: DIY: How To Make Your Own Succulent Planters
Draw up your plans
Once you have your layout, you may consider getting an architect in to draw up some plans and give you suggestions. There is also an alternative; you can draw up the plans yourself, but it really depends on the scale of your project. Nowadays there are so many apps and programmes to help you. We actually didn’t need to draw up plans at all for this project because the layout (aside from removing a small wall in the kitchen, which we knocked down ourselves) didn’t change at all.
Finding your style
Some time spent getting inspiration at this stage is important; after all, this is a dream come true! But beware…hours, days, weeks and even months can disappear as you scroll through Pinterest. Do you fall in love every time something pops up on your feed? This can turn your boards into one huge eclectic explosion of clashing hues and styles. It’s a battle of time and wits.
To avoid a colour palette resembling unicorn poop, you must learn how to narrow your focus or you’ll end up panic buying as builders (and perhaps your spouse!) pressure you for quick decisions. I would say there is no need to reject styles just to be consistent. At the end of the day, this is your house, so it’s important you love it. One of the hardest things to do is to forget about what other people think and to design your place just for you. If a tile sings to you, go for it. You clearly love it.
Hiring a contractor or builder in Hong Kong
There is no hard and fast rule when it comes to hiring people, except to go with your gut instinct and your budget. A good rule of thumb is to get three quotations to choose from (wise words from my mother-in-law).
First, you will need to have a good idea of the basic jobs you must do, the jobs you would like to do and your dream jobs. The reality will probably fall somewhere in between. Not all builders suck their teeth and shake their head. Don’t underestimate pragmatism, but combine it with a bit of optimism and positivity. I’ll take a “can-do” builder over a “head-shaker” any day!
Clear communication helps you build a good rapport. These things often get overlooked when we are in unfamiliar situations, but they are never more important than when conveying your ideas to someone you don’t know well. I’ve learned to use photos and not to assume that the image I have in my head is also the one in my builder’s head.
Do your research
The reason we may be so fearful of the renovation business is that we feel we are about to be taken for a ride at every turn. However, the more you know, the more confident you’ll feel. Read up and ask around. Trust the older generation — they often know a great deal about DIY, though perhaps not always the latest about design trends (my dear dad managed to talk me out of painting my walls pale pink, with just one look of incredulity!). Nonetheless, the old folks appreciate being asked for their two cents’ worth — and it’s a great topic to have in common.
Renovating your kitchen — the heart of the house
As far as your kitchen layout is concerned, the first unit to begin planning from is your corner cabinet. Think about having a triangle between the cooker, fridge and sink, though you might want to put the sink under the window. Choose drawers over cupboards on the bottom as it’s much easier to find what you are looking for with less effort. It’s always worth going for a corner spinning shelf device to make it easy to find your pots and pans.
Unfortunately, that was a space luxury I did not have in my kitchen, but I did have the boiler moved from the bathroom and a new one put into the corner cabinet out of sight (you will need certified electricians for this). There will often still be space in there for items that you don’t use as often (like a gas bottle if you need one).
Bathrooms can usually be updated fairly cheaply by tiling over the top of previously existing tiles. Take out the toilet and sink first to avoid having to cut tiles around them. We ended up keeping our bath rather than installing a shower unit to keep costs down, but also because we like baths and hadn’t had one previously in our Hong Kong rentals. I ordered the shower screen to be delivered to work from Alibaba and it was a tenth of the price I was quoted in Wan Chai and exactly what I wanted. We installed it ourselves.
Let there be light — install electric outlets
The next thing you need to do, once you have the layout is to think about lighting and electric plug sockets. Hong Kong electricians charge by the light switch and plug socket. You will need to mark these out on the walls and on your plan, or directly onto the wall. A can of red spray paint should do the trick. One thing I forget every time I do a renovation is to put a plug in my kitchen wall cabinets for the under wall-cabinet lighting. You will also need to consider electrical appliances. I usually go for three double plugs on the worktop and the same underneath, especially if you need a fridge, dishwasher, washing machine and cooker. Make sure the plugs are not situated above your cooker top or your sink!
There is more than just colour to take into consideration. For bathrooms, check if they become (in the words of Bon Jovi) slippery when wet. The surface is also important when it comes to cleaning and water marks. The biggest boo boo I made with my Lamma project was to choose bathroom floor tiles that show every watermark, which makes them look constantly dirty. When buying terracotta or other natural materials, ask your tile supplier about sealant. Most suppliers will give you samples to try out at home.
For the living room, I love hardwood floors and have used them on previous projects overseas. However, hardwood floors cannot be laid on top of tiles, and so we had to go with laminate flooring. There are some excellent quality laminates out there which look and feel like wood. They’re great for the humid Hong Kong conditions, they click together and they’re easy to install on top of sheets of the subfloor. If you don’t use them all, your supplier will often buy back those in complete packaging at a discount.
Shopping for your home renovation
Contractors in Hong Kong are often familiar with working with certain types of projects or materials. They may, therefore, tell you what they can source for you. I personally prefer to source my own sanitaryware, tiles, taps, kitchen, windows and even paint.
A trip to either Lockhart Road in Wan Chai or Portland Street in Mongkok will initiate you as to what’s available and help you get an idea of prices, though taps are generally cheaper online. Always record quotes with serial numbers, shop names and addresses to save time later re-trawling shop after shop. You can take these numbers to your contractor who can often negotiate you a discount (but most shops will give you a 10 to 15% discount directly if you ask nicely).
They will also deliver to most places in Hong Kong, except to outlying islands (for outlying islands, your supplier may be able to arrange delivery to a cargo depot for an additional fee).
Have a go at DIY
Installing your own kitchen from places like Ikea is easier than you might think. They are designed for anyone to put up, though you may need help with the worktop. We were lucky because the previous owners of our flat had left (literally) a ton of tools, so we were well-kitted out and this encouraged us to have a go at jobs. With the help of YouTube and a bit of grit, you can save yourself a lot of cash and learn new skills at the same time. I laid the tiles on the balcony myself (in the image above) and it really was easier than I thought!
A shout out to women especially: men might look at you like you’re mad, but come on, if they can do it, well it can’t be that difficult, can it? To be fair, my husband and I both have grown a lot in DIY confidence and started doing all kinds of stuff we never thought we were capable of.
My advice is to get some tools and get stuck in! It’s surprisingly satisfying!