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Research, re-measure – and don’t rush: how to avoid a kitchen extension nightmare

Absent builders, dodgy contractors, endless delays – our renovation project quickly went off the rails. These are some hard-won lessons

To know me is to know my kitchen. For the past three years, ever since my husband and I decided to renovate, it has consumed about 90% of my brain. By autumn 2020, we had lived with our two daughters for 12 years with a small, shabby Ikea kitchen, installed long before we’d bought our London terrace home. The standard solution to the storage, countertop and dine-in deficits of Victorian living seemed to be the ubiquitous side-return extension. We thought this could be easily accomplished, even if our real goal was to crank up the style factor a few notches.

I had long fantasised about integrated appliances, miles of island and a “gadget garage”; and about revamping our poky concrete garden so the indoors flowed out seamlessly through glass. We spotted a vaulted glass extension through the window of a nearby home and interviewed the architects, a young practice I had read about in design blogs. We signed off on a glassy addition and waited as planners rejected every iteration.

The assurances of our mostly awol builders became less emphatic. A month later they walked off the job

The architects slowly lost interest, it seemed, as they toned down all the special flourishes and took the winning scheme to half a dozen builders, who were booked up for years. That’s when we asked around for recommendations and found a building team every neighbour seemed to rate.

The contractor told us everything we wanted to hear regarding prices, dates and quality. In June 2022, finger hovering above “send cash” on our banking website, we agreed to chance it, and him. We paid in advance for the expensive steel beams he’d need to support the open concept and searched for a flat to live in for five months. That’s when the real fun began.

What became of that down payment, and the weekly payments we’d agreed with our contractor, remains a mystery. Those steel beams appeared six months later, delivered by a disgruntled supplier who still hadn’t been paid. Meanwhile the assurances of our mostly absent builders grew less emphatic. A month later they walked off the job. A month after that, we sourced a rescue team through a good friend. In October 2022, 16 months after we broke ground, they laid the last tile.

Now that we’re cooking with induction heat in a space that resembles what we envisioned, I’m able to share our insights.

Do your research
Search the planning applications on your council website. Who’s had a rear extension approved? How far is too far to dig down or build up? We let our architects talk us into an unusual “outrigger” extension that was doomed to be rejected, costing us time and money. We had good relationships with the neighbours, but if you don’t, this would be the time to sweet-talk any who may oppose your scheme.

Always be scouting for builders
Are your drawings still being fine-tuned? Don’t wait to put your job out to tender. While you’re niggling over cabinet heights and window frames, the reputable builders are being snapped up.

Don’t be talked into fixed payments. We paid our builder – he fell behind on the work but kept banking our cash

Don’t rush into things
Impressed with the first contractor you meet? Get to know others, vet them through your neighbourhood WhatsApp group, ask for references. Keep a few names in your back pocket in case you need extra hands, or a rescue operation.

When you choose your builder, sign a contract outlining the scope and schedule of works, relevant dates and payments – it’s the first thing a lawyer will ask for if the relationship breaks down. Find templates through the RIBA or Federation of Master Builders. And never let your contractor talk you into a fixed payment schedule. We faithfully paid ours, and before we knew it he’d fallen far behind on the work but still banked our cash every week.

Visit your flooring in person
Touch it. Get a professional opinion before you make a big commitment. The handcrafted tiles we ordered online had to be filed, sanded, cleaned and sealed three times, which drove our builder mad and cost us a fortune in labour. The colour didn’t even match what we’d seen online, but we didn’t have the time or budget to replace them.

Recognise signs that your builder is a bad egg
Are they working off the books? Refusing to sign a contract? Offering unrealistic promises? Arguing with tradespeople or struggling to book them at all? Maybe they are consistently missing targets, or blaming the state of your home for delays? We experienced all of these, like frogs on slow boil, and then had to scramble to learn our rights. Our first points of contact were Citizens Advice, Trading Standards and the Dispute Resolution Ombudsman.

Think hard about going maverick with cabinetry
We thought we’d be clever, and hired an independent kitchen designer to customise the height and width, but the joinery arrived in unfamiliar chunks that the builders struggled to install. Drawers and cupboards come in standard sizes for a reason. And take note: integrated fridge-freezers come smaller than freestanding versions, to ensure they fit within the joinery. Losing those few centimetres can make a big difference – consider a double-width version.

Measure, re-measure, then measure again
Our finished kitchen is a metre shorter and 8cm taller than the original drawings promised. The dimensions of the glass are wrong. Calculate the space you’re left with post-demo, before instructing joiners, ordering tiles and committing to glazing.

Keep a spreadsheet
List all items to be ordered, bought and collected. Don’t rush to buy pieces that aren’t time sensitive. Steelwork, flooring, marble and cabinetry need long lead times. But our appliances, hardware and tiles hung about for months, with their warranties lapsing.

Meet your tradespeople
Early in the build, book time with your electrician and plumber, alongside your contractor. Is everyone clear on the path of the waste pipes and where the manhole goes? What type of underfloor heating is best? Can your boiler cope? Where are your switch plates and outlets going? Our electrician wired four separate switch plates for four lights, when he could have consolidated them into one or two. And our stove exhaust has no means of exiting the building.

Look after your pet
We moved out with our cat initially, then lived on site for several turbulent months, when the cat’s only outdoor access was sealed off. She rebelled by peeing on the soft furnishings whenever she was startled. We’re still trying to calm her.

Our electrician wired four separate switch plates for four lights, when he could have consolidated them into one or two

Don’t be swayed by trends
Seduced by the rounded archways, fluted wood cabinets or terrazzo splashbacks you see in design mags? Banish them from your Pinterest board. By the time your renovation is over, they may be too. Buy what you love and embrace classics.

Avoid middle men
The arrival of the Solarlux bifold doors we coveted stalled due to the agent’s honeymoon, sick leave and general incompetence. I saw progress only when I tracked down the manufacturer. But another caveat: the maker was German, which meant border delays. UK-based Fabco might have proved faster.

Never take your eye off the ball
If you’re living off-site, visit daily, enlist a neighbour to spy or install a doorbell-camera. After moving out, we lost track of absences and delays while still paying weekly. Living in the house throughout would have been maddening, but at least we’d have known when the builders weren’t putting in the hours.

Don’t sleep on other jobs around the house
They can fill in the gaps on days when the main work is delayed. We hired handymen to build wardrobes, fill in cracks, repair a leaky roof and retile a shower.

Women: try not to let everyday sexism get you down
My contractor blanked my texts, spoke over me and could barely look me in the eye – until I became the de facto bank. He had to respect the client handing over his cash on payday. It helped that my (male) partner never undermined me. We established roles, stayed in our respective lanes and tolerated no nonsense. We were, after all, on the same team.

Do whatever it takes to get you through
Take up meditation, train for a marathon or hit the booze or fags – anything to stave off a meltdown.

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