Ethel’s House – the costs

I’ve just realised that I never did a post about what it actually cost to renovate Ethel’s House. And this one is only happening today because I’m procrastinating about doing one for Coldbackie, because I know I’m not going to like the result!

So, Ethel’s wasn’t a traditional purchase in the sense that we were buying two croft tenancies that happened to have a house on one of them, rather than buying an actual house. We paid £95,000 and at the time of purchase the croft with the house on was valued at £75,000 and the bare croft at £25,000.

Our first purchase on the project was in October 2015, two months after our offer was accepted but four months before it completed, when Mr J got a bit overexcited on Tooled Up and bought himself a pair of plasterboard props. We finally got the keys at the beginning of March 2016 (nothing involving crofts ever happens fast) and the spending started in earnest. We had our first guests at the beginning of March 2018, so the figures below cover pretty much exactly two years.

Bills – £3,311.02
Two years of electricity, oil and council tax when I ran out of exemption time.

Interest – £9,933.31
You can’t get commercial lending on a croft tenancy unless the house site has been decrofted, which it hadn’t. We were exceptionally lucky in that family members were prepared to lend to us, but we agreed it was only fair that interest should be charged.

Legal – £766
Fixed-fee conveyancing from our lovely solicitor.

Tools – £618.94
Mr J was relatively restrained here, for him! (This is a man with many, many sheds…)

Materials – £16,648.76
Now the numbers are getting bigger. This covered things like insulation, flooring, plasterboard, internal doors, carpets, the kitchen units and so on.

Tradesmen – £56,349.27
Wallop! This was the painful one, although it does include a lot of tradesman-supplied materials as well. Top of the list, a brand new roof in slate, £19,367.80. £9,000 for totally rewiring the house, £8,300 for the underfloor heating system (and that didn’t include a new boiler) and £9,300 in total for joinery work.

Subtotal – £87,627.30
I’m subtotalling here because if we’d decided to sell the house, this is where we’d have stopped. When we bought it, the croft Ethel’s stands on was valued at £75,000, that included the stone byre outbuildings and about 6 acres of fields. We got a £5,000 discount from asking price, so take £2,500 off each croft, bringing it down to £72,500. When we got a mortgage on it, in May 2018 (after doing all the required paperwork to decroft the house and a very small piece of garden ground behind it), the house and little bit of garden were valued at £165,000. So add, say, another £10,000 on for the rest of the six acres and the four stone outbuildings to give a finished value of £175,000. Subtract the original £72,500 and the £87,627.30 spent and you end up with a profit of £14,872.70. Not a lot for two years of hard work if you divide it up by the hours we put in, but at least it was a positive figure!

Furnishings – £14,627.95
But of course we didn’t sell it and I underestimated how much it costs to kit out a house from scratch! Furniture and white goods were, of course, the major part of this, coming in at £11,105.78, but then you’ve got cushions, duvets, pillows, pictures, curtains, table lamps, log baskets, all the kitchen equipment, cleaning stuff and three complete sets of bed linen and towels (one in use, one in the wash, one ready for changeover). Take all that off and the profit comes down to a tiny £244.75.

But we now have a wonderful warm house that guests love to stay in and in non-Covid times it’s producing a decent income, which was the ultimate aim. Looking at local prices, I would say it would now value £10,000-£15,000 more than it did in 2018, so as long as we keep it well-maintained it’s acting as a savings account for my retirement.

Getting through Covid-19

It really has been a funny old year to be in the holiday letting business. What we thought would be a brief shutdown to get things under control quickly turned into a major issue. I’ve been thanking my lucky stars that (a) we’re in Scotland, where things seem to have been handled a bit more efficiently than England and (b) we’re in the Highlands where infection rates have remained very low.

I was lucky in that Ethel’s was on business rates and therefore qualified for the £10,000 Covid grant (although initially the Scottish government wasn’t going to give it to self-catering accommodation, unlike the English holiday lets). Coldbackie was supposed to open in May, but couldn’t go onto business rates until it actually did open – all work ground to a halt there and it eventually opened in the last few days of August.

I was initially cheered by the extra cover on my insurance policy, which had a clause that covered me for business interruption caused by “an occurrence of any human infectious or human contagious disease, an outbreak of which must be notified to the local authority” – which you might have thought covered Covid. The insurers disagreed and said that since my premises weren’t themselves affected, just people’s ability to travel to them, no claim was allowed. This has now gone through the courts, fronted by the FCA, and is still rumbling on.

Officially Scotland was allowed to open up its self-catering facilities again at the beginning of July, but our village was extremely nervous about tourists coming back to the area (on the North Coast 500 route, we were flooded with campervans as soon as restrictions lifted), so out of respect for our neighbours we kept Ethel’s closed until the beginning of August, losing another month of what would have been peak income.

Through August, September and October we were packed, back-to-back weeks at Ethel’s and mostly full at Coldbackie even though it was a new launch. We decided not to go for our booking agent’s Safer Stays badge, as one of the criteria for getting it was moving check-out time to 9am and check-in to 5pm – and reading through a couple of Mumsnet threads full of outrage about the idea from people trying to book holidays, we decided we’d stick to the rest of the principles but keep our original times. The extra clean-down with an antiviral spray added about an hour to the turnaround time, but we bought second sets of things like handwash, washing up liquid and so on and just swapped them out each week to quarantine them rather than having to wipe them all down.

And now we’re in November, England is back in lockdown, most of Scotland is in tier 3 and I’m sitting here in tier 1 having gone from a completely fully booked November to a grand total of 12 nights. My two-week Christmas and New Year booking has cancelled (and bless them for cancelling it early and not hanging on, because I might pick up another one from someone within the Highlands) and essentially I’m expecting no money from now until March (which is already full at Ethel’s bar the last few days that start the week going into April!).

That said, if no income over winter, when I’m losing about £290 a week, means I can open all summer in 2021, when I make about £900 a week, I’ll take this current shutdown. With the news about the Pfizer vaccine breaking a few days ago, I’m hopeful that 2021 will be a brighter year for business.

Some potential renovation projects

One of my worst faults is that I have a constantly roving eye for a house in need of a bit of TLC.  Here are a few that have caught my attention recently, though they’re all either sold or probably will be before long!

The Old Schoolhouse, Halkirk

Lovely traditional house in Halkirk, packed with period features – just look at this staircase!

Formerly inhabited by a heavy smoker, this would need stripping right back.

It’s got damp issues and I’d want to get a loo/shower room in downstairs somewhere (possibly by taking a bit off the dining room), but this house has amazing bones and has an enormous back garden that could potentially provide a plot to build another house on.  Was on at offers over £115,000, went to fixed price £103,000 and is currently under offer.

St Andrews Church, Thurso

Pete tells me I am not allowed to buy this until I am making more money than God.

The roof is shot and has been for years and a lot of the glass is broken.  But what’s left is beautiful.

And yet again, a wonderful staircase.

I think it would make a fantastic space to show off the area’s artists and craftspeople – turn the downstairs into cubicled work areas for creatives, turn the upstairs into a gallery/showroom to sell their wares. Downsides are the lack of parking and the fact that just sorting out the roof is going to run into six figures.  Also B-listed.  Currently under offer for the third or fourth time at £50,000.

Adastra, Wick

This is a former drill hall, used by the Territorial Army from 1890 to 2018.  Gorgeous proportions.

Lovely old stone floor and upstairs, the drill hall and those amazing windows.

It has three entrances at the front and looks from the floorplan like it would split vertically into three houses fairly easily.  The problem is that they’d be pretty big family-sized homes and there’s no garden.  Currently on at a fixed price of £120,000, down from its initial asking price of offers over £150,000.

I have a load more I’m keeping my eye on, but that’s probably enough for this evening, I’ll save the rest for another day.

Side project – the village hall

Another thing that’s been keeping me occupied for the past year or so is our village hall.  Our village had an old hall, built by subscription in the 1920s, and in 2018 a newly-formed committee decided to try and raise some money to renovate it for its 100th birthday as it was looking a bit sorry for itself and was barely being used.

We’re lucky in my area that community projects have the opportunity to apply for money from SSE’s windfarm funds, thanks to having one a few miles away.  And we did some fundraising ourselves, including a very popular bingo and cake night that proved to us there was a demand for bringing the hall back into full use (any health and safety officers, please look away now!).

We were awarded an initial £11,500 to employ an architect to do a feasibility study for us and he came up with a plan of taking down the kitchen and toilet extensions and the porch and then building a big steel-framed building over the top of the hall itself, retaining the original heart of the building and putting new loos, kitchen and an entrance hall around it.  Then one day we turned up to a meeting to find him waiting for us, wearing a boiler suit, with a pile of floorboards lifted, looking rather ashen.  This is all that was holding the main floor up – the whole length and width of it was propped like this.

It could obviously take some weight, as evidenced by the amount of people at the bingo, and many people in the village had fond recollections of how well-sprung the floor was at dances, but from a public liability point of view, as well as building standards, it was a non-starter.  So after a lot of drawing and re-drawing and an unexpected large legal bill when we found out the hall actually belonged not to the committee but to six trustees appointed in the 1930s who were all dead, meaning we had to apply to the High Court in Edinburgh to confirm new trustees, the old hall was carefully taken to pieces and taken away to start a new life on a nearby croft as an agricultural shed.

In March this year, the builders started on the groundworks.

They were making great progress – in three weeks they had the foundations complete and inspected by the council, poured the slab, laid out the pipework for the underfloor heating system and poured the screed over the top.  The day the first half of the kit frame was delivered to site, Nicola Sturgeon shut down all construction sites due to Covid.

It was three months before we were allowed to commence work again, but I’ll say this: a kit frame building goes up flipping quickly!

Currently we have the roof on and we’re waiting for the exterior cladding, which has made it as far as Inverness and hopefully will turn up on site this week – it’s large sheets and nobody wants to be fixing them in winter winds, which can gust to 100mph here and may reach 45-50 as a base speed.  The guys have been sorting out the inside in the meantime and it looks amazing – just look at the new main hall.  Doors at the back lead to storage area and a green room which will also double as a drinks serving area for functions etc. (if and when we’re ever allowed to do them again!)

We’ve got a bigger kitchen with yards and yards of storage space, plus the island in the middle to plate up on and a serving hatch through to the main hall.  A double Rangemaster is going into the blank space on the right of the picture next to the door.  The kitchen has a separate handwashing sink to comply with the council’s environmental health standards and we’re exploring the option to let anyone locally who wants to have a crack at starting a food business use it for a while to test their market, so they don’t have to get their home kitchen certified straight away.

The entrance hall has an office with a ticket window, the loos are to the other side and we’ve also got two shower rooms – being on the North Coast 500 we get a lot of passing tourists and the hall is opposite the path down to the beach, so we’re hoping to raise some income from opening the loos and showers to public use every day.  Initially it’ll be on a donations system, but we have the option to add pay-per-use locks at a later date.  (I have no idea why this picture has come out so small!)

It’s been my first involvement with a new build and it’s been FASCINATING.  Whilst old buildings are always going to be my first love, this has really whetted my appetite to do a new build of my own in future.  Or two.  Or three.  Or more…

Project 3 – the tiny cottage

This is going to be an interesting one.  First joint venture, first listed building, first one that’s been offered to me as a project rather than me trawling through property listings.

Those of you who have read this blog back when I was doing Ethel’s and the start of Tor Aluinn will have seen me mention Pete the Roofer.  As we came to the end of doing Tor Aluinn, he was over giving Mick a hand with re-laying the slabs at the back (translation: showing him how to do it properly!) and casually mentioned that if I was interested, he’d be interested in working on a project with me as a joint venture.  He owns a Grade A listed (Scottish equivalent to Grade 1) tiny terraced cottage, which is just a bare shell inside, and wondered if I fancied helping turn it into a holiday let.

So I pottered over one afternoon to have a look at it.  It’s gorgeous.  A tiny fisherman’s cottage on the edge of a tiny harbour, very private (five buildings down there, only two of which are currently lived in) and a totally blank canvas inside, which means hopefully the listed buildings officer will be relatively generous in what we’re allowed to do with it, as long as we remain sympathetic to its origins.  Yes, there are a couple of areas where I think we’re going to struggle with the layout and I suspect we’re going to have to spend a bit of money on getting an architect experienced with working with listed buildings to help us get approval, but it should end up being a little gem of a romantic hideaway for two.

Pete had the building valued and the surveyor came up with £60,000, which I think is fair.  The idea is that we create a limited company, he will put the building into it and I need to come up with £60,000 in cash to put in to pay for the renovation work.  This may be slightly problematic, as it’s not the easiest time to go to lenders and say, ‘Hi, I renovate old buildings into lovely holiday cottages, please give me a lot of money unsecured against anything.’  Ethel’s is due for remortgage in May next year and I’ll be able to take about half of it out of that, but I’d rather get cracking before then.

Anyway, there aren’t going to be too many photos of this just yet, because there’s still a small chance it may not happen, but just to whet your appetite, this is what you see when you stand outside the front door.

Project 2 – Coldbackie – FINISHED!

Oh my goodness, it’s been a year and eight months – where did that go?  To cut a very long story short, we planned to open Tor Aluinn to guests in May this year, got scuppered finishing it off by Covid and finally welcomed our first visitors at the end of August.

As a small memory refresher, this is what it looked like when we bought it:  http://househoarder.com/project-2-has-lift-off/

And this is how all those rooms look now.

Living Room

The window seat ended up not getting put back in because it turned out the three-seater sofa fitted so perfectly it could have been made-to-measure, so we just ordered another one.  We didn’t go for a woodburner in the end, they make a lot of mess and there wasn’t really anywhere to store logs, so we left it empty (I’m looking for a vintage fire screen to go in front of it, like the one in Ethel’s House’s bedroom) and picked a wall colour that would make the fireplace disappear a bit – this is Sulking Room Pink, originally this room was going to be dark red.  I’m still not 100% convinced I’ve got the colour right, because there’s so much blue in the rest of the house, but as soon as I change it the fireplace is going to start hitting you between the eyes again.

Downstairs bathroom

We ended up not doing too much in here.  Kris the plumber took one look at the floor and the wetwall and advised (a) it was about £2,000-worth of work and (b) it had been done extremely well.  So we took the shower seat and surround out, got some contrasting wetwall to make a feature of the shower and cover up the screw holes, replaced the loo and Kris had a rummage through his shed and found the shower screen.  The storage unit was bought second hand from someone at Mick’s work.  We did put a big chrome heated towel rail in here as well, which is to the right of the loo, and then the little white towel stand was £20 from Argos and is surprisingly sturdy.

Kitchen/diner

This is where we knocked the study/bedroom 5 into the dining room.  The old Aga was on the blue wall.  And yes, I know the blue kitchen is fashionable and might well date badly, but I love it.  David built the shelves on the island from some offcuts of worktop, so they match perfectly and are really sturdy.  The island isn’t actually fixed to the floor, it can be moved about if we ever need to access the electrics underneath it (the fridge is built into it on the other side).  The blue velvet curtains are the ones we bought with the house 🙂

Utility room

After a bit of a mismeasure with the units (they forgot to take into account the concrete skirting) we had to ditch the separate tumble dryer and get a combination one – and then had a mad panic when I thought I’d better test it the week before the first guests arrived and found it didn’t work!  We ended up frantically swapping it out for a new one the day before the guests were due and the one in the picture is now in my house after a warranty repair.  Glad I found a spot for my impulse bench seat buy and the seat holds all the dog-drying towels, dog poo bags and dog treats.

Hall and landing

Blue, blue and more blue – I didn’t exactly keep to my neutral plan.  Chris the electrician was convinced the feature light was going to be too big for the space, but it works just fine, although changing the bulb in it is a two-person job and you have to lean out rather perilously over the stairwell.  We put an LED bulb in it though, so hopefully it’ll last the advertised 15 years.  The cupboard downstairs has the vacuum cleaner and lots of spares (glasses, bulbs, handwash, loo roll etc. etc.) and the upstairs one is the linen store and has two full spare sets of sheets and towels.

Master bedroom

I LOVE this room.  I know that Hague Blue makes me a walking middle-class cliche and I really don’t care.  Mick had serious doubts about the peacock until he actually hung it on the wall and then he had to admit that it fits in nicely.  The shop actually had two, the other one faced the other way, and I was so tempted to get them both and hang them in the dining room instead, but Mick veto’d that in favour of a really big wooden clock he’d fallen in love with (not shown in the kitchen picture because it hadn’t arrived).  The window seat cushions were made by Just Wright Crafts, who did all the lampshades and cushions for Ethel’s House.  We also cut a hole in the wall in here and put in a little en suite shower room.  If I could change anything about the way we did this house, it would be to put another 10cm onto the en suite, but hey ho.  We went for new doors upstairs in the end, rather than reusing the ones removed from downstairs, as David said too much needed cutting off them and they’d have looked wrong.

Upstairs bathroom

Bit of a difference from the old bedroom.  Because we put the en suite in we decided not to put another shower in here, just the hand-held shower attachment on the taps and a screen to stop the splashes.  The old window seat is the perfect height for a glass of wine and a book.  Kris and David made the boxout to hide the pipes and the bath surround from wet wall.  Again, the radiator was swapped out for a big chrome towel rail.

Front bedroom

This ended up having to be the twin after I couldn’t make the space work for it in the back bedroom.  A shame to lose the fireplace, but we did really need the space.  The bells are all still on the walls, but sadly the wiring couldn’t be revived.  The cupboard in here has had a rail fitted and is acting as a wardrobe, which saved a few hundred.

Back bedroom

The wallpaper in here was such a sod to get off that Magnus ended up papering over the whole thing with lining paper and painting that rather than scraping.  We had to move the bell push, it’s just been glued back on.

Garden/outside

The old asbestos garage, half-built over the boundary, got removed by specialists, and we created a gravel parking area at the front.  The garden was hacked back, a really big tree too near the house was taken down completely, and Pete and Mick spent four very hard days levelling the broken flagstones and laying new patio stones around the back of the utility room where the garage used to be.  There’s now a rustic wooden table and benches in the rectangle area where the wall is and the double sink is at the back door as a planter, with mint and chives in it.  Fencing David (he has the same name as David the joiner) came and replaced the remains of the old metal wire fence with a beautiful wooden one with handmade gates at either side of the house, which Magnus then stained with creosote – we have not yet had a dog escape!

And that’s it, job done!  Is there another project?  Well, yes, there is, but more about that another day.

Colours

Magnus was at our house this week, as we had a blocked septic tank outlet pipe, and that got me thinking about colours again, as he’s going to be doing the painting at Coldbackie.  Last week I bought a painted wooden towel rail from a lady in Halkirk for Ethel’s and we were talking about how we both loved Farrow and Ball colours, but winced at the prices.  ‘Did you know they can mix to the Farrow and Ball colour chart in W&D Ross in Thurso?’ she said.  ‘It’s not identical, but it’s very close and it’s about a third of the price.’

Talk about a perfect fit:

So off I trundled when I was in Thurso on Friday and sure enough, yes they can.  The base paint is Johnstone’s Trade and it’s £34.90 for 5 litres compared to £103 for 5 litres of F&B.  So this afternoon’s job was to sit down with the paint chart and How To Decorate and rethink all the colours.

The hall, the stairwell, the landing and the downstairs corridor are all going to be Stiffkey Blue with Wevet on the ceilings.  The kitchen and utility room units are all a dark blue and search as I might on Pinterest, I can’t find anyone who’s done anything other than pale walls, unless they’ve painted the cabinets themselves and done the identical colour on the walls.  So I’ll carry on the Wevet on the walls in both those rooms and between the beams on the ceiling, but the wall where the Aga was in the kitchen/diner, which is opposite the door coming in from the downstairs corridor and will have the dining table next to it, will be Stiffkey Blue – it should balance out the blue units at the other side of the room.

I’ve ummed and ahhed for ages about the living room.  It’s a big room with a high ceiling and, of course, the very dramatic fireplace in the middle.  The floors are going to be a rich warm wood, the sofas are going to be brown leather and I want to make it feel cosy in the evenings rather than vast.  A strong colour should bring the walls in and I’m going to be brave and paint it in Blazer to the picture rail and then Wimborne White above the rail and on the ceiling.

 

I bought actual F&B Cooking Apple Green and James White when the Homebase at Wick closed down.  It was going to be for our bedroom at home, but I’m going to try it out in the back bedroom here first.  That room overlooks the garden, so it’ll bring the green inside the house.

 

The front bedroom overlooks the sea, so I’m going blue in there with Skylight on the walls and Wimborne White again on the ceiling.  Both these bedrooms will open up off the dark blue Stiffkey landing, so it should make them look brighter than they actually are.  The paint chart makes it look more blue than it is in this picture.

From that landing there’s an archway through to the corridor leading to the new bathroom and the master bedroom – the corridor will be Wimborne White and then I’m going darker in the bathroom and bedroom.  I’ve ordered bath panels and a loo seat in graphite grey, so I’m going to have a classic stone-effect floor, probably Karndean Clip Fiore:

And then Plummet on the walls with Ammonite on the ceiling.

In the main bedroom I’m going darker again, with either Moles Breath on the walls and Ammonite on the ceiling (I know it looks the same as Plummet on screen, but it is darker!) or Hague Blue and Wevet.  Moles Breath was my initial choice, but looking at it next to Plummet whilst writing this post, it does rather look as if I’ve just given up and gone grey in that section of the house.  I love Hague Blue, but am not quite brave enough to use something so dark all through the hall, landing etc. etc., so it might be nice to turn this bedroom into a cocoon of a room.

Whichever of those I go for, to prevent the room being too gloomy, I’m going for furniture from Riverside Interiors’ Tister range, which will contrast nicely against dark walls.

Next job: get the room measurements out and calculate how many cans of each I’m going to need at coverage of 12-14 square metres per litre!

 

 

Timber!

Colin the tree surgeon (or Celtic Firs, to give him his official business name) came out and did his stuff, and it’s made a big difference to the amount of light in the garden and coming through the windows at the back of the house.

We have a nice load of firewood to take home and season 🙂

The trees at the back also got a trim.  The lower branches from the other big evergreen were extending around 6ft into the garden and once I get all the output from the chipping machine cleared away (could be a while…) it’s going to be a pretty big space.  All the brambles and blackcurrants have been cut back to the boundary as well.

Inside, Pete and Al have been hard at work.  The rest of the wall is down in the kitchen, all bricks and wood have been removed, and it’s swept out and tidy.

Upstairs the little fireplace has been removed.

If the little Victorian-style insert from Ethel’s doesn’t fit into this space, then I’ll get David to take that bit of plasterboard off, re-frame it and cover it over completely.

In the master bedroom, the hot water tank cupboard is gone.  Now there’s space for a 5ft double and two bedside cabinets.

Other news from the last couple of weeks – the boiler at Ethel’s stopped again, the day before the guests were due to arrive.  This time I consulted Google and found that the overheat light was coming on.  After leaving a message for Jeff on every form of contact details I have for him, including Facebook, I went down the road to feed the horses and saw his van parked outside a house further down the road.  He came and had a look and said that there were three usual causes of what was happening – 1) pressure drop (which I’d eliminated by resetting it the other day), 2) the pump had failed, meaning the water the boiler was heating up wasn’t getting moved out of the boiler and around the system (the pump was fine), 3) dodgy thermostat.  He found that the sensor for the thermostat had come slightly out of its insulated pocket, so re-seated it, fired it up and told me to monitor it.  Thankfully it’s been fine ever since, but I think we’re going to have to budget for a replacement boiler in the next 12 months, as even though Jeff said it probably had another two or three years in it before things started going wrong, I’d rather do it a bit early and not have any pissed-off guests.

We had a half-decent amount of snow here last week and sod’s law, one of the days with the heaviest fall overnight was the one where I had to go out to Coldbackie for a site visit with the plumber.  Yes, I finally have a plumber!  He has keys and will get started as soon as he can.  He’s made all sorts of sensible suggestions about bathroom layout and saved me an entire shower cubicle.  We’ve measured out the en-suite width upstairs and I’ve written on the wall to show David where the new stud wall needs to go.  I was going to do all the ordering through his account with the local plumbing merchant in Thurso, but while I was browsing through the Heritage bathroom catalogue, looking for an appropriately-period-style suite for the new bathroom, I found a website with a January sale on the entire range.  Kris told me to order from it, as he wouldn’t be able to price-match, so he’ll get all the en-suite goods and the replacement downstairs loo and shower through his account, and I’ve got £800 off on the upstairs suite, which is 10% of the entire bathrooms budget.  The one I’ve picked is Granley Deco, which is 1930s, same as the extension.

RDI went back out yesterday and got the heating working again.  I need to give them a ring to find out where we are, because they were going to do the radiator move as well and I can see today that they’ve moved the temperature control to the new position and put the two isolation valves on, but there’s a big wet patch on the concrete floor and the radiator is still under the kitchen window, so I’m not sure whether they simply ran out of time, as I know I was down as an afternoon job, or if they hit a problem.  A relief that the house is warm again though, although I’d turned the water off as a precaution while it was off.  It doesn’t half look pretty out there in the snow though, even if driving around snowy unploughed roads is a bit hairy – view from the front bedroom last Tuesday.

Finally we’re getting going

It seems like I’ve spent most of the last eight months we’ve owned Tor Aluinn bashing my head against various walls, but with the turn of the year I’m faintly hopeful that we might be moving forwards again.  Colin the tree surgeon arrived on New Year’s Day (yes, I know!) to take a look at the trees in the back garden.  He agreed with me that the massive pine next to the house with the electricity cable running through its branches needed to come down completely and suggested he trim and balance the other large pine and tidy up the remaining trees.  Even better, he also does other landscaping and garden works, so I asked him to quote me for sorting out the bramble and blackcurrant overgrowth, getting the lawn under control and generally sorting the whole garden out – two of his guys can do in a day what will take me about a month of stomping around in waterproofs and swearing!  The really good thing is that he is trained and insured to take trees down by climbing them, which means no heavy machinery on my neighbour’s beautifully-mown paths through the grass outside my boundary.  The trees and brambles are being worked on tomorrow, which was the earliest date SSE could give us for getting someone out to turn the mains cable off, and then I think the rest of the garden will be done a bit later in the year, after I’ve taken the tree trunk off site (he could dispose of it for us, but asked if I wanted it cut into manageable lengths to burn, which should give us a fair amount of firewood).

I went out there today to leave some keys for him in case he needed to get into the house and to my delight Pete and Al had made it out to start knocking through downstairs.  It’s going to be a fabulous big room and it better balances out the huge living room at the other end of the house.

The other end of the room doesn’t look quite so tidy.

There’s still a bit of wall left to come down – Pete’s van is in for servicing tomorrow (which is handy, because we’ll have both Colin and SSE taking up the parking places), but they’ll be back on Friday to finish this off.

And, most handily, where they’ve taken out the poured concrete skirting, there’s a nice access point to undernearth the floorboards, exactly where Chris will need to get into to run power to the kitchen island.

The less good news was that the boiler had stopped working.  We ran out of oil while we were away on holiday, so I got a delivery as soon as we were back, repressurised the boiler, hit the reset button and all seemed well.  I was slightly suspicious that it had turned itself off again last time I was out, but the thermostat was reading 9C (it’s on the Eco setting and should be maintaining at 10C) and I shrugged it off as it not having hit the boundary temperature to fire up again.  Today I checked the pressure, hit reset and although the boiler sprang into life, it didn’t make the WHUMPH noise that indicates it’s fired up and promptly switched itself off again.  I spoke to RDI and they’ll be out to look at it as soon as possible – it probably needs bleeding and they need to replace the dodgy non-return valve they found on their last vist.  We were going to wait to move that radiator until Pete and Al had sorted the wall, but I’ve said if they’re coming out, we might as well go back to the original plan of putting two isolation valves on it and letting Pete take it off the wall when he’s ready, then RDI can cross this job off their books.  They’re also going to test the emissions, as my neighbour has mentioned he can smell it very strongly when it fires, although that may simply be because it doesn’t have a garage around it any more.  (It’s been a bad day for boilers, the one at Ethel’s had stopped as well, but I managed to fix that one – pressure drop due to cold weather.  I’ve got guests arriving on Friday, so I’m hoping that’s all it is!)

As well as speaking to RDI today I’ve also rung a new plumber, as I’ve never heard anything more from the one who said they’d come and look at the job back in October, despite a few gentle nudges.  I got their voicemail, but they were recommended by my neighbour at home’s parents and they only live about 5 miles from the house, so I’m hoping that a nice chunky job close to home will be appealing.  Fingers crossed.  I also gave Chris the electrician a ring to see where I’d got to on his list and he’s hoping to start if not next week then probably the week after.  We’ve decided not to move the meter and consumer unit, I’ll get David to build me a nice small cupboard around them, as they’re not the prettiest.

I know it’s a bit early to start thinking about finishing touches, but I couldn’t resist a bit of shopping over Christmas.  Serendipity in Thurso got this beautiful slate house name made for me:

And then I hit Riverside Interiors for their January sale.  The Jude chair that I wanted for the living room was in it – at that much of a discount I’ll take the risk of the second one I’ll need to order not quite being the same shade of brown.  I’m having a pair of these in the bay window in the living room, looking out over the islands.

This footstool is also for the living room, but the other end, where the two big sofas and the TV are going.

Lighting was 20% off, so this will go between the sofas as a reading lamp.

And finally, this wasn’t a planned purchase, but I fell in love with it (oops).  If there’s enough room to get it into the corner in the porch behind the front door it’ll go there.  If not, it’ll go into the utility room, opposite the back door.  The perfect boot-removing seat.

Hopefully I can get back to some more regular updates over the next few months.  I think our planned target of finishing by the end of May is optimistic, but that’s not going to stop us trying.

Slow progress…

But at least we do have some forward movement to report.

The guys turned up with the digger to do the parking spaces.

And it looks very smart, but can you spot the mistake?

The kerb drop is correct, but they should have taken out all the grass at the front so we could get two cars on parallel to the house by parking all the way up to the bay window.  A combination of miscommunication at their end and me not having time to get out to see them while they were here (I assumed that since the guy who came out to quote had been extremely organised and printed off the photo I’d sent him to explain the job in the first place and wrote all the measurements down on it, there wouldn’t be a problem).  As we can get two onto it perpendicular to the house and men and machinery had moved on and were miles away, I suggested they simply adjust their invoice accordingly, which they were happy to do.

Chris the electrician was working on a job nearby last week, so came to have a look on the way back.  Despite living over 50 miles away, he knows the house (he did the electrics when Jeff installed the boiler for the previous owner) and is happy to take the job on – including getting the servant bells working if the wiring is still behind the walls for them.  I’ve found a fabulous website called Below Stairs of Hungerford, which has original 1920s electronic bell indicator boards, so fingers crossed.

Pete also came out last week and we went through the list of things he and Al are going to sort for me.  We had another look at that brick wall in the kitchen and after making a few more holes in various bits of plasterboard, he’s also happy that it’s not load-bearing and the beams run all the way across the corridor ceiling to the other wall of the house.  He managed to track down the source of the damp corner in the dining room area as well.  This isn’t the world’s clearest photo, but this piece of guttering had been leaking back against the wall for so long that the water had worn right through the harling and was dripping onto the stone.  Like so many houses up here, there’s a lot of sandstone in the walls and it simply soaked through.  A simple fix for once, which is great news, as I’m pretty good at ringing Pete up with weird and wonderful leaks.

Finally, Warren arrived on Friday to start sorting out the gable end where the garage was and will be back on Tuesday to finish the job off.  I’ll then need to get Magnus out to paint it white, but we’ll need to wait for the weather to warm up a bit first.