our renovation story so far, in istria…

Most people, at some stage in their lives, will embark on a renovation project. Whether it’s doing up a corner in the living room or a full blown house rebuild, it will bring its stresses. We did it fairly recently in West Didsbury. What we thought would take a few weeks, took six months, all told. One idea leads to another job to another problem to another job. We have friends who have been doing their own renovation – they are professionals and in the trade – and they’ve been living the reno dream for nearly four years now. This makes our current one seem relatively short, BUT we’re doing it in a new house, abroad. And that in itself brings a whole host of new issues which we’ve had to get our heads around. Very quickly. So, if anyone else is mad enough to embark on something similar, here’s what we have discovered/learned, so far…

create a network of trusted people – quickly…

We initially thought we had our “team” of builders sorted when we moved, as we were going to use the guys who had worked with the previous owners, on the house. However a combination of factors including the fact we couldn’t really pin them down to a start date, presented us with a problem. But, the thing that we thought would present us with the biggest problem, was the language barrier. We had no common language beyond English/Croatian/Italian pleasantries and we knew this would be problematic when trying to explain/understand building technicalities. So, back to the drawing board.

A chance visit to a local interiors shop was the thing that clicked everything into place. We bought some beautiful outside lights and asked the owner if she knew of an electrician who could fit them at short notice. Yes, she did & an introduction was made. He spoke perfect English AND more importantly had worked on building projects for other foreigners in the area. This was actually quite an important factor – Croatian builders have a “style” of building. It’s obviously a very successful style, but it’s just not ours. It’s traditional but we wanted contemporary. And this is what our new guy could do. And through this encounter, and through the scope of work developing, we now have a trusted network people around us, including plasterers, plumbers, builders. All essential to a renovation project.

be patient

I am definitely not a patient person. I want everything done, now. But obviously, building work doesn’t quite work like that. And definitely not in Croatia. Our guys are not just working with us – they do other jobs too, and so you can’t really book them in for a specific period of time. Sometimes, they don’t show up when they say they will. Sometimes they show up when you don’t expect them – we’ve learned to not be surprised if they arrive on a Sunday morning. Sometimes they arrive then need to leave to go and get materials. This can be very frustrating, as I think it’s fairly easy to be organised and have a good idea of what you might need to do a job, but we’re getting used to this way of doing things. It’s not only in Spain where mañana, mañana is part of the national psyche…

agree on how payment will be made at the outset

Our guy from the chance encounter, when buying the lights, has become almost the Project Manager of our renovation. He has the contacts and the knowledge and the know-how and with him, we worked out payments right at the beginning. We agreed an hourly rate, rather than a project price which has worked to our advantage, as on the days when we have no-shows, we don’t pay. Hourly rates are also agreed for everyone he brings in. We pay him a little extra, because of the co-ordination/management side of things. And he is proving to be worth every kuna, especially as he can get better prices with builders’ merchants etc – as well as knowing where they are, AND being able to communicate everything with us in English.

accept that the project will grow

We knew from the outset that this would be quite a big renovation project. Although structurally sound, aesthetically there was a lot we wanted to do with the house (and the garden – another project all of its own!). We started with the kitchen as this was the room we felt needed most attention as it was going to be the one we’d be spending a lot of time in. But one thing leads to another, and before we knew it we were having the kitchen ripped out, woodburners installed (a complete necessity because winter can be surprisingly chilly here), an internal well carefully dismantled and reinstated outside, and a downstairs bathroom being completely taken apart and rebuilt. However, we worked with our builders on this and looked at what was feasible and sensible – eg getting all of the destruction done in one fell swoop. This has been a nightmare at times. At one point we had an open access to the internal well chamber, with a drop of nearly ten metres, slap bang in the middle of the floor. And it couldn’t be covered, as we had dehumidifiers down in the chamber to dry it out after it had been drained. We’ve had water pipes cut through, concrete mixers going, exposed windows just covered in flimsy plastic sheeting whilst it was snowing, heavy drilling inside the house, constant dirt and grime. BUT – it is now *almost* worth it, as we can see that things are starting to come together, slowly but surely. Remember though, mañana, mañana

and continue to be patient…

This is the key, I think. There have been days when we could have cried at what we have perceived as the lack of progress. The mess. The dirt. The dust. Living out of boxes and not being able to find anything. Having no-shows from workers and trying not to kick off, because you bought into this way of doing things. Not really eating proper meals because the thought of having to cook in a building site is pretty awful, and anyway, you can’t find ingredients and utensils and crockery because they are all now stacked in boxes, behind the new bathroom which is all stacked up in the living room. Which is now your temporary kitchen. Wondering how many more times you will have take plates and cups and cutlery etc upstairs, to wash in the bath. But, we have learned – deep breaths. And if that doesn’t help, it is perfectly acceptable to open a bottle of wine at 3pm.

make friends with your builders

After all, they’re almost going to be living you. If they’ve done long days, or usually on a Friday, we leave beers for them. Although they don’t have the run of the house, we’ve told them to help themselves to coffee, cold drinks – we’re also trying to run a business in this reno mayhem, and so if we stopped every time we thought they might want a drink, we’d be interrupting our work. In return, we’ve had treats from them – olive oil from the next village, a bottle of grappa (with the instruction that we should take a swig with breakfast in order to get the benefit of it), insider knowledge about places to visit/eat at, that we would never have known as we’re not locals. They’ve come out & jump started our car when we stupidly left the lights on. And, a trip is being planned to go asparagus hunting.

And that takes me back to the first point I made – work on building a trusted network of people around you. They’ll most likely become your friends too, as you’ll be spending an awful lot of time with them!


Published on 6th April 2018