Working on your property - maintenance and renovation

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In a collectively managed housing coop, everyone is responsible for looking after the property as:

  • landlords with a duty of care to the tenants and with legal responsibilities
  • guardians of a common resource for future generations of co-op members/people in housing need (including making sure the co-op is financially secure).
  • housemates and community members, creating a home that’s accessible for the residents and pleasant to live in
  • humans trying to minimise our negative impact on the earth and its beings.

Small problems will turn into big ones if they’re not remedied in time, particularly cracks, damp and leaks. Things like cracked slates or old and flaky paintwork, can quickly become rotten roof timbers or window-frames that need replacing, at a much higher cost than it would have been to fix the original problem, which may not have seemed a big deal on its own.

It can come as a surprise that all properties, but especially old ones, need much more maintenance than you imagine and that it’s never ‘finished’. In some properties, it may be that there is always some major project going on.

Renovating a property

Your building may need significant work on it before you can move in or while you are living there.

You may want to tailor it to your own requirements or the building may need renovations to make it safe and usable (like an electrical re-wire), or to make it more energy efficient (like insulation), or to make it more accessible (like wheelchair ramps).

This process can seem daunting, but is also exciting, as you are beginning to create your home! It may be important to remind yourself of this excitement during workdays shovelling pigeon dung into sacks, or whatever you have to be doing.

Make sure your business plan accounts for any time where you are unable to get rental income. It’s often possible for mortgage lenders to defer payments at the start of a loan, but you need to think about this in advance. As standard, you need to start paying off mortgages immediately, so unless you’ve got lots of money in the bank, you need to make rent.

If you’re renovating later on in the life of the co-op, you may be able to plan to rehouse people temporarily, or do work at times when rooms are empty in between tenants. Just be sure the co-op can afford it, and plan for things to overrun sometimes.

You may be able to camp out in the house while you get your work done. Depending on your outlook, this can be disheartening or unifying. We recommend treating it as a unifying experience, though this can be challenging for some. Make sure everyone’s agreed and understood the implications of any plans to do this - for example, while a building is being re-wired you may not be able to use mains power, if there is significant maintenance to the plumbing then there may not be running water, if walls or roofs are being replaced - a room may be open to the elements. The exact concerns will vary depending on the work being done.


Even if your renovations are fairly minor, Building Control approval may be required. You have to give the Building Control department of your local council plans for your building and a schedule of works for them to approve. Large scale works (involving heating, drains, sewerage or new building like an extension) may need multiple inspections. A fee will be charged, but this will be small relative to the costs of the work. When the building is completed to the satisfaction of the inspector, a Completion Certificate will be issued. This is a vital document that must be retained alongside the written planning permission for use if you ever want to sell. It is also required in order to release final funds from lenders and obtain the warranty certification.

You will also have to consider fire regulations. As a fully mutual housing co-op, you are not normally required to meet the standard HMO fire safety regulations, but you are still responsible for the safety of the people living in the house (and as someone living in the house, you probably have a vested interest in keeping safe. You can talk to your local fire brigade about what you could do to make your home as safe as possible. If you leave the house in an unsafe state people could get hurt and you could be held responsible.

You can find very useful guidance at:

Routine and Extraordinary maintenance

Well-managed properties will have a ‘cyclical’ maintenance schedule. This lays out all the jobs that need doing regularly, how frequently they’re meant to happen and when they’re next due to be done.  It can include small frequent things like smoke alarm testing every month and bleeding the radiators every 6 months, right up to repainting the external woodwork every 3-5 years, re-pointing (replacing the mortar between the bricks) every 10 years, or re-roofing every 30-40 years. You can ask other housing co-ops or even friendly housing associations for a copy of their schedule, though obviously it’s worth working out something that suits your particular building.  For example, if it’s in a particularly exposed spot, the external jobs will need doing more frequently.

Most of the cyclical jobs would be considered routine maintenance, meaning that

a) the co-op members should be able to do them themselves

b) they should fall within a routine maintenance budget, which you set as a co-op and include in your co-ops cashflow projection.

Maintenance is often budgeted at 1-3% of a houses value per year - so if the house costs £200,000, estimate £2-6000 a year for maintenance. You will often not need this much, especially if you are able to do a lot of the work yourself, but it is better to have money left over than to put off important work because you don't have the funds.

Extraordinary maintenance covers the bigger jobs that need their own budget, both expected and unexpected.  Usually there will be an initial lot when you first buy the building – possibly including conversions, reflooring or even re-roofing. However, it is likely that there will be more large projects once the co-op is feeling a bit more financially secure, such as installing solar panels, or improving insulation.

Hiring vs DIYing

Attitudes to doing work yourselves will vary with the membership, while the resources available to pay someone else will increase as you pay off your loans.

Doing work yourselves can be exciting! It will usually be cheaper, involvement in the process can bring a greater sense of collective ownership in the building, and it can generate team spirit. Being part of a housing co-op is an excellent way to learn general maintenance and building skills.  As well as having a go at things yourselves, consider asking more skilled people to come and work with members on more difficult tasks.

Some work you will not be able to do yourselves and may have to employ builders, plumbers, electricians, etc. Professionals will dramatically reduce the time that your property is a building site, and hopefully you will know that it is being done properly.

Deciding which jobs to contract out and which to do yourselves is not always easy.  As a general guide, employ builders for: very large jobs (like extensions); anything structural or otherwise requiring Building Control approval (like removing a wall); technical trades (like electrics); large jobs that will delay other jobs until done (like laying a floor slab); or jobs that you want to be sure are done properly (like roofing). When deciding whether to pay a professional, it’s worth thinking about the consequences of doing a bad job – living with a terrible plastering job is less problematic than living with leaking plumbing or a badly installed wood-stove.

If you are lucky enough to have some tradespeople involved in your co-op, you will be able to tackle a wider range of jobs "in-house", but do make sure their contributions are properly recognised so nobody is taken advantage of.

Very often, the founding group will have no choice but to get stuck in quickly, learning as they go along, often by trial and error.  As the co-op gets older it should build up institutional knowledge (and a good store of tools!). Over time, members get more and more useful information before starting on a job and are able to learn skills from each other in a supportive environment.

"Some jobs that we’ve done ourselves (often enthusiastically) have cost us more in the long run as it turned out we didn’t know what we were doing. On the other hand, we’ve also paid to have jobs done, which we only later discovered weren’t good quality because we didn’t think we needed to know what they were doing!" - Cornerstone housing co-op, 2017

Employing builders and other tradespeople

The best way to find a good builder is by reputation, so ask around and look for recommendations. It is common practice to get quotes from a number of builders before contracting one, and a good tradesman should be happy to provide a detailed written estimate. When you have chosen your builder, make sure you have everything agreed in writing before anything starts. During the actual work, it's good practice to pop in every few days or so to ask how things are going, check that you are satisfied with the quality of work so far and make sure the builder can easily contact you at short notice if needed.

Make sure you understand the actual problem: fixing a problem without knowing what’s caused it can lead to more problems. This is definitely the case with issues around damp. Keep contact details for the vendor (the person/agent you bought the building from), so you can talk to past residents about how long a problem might have been going on. You could also pay someone just to investigate and do a report, if it wasn’t already picked up in the survey.

Make sure you understand what needs to happen: Get some DIY books and get internet searching. Read up on the important elements of the job in question. If eco considerations are important to you, you’ll need to do even more research. Join and ask others for their thoughts on your planned solution and materials

Create a detailed written specification to give to builders coming to quote. You could include that people in your co-op want to help with the building, both to get experience and to make the job cheaper.

Decide how the job will be organised. You may well end up with one person leading on the job, doing most of the communication with the tradespeople. Decide within the co-op about information flow – what happens if someone else is in when the tradespeople come round to quote? What happens if new information comes in? Is one person or a small team entirely responsible for the project or does the co-op want to be consulted/involved/kept informed all the way through? Depending on the size of the job, you may change your mind about these questions a few steps in. Try not to have the work of organising maintenance fall to the same people every time. Whatever you decide, make sure the tradespeople also understand who is ultimately responsible and how long it might take to make decisions. Sometimes the cause of a bad job can be traced back to chaotic communication.

Ask around for recommendations and get two or three estimates.  Quotes may vary a lot, so don’t be alarmed if you get wildly different estimates from different builders. You can ask for a breakdown of the quote or about how they plan to do the work to help gain understanding. If you are using eco-builders, they may be able to offer a variety of solutions at different prices.  Good tradespeople are often busy with lots of work, so don't be surprised if they are slow to respond, be prepared to do regular nagging. If your co-op has a preferred timescale, you may need to try a lot of builders in order to get the quotes in time.

Get a written estimate or quote and an agreed timetable of works. The timetable  will almost certainly change, but it’s better to have a definite starting point. A quote is a set price which you can expect to be stuck to whereas an estimate is more flexible and will vary depending on how many hours the job actually takes. For this reason a quote (or 'price') will often seem higher than an estimate as the tradesperson will factor in all the things that might make the job take longer and err on the side of caution. Agreeing an hourly rate leaves them secure that they will get paid for all hours worked so is less of a gamble for them but more of a gamble for you. This unpredictability of how long a job will take is also why tradespeople find it very hard to give exact dates for when they can come to look at jobs or start work.

Check details like the length of guarantee, whether they want to be paid for materials in advance and whether they’ll want paying on a weekly basis for longer projects.  Most builders will buy their materials in cash, so it’s reasonable for you to pay them up front for that. If a builder is VAT registered it will probably cost the co-op more.

Have at least a daily check-in with the builders once the job is underway. Get a progress report, ask about any problems and check that they’re happy with access, space to work and enough cups of tea. If you’re not comfortable ‘supervising’, then check their work after they’ve gone home for the day. It might be worth a couple of you working out if you’re happy or exactly what you’re not happy with, so that you can be clear with them the next day.

Basically, be willing to put a lot more effort than you thought you’d have to in order to pay someone else to do a job. Any job over £1000 requires a project manager.

Doing work yourself

  • Plan out in advance what you will need
  • Make sure you have all the tools and materials for the job, including protective equipment (goggles, gloves, etc as needed)
  • Decide where/how the tools and materials will be stored and organised
  • Have someone responsible for co-ordinating the work, ideally someone with some skills and experience of similar jobs
  • Make sure everyone is involved who wants to be
  • Give people opportunities to develop skills in tasks they haven't done before
  • Rotate tasks so everyone gets to try the more fun and interesting stuff
  • Bear in mind inexperienced DIY-ers may need supervision from a more experienced teammate, especially with anything dangerous like powertools, and some tasks may be less appropriate for people without experience
  • Make sure people can have music, hot drinks and snacks to keep morale up
  • Consider having communal meals on workdays. Having someone(s) responsible for cooking for the team can make a big difference

Work weekends

Many co-ops arrange work weekends not just for themselves, but to attract help from friends and supporters. This can generate a sense of community and collective achievement, as well as getting a lot more work done at one go. It’s also an opportunity for skill-sharing on a larger scale. This is particularly useful for those jobs where fewer tradespeople have the required skills, like lime-washing or installing wood-powered central heating. Some co-ops have also run women-only work weekends, to encourage women to be more confident at (and be recognised as capable of) tasks considered to traditionally be done by men. This short list of things to think about should be used to aid an enthusiastic person or group of people in setting up a work weekend with volunteers, as well as all the tips in the above section

  • Enthusiasm – this is probably the most important thing: if you are not interested in the task it will be very difficult to motivate others to work at it
  • Matching volunteers to roles – Know who will be helping and know the work so you can match the right skills and abilities to the right jobs. Most people will know what they are capable of but watch out for people with too much enthusiasm and not enough skill!  Also, look for people who aren’t confident in themselves and give them the opportunity to try something challenging.
  • Health and Safety – make sure if people are using new tools that there is someone to help them learn properly. Don’t presume people will have the same knowledge as you, don’t presume anything.
  • Food and Housekeeping – if you have a lot of volunteers it is important to think about the food preparation, looking after communal areas and guiding the volunteers. Making food for lots of people takes good planning, as does ensuring everyone has enough space to put their muddy boots and dry their wet coats. Remember they might eat more than you would expect, it is better to have copious leftovers than hungry volunteers. Ask volunteers in advance about any dietary requirements.
  • Communication – Planning a work weekend should involve everyone, even if some people won’t be involved on the day, it is important for them to know what is going on, what to expect and when to expect it.
  • Logistics – if lots of people are coming to work, remember to think about their travel arrangements (maybe set up a liftshare group), parking spaces, extra chairs, extra sleeping spaces. Remember to let everyone know about these plans so that there are no double booking issues to sort out on the day. Check the weather and if it looks bad, try and make sure there are indoor tasks for people who want them.
  • Memories – work weekends are usually happy times when lots of helpful people are doing something good, so it is a good idea to take photographs, have a visitor book open and consider encouraging non-volunteering visitors and potential members to visit.