Some women buy their husbands watches or aftershave as presents. But knowing how much he loves DIY, Tim Mulhall’s wife bought him a dilapidated vintage train carriage, thinking it would be ideal to convert into a micro-Airbnb.

“Clearly I was running out of projects, so my wife found a local farmer who had all of these old railway wagons in his field. She did a deal, and next thing I know it’s arriving on the back of a lorry and being lowered by a crane down into our yard,” says Mulhall.  

“She said, ‘there you go, you can restore that’. So now I’m halfway through working out how to fix up a 1930s LNER wagon. I found a photo of it from that time so now I’ve got a real challenge, to make it look vaguely like that.”

He’s spent a good part of the past three years “finishing” the three-bedroom bungalow that they bought outside Usk, in south-east Wales, at the beginning of the first Covid lockdown. For the first two years after moving in, Mulhall spent 12-hour days every weekend upgrading the house, which the previous owner had spent 15 years building.

Mulhall is one of the 38pc of British people who have taken on more DIY in the past five years than ever, according to a survey by LoftZone. More than a third are driven by saving money, as construction costs skyrocketed during the pandemic.

Mulhall estimates he has saved more than £40,000 in labour costs. He brought in professionals only when it came to serious electric and plumbing jobs. What he had assessed as being an easy job became “years of DIY slog”.

It was partly what he’d signed up to – he had only viewed the house briefly before buying it, due to pandemic restrictions, and been briefed by the estate agent on the house’s condition, but it was in a much worse state than what he’d anticipated.

“Our window cleaner fell straight through the decking outside, and there were some areas where there were just bare cables hanging out of walls. Then we discovered somebody had drilled holes through the window frame and down into the fittings, so every time it rained, the water came straight through and ran inside,” says Mulhall.

“There were beautiful oak doors that didn’t close, and the barn needed to be fully rewired, too. We also discovered a wall inside the garage that stopped you actually putting a car in there. We knocked that down and discovered a toilet hidden behind it.”

Mulhall felt confident he could turn his hand to most things. DIY ran in his veins, sparked by his father, who as an engineer turned paint store owner, passed his skills down to a young Mulhall, who was also a natural in the school woodworking class.

While DIY efforts on previous homes may have been motivated by money, this time around Mulhall has been energised by the creative fulfilment of working with his hands, after spending most of his working life at a desk. He was previously chief operating officer at Hornby Hobbies, the model railway maker, and is now the boss of fancy dress company Rubies.

“DIY gives me the satisfaction that I can go to bed thinking I’ve actually physically achieved something,” says Mulhall. “In a desk job, it’s all about meetings and reports and there was never anything satisfying, so I would go home and do DIY.”

Completing these tasks taps into his competitive nature, too. “A lot of my motivation comes from seeing how much better the house is than it was before, or thinking how much further ahead I was than 12 months ago. I’ll rate myself on how I’m performing on things like staying on top of mowing the lawns.

“I’m very competitive within myself and set high standards....In those psychometric tests you do for work, I’ve come out as a ‘Completer/Finisher’. I might botch things, but I’ve always ended up finishing what I set out to do.”

Natalie Ryan also inherited her love of DIY from her dad, taking on her first project at the age of 15, repainting her bedroom.

“I had an attic room, and I just really wanted it half blue and half yellow. My dad took me to B&Q. I chose the colours, and he gave me all the stuff and let me crack on. I really enjoyed it,” says Ryan.

“Being 15, I used to get lost in music, and now, I delve into a lot of podcasts and get carried away. It’s quite therapeutic, thinking about stuff and processing things.”

Ryan has saved thousands over the past three years doing DIY on her four-bedroom house in Standford, Hampshire, while juggling her work as a PR consultant, and two young children.

For Natalie, being up for DIY means she and her husband were able to get a bigger house for their budget, but it’s not just about money.

Despite the savings she’s estimated, she could likely earn more working at her day job than painting walls. But it’s the ability to tap into a different type of creativity that gets her buzzing about DIY, even if it means painting hallways on Christmas Eve, or abandoning one project to start another.

“I just love colour. I find it so much better to be surrounded by the colours that work for you. It does a huge amount to make a room feel like new and like your own. I also think that when you do it yourself, you naturally take more care in the overall finish. I’ve only met one painter/decorator who delivers the same standard as someone who is living with the walls they are painting,” says Ryan.

“I also probably have a slight artistic tendency inside that’s never been properly drawn out. I have a friend who does art, and I always think ‘wow, I’d love to make awesome paintings all day’. I’ll just settle for painting the walls.”

That’s what has driven Fenella Hemus for the past 30 years too, perfecting the house on the hill she fell in love with to transform it into her dream home. And in the meantime, she has saved around £50,000 in labour costs.

She drew on the skills she learnt in art school, repainted it, replacing the kitchen and all the windows, building radiator cabinets and new shelves, and redoing the bathroom. She has also created workspaces upstairs and in her front room from which to run her leadership coaching business.

“I really like using my hands and making things. I trained as a sculptor at art school, so I learned how to do plastering and carpentry,” says Bristol-based Hemus.

“I can look at my house and go, ‘I did most of this’. My home is very important to me and I do have a particular way of how I want it to be.”


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