The great outdoors

Originally published in Australian Women's Weekly

TV is not really an enemy. It’s more like a time-sucking device that can weld a child’s backside to a couch, forcing them to miss out on the excitement of nature, says early childhood educator Rosana Nemet.

“Motivating kids from a young age to get out there and watch the sun set or to see a flower that’s bloomed is the best way to show them,” says the mother to three boys aged between four and nine.

“If they don’t start young, they just find it all boring by the time they get older and TV will win.”

Rosana and her horticulturalist husband Roger Cameron are passionate about helping children see the beauty and joy of nature – and firmly believe that parents, grandparents, friends and babysitters can help ignite that passion.

“It really is the simple things like just having a picnic in your backyard or doing a project in the garden that works,” Rosana says.

“Parents have to get outside to show their kids the joy.”

The couple, who have written a book called Outdoor Kids to showcase exciting ways for kids to interact with nature, say the following activities can help busy parents brainstorm new ways to love being outside.


Rosana says parents should get to know their kids and understand their interests and personalities before embarking on plans to oust their children from the lounge room forever.

“It really is a matter of finding what interests them, and then you don’t have to do anything at all except watch them,” she says.

“Our oldest son seemed to have a bit of a thing for rocks. He loved them. So we showed him how to build his own rock sculptures and then we showed him how to make his own ochres and paints by grinding the rocks.”

Roger says children don’t have a long attention span and parents need to understand that kids might not like the first activity you suggest – but will happily wander off to find what they do like.

“I was trying to show my kids how to pot some plants but they preferred just playing with the soil – so I let them do that. At least they enjoyed it,” he says.


Roger says children’s favourite garden activity is helping. Yes, it does seem like an anathema to parents, but apparently children genuinely do enjoy helping in the garden.

“I just ask my kids to carry a watering can or bring me a garden stake – little things that they can do easily,” he says. “It involves them and keeps them interested.”


If all else fails, go for dirt. Digging in the dirt. Putting dirt in buckets. Or just plain rolling in the dirt.

“Kids love anything dirty,” Roger says.

“You have to tell yourself not to be precious and just accept it.”

Rosana says she hasn’t found many children who don’t enjoy putting a spade in the dirt and “digging for creepy crawlies”.

“I love to explore things in the garden. Find some worms and show the kids how they break things down and enrich the soil,” she says.

“Or find a snail trail and see where the snail went – or follow the ants back to their nest.”

If the dirt doesn’t get them interested, then critters usually will.


Most garden-loving adults know the joys of a compost heap, but did you know that kids love them even more? No, not to play in.(That really would be taking this outdoors thing too far.) Kids enjoy the daily rituals of composting, according to Rosana.

“We get our older kids involved in chopping up the fruit and vegie scraps that we will put in the heap, and then when the bucket we keep inside is full, the kids take it down to the heap outside,” she says.

“We also get them to give the heap an aerate or whatever. And while we do it, we explain why compost is so good for the garden and the kids can actually see for themselves how things break down and return to the earth.”


Planting a kids’ garden is one of the best and most exciting ways to spark a love of nature – but don’t expect instant enthusiasm.

“You need to plant things that are quick to grow because a week is a long time to a child and they can easily get bored,” Roger says.

Roger suggests that people who are lucky enough to have large gardens try growing cucumbers, pumpkins or potatoes as they are fast-growing and rapidly bear edible vegetables. He says peas and beans are also fast-growers.

“If you’re lucky, they might just eat their vegies, but don’t get too enthusiastic,” Roger jokes.

He also suggests growing Australian native wattles from seed, as the plants change rapidly as they mature.

“I was showing my oldest the juvenile leaf of the wattle and just the other day he came to me and said ‘Dad, look at this juvenile leaf’ – it was all very funny to hear my words come back to me,” he says.

Making your home a movie star

Originally published in Sunday Life

Proud home owners can make up to $10,000 a day, simply by renting out their stylish abodes to film production companies – as long as they don’t mind hordes of crew and the occasional elephant in their living room. Alex Brooks investigates for Sunday Life magazine.

Don Gillies designed what he calls his “ultra-modern pad” in 1961 and has barely changed a thing since. The wood panelling, textured wallpaper and funky light fittings were “just the thing” when he created the most modern house he could conceive of for the land he’d bought in Sydney’s western suburbs.

Everything old is new again and the 82-year-old pensioner’s taste is cool once more. Location scouts discovered Gillies’s humble mid-20th-century abode six years ago. Now he earns up to $1000 a day just for opening his front door to film crews. To date, his home has been the star of advertisements for the Commonwealth Bank, the Adelaide Skycity casino and the NSW Roads and Traffic Authority.

“I caused quite a stir when I went into the bank and told them they had pictures of my house on their walls,” says Gillies, gleefully recalling how he showed tellers a swatch of his lounge room’s way-out wallpaper to back up his story. An even bigger excitement was seeing his house on the telly for the first time. “I could barely keep my eyes off the TV waiting for the ad to come on,” he says. “I was like a little boy.”


Forget looking out for the Mr Whippy van. Gordon McKenzie, of Ecomlocations, is prowling the streets of Sydney in his silver Suzuki Vitara adorned with thenumber plates “LOC84U” and he’s offering sweeter treats than any ice-cream man. He says most home owners can earn $500 to $1500 a day for a shoot. Some houses command up to $10,000 a day if they have spectacular views.

TV commercials are the easiest and most lucrative earner for home owners. “Movies are more intrusive,” says McKenzie. “You often have to move out while they do the shoot.”

But weighing up a hotel bill against location fees might make the inconvenience attractive to some. “We had one house that earned $36,000 in just one year. That’s a nice little earner in anyone’s books.” The architect-designed mansion had all-important easy access for trucks.

Gillies is reaping the rewards of never updating his interiors after his divorce in the 1970s. “It was just me on my own and it suited me,” he says. He did replace his orange-striped three-piece lounge suite two years ago – to the annoyance of an ad agency art director.

“This woman came to look at my place and kept asking, ‘Where’s Stripy, where’s Stripy?’ I thought she was talking about a cat but then realised it was my old lounge,” says Gillies. “But it was sagging. It was over 30 years old.” Not that crews usually shoot his furniture. “They take everything out and put it in a truck. That’s the thing – your house just isn’t yours when they are here.”


Boredom prompted Melbourne mum Mary Ann Fox to register her large home on Melbourne’s outskirts with Ecomlocations. A Korean company paid her $500 a day for a fashion shoot at the ranch-style farmhouse surrounded by landscaped gardens complete with old wagon wheels.

“Truthfully, I probably do this because I’m looking for excitement,” says Fox, who works in financial services. “And it’s a great way to pay off your mortgage.” Here’s another bonus – the money can be tax-free. At the time of publishing, the Australian Taxation Office treats it in a similar fashion to people selling used cars so profits can be pocketed, provided it’s a hobby rather than a business.

Art teacher and divorced mother-of-three Julie Phillips owns a swanky beachside house in Sydney that commands up to $2000 a day from advertising clients such as Telstra and Myer. Cosmetics brand Olay and Woman’s Day magazine have also made the best of the home’s minimalist rooms and ocean views.

Phillips says she signed up with Ecomlocations three years ago out of desperation for money following her divorce. Phillips’s narrow beachside street has been parked out with large trucks and more than 60 people have been in her house at once with cameras, heavy equipment and lights.

Sometimes the excitement goes beyond the hectic pace and razzamatazz. “Lots of the crew are very good-looking guys, which is a bonus,” she says, laughing.

It’s not all upside. During one shoot at her house last year, lights overheated the toughened glass on the balcony, shattering it into the swimming pool below. “The pool had to be emptied and refilled and the glass had to be replaced at $2000 a sheet,” she says. “But because I had a good location manager, it was all paid for without any hassle.”


Melbourne’s Paul DiCintio of Allformat Locations, Chris Stansen of Locations Plus, Sydney’s Chris Beckwith of Big House Locations, and Gordon McKenzie and Paul Manos of Ecomlocations are all experienced location managers. They not only register people’s houses to be used as locations but also oversee agreements that protect home owners from potential damage.

Retired real-estate director Graeme Hall is happy to help location scouts find interesting and quirky residences through his old contacts. He earned a couple of thousand himself when 2000’s The Wog Boy featured his own South Melbourne house.

“We left one morning as the crew arrived at 7am and they moved all our furniture out,” he says. “The next night, we returned after dinner and it was like no one had even been there. Later, I was flying to Rio de Janeiro and my wife and I burst out laughing because we looked up and saw our house. They were playing the movie on Colombian Airlines.”

Hall’s former company owned and managed the St Kilda apartment building whose rooftop featured in the TV series The Secret Life Of Us. The show’s producers paid the building’s body corporate about $5000 for the two series. That the rooftop’s old rubber membrane needed a costly resurface afterwards – the foot traffic and cameras took their toll – “was a pain,” says Hall. “We wouldn’t do shoots like that in that building again. It’s just too vulnerable.”

Secret Life line producer Ross Allsop says the show gave tenants wine and restaurant vouchers after each shoot. “You need to keep people happy,” he says. “You don’t want them to turn around and say they don’t want you shooting in a building – that would be disastrous halfway through a series. And costly.” The Esplanade building has since featured in at least two commercials, including one for Target.

Allsop – who has worked on locations in Sydney and Melbourne – says it is cheaper and easier to shoot in Melbourne. City of Port Phillip film liaison officer Madeline Getson says the council received only a few complaints from neighbours about parking during the making of Secret Life.

TV commercial producer Carolien Foley, who has made ads for Pantene, Kellogg’s, Toyota and Century 21 in Melbourne and Sydney, says Sydney is more difficult to work in. “The councils act quickly the minute a neighbour complains,” she says, explaining that some Sydney local councils not only charge hundreds of dollars for parking permits but can also slap film producers with hefty fines.

“A good location manager makes sure all the neighbours know what’s happening in advance to avoid that sort of problem.”


No wonder Network Ten soap Neighbours is shot in the southern city; Ramsay Street is Pin Oak Court in Vermont South.

“Grundy’s are protective of that relationship,” says publicist Natalie Kaplan, who wouldn’t verify a rumour that a British fan had bought one of the houses.

The Pin Oak Court residents put up with plenty of hassle – there are weekly TV shoots, with the street blocked off and security guards to shoo away nosy parkers. A Melbourne company runs bus tours to the location, allowing curious tourists to get a gander into the houses.

Location managers say the owners are likely to have signed lucrative agreements that forbid them to change the exteriors of their home without permission as even a letterbox change could be catastrophic for continuity.

It seems disaster is only ever a hair’s breadth away. If a crew shooting a beer ad in Machu Picchu can damage an ancient Incan ruin, as it did in 2000, imagine what can be done to a suburban Australian bungalow.

Grips and gaffers can scrape walls and floors with bulky equipment. Tungsten lights can overheat and burn holes in wooden floorboards or set off fire alarms and sprinkler systems. “I’ve had that happen,” confesses Allsop, who has also worked on Love My Way. “And let me tell you, the water’s usually been in the system for between five and 20 years so when it comes out, it’s revolting.”

One of Chris Beckwith’s early jobs, in the 1980s, demanded he find a Sydney house large enough to accommodate an elephant for a flavoured-milk commercial. The elephant had been trained to answer a telephone and the handlers kept the animal happy between takes by feeding it hay in the garden.

“The shoot went well and the elephant did what it was supposed to do,” he says. “But I had to pay two guys to hand-pick the straw off the lawn for two days after that shoot. It taught me the value of drop sheets.”

During the past 10 years, it’s become standard procedure to use drop sheets over floors – even in the absence of an elephant. There is no eating, drinking or smoking allowed on the premises. If a home owner’s furniture and knick-knacks are moved, then the art department takes photographs so the room can be restored to its proper order after the shoot.

“We suggest home owners look at a film crew coming in the same way they might prepare for a party,” explains Gordon McKenzie. “You would take highly valuable trinkets out of harm’s way.”

Ecomlocations pays part-time scouts to source locations. “You have to have an eye for it,” says scout and photographer Simone Doctor. “It might be a beautiful house with amazing colours, like the blue house with a hot-pink door I just photographed, or a traditional Aussie house with a gorgeous veranda.”

Her technique is to walk up and knock on the door. “About 98 per cent of [owners] agree to do it,” says Doctor, who gets paid $65 to supply Ecomlocations with 80 to 120 images of one house. If the property is booked, Simone “babysits” it during the shoot and earns a larger fee of between $400 and $800, while the home owner might get $1500.

Director Damien Toogood, who has made award-winning ads for Olympus, Pepsi and Coca-Cola, says multimillion-dollar mansions are most commonly used for campaigns he works on, simply because they are the only houses large enough to fit in the 30-plus people that are required on set.

“It’s not always about aesthetics,” he says. “Sometimes it’s about practicality as well. There is no way a tiny terrace in the inner city is suitable for large trucks and a big shoot. To be honest, I wouldn’t want a film crew in my house. I don’t think it’s worth the hassle. All that effort for a few hundred bucks or maybe a grand? No way.”


Don’t change your home’s interior or exterior to make it more appealing as a location. “It’s like being an actor going for an audition – you don’t know what they’ll like or not like,” says hot-property owner Don Gillies.

Ask ad agencies or film production companies to recommend a location manager, says television commercial producer Carolien Foley.

The trend is for what Chris Beckwith, of Big House Locations, calls “modern classic” houses: “That old-money look – Edwardian, Georgian or Victorian. Something that shows the attention to detail and has large rooms but with all the cornices and fireplaces painted white, maybe with polished floorboards.”

Remember that fads come and go. “Ten years ago, a wonderful blue and buttercup kitchen was used in just about every ad,” says Ecomlocations manager Gordon McKenzie. “Suddenly, the market turned off it. Now everyone wants white kitchens. But that will change, too.” That said, large, open-plan kitchens that spill into family rooms are always in demand.

It takes all kinds, says McKenzie: “Houses don’t all have to be Nicole Kidmans; they can be Judi Dench. Character is what sells. Young beauty is always enchanting but if a house is unique, it will be asked for many times.”

Water-saving gardens by Peter Fudge

Originally published in the Australian Women's Weekly

Landscape designer Peter Fudge doesn’t want to sound gleeful about Australia being afflicted by drought, but he does prefer to look at the positive side of things.

“I’m not really glad that Australia is in drought, but I am glad that it is making people think twice about what they put in their gardens,” he says.

The designer and gardening writer says none of the gardens he has created since he began working in the 1980s have been harmed by the current drought and tough water restrictions – and he credits his love of hardy plants and formal planting schemes rather than endless maintenance with that outcome.

“I am so glad that irrigation systems are banned – I can’t tell you how many plants I have seen killed by irrigation,” he says.

“People think that by watering for five minutes a day they are doing the garden a favour but it creates all kinds of fungal and root problems and when you get beneath the surface, the soil is bone dry.”

Peter says sporadic hand-hosing may be time-consuming but it allows soils to retain water and plants to develop better root systems.

Drip irrigation systems and rainwater storage tanks are the best way to create fuss-free maintenance systems. He suggests environmentally sustainable gardeners look at installing 20,000 litres of water storage – in a tank or a bladder under the house – and treat grey water for use on the garden through drip irrigation.

“I am glad Australia is in drought because that will force us to make better gardens,” he says.

“We need to mulch, we need to use compost, we need to improve our soil and we need to make better plant selections. If we use drip irrigation, our plants get a better soaking and make deeper roots.”

Peter is well known for his formal and sophisticated garden designs, which come from an obsession with French gardens and symmetry. He likes to mix hardy plants such as grasses with formal hedging to create what he calls “drifts” of plantings.

“I do like to use natives, but hardy plants don’t just mean natives. Japanese Buxus is a great formal plant that goes on forever and I love a lot of New Zealand plants because they’ll stand up to wind and sandy soils,” he says.

“I visited a lady’s garden the other day and she told me she had not watered for five years and the thing that was going mad was this buxus hedge – it’s as tough as old boots.”

He insists that gardeners will need to ditch the classic perennials, annuals and lawns to make way for more water wise gardens.

“Anything that can’t be established without twice a week watering has to go, we need to make better plant choices,” he says.

“Lawns are nice and if you have kids you definitely need an area of level lawn, but you don’t need a lot of it.”

Peter admits that cottage-style gardens leave him cold – “I hate the fussiness, the one plant here and one plant there thing”.

But Peter’s parents have a love of the rambling garden so their dutiful son created such a striking garden for them that won Belle magazine’s garden of the year competition.

“That garden sort of paid homage to the idea of a rambling cottage garden but I did really robust Aussie-style borders rather than anything itsy bitsy.”

“I like to mix different kinds of foliage together and create something unique.”


Think about using different spaces in the garden to make the garden look larger.

Select only tough and hardy plants to suit the soil, conditions and water availability.

Think about putting an outdoor entertaining area in a spot where you can look back at the house.

Adapt a design to suit the slope of a site rather than excavating or levelling the area. Can you create an interesting lookout from a higher level? Will steps work better to connect two different areas?

Use mass borders and hedging to create interest.


FRENCH LAVENDER – Use it as an informal border. Peter likes it next to native shrubs as part of a herbaceous border.

INDIAN HAWTHORN – The variety ‘snow maiden’ has a dark green leaf and the new growth is bright green, with a pretty white flower.

POAS – Wonderful silvery foliage plants from New Zealand

FLAX – A copper-coloured leaf variety such as Karex adds colour but is not thirsty for water.

SEDUM – A succulent plant and the ‘Autumn Joy’ variety has stunning aqua leaves and rusty red flowers in spring.

CRASSULA – Another succulent plant that can be a fantastic water-tolerant substitute for Gardenia. It does not have the same perfume, but it has the glossy green leaves and looks beautiful when kept clipped.

Calm household routines

Originally published in New Idea


Every house has its own domestic rhythm and harmony – some households are completely chaotic while others may run at the pace of a coma patient. Whatever the rhythm, most of us would love to establish some kind of household routine that satisfies all family members.

Odds are you already have a domestic routine of some kind – bath time, pyjamas, brushing teeth, story time is a bedtime routine that children can come to know and count on. Perhaps you go grocery shopping on Thursdays or you bake together on the weekends. Anything that you do on a regular basis is your routine. Here are six tips to keep in mind when creating routines and establishing a rhythm in your home:


Pick one element to add in to your routine and work on weaving that into your rhythm before you add another. Decide what your top priority is and focus only on that. Maybe you want to start incorporating daily story time. Focus on blending the new task into your schedule before you add more.

It is good to have a goal in mind of where you would like to be eventually, but create a schedule based on the way things are at this moment in time. Do what will work for your family the way things are right now.

If you know your child sleeps in the afternoon, don’t plan afternoon play dates until after naptime. Some families schedule outings for only one day a week to allow the rest of the time to remain low-key. This is the time to be realistic about your time constraints, obligations, and the ages and stages of your children, too.


Allow yourself to make changes if things aren’t working. Perhaps the day you chose for housework is creating stressful afternoons because there isn’t enough time to devote to a between nap time and dinner. By staying flexible you can play around with your schedule until you find a day and a time that are a better fit.

Don’t be tempted to over-schedule your days. Allow your family to have some downtime. The purpose of routines is to allow your days to run smoother so that your family can enjoy them. Don’t be tempted to fill up those spaces with more activities and commitments when things are running smoothly. Instead, enjoy the quiet and the slow days.


Families are in a fluid state: children grow, situations change, life happens. When you have babies, sleep routines [link to } are important but as they grow older, weaving in crafts [link to activity finder tool], activities and perhaps cooking [link to cooking with kids] becomes more of a priority.Being willing to re-evaluate from time to time gives you the freedom to create a routine that meets the needs of your family.

You don’t have to do it all so evaluate what is essential and eliminate what you don’t need. Take out the extra steps and keep things basic.


Lets say one of the things you want to add to your routine is to start serving your family a a wider variety of vegetables each night. Don’t overwhelm yourself by attempting a different menu every morning of the week or by preparing complex, time-consuming recipes you’ve never tried before. Seek out something simple and tried-and-true that you already know how to make well. Perhaps make it a goal this first week to serve a great meal two nights a week and then next week aim for four.

Get the basics established and once you have a solid foundation you can build on to your routine from there.


Your family’s rhythm isn’t going to look like any other family’s rhythm. That is okay. Family routines are very personal and each household’s will be unique. The only “right” routine is the one that works the best for you for the place where you are today.

Creating routines based on your family’s personal needs means that the changes you seek to make have a greater chance of being successfully implemented.


Once you know what is essential, do some prep work to make it easier to follow your routines. If you want to have a daily walk, create a designated place to have bags and shoes within easy reach by the door. You’ll be more likely to take a nature walk if you can get dressed quickly and easily instead of having to gather the proper wardrobe from all over the house.

If on Wednesday you want to do craft with the children, then the night before needs to be spent making sure you have all the right materials. Doing this ahead of time allows us to spend less time on prep-work during our painting time and more time on creating.

Some family routines are more structured, some are more free-form but both types of schedules provide value to the kids who count on them and find comfort in their familiarity.

Creating sleeker sleep routines

Originally published in Kidspot

Feeling rested, energized and ready for the day can feel like a long lost dream for most new parents. Here are a few ways we can make the most of the sleep we do get.

Lack of sleep makes us tired, cranky and can contribute to depression. Physically, not getting the rest we need impairs our body’s ability to repair and rebuild, and weakens our immune system.

So how do we balance the reality of our lives with children, the daily needs of running a household or working outside the home, and our physiological need for rest? Here are a few ways we can make the most of the sleep we do get, while taking into account the unique demands most mothers face.


We all have an internal biological clock that sets our days and nights into a cyclical rhythm, and is controlled by a series of hormones and external cues. Often called the circadian rhythm, the energy of our waking times and restorative nature of our sleeping times are maximised when we work with this natural clock.

The thing is, habit and pattern will reset this clock, even if it varies from what the body ideally wants. This means we can condition ourselves to be night owls, even when our body may need us to sleep earlier – and it means we can condition ourselves back to a preferred internal rhythm by making new habits around sleeping and waking. Great news!


We’ve often heard that most adults need somewhere between eight to ten hours of sleep a night, but what may be even more important is the time we go to sleep and the time we wake.

Imagine a night when you go to sleep at 2 am and wake at 10 am. Now imagine a night when you go to sleep at 10 pm and wake at 6 am. Most of us know intuitively that when we sleep eight hours and wake at 6 am, we’ll have more energy. Waking at 10 am can make most of us drag through the afternoon.

Generally speaking, earlier to bed is better as it more naturally fits with our body’s preferred daily rhythm. How much earlier varies between each person, but a good rule of thumb is to shoot for a bedtime between 9 pm and 11 pm.


We all know that kids sleep better with a solid bedtime routine in place, and the same applies to adults. If you engage in work, conversation or activity right up until you plop yourself into bed, how can you expect to turn off like a light?

Give yourself a bedtime routine that includes cues to help you mentally and physically unwind and prepare for deep sleep. Intentionally transitioning into sleep with a nighttime routine can help prevent those middle-of-the-night insomnia bouts. This allows more relaxed and restorative sleep and brings a calming closure to the day.

Some things to consider for an adult bedtime routine are:

  • Dimming the lights around the house

  • Forgoing television late at night

  • Sipping a cup of calming herbal tea, like chamomile

  • Jotting down your thoughts with a journal writing session

  • Reading material that helps you tune out engaging thoughts and calms your mind


In addition to your bedtime routine, the surroundings inside your bedroom can promote or prevent restfulness. One of the most neglected rooms in a home is the master bedroom. We tend to focus our attention on the areas visitors will see and leave the behind-the-scenes rooms in disarray.

Put some thought into how you can create a place of retreat, renewal and comfort in your bedroom. Swap out the TV or computer for soft lighting and speakers for soft music. Hang soothing pictures.Buy the best sheets and pillow you can afford.

Close your eyes, and imagine walking into a room at a retreat or a bed and breakfast that completely delights you. The elements in that room might be surprisingly easy to duplicate. Could it be the tidiness of its space, the colour on the walls, the style of decor? Use this as a guide to making your bedroom a room that replicates those feelings.


Check your amount of caffeine and sugar intake. How we each respond to these things varies, but think of caffeine and sugar as energy loans. We know that financially, it’s not wise to rely on loaned money day in and day out, because it will set us up for financial ruin. Similarly, when we rely on caffeine and sugar day in and day out to meet our energy needs, our body is going to pay the price – usually in the form of burnout, sickness, sleep disruptions, and mental stress.


Let’s face it, there is no strategy that will guarantee the rest you truly need every night.

While navigating the waters of raising young children, most of us will have many days when we are more tired than energized and need to cope with inadequate sleep. When that happens, we need to be gentle with ourselves and creatively find ways to rest. For those with only one child, sleeping when your kids sleep during the day is a good tactic. The other thing is to try to give yourself a break after an interrupted night’s sleep – be kind to yourself and don’t do too much. The housework, the shopping and the washing can wait until you’ve put your feet up and recharged your batteries. Oh, and your family will thank you – it’s much nicer to deal with a rested mummy, right?

Terminating termites & other pest control

Originally published in Sydney Morning Herald

Cockroaches are yucky. Spiders are scary. But termites are just plain sneaky. These critters can steal their way into a house, eat away your walls and then get you where it really hurts: your wallet.

Treating an average freestanding house for termites using the leading chemical or baiting systems can cost between $2500 and $4500, not including the cost of replacing damaged timbers. Even double-brick and steel-framed houses are susceptible to attack, says CSIRO termite specialist Laurie Cookson, who helped create Australia’s termite hazard map and develop insect-proof timbers.

“They just get in and start eating the architraves or the paper on plasterboard, that sort of thing. Just because your house doesn’t have timber framing doesn’t mean they won’t get you,” he says.


DeTOX Pest Control’s Phil Hyndman says there is a cheaper way to deal with termites: regular inspections. Most people don’t want to pay between $150 and $500 for a licensed pest inspector to check their houses each year. So they don’t.

“Termites don’t eat a house as quickly as everyone thinks and an inspection will avert trouble before there needs to be major expense,” Hyndman says.

The other way to avoid termite problems is to make sure structural timber, such as the roof trusses and the sub-floor joists, can be easily inspected.

“I’ve seen people pay a fortune for baiting systems when they could have spent $50 on a carpenter to make parts of the house accessible for an inspection,” Hyndman says.


Cookson says the cost of pest control and termite damage in Australia is estimated at $780 million a year, with areas in the north copping most of the expense. Tasmania is the place to go if you want to avoid termites altogether; there are no destructive termites on the island state.

There are plenty of horror stories about the damage termites can do, such as the clawfoot bathtub that crashed from its second-storey position to the ground floor, thanks to termites damaging the supporting joists. Or the woman who heard termites eating her walls at night then came home at sunset to find her house a haze of flying termites as the breeding season began.

“Some people notice the termite mud in the corner – the termites build mud tubes around them to survive – but don’t realise they need to do something about it until it’s too late,” says Sam Yehia of Sydney’s Best Pest Control.


Cookson insists that prevention is better than cure; so build a new house or extension with physical termite barriers in place.

With renovations, it’s important to join the old part of the house to the new part using barriers such as Termimesh or Granitguard, as well as allowing for good access for future inspection.

“I’ve seen a renovation that was completely eaten out by termites within six months of being built. It was radiata pine framing on a concrete slab with absolutely no access for visual inspection and no barriers,” Hyndman says.

Yehia agrees that most termite problems could be avoided if builders understood prevention before they began construction. “I’m finding huge problems in Kellyville and Castle Hill where builders just took shortcuts and didn’t install barriers properly,” he says.

Hyndman and Yehia agree that Sydney’s inner-west is susceptible to termite problems because the houses are built close together and have poor access for inspection.


Two methods are in use to treat termite infestations: baiting with systems such as Exterra or Sentricon or installing a chemical barrier with growth regulator chemicals such as Termidor or Premise.

Different pest controllers will suggest different approaches, with varying costs, to eradicate termites. The most expensive isn’t always the best.

Cookson suggests people worried about chemicals can engage a pest controller who is a member of the Environmental Pest Managers’ Association.

“Baiting is definitely the most green method for getting rid of termites. The problem is it can take some time and a lot of people aren’t happy with that,” he says. Hyndman says baiting can take up to 18 months to work, which frightens people who want an instant result.

Yehia says Termidor barrier treatments are the most effective, as it’s a one-off solution. But Hyndman warns that injecting chemicals into the soil or paths around a house can sometimes create a barrier that is easily broken.

“When people find out they have termites, they want an answer straight away: should I spray or bait? Possibly neither,” Hyndman says.

“Sometimes termites can be managed by physical control such as using a termiticide at the source and treating the timber. A pest controller can determine the best treatment for the situation.”


The two most common species of destructive termites in NSW are the coptotermes and schedorhinotermes.

Prevention is better than cure. When renovating or building, install physical termite barriers and allow easy access for inspections.

Some timbers are termite-resistant, including a new standard of treated pine framing called H2 and H2F developed by the CSIRO. Native timbers such as cypress pine, ironbark and redgum are classified as termite resistant.

Create a termite-management plan, outlining how often you will inspect your property.


Meet the latest weapon in termite detection. A two-year-old beagle called Barney, whose sniff is louder than most dogs’ barks.

“These are like the dogs on that TV show Border Security,” explains Barney’s owner, Sam Yehia of Sydney’s Best Pest Control. “Instead of finding drugs, he’s trained to find termites.”

Barney was chosen for his specialist job because he is “highly food motivated”. Before Barney undertook six months of training to become a termite sniffer he weighed 32kg. Now, he is a svelte 16kg and is always eager to perform another task in the pursuit of food.

Yehia takes Barney inside the house he is about to inspect and tells him: “Let’s find.” Barney puts his nose to the ground and wags his tail while he works. Yehia has put two jars of live termites in the house, to make sure Barney always finds what he is trained to.

“It can be hard to explain to people that I’m taking live termites into their house. But Barney needs to be satisfied. He has to find the termites and get a reward,” he says.

When Yehia calls “show”, the excited beagle sits down and uses his nose to point to the termites. It’s impressive. On this occasion, Barney has found only the two jars of planted termites and nothing else. This house is clear.

Yehia says he only gets Barney to inspect a house after he has done a standard physical inspection with a screwdriver and moisture meter.

“I use the dog last, rather than first.” Yehia also uses machinery such as thermal cameras, which can cost up to $25,000, and the Termatrac microwave detection unit which costs about $6000.

“Barney has cost about $20,000. It’s a lot of work in the background to look after one of these dogs. He’s a working dog. I can’t just let him play with the kids and treat him like a pet,” he says.

DeTOX Pest Control’s Phil Hyndman says the idea that people need a dog to detect termites in their house is “ludicrous”. “It’s always better to get a human to inspect the house first. The dogs are useful if you can’t figure out where the termites are coming in,” Hyndman says.

“People just like to know that a dog goes ‘woof’ and is very clever, but if I go up to a wall and go ‘woof’ when I find a termite, it’s not as clever.”

Even Yehia admits that the dog is a comfort to his clients. “No one likes the half-answers of termites. When I give clients a report, they usually don’t understand a lot of what’s in there. They like to know: have I or haven’t I got termites. The dog gives them the most accurate answer.”

Space grace: how to add more floorspace in your attic

Originally published in Sydney Morning Herald

Attics, extensions, second storeys are all created in the quest for more space. Space is the holy grail of renovating.

But it’s floorspace, and making the most of the existing footprint within a home that can make a real difference to the sense of space in a property.

Addit Home Improvements owner Greg Blackburn says today’s new houses are bigger than anything the previous generation lived in, yet still we crave more room.

“We are greedy. Look at the McMansions, there is so much wasted space in those houses. You’ve got rooms that aren’t even used. I think people like space because it gives them a sense of grandeur,” he says.

He says most of his clients search him out when they feel their house is cramped – perhaps the children have grown up, or a second marriage means two families need to co-exist in one home. “Everyone wants more room,” he says. “Everyone.”

But what about making more room without spending a cent?


Heritage design expert Clive Lucas believes modern renovators don’t plan spaces properly and are quick to extend and renovate before re-planning a home or apartment. “Existing spaces can be used more cleverly,” he says. “Can you use another room for something else, instead of adding a room?”

Interior architect and project manager Roxane Kourakis agrees, and says simple planning techniques can create more usable floorspace. “You need to reduce circulation spaces – things like corridors – to create useful, usable space,” she says.

Chimney breasts, the area behind doors and around furniture are “circulation spaces” or “traffic spaces” and these areas tend to steal from the floorspace, making a room or home feel smaller than it really is.

Lucas believes our modern desire for one large open plan living room does not necessarily create the much-needed space we desire. “Yes, I agree most homes need a large room where everyone in the house can come together but it doesn’t have to be so terribly big,” he says, explaining his distaste for the modern trend of glass-walled family rooms that open to outdoor terraces..

“If you make whole walls of glass, then you are wasting space because you can’t put any wall furniture up against it – no bookshelves or pictures – and you have to find a space somewhere else in the house to put those things.

Lucas believes the planning that went into older homes – which often had many smaller rooms that could be opened up to each other using folding doors – was more space-efficient.

“The best planning in the world would mean you didn’t use corridors and had rooms that opened on to each other,” says Lucas. “I think there is a lot we can learn from older houses and the way people lived in smaller spaces.”


Architect Yvonne Haber, who has re-designed several small homes – says she always designs spaces by planning the household’s furniture and storage needs first.

“It’s easy to say get rid of clutter, but that’s not realistic for most people,” she says. “I usually look around a client’s house and work out how much stuff they like to have around them.

“I design a place to put all that stuff. It’s about providing a space to put the clutter – making a house look considered rather than cluttered.”

Kourakis says floor-to-ceiling storage that is customised to a household’s needs is the best way to maximise floorspace, even in living rooms.

“Something that takes up two or three square metres of space but can store everything out of the way is going to be better than having lots of freestanding sideboards or drawers which take up floorspace and don’t have enough space to store everything,” she says.

“The idea is to have only the minimum of furniture taking up floorspace yet create the maximum function and usefulness for each room.”


It’s much easier to re-plan your home to create more space than extend or renovate.

Assess the function and purpose of each room. Which items of furniture really need to be there? What storage needs does each room require?

Avoid creating traffic spaces around needless items of furniture. Consider creating a floorplan on a piece of graph paper and cut out your furniture to scale, playing around with the furniture arrangement until you have found one that works best for the room.

Creating the illusion of more space is easy if you stick to light colour schemes for furnishings and walls. Haber says she likes creating high feature windows in small rooms so you can always see sky. “Seeing the sky gives a sense of being part of something larger,” she says.

Lucas suggests adding a three-metre-wide veranda to a small house can dramatically increase usable living space. “I hate rooms that open to outdoor roofless terraces –a veranda that is undercover and can be furnished is a much better option,” he says.

If you still think you need to extend the home, attic conversions and turning freestanding garages into habitable rooms are two of the cheapest ways to add more space.

Blackburn says second-storey additions and attic conversions are popular for people who want to increase the size of their house. “The staircase has to go somewhere, though,” he says. Addit Home Improvements usually recommend the staircase –which takes up at least 3.5 square metres of floorspace on each level – is created where an old bedroom was. “You can turn the area under the stairs into storage and use the rest of the room as a home office or something like that,” he says.

Removing renovation rubbish

Originally published in Sydney Morning Herald

Have you seen the mess a renovation creates? Dust, rubble, broken tiles and even kitchen sinks. The easiest way to get rid of the mess is a skip bin. The big metal bin arrives on the back of a truck and then the neighbours chuck all their rubbish in it when you’re not looking.

Then you discover the bin isn’t big enough, and you need to order another one when you should have been smart enough to work out that hiring the bigger one in the first place was way cheaper than two smaller bins. Renovators always learn the hard way.

Skip bins are the most convenient way to remove large amounts of rubbish, but not all skips – or waste removal practices – are created equal.

Dump It Bins’ Matt Calleija says prices for skip bins and rubbish removal vary widely across Sydney, with some operators charging three times less than others.

Levies and council policies have increased the cost of rubbish removal to encourage better recycling and waste management. “Anyone who hired a skip last year will be paying more money for it this year,” Calleija says.

Micron Constructions’ Michael Dolly says he estimates waste removal costs one per cent of the entire building cost. “A $100,000 renovation would cost $1000 for rubbish removal and $200,000 would cost $2000,” he says.

WSN Environmental Solutions – which used to be Waste Service NSW but is now a state-owned corporation that runs many of Sydney’s tips – doesn’t apologise for the increased charges, as they are designed to create more efficient waste management practices.

WSN marketing and communications manager Catherine Johnson says it is cheaper and often more environmentally friendly to separate renovation waste yourself rather than jumble it all into a skip bin or trailer and tip it into landfill.

These days, some construction rubbish is recycled – roof tiles become aggregate for landscaping, old windows are turned into insulation batts and bricks and concrete are also crushed and re-used.

Local councils now force renovators and builders to reduce the amount of rubbish they create by forcing them to adopt “waste management plans” as a condition of any building approvals.


The most efficient way to remove the rubble and mess from a renovation is to separate materials, either within a skip bin or on your own property.

It makes sense to separate waste. All metals – old taps, sinks, bathtubs – can be removed for free by a scrap metal dealer or tipped for free at the local dump. Oops, they aren’t called dumps anymore – they are “waste and resource centres” that happen to smell a bit.

It can be cheaper to load up your own box trailer or truck and take the rubbish to the dump, but with general tipping fees in Sydney at around $120 a tonne it’s not free.

The heavier the rubbish you have to remove, the more cost-effective a skip bin will be.

Check with your local council before you hire a skip bin. Many restrict the companies that operate in their local area.

Try to position a skip bin on your property rather than the street – it will save on permit fees and the problems of skip dumping.

Rubbish is seasonal. Skip companies are busier in spring and summer than in autumn and winter. Hey, you might be able to negotiate better rates in the colder weather. Who knew?

General skip bins will not accept car tyres, asbestos or food and liquid. Some skip companies sort and separate the waste in their own yard before taking it off to be recycled, but some companies may still dump to land fill.

Plumbing your own home

Originally published in Sydney Morning Herald

Plumbing is a dirty job, but someone has to do it.

“Can you imagine what it would be like if you flushed your toilet and it bubbled up into your shower recess?” asks Killara Plumbing’s Greg McElroy. “Going back two centuries, the streets were the sewers. Plumbers have a public health role. We make sure houses have a clean water supply and that sewage goes where it’s supposed to go.”

Yep. He’s right.

The problem with plumbing is that it seems so hideously expensive. Who wants to discover a blocked pipe buried in the backyard will cost $8000 to fix? It’s not like you can see where that $8000 went – it is simply buried again.

Master Plumbers Association general manager Paul Naylor says plumbers aren’t out to rip-off the public. The average licensed plumber charges between $75 and $150 an hour, and has served a six-year training period.

“My furniture removalist charges $120 an hour, and they didn’t have to do six years of training. Plumbing is not like Medicare. When you go to the doctor you incur huge costs but you never see the bill, so you don’t think about it. When you pay a plumber, it gets you right in the wallet,” he says.

Australia’s licensed plumbers are qualified as a water plumber, gas fitter, roofer and drainer.

Pav Plumbing’s Tony Pavlich says most customers object to paying a plumber when they see the plumber takes only fifteen minutes to fix something.

“Plenty of people don’t want to pay our $123 minimum call-out fee. It might look like it takes five minutes to fix it, but it took years to learn the skills to do it,” he says. “I’d like to think that all my plumbers offer to fix something else while they are there – leaking taps, or whatever else. People should make the most of a plumber while they have them in the house.”


New technologies are improving plumbing services. Eels – mechanical devices inserted down drains to unblock them, not live squirmy things that live in water – have been around for a long time.

Naylor says water-jetters are more effective than eels and can clear blocked lines quickly, with a burst of high-pressure water. Eels may cost between $300 and $400 and water-jetters between $700 and $800.

If plumbing equipment encounters a pipe blockage that can’t be cleared, then there are two options: send a closed-circuit TV camera to find out the cause of the block (which could cost around $300) or excavate to expose the pipe and repair it.

“Old pipes in Sydney are pretty bad. Tree roots get in, or the terracotta pipes just crumble,” Naylor says. “There are plenty of people in Sydney on regular three-monthly clearing that are trying to avoid having to replace their pipes.”

Pipe re-lining services can avoid costly excavation and pipe replacement. “There are systems now to re-line old pipes with PVC which makes the pipe a bit narrower,” Naylor says.

Streamline Drains and Pipelines’ Kevin Barry says his son invented a pipe re-lining system14 years ago, which involves inserting a malleable tube impregnated with resin into the old pipe. The resin then sets hard, re-lining the old pipe with a newer, smoother, lining.

“It’s around 70 per cent cheaper than digging up and replacing pipes and it has a 50-year life expectancy,” Barry says.

McElroy says pipe re-lining will only work in places where the pipes aren’t badly damaged – “if the pipe is sagging, then the solids will still sit in the sag and collect there” – but can be expensive at up to $1000 a lineal metre.

“It’s probably worth it for people who have extensive landscaping or have pipes that run under the house and can’t be easily dug up, but most people would be better off excavating and renewing the pipes,” he says.


If you have to call a plumber out, get them to check all your taps for leaks and install water hammer arresters in taps. A licensed plumber can also install water-efficient fittings on taps and toilets.

Learn where the tap is to turn off your water supply in case of a plumbing emergency. “You’d be surprised how many people ring me in the middle of the night telling me I have to get to their house right now because it’s flooding,” Tony Pavlich says. In houses, the water meter will be outside with a tap and in apartments, the supply can usually be turned off on a tap under the kitchen sink or laundry tub.

Old pipes with concrete joins aren’t as sturdy as PVC pipes and no longer meet the codes regulating Australian plumbing. Naylor says strict plumbing codes often force plumbers to replace old pipes, especially in cases of knockdown-rebuilds. “Most people don’t factor that in and replacing the line back to the sewer can cost between $3000 and $8000,” he says.

Pavlich suggests that all bathroom renovators do themselves a favour and refuse to allow their tilers to pour grout down the bathroom floor waste. “In 95 per cent of bathroom renovations, people have to call in a plumber to clear up the mess the tiler has tried to pour down the drain,” Pavlich says. “The best hint you can give a renovator is to watch their tiler and stop them doing it.”

Electricity, electricians and power

Originally published in Sydney Morning Herald

If computers and televisions can be wireless, why can’t we banish ugly power points and light switches and just, like, turn on our lights by remote control?

Oh, that’s right – electricity can fry people.

Electricity, for all its wonders, is still a very dangerous thing. It needs to be wrapped up in a cable, and zoom around a circuit made safe with a circuit breaker and, ideally, a safety switch.

Yet it’s surprising just how many people forget about the almighty zapping electricity can give. “I’ve seen people actually put a nail in their fuse box to stop the fuse tripping,” says electrician Joe Joukhadar, a home automation specialist that owns Joalzac. “I mean, sure the fuse stops blowing, but your house will probably catch fire.”

Every winter there are catastrophic stories about electrical fires. Joukhadar says there are plenty of houses that have power points that melt or light switches that give off a tingle when you switch them on. That’s bad. Very bad.

“I would say 50 per cent of my calls are from people who have a fault in their home circuit,” says Davtec electrician David Saraie. Plenty of property owners just ignore the electrics – what you can’t see, you don’t need to fix.

Like the terrace I used to rent in Paddington. My poor flatmate plugged in a lamp, only to be thrown across the other side of the room and given a fluffy fringe that literally stood on end for three days. The scorch marks on the walls and her fingertips were none too pleasant either.

After that, the landlord had an electrician repair the power point, without installing a safety switch or circuit breakers. That particular power point always had to be turned on with a wooden spoon. And my flatmate’s hair never really recovered from the zapping – it was like she’d been rubbing a balloon on her hair while sliding down a slippery dip in polar fleece.

“Power points should be checked every 10 years or so,” says Joukhadar. “But people never bother to pay an electrician to come and do it. Usually the first they know of something going wrong is that they turn on a big heater and the power point melts or the fuses trip.”

Old cabling is often a cause of electrical problems, and most property owners can do a basic safety check themselves. There are a couple of specific types of cables that can be dangerous:

COTTON-COVERED CABLING: Often used in houses built before the 1950s. Any property with the old cotton-covered wiring – which is common in houses built before the 1950s – usually needs new cabling installed, along with safety switches and modern circuits.

RUBBER-COVERED CABLING: The rubber cracks and breaks. Don’t touch it, or you’ll make it crumble even more.

BLACK TPS-COVERED CABLING: Commonly used in the 1960s and 1970s, it has reached the end of its useful life and the sheathing often cracks and crumbles.

“Sometimes you can get away with just putting a safety switch on,” explains Joukhadar. “But in those old places, the safety switch sometimes keeps tripping because there is too much leakage to earth. When that happens, the electrician has to replace the cabling.”

Saraie suggests the easiest way for people to check their cabling is to unscrew a power point from the wall and check the colour of the cable. “If it’s black, it’s probably no good. It it’s white, it’s alright,” he says.

The best thing for any property owner to install is a safety switch that immediately cuts off the power when an earth leakage is detected – it prevents electrocution and house fires.

Safety switches and permanently wired smoke alarms are required in all new buildings – although properties built before the 1990s may not have both.


Quad and double power points cost a little more than single power points – so change them over while the electrician is there to avoid having a tangle of powerboards on your floor.

Kitchens and living rooms require the most number of power points – usually more than four. Bedrooms can make do with two power points.

Home automation systems which computerise lighting can save energy costs and extend the lamp life of lighting.

Stoves and air-conditioners sometimes require three-phase power, which means they need their own separate fuse or circuit. A hot water service is also often on its own circuit.

Fuses are the traditional means to safeguard an electricity circuit, but circuit breakers are easier to reset than a wired fuse.

If you use halogen lights, don’t have insulation batts running close to the transformers as it creates a fire risk.

Smoke alarms should be placed in the hallway near the bedrooms and in two-storey houses need to be at the top of the stairs, too.


Small electrical products like power points, switches and miniature circuit breakers are being counterfeited and some electricians unwittingly install products that don’t comply with Australian safety standards.

The Department of Fair Trading has a notice to recall counterfeit HPM double power points which have been made in China and don’t comply with Australian standards. A West Australian government energy bulletin also mentions counterfeit miniature circuit breakers that are failing.

HPM group marketing manager Neil Garbutt says counterfeiting is an industry problem. “The best thing for consumers to do is ask whether their electrician is installing products sold by a reputable dealer – ask the name of the place the goods were bought,” he says. “Most electricians do the right thing, but if any are buying from the back of a van or from someone who only supplies a mobile phone number, then something’s not right.”

Hear ye: sound at home

Originally published in Sydney Morning Herald

Those hard-edged interiors in swanky homes magazines – sleek, minimal rooms with timber floors and high ceilings – might be easy on the eye, but not the ear.

An open plan kitchen and living area full of harsh surfaces has the acoustical performance of a conversation-killing restaurant where chairs scrape the floor and cutlery clangs deafeningly on dinner plates.

Acoustica founder Philippe Doneux says sound waves reflect off hard surfaces like CaesarStone or stainless steel benchtops, glass bi-folding doors or traditional gyprock walls. Those sound waves bounce around so rapidly that it takes only fractions of a second to make normal conversation unintelligible.

“It’s called the cocktail effect,” he says. “The sound waves increase all the time, bouncing back and making the noise levels go up.”

People rarely consider the soundscape of a home and only discover they have a problem when reverberation or noise transmission problem makes it difficult to carry on a conversation, according to Dr Ros Bandt, a sound designer and founder of Melbourne University’s Australian Sound Design Project.

“I’ve been lecturing to fifth year architecture students about this, because many architects don’t think about it,” she says. “People only discover it’s a problem when they live with it and the noise is bouncing straight off their stainless steel bench.

“There is something to be said for the old days when people had discrete spaces for different activities.”

Back in the days when Laura Ashley was the height of style and carpets, curtains and comfortably stuffed armchairs were found in every home, acoustics were rarely a problem. The reverberation of those pesky sound waves was absorbed by soft furnishings.

Now, installing sound-absorbing products is a burgeoning industry, due largely to our minimalist modern decorating tastes.

Acoustic Answers’ Mark Skeldon says his business continues to grow as more new houses and renovations are built with open plan living rooms and furnished with timber, metal and non-upholstered furniture.

“I can’t tell you how many calls I get from people who’ve just completed a renovation only to discover they can’t hear their big-screen television when the wife gets up to put the kettle on,” he says.

Artist Mary Brunton founded Acoustic Art after discovering the poor acoustic performance of her new home affected her hi-fi obsessed partner’s enjoyment of his music. The graphic designer created art which is printed on sound-absorbing acoustic panels and deadens the sound in echo-ey, live-sounding rooms.

Acoustica is a consultancy, designer and manufacturer of Australian-made acoustic products and Doneux says much of his work comes from home owners who have just completed an expensive renovation.

Acoustica offer a range of different solutions to solve reverberation problems – sound-absorbing panels, ceiling and wall materials and engineering advice – to help home owners living in ear-rattling spaces.

A product called Quiet Wave is an acoustic gyprock that costs around $120 a square metre instead of the $180 a square metre of traditional gyprock. “Sometimes we can replace a section of a gyprock wall to improve the sounds in a room,” he says. Another solution is the Kliptex fabric-covered sound-absorbing panels which cost around $160 to $180 a square metre plus the fabric.

Acoustic Answers offers simple grey or white sound-absorbing panels that cost around $70 a square metre. “They are very plain – which doesn’t suit everyone – and the rule of thumb is that you need to install the panels on between 30 and 50 per cent of the total ceiling area of the room,” he says.

“Those panels will do the same job that carpets and curtains used to do. Acoustics is really a dark art – once you start talking about decibels, RW and reverb, people go ‘huh?’.”

Brunton says trial and error is the best way to improve the acoustics of a room, and she suggests around five square metres of Acoustic Art canvas in a room can significantly improve the sound.

“To be honest, it’s carpet and curtains that can make the biggest difference – but no-one seems to like them anymore,” she says.


How live or dead is the sound in the room? Hard surfaces like wooden or tiled floors bounce sound around. Soft surfaces – curtains, carpets, furniture – absorb sounds.

Open plan living might give a greater sense of space and flow, but it also makes it harder to shut out noise from competing activities.

Double glazing or thick panels of laminated glass are useful to block incoming noise from neighbours or traffic, but will act as a reflector for internal noise.

Running water can mask unpleasant sounds. Incorporating water features into interior and exterior spaces can improve a residential soundscape, according to Dr Ros Bandt.

The cocktail effect is to be avoided at all costs – especially in living areas where children play. “The squeals and screams of children make it impossible for adults to have a conversation over a glass of wine if the room has too much reverb,” Skeldon says.

Considering acoustics at the design and planning stage of a renovation or rebuild is the easiest way to avoid expensive retro-fitting later on.

Noise generated by neighbours, traffic or aircraft noise requires sound isolation and sound-proofing measures – and that’s another story.

White mischief: dealing with asbestos

Originally published in Sydney Morning Herald

Hearing the word asbestos frightens the living daylights out of renovators.

“People think if they stare at it, they’ll go blind,” says Asbestos Professionals principal Vince Bradvica. “The media and James Hardy have scared the living hell out of people.”

Asbestos dust can kill you if it becomes airborne – so the scare is understandable.

The legacy of Australia’s obsession with building products made with the deadly fibre is a festering wound that’s been left largely to home renovators and builders to remove.

There is no well-organised – or affordable – asbestos-removal system in place for homeowners. It’s simply a matter of ‘oops, there’s some asbestos: now what should we do?’.

Marrickville renovator Tristan Hanlon discovered asbestos the dirty way when she was digging her vegetable garden. “I found a whole lot of ugly grey-green tiles buried in the garden and put them in a skip,” she says.

“The first I knew of it being asbestos was when I had three calls from the skip company telling me they couldn’t remove it without charging me an extra $400. Call me stupid, but I had no idea that what I was handling was asbestos – I always thought it would look more like fibreglass or something soft and dusty.” Hanlon didn’t use a mask while handling the material as she had no idea what it was.

Master Builders Association’s Peter Becker – who trains builders how to correctly handle and dispose of asbestos – says people shouldn’t be paranoid about asbestos, but must find out whether it is in their home and keep it in good condition.

“Try as little as possible to disturb it. If you find some and there is any damage to sheeting, then paint it with PVA glue,” he says.

Becker says asbestos roofing from the 1950s and 1960s is perhaps the most hazardous building material, as it has been exposed to the elements potentially allowing asbestos fibres to waft into gutters and drainpipes .“If you go out in your street on a windy day, you could breathe asbestos in from old rooves and materials in your area,” he says.

The president of the Asbestos Removal Contractors Association Ross Mitchell says most householders are unlikely to encounter friable asbestos – the most dangerous airborne fibres – but are likely to have bonded asbestos somewhere in their home.

“Up until the early 1990s, it was used in all houses. Asbestos isn’t just fibro. Electrical switchboards often have zelemite, a black tar board which has asbestos in it. Vinyl floor tiles can have it. We found fibro sheeting stamped ‘no asbestos’ still contained asbestos fibres once we got it back to the lab – the sheets had been contaminated somehow,” he says.

Mitchell recommends removal and replacement of old asbestos roof sheeting. “There are sealing systems on the market which make an asbestos roof look like new, but they cost around a third the price of removal,” he says. “We think sealing systems simply defer the problem when really we need to get asbestos back into the ground as safely as possible.”

Bradvica – who holds a class 2 asbestos removal licence – says a licensed contractor may work with a hygienist or environmental scientist to monitor the clean-up and then obtain a clearance certificate from WorkCover.

“The small jobs are hard to get around to – it’s easier to do one $1million job than ten $100,000 jobs if you’re in this business. I don’t enjoy charging a humble mum and dad $2000 to remove their asbestos, but someone’s got to do it.”

Decker worries that well-trained asbestos removal contractors are busy with large jobs and only smaller, less-skilled contractors will be available for householders to call upon for asbestos removal.

“There are plenty of cowboys out there. I had a lady ring me up because she employed someone to remove some fibro. A few days later she was gardening and found the fibro had just been shoved under her house,” he says.

“Authorities try to scamper from the issue by asking for more stringent measures but shouldn’t we be making it easier for people to get rid of asbestos, not harder?”


Any home or apartment built before 1993 is likely to contain asbestos in some form or another. Asbestos was not only in fibro sheeting, but also in vinyl floor tiles and in zelemite.

Fibro sheeting containing asbestos was often used in kitchens, laundries and bathrooms, even in double brick houses. Sometimes old concrete pathways were formed using asbestos sheeting.

Any renovator doing rebuilding work could uncover asbestos in unlikely places. Older sheets of fibro are often smooth on one side, and dimpled on the non-fascia side.

Licensed asbestos removal contractors are the best trades to employ to remove asbestos, but will cost more than a general rubbish removal or demolisher as they have higher insurance and training costs.

The current regulations say more than 200 sq m of asbestos must be removed by a licensed contractor, but that will drop to 50 sq m of asbestos from July and to 10 sq m from January, 2008.

Small amounts of asbestos can be removed by renovators. Old fibro sheeting can be wrapped in black plastic and disposed of as a special waste at WSN transfer stations – you will need to ring in advance to obtain a quote. WorkCover have guidelines for the safe removal of asbestos.

Every local council has a different asbestos removal policy – and renovations requiring DA approval often have strict handling and removal regulations.

Only a visit by a qualified occupational hygienist (usually an environmental scientist) or licensed asbestos removal contractor can confirm whether asbestos is present in a house or apartment. “Ninety-nine per cent of the time you can tell by looking at the way the house is constructed and how old it is, but sometimes you need lab tests to confirm it,” Bradvica says.

Don’t drill or use circular saws on asbestos sheeting, especially during removal. Minimise all dust and disturbance by spraying water, and dispose of suits and gloves with the asbestos. Asbestos is typically dumped into special landfills that are sprayed with water to minimise dust at all times.

Getting the most bang for your renovation buck

Originally published in Sydney Morning Herald

Wouldn’t it be nice to have our dream house at a price we can afford? With some strategic thinking about design, materials, and timing, it’s not so hard to cut renovation costs without cutting corners. The universal truth about renovations is that every little thing adds up. So save a little here, save a little there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real value.


If you can reorganise and equip your home, kitchen or bathroom for maximum utility, you may not need to rebuild to create more space. Start by replacing space-hogging shelves with pullout drawers or concealed cabinets. This is especially true in the kitchen, where planning to gain more storage space pays off by not having to expand the cabinetry into other rooms or extend.


Before cutting a big hole for those bifold doors you’ve longed for, consider less invasive—and less expensive—ways of capturing light. To brighten up a windowless hallway, for instance, install a solartube skylight for less than $500 – it slips between roof rafters and funnels sunshine down below. Velux also make beautiful skylights.


Reap big savings with recycled or lightly used fixtures and building materials. But beware, because some tradies and builders won’t guarantee their work if they have to use salvaged items because they don’t want to assume the liability if something goes wrong. That said, if you’re doing your own work, you can find anything from prehung doors to acrylic skylights to windows and reclaimed hardwood timber floors.Oh, and this one works in reverse. Don’t forget to salvage any re-usable materials if you’re about to embark on demolition work.It will also save you on skip and rubbish removal fees. And doing your own demolition can also save you. Knocking down may not be as costly as rebuilding, but you can still shave dollars by doing some of the demolition yourself—as long as you proceed with care. Beware of unwittingly take out a load–bearing wall or, worse still, sawing through live wiring or plumbing.


Buying pre-finished materials can be costly upfront, but works well if it means you save on an extensive paint or finishing job. Some examples of this include primed and painted weatherboards, decking boards, skirtings and even some prefabricated wall finishes. These materials cost more upfront but will save time and money down the track by helping you avoid too much painting.


When it comes to things like flooring, ask your tradie if he has stock left over from other jobs. Sometimes tradies have mates who are about to trash material from a demolition job and want material taken away, which means you might just get something for nothing (OK, that’s unlikely, but it will be cheaper than buying from new).


Low voltage halogen downlights can cost more to run and usually require eight or 10 for one room to create general lighting. In addition to the fixtures, there’s labour costs to cut all the holes and insulate them properly. One wall or ceiling mounted light can also deliver more wattage, which means you may be able to get away with fewer fixtures.


Depending on the scale of your project, you might not need a full–on architectural commission, which involves extensive meetings, multiple visits, and several sets of construction drawings. You might be able to tap an architect’s design savvy by having them undertake a one–time design consultation. For example, for a flat fee, some architects will meet with a homeowner, examine the problem, and sketch out a few solutions that can be given to a builder or drafting service to crank out formal construction drawings.


Unless you’ve got loads of time (and expertise) to spend on your project, the best way to add sweat equity is up front, by handling your own demolition, or at the back end, by doing some of the finish work yourself. Most people can try their hand at installing insulation, painting, sanding and rubbish removal. And slash your material delivery fees by picking up goods yourself.


It’s a fact that major renovating can cost more than building from new. Carefully weigh up the best approach to renovating if demolishing and starting again is an efficient option. Don’t schedule your reno in the height of peak demand times for builders – wait until there is a lag and fit in with their availability to get the best price.


Or the toilet, if you can avoid it. If your new layout requires that you move the toilet, use the opportunity to upgrade the pipes at the same time.


Use manufacturers’ off–the–shelf dimensions from the outset and you will save the premiums of custom fabrication. Buying doors, windows and storage systems in normal sizes will save hundreds, if not thousands. This also applies to kitchens, which can be bought cheaply from flatpack factories if you don’t need to custom-make each cabinet.


Start prowling the aisles at the hardware store way before the wrecking crew shows up. Get a good feeling for what you want in fixtures and appliances and what they cost. If you aren’t absolutely specific up front about what you want, you’ll have to rely on your builders allowance or quote, and his notion of what is acceptable may be quite different from yours. For instance, you may have had a glass–tile backsplash in mind, but your builder priced in basic white ceramic tiles.

Fixit: 12 solutions to home building problems

Originally published in Sydney Morning Herald

The “original features” and “great potential” have you hooked. The price seems right so you get a building inspection report a must for any home buyer but then have palpitations about the list of problems. Alex Brooks explains the problems and solutions to common building problems.

Fixing common building problems

A building inspection report can seem frightening to those who don’t know their flashings from their fretting bricks.

David Santilli, Sydney Building Information Centre’s inspections manager, says most problems on a report are minor and not necessarily expensive to fix.

More complex building problems will be highlighted and referred to experts as necessary for a more accurate picture of the problem and costs.

“The reports are just a visual assessment of what might be wrong with the property. We recommend that the only accurate way to find out the cost of repairs is to get three or four quotes to fix the job,” says Santilli.

So what are the most common building problems and how can they be fixed?

Building consultant Joe Pizzinga, who works for the Sydney Building Information Centre and has more than 18 years’ experience as a builder and lecturer, helped compile this list.


The problem A flashing, the strip of waterproof material which is fitted to cover a joint where water would otherwise penetrate, is leaking. Roofs, doors and windows all need to be flashed correctly to stop rain or run-off water getting into the house.

The solution You may need to simply replace old flashings. If the problem is corroding flashings or an incorrectly flashed window, then a more extensive replacement might be needed.


The problem The biggest problem with lateral damp is finding the source is it a leaky pipe in the wall? Is it inadequate waterproofing on an exterior wall? Santilli says the most common cause is the bathroom leaking.

The solution Pulling up bathroom tiles is expensive, as is knocking a hole in a wall to get to a leaking pipe. A Band-Aid solution, such as a silicon membrane over the shower area of the bathroom, can keep the damp at bay.


The problem Moisture in the ground rises through the wall, ruining plaster and causing mustiness and mould.

The solution You have to remove the source of the moisture. Sometimes this is as easy as digging down the soil next to the outside wall. Sometimes a new damp course (a watertight lining in your wall) needs to be installed, which can be messy.


The problem Subterranean termites are active throughout Sydney, especially in older homes where timber is in direct contact with the ground. Newer homes near bushland are also vulnerable. The real issues are whether the termites are still active and how much of the structural timbers they have eaten.

The solution Active termites can be eradicated with baiting. If termites have eaten through the floor and ceiling joists the only solution may be to virtually rebuild the home by replacing all the joists. Ensure there is adequate subfloor ventilation or thorough termite-proofing of the slab in new homes. Even then, regular pest inspections are recommended.


The problem The earth the house is built on will always move but in some cases it subsides severely, causing structural cracks in the foundations and around doors and windows. But signs you have a serious problem include bulging bricks in the exterior walls and the spreading of roof tiles.

Pizzinga says: “If it’s just a bit of cracking, I say don’t worry about it you’ll spend more money trying to fix it than leaving it alone.”

The solution Subsidence is a complex problem to fix. Sometimes it’s just a matter of a well-built retaining wall slowing down the problem. Or it can take thorough investigation of the cause by structural or geotechnical engineers. Sometimes underpinning work is needed. In some cases, restumping a house may be a solution.


The problem Surface drainage (how rain and run-off water drains over the property), seepage (where the water table seeps through sandstone, for example) and detention pits (where water collects rather than runs off). Easements and covenants can cause added headaches. Drainage problems can attract termites and mosquitoes, cause settlement cracks and make it hard to grow anything in the garden.

The solution The ideal is to have the house situated on a block with all land gently sloping away from the house. Good gutters and drainpipes are essential.


The problem Old wiring goes with old homes. Check the fuse box for the condition of the circuits and if you discover cotton-wrapped wiring in the house, it has to be rewired. New standards require all homes to have safety switches and smoke detectors installed.

The solution Rewire with a licensed electrician.


When James and Kylie Kennedy bought their rundown Maroubra bungalow last April for $556,000, Kylie moved straight back home to her mum’s for seven months.

“There was no way I was going to live through renovations again,” she says. “The last time we renovated I broke out in really severe hives. I’m asthmatic as well and the dust is just horrible.”

The list of problems with the house was hardly inviting: drainage problems on the block of land, lateral damp between the bedroom and bathroom walls, structural cracks, a leaking bathroom and roof, old wiring and cosmetic problems.

James estimates that they have spent about $60,000 fixing the house so far. “We’ll probably spend another $40,000 before we’re finished,” he says.

Their biggest disaster has been fixing the sunroom.

Once James dismantled the old roof, he discovered termites in the ceiling joists.

“The cost blew out from what I thought would be about $4,000 to about $9,000,” he says. “The real cost is replacing the timber.”

James says it takes experience and time to get to know your property and its faults. “Even when you have the experience, you still get ripped off somewhere.”

He recommends:

* Try to be at home for the quote. That way you have an understanding of how the tradesperson proposes fixing the problem. “Sometimes they just want to do a Band-Aid and sometimes they want to make it perfect.”

* Be there while the work is being done even if you just pop in for five minutes.

* Get quotes for repairs rather than “do and charge” (where the tradesman charges a labour rate per day plus materials). “With a quote you have an upper limit of what you will spend and you have a comeback if something goes wrong,” he says.

* Don’t rush the repairs or you may find you are double-handling. For example, don’t replace the roof first-up if you plan on extending the property in a few years’ time and don’t replace the ceilings before you rewire.

* Make tradespeople a cup of tea or coffee at the beginning of the day and offer them a beer after work.

“Treat them nicely and you’ll be able to communicate with them better,” he says.

The ins and outs of a bathroom renovation

Originally published in Sydney Morning Herald

Bathrooms are a bit like high-waisted jeans. What looked good a decade ago stands out like a sore thumb when trends move on. No one ever has the heart to tell Nana that her crocheted toilet-roll dolls and mauve mosaic tiled bathroom were way out-of-date even in the 1970s.

Renovation trends now dictate that people upgrade their bathroom every 17.9 years. We used to wait more than 30 years, according to the Housing Industry Association.

The renovation industry should be grateful. The HIA’s Simon Tennent says “aesthetics, lifestyle and visual appeal” are the key drivers of our urge to renovate bathrooms.

Bathroom makeovers are still among the top five priorities for people who want to improve their house, ahead of kitchen renovations.

Just where do you start when it comes to renovating? Do you mean a refurbish kind of renovating? Or the whole-hog rebuild kind? Or does your bathroom only need a few simple repairs?


Take a hard look at your bathroom, calculate how many hours a day it is used and what you are prepared to spend. If it’s a second bathroom that you spend less than a half-hour in each day, is it worth blowing $15,000?

Alternatively, if it’s the family’s main bathroom used by four people, $30,000 for an upgrade might be worth it. No architect, bathroom designer or builder can make that decision for you.

Domayne’s franchisee for kitchen and bathroom renovation design, Len Nucifora, says a relatively inexpensive bathroom can cost as little as $18,000 but the average renovator spends between $30,000 and $40,000. Decide what to spend on your bathroom and then have an extra 10 or 15 per cent for the oops-I-went-over moments.


The bathroom is usually a teensy-tiny room used by several family members for all manner of tasks – bathing, grooming, relaxing and storage. Careful design and planning can make even the most cramped bathroom seem positively day spa-ish.

Arm yourself with a tape measure and a piece of graph paper to draw your bathroom to scale, noting the placement of toilets, baths and so forth. Cut out little bits of paper to scale to represent the bath, toilet and vanity and play around to see whether your bathroom can be reconfigured to make it more practical.

Moving a bathtub or changing the vanity unit to a pedestal basin and overhead storage cabinet can create more floor space, as does putting the shower over the bathtub.

If the room can’t be reconfigured, is there any point in going ahead with a full renovation? Can you just replace a shower screen or vanity to update the room rather than tear it all apart?


Architect Yvonne Haber says architects charge fees of up to 20 per cent of the construction cost to design a bathroom tailored to your family’s needs. And they can do something super swanky.

I’ve seen an architect-designed bathroom with built-in shelves customised to the cosmetics of the home owner and a bathroom cupboard with a slide-out floor drawer for a cat litter tray.

If you have the budget and want a bathroom that will impress, an architect can also oversee sub-contracting of the trades. Bathroom renovation centres such as Domayne have a free design service – take in your measurements and receive elevations and drawings. They do this in the hope that you’ll buy your taps, bathware, toilets or tiles from them and also sign a full-service contract to oversee the entire job, from strip-out to fit-off.

There are plenty of design-and-construct bathroom companies handling “Do-It-For-Me” bathroom renovations and they usually charge a margin of anything between 10 and 20 per cent on top of costs. It’s a valuable deal for time-poor renovators who want someone to handle the process.

Bathroom builder Mark Annesley, who runs Just Bathroom Renovations, warns that renovators hoping for a fuss-free bathroom renovation need to know that it takes at least four weeks to do the work – even longer if there are customised vanity units or stone benchtops, which can only be measured and ordered once tiling is complete.

“Anyone who thinks a bathroom renovation can be done in less than two weeks is just crazy. If you have rendered walls and waterproofing, there’s at least a week in curing time,” he says.


The real art of saving money on a bathroom renovation is not skimping on parts of the renovation that matter. There are plenty of bathroom resurfacing companies that can put a new surface over lairy coloured tiles or chipped and dated bathtubs.

If your bathroom needs an overhaul, there is no choice but to strip it back to the floors and walls and rebuild from new. The cheapest way to tackle a full bathroom renovation is not necessarily to DIY (also pronounced: stupid), but rather DIT: Do-It-Together with skilled tradespeople.

“The Do-It-Together renovator might do the demolition or have a crack at the tiling but they engage electricians and plumbers and oversee the project,” Tennent says.

“It can save them some money. Unless you’re a really skilled renovator, you wouldn’t do the whole thing yourself.”

Annesley warns that unless renovators understand the intricacies of engaging tilers, electricians and plumbers, they are just taking “pot luck” by hiring someone to do a job.

The NSW Department of Fair Trading says renovators can check tradespeople’s licences on Most builders would recommend that an inexperienced renovator check a sub-contractor’s work or ask for references.


If there is one thing a bathroom renovator needs to make sure is right it’s waterproofing.

“Most bathroom renovation complaints are either about no waterproofing or failed waterproofing,” says a spokesman for the Department of Fair Trading. “It can be very expensive to fix, because it means the tiles have to come off.”

Annesley says waterproofing costs between $600 and $1000. The building code requires only the shower area to be waterproofed, but plenty of builders recommend spending more money and waterproofing a large portion of a bathroom.


Armed with an owner-builder licence and some good DIY repair books, TV camera operator Ron Foley oversaw the renovation of the bathroom in his Randwick semi.

“I did the demolition myself. I hired good plumbers. They weren’t cheap, but they are worth every penny. I was going to attempt the tiling, but the whole idea of trying to do a sloping floor in a three-inch bed of mortar looked too hard,” he says.

The renovation took four weeks from strip-out to completion – and cost no more than $12,000. “You definitely save money doing [parts of] it yourself, but you have to put the time into it.

“We ordered a custom vanity in wenge. It was $1600 and when it arrived, my wife gave me one of those looks of disappointment that made me feel like a failure. It was too big, and though I’d measured it before we ordered it, it didn’t look right,” he says.

“I got out my circular saw and cut off the drawers on the end. Those drawers are in my shed now. If I had ordered the vanity without them in the first place, then it probably would have only cost me $1300.”

Mistakes are part of the learning process, and co-ordinating a bathroom renovation is one of the most challenging tasks a renovator can tackle.

“It’s worth having a go. I’ve seen plenty of professionals do a job that’s no better than amateurs. And if you’ve done it yourself, at least you know what went wrong if there’s a problem in the future.

“Some professionals cover up their mistakes so you don’t find out until it’s all too late.”



These aren’t at all politically correct – they are prime-cost items. Most builders’ quotes don’t include PC items, which are things such as toilets, bathtubs, tiles, shower screens, vanity units, basins and towel rails.


Building codes don’t require bathrooms to have a window, but natural ventilation is best. If you have to rely on an extractor fan for ventilation, make sure it ducts outside of the house rather than into a ceiling cavity.


This is the thin layer of membrane that goes underneath tiles around a shower area to stop water permeating the walls and floors. Get it wrong at your peril.


Selecting large tiles – anything larger than 200mm square – might make your tiler tell you off, especially if you want to use them on the floor. Bathroom floors need to slope towards a central drain, and large tiles often need unsightly triangular cuts to be laid correctly.


Acrylic bathtubs are cheaper than cast-steel tubs – but don’t necessarily save you money, according to architect Yvonne Haber. “They wear out more quickly, scratch easily and often end up cracking near the tiling joins,” she says.


The Australian Government has implemented new water-efficient plumbing guidelines that prohibit retailers from selling water-guzzling taps, toilets and showerheads.


Shower screens, bathroom and toilet doors need to open outwards, in case someone collapses in a bathroom and falls in front of a door.


Those swanky wall-hung toilets and vanity units look great, but don’t use them without first telling your builder. They often require wall reinforcement before installation.


That’s what most people do when their bathroom is out of action. Or they learn to love their next-door neighbours. Hopefully your house has a second toilet, otherwise you might have to rent a Portaloo.


You generally don’t need council approval to renovate a bathroom, but if you are creating wider windows, or new windows, then you may be required to lodge a development application. Any building work worth more than $12,000 requires home warranty insurance.


Bathrooms are complex, but the general sequence of work starts with strip-out (with all pipes correctly sealed); rough-in of plumbing and electrics; render walls; waterproof; fit-out shower, bathtub and toilet; tile; showerscreens; fit-out of electrics and plumbing; install any customised vanity and bench tops; and then paint


Nicola Reindorf spent less than $7000 to create an upstairs bathroom in her terrace house.

Co-ordinating the builder, plumber and tiling herself saved a bundle, as did inheriting enough white tiles left over from her mother’s renovation to do the walls.

“Sometimes I look at it and wish we’d done something a bit more special or designer-y, but it would have cost more,” says the Redfern mother of two, who runs a fashion agency.

“The room is tiny and we didn’t have to worry about the layout because this was the only way everything would fit in.”

Paint your house (without painting yourself)

Originally published in Sydney Morning Herald

Painting may seem easy but make sure you prepare well.

My carpenter calls paint “the coat of slops”. Something you slap on to cover up a multitude of sins. I think paint is more like the coat of many covers. It can turn the dull, dirty and drab into the clean, colourful and cheerful. And painting is so easy, right

Choose colour. Be slightly mindboggled by the fact that there are 306 different shades of beige. Be further bamboozled by colour names such as Cuddlepot, Bashful and Sultry Glance.

Visit bank. Take out loan. Buy paint.

Lay down drop sheets and start painting. Try not to be disturbed by paint dripping into hair, eyes and clothes. Wonder why paint isn’t on walls, yet covers you completely.

Spend hours cleaning.

Take a quick course in tai chi. Breathe. Apply principles to self and discover that Grasping Tiger’s Tail on Waxing Moon is easier than grasping a paint brush for hours on end.

Apply second coat to cover up drips and streaky patches of first coat.

Chase cat out of the room.

Apply the now-needed third coat to cover up crap second coat.

Debate the best way to remove cat’s paw prints that decorate hallway floor.

Take another deep breath as cat sits on freshly painted window sill.

Hire a professional painter.

Dulux colour and communication manager Andrea Lucena-Orr says market research shows about half of all paint-buyers choose a professional to tackle the job.

All-knowing professional painter Lynton Smith says dodgy DIY paint jobs are a dime a dozen. “You can always tell when someone’s had a go at trying to paint a house themselves,” says Smith, who runs Allways Painting in Adelaide. “People choose the wrong paint for the wrong surface, use acrylics where they shouldn’t and apply it badly.

“When you paint a wall with fast-drying acrylics, you can’t go off for a fag or a drink halfway through. No matter how well you apply the paint, you can see the join. It looks awful.”

Oh. So here are some little lessons to avoid paint disasters.


Preparing the surface for painting is more important than applying the paint. All surfaces should be sanded, clean and dry before fresh paint goes on.

Yep, it’s lots and lots of work. Smith reckons he spends 60 per cent of his time on the job preparing – usually stripping off old paint, filling holes and gaps and sanding – before applying any paint.


Sheen is the shine level of paint, usually described as gloss, semi-gloss or matt (flat). The flatter the sheen, the further your paint will go. Glossier paints have greater strength and protective qualities. Learning your sheens will make your paint jobs shine.

Solvent-based paints such as enamels are still used, but they are considered less environmentally friendly. Brushes need washing with turps or thinners and they release more volatile organic compounds (known as VOCs). Acrylic paints have better coverage and flexibility, and wash out in water.

There are also so-called natural paints, such as limewash, that don’t contain human-made chemicals. David Baggs is the technical director of Ecospecifier , a building material advisory company, and author of The Healthy House.

He says natural paints often don’t have the durability that families need. “Most families with children need paint that is easy to maintain and wash,” he says. Smith reckons the low-VOC paints are worth using if someone in the house has asthma or respiratory problems.


Whether you are painting a lounge room or a picket fence, you should plan a sequence to make the job as easy as possible. Smith suggests a typical lounge room sequence could be:

1) clean and sand all surfaces;

2) paint the interior woodwork (skirtings, doors, picture rails);

3) then do the ceiling first by cutting in around the edges and then rollering the rest;

4) tackle one wall at a time, cutting in first and then rollering the walls, being careful to blend all wet edges before they begin to dry.

When painting windows or doors, it is easiest to choose certain panels or sections in sequence rather than starting at one side and moving to the other.


This is usually done on large surfaces such as exterior and interior walls.

The edges near the floor and ceiling are usually painted with a brush first to make sure the edges get straight and even paint coverage.

The rest of the wall is then filled in with a roller, which gives a thinner load of paint than a brush. Cutting in is vital for even edges.

Make sure you don’t overload the brush with paint and create a thick border around the edges – this is called “picture framing” and is the sure sign of an amateur.


There are all kinds of things to add to a can of paint. Low-fume additives can take away smells while anti-fungal additives can be used in wet areas such as bathrooms and laundries.

There are literally hundreds of colour tints that can be added, but most of these will be enamel-based. Check with paint manufacturers to find the paint that best suits your job. Most paint companies have websites with detailed specifications that are worth looking up before you tackle the job.

So bring out your inner artist and remember that painting is all about P-words. Planning, preparing and the power to undertake hard work.

Or it could just be about chucking a coat of slops on the walls and taking tai chi lessons. But, beware, Waving Hands Like Clouds while applying Sultry Glance could get messy.


To work out how many litres of paint you need for your job, measure the room or object you plan on painting. A wall that measures 4 metres by 3 metres needs 12 square metres of coverage. If that wall needs two coats of paint, it needs 24 square metres of paint coverage. A litre of most acrylic paints covers between 14 and 16 square metres, so two litres of paint will be needed for the job and there will be paint left over. Check manufacturers’ specifications for exact coverage.

Boost your home's bottom dollar: add value the right way

Originally published in Sun Herald

Looking to spruce up your home without bankrupting yourself? Whether you’re getting ready to sell or want to inexpensively improve your property for your own enjoyment, Alex Brooks has some ideas to consider.

How to renovate when you sell a propertyTHERE are no hard and fast rules on the best improvements to create re-sale dollars when you sell a property.

The costs and payback for each improvement suggested below varies depending on the home’s condition and real estate market values in each suburb. Houses that spiked upwards quickly during a boom time may find it takes longer to sell than houses in areas those increased only moderately.

Most real estate agents urge their sellers to consider small home improvements before putting the “for sale” sign on the front lawn. “When it’s boomtown Charlie in property, all the tradespeople are flat strapped. Sellers need more lead-up time to get things done to their house. You can be waiting for a month just to get a painter in,” says Real Estate Institute of WA president Rob Druitt.

Return to your property to Eden: get gardening

MATERIALS: gloves, garden tools, garbage bags, cleaning products, garden mulch, hot water, broom


Consider the front garden and façade of a home the tools to invite a potential buyer inside. “A home sells in the first 15 seconds – people go in the house to either find a reason to buy it or not to buy it,” explains Hegney Property Group executive chairman Gavin Hegney. “Buyers may not remember whether a house has a laundry or exactly how many bedrooms there are, but they remember how a house feels and the impression it leaves them with.”

A mown lawn, a few well-placed shrubs and a swept front path makes a great first impression. Edging lawns with a sharp spade and getting rid of weeds make a difference. Another quick trick is to wash the exterior of the house down with a bucket of hot water and a stiff-bristled broom. Years of grime and dirt will wash away and make the house look new again (try not to put bleach or strong detergent in the water, otherwise you may kill your plants).

Cutting back trees that block windows and cleaning concrete driveways are small maintenance jobs that pay back. Laying new mulch on garden beds is also quick and easy. If the garden needs more than a day’s work on it, consider calling in a professional. But be warned: WA is in the midst of a skills shortage and you may have to wait a while for professional services.

Make an entrance

MATERIALS: A new doormat, bucket, hot soapy water, broom

TIME: 2 hours

The neat and tidy entrance hints at what’s inside a house. Buyers agents like Lisa Bradley from suggest buying a brand new doormat to spruce things up. Two new pot plants on either side of the entry porch or front door also looks good. Do you have a flimsy little knob on your main entry door? Try buying substantial-looking handle-and-lock set or new door knocker that shines and sparkles. Make the threshold inside the house as appealing as you can, and once buyers walk through it they hopefully think the entire house is as fresh and neat.

Clean and de-clutter

MATERIALS: boxes, cleaning products, storage space

TIME: a day

Real Estate Institute of WA president Rob Druitt says a house that hasn’t been renovated for thirty years or more can sell easily provided it is clean and tidy. “People underestimate how important it is for things to be clean,” he says. “And while it’s hard for the bower birds, you have to get rid of the clutter. Put excess furniture and knick knacks into boxes in the garage or store it away from the house.”

Clean windows make a difference to the exterior of a house, and also flood the interior with more natural light. And don’t forget to wash all interior and exterior light fittings – there’s nothing more off-putting than a buyer catching sight of a dusty old fitting full of dead insects and cobwebs. Oh, and clean the skylights too.


MATERIALS: sugar soap, paint, clean-up materials

TIME: a day or more

Nothing says “fresh and new” more easily than a coat of paint. It’s the quickest and most cost-effective improvement – especially if you’re able to afford to call in a professional. Don’t be deluded into thinking painting is a quick and easy DIY job, though. Shoddy paintwork would definitely give a buyer the wrong impression, says REIWA president Rob Druitt. “You’re better not to do any painting unless you do it well – buyers don’t want to see botch jobs,” he says.

There is no point in repainting an entire house unless the property is in dire condition. Target painting to areas where it is most needed – usually the exterior, front door, entry hall and ceilings. Buyers spend more time than you would think staring at ceilings, so make sure you cover any stains from grease or smoke with new paint.

Make the kitchen really cook

MATERIALS: Cleaning products, scrubbing brush

TIME: 4 hours

The kitchen is the heart of the home, so make sure your kitchen looks clean and reasonable. The best tip to improve the kitchen is this: scrub. And scrub it again.

A clean kitchen is infinitely more saleable, regardless of the daggy decore. Buyers feel happier appraising a sparkling clean Brady Bunch-era orange laminate than splurging on sleek stainless steel appliances covered in grime and last night’s cooking stains.

If you’ve got a slightly larger budget, give the cupboards or benchtops extra attention. Timber cabinets spruce up well with a new coat of oil or polyurethane and laminates look better after a scrub with a soft brush and sugar soap.

Buff up the bath

MATERIALS: Cleaning products, scrubbing brush, grout, silicone sealers

TIME: 4 hours

Next to the kitchen, bathrooms are important rooms to improve. Simple things like a new toilet seat or a small vanity unit are easy to install and should cost less than $300.

Beware of going overboard and undertaking a full renovation. Bathroom and kitchen renovations are like cars – they depreciate from the minute you install them.

Splurging $5000 or $10,000 on new renovations is not likely to return you the same dollar-value when you go to sell. It’s simpler to consider re-grouting and replacing any chipped or broken tiles, repair dripping taps and make sure there are no yicky mould stains to put off potential buyers.

Look underfoot

MATERIALS: Steam cleaner, Yellow Pages, mop and bucket

TIME: 4 hours

Floors can update a home and make it look cleaner. A professional carpet cleaning is an inexpensive investment, usually less than $300 for an entire house.

If carpet is showing serious wear, cover it with inexpensive, strategically placed rugs.

If a house has hardwood timber floors beneath carpet, un-tack an inconspicuous corner of carpet to show prospective buyers the condition of the floors underneath rather than waste time and effort polishing the floors before a sales campaign.

Timber floors will shine after a good hand-polish with an old-fashioned polish – hard work, but worth it. If timber floors are seriously scratched, consider a light sand and re-coat, but call in a professional rather than attempt to do it yourself. Tiled floors can be cleaned and re-grouted.


Take the 5-second test: Ask a neighbour or impartial observer to give you their first impression of how tidy the house looks. Judge the house as a potential buyer would, by standing at the kerb and assessing how it looks. Then compare it to similar houses that are on the market for the same asking price. Be brutal – does your house look good enough to go inside?

Fresh smells sell well: No, you don’t have to bake bread or brew coffee during open inspections but a house must smell clean. Washing curtains and cleaning carpets goes a long way to improving the scent of a home. And if you have pets, make sure they are kept outside or contained in one room which can be easily cleaned for the duration of your sales campaign. Leave the windows open for an hour or so before your open inspections to air the place.

Minor repairs only: Make sure there aren’t any cracked window panes, dripping taps or squeaky floors waiting to sabotage your best presentation intentions. Buyers like to sense that a home has been lovingly looked after and maintained. Don’t let any niggling repair ruin that illusion. Oh, and don’t start thinking that now is the time to undertake large structural repairs like new ceilings or decking. It’s better to keep repairs manageable and inexpensive.

Get photographed: If you’ve put the effort in to presenting your property well, make sure you invest in professional photos of the house for the marketing campaign. “There is nothing worse than a reasonable house being let down by crappy photos of it on the internet,” says REIWA president Rob Druitt.


“There is only one reason a property doesn’t sell in today’s market, and that’s price. Sellers in those markets with too much stock have to adjust their price expectations.”

But pricing a property correctly in a post-boom market is not an easy science, especially when homeowners are reluctant to price their property too low.

Druitt says houses must be priced correctly from the beginning of a sales campaign, otherwise the home hangs around on the market too long. “If it’s priced too high, then buyers won’t even come to the home opens,” he says. “Seek several opinions on price and don’t just hear what you want to hear.”

Druitt suggests checking the prices of similar properties in your area, and seeking the opinions of different real estate agents to confirm a price guide that’s within buyers’ expectations.

6-step backyard makeover

Originally published in Sydney Morning Herald

Backyard makeover shows on television are as soul-destroying as reading Vogue while catching sight of your cellulite wobbling through your gym pants.

Most gardens, courtyards and balconies never look quite as dazzling in real life as they do when they are primped and preened for TV. And those glossy garden magazines are just as bad, displaying beautifully styled photographs of Edens with nary a wheelie bin, lurid plastic children’s cubby or unkempt doghouse in sight.

When pungent whiffs of jasmine hit the air and weeds sprout through paving stones, it’s time for a quick spring makeover of outdoor areas.


Find a tape measure and draw up a rough plan of your outdoor space on graph paper. Go on, it’s not as hard as it sounds. And it’s loads more fun than weeding.

Draw the space to scale and note where north, south, east and west are to get an idea of which areas will be in full sun most of the day. If you have only a tiny balcony, it’s no use feeling that this story isn’t for you; it is, just on a smaller scale.

Without getting into too much designer-speak, work out where the most attractive “outlooks” or “views” are for the space.


Exactly what goes on in your garden or on your balcony? How much space do the rubbish and recycling bins take up? Where can you fit an outdoor table setting? What are your outdoor storage needs? Do you need space for a clothes line?

This is boring drudgery but once you brainstorm these functions and put them on a piece of paper with a site plan in front of you, it’s easy to discover the most effective way to lay out your garden – and it hasn’t cost you one cent … yet.


There is nothing worse than too many hard surfaces in a garden because it can become hot and hostile. That means large slabs of paving or concrete aren’t doing your garden any favours. And if there is one thing worse than too many hard surfaces, it’s surfaces covered in ratty old concrete or those cheap and nasty square pavers that every landlord in Sydney seems to have put in the backyard of terrace houses. Oh, and pebblecrete. Nasty.

Caroline Hutchings of Walk On Art Resurfacing, a concrete resurfacing specialist, says everything old is new again – even with pebblecrete.

“That ’70s stuff is dark and rather awful, but you can get pebblecrete in nice pale colours now. It doesn’t look too bad,” she says. “The new pebblecrete looks good on pool copings.”

Large expanses of concrete, such as patios, can be resurfaced with concrete and stencil designs. A concrete patio can be made to look like new by being resurfaced in an earthy colour and having borders or motifs stencilled on.

“You can also resurface pavers that have a bevelled edge. I wouldn’t recommend resurfacing flat pavers, because you’d just get cracks,” she says.


Another neat trick to makeover a daggy hard surface is the hardwood decking tiles imported by Sydney Wood Industries and sold in Freedom furniture stores. The tiles cost $64.95 a square metre and are connected with plastic recycled from car bumpers.

“I’ve seen them laid straight down on to grass, which is not ideal, but the tiles follow the contour of the uneven surface,” Sydney Wood Industries Luke Robins says. “They are the easiest things to put together. And you can pack them up and take them with you if you move.”


Don’t forget plants make the garden a restful place. And while you do not need a lot of them you need to make sure you plant the right ones in the right place.


The real essence of your garden, though, is not how it looks, it’s how it makes you feel. Gardens remind you it’s also important to sit and enjoy the greenery, bugs and heat. That’s much better than sitting inside watching those garden shows on television.


Invest in a barbecue.

Trim the edges of your lawn with a special trimmer or the sharp edge of a shovel – it will work your biceps and it does look oh-so-fabulous when it’s done. It’s just like a haircut for your garden.

Invest in one gorgeous pot large enough to take an equally stunning plant. Stand at your back door and place it where your eye is first drawn to look.


Forget to oil outdoor furniture or timber decking to keep it in good condition.

Think those decorative pebbles are the cheap and easy option for a garden makeover – bags of pebbles cost about $45 for a 20 kilogram bag, or $2000 a tonne. Paving can often work out cheaper.

Allow weeds to get out of control. Tackle them before they hit their growth spurt in the coming weeks.