We all like a bit of rubbernecking but beware the backseat builder
Cavemen probably tut-tutted at the first lean-to, thinking the neighbours were getting a bit above themselves
Backseat builders: they’ve never done any renovation work themselves but have a family friend/ex-wife/third cousin who has. Photograph: iStock/Getty
When you embark on a building project you aren’t just taking on the stress of renovating a house. You’re also risking exposure to endless advice and opinions. During our recent three-year renovation we kept a quote on our kitchen blackboard: “Opinions are like noses. Everyone has one.” We didn’t use the word “nose”, but you get the drift. The words were targeted at the backseat builders we kept encountering.
We all like the odd bit of rubbernecking. It’s in our nature. Neolithic cavemen probably tut-tutted at the first lean-to, thinking the neighbours were getting a bit above themselves. But house renovation has become a spectator sport in Ireland. Some of the stands are filled with cheering friends and family, waving the team flag. Most of the stadium is empty. (The majority of people don’t give a fig about your project.) Then there’s a small band of buttinskis commenting on the poor performance of the wing while congratulating themselves on saving €20.
Our first kibitzer called the day after we closed the purchase of our derelict house, in 2014. We had decided to sleep there, a day or two before Christmas, and we woke with dew covering our faces and a dripping window. I answered the door in my winter jacket. I think my lips might have been blue.
All backseat builders believe they could do better than you if only they had the time to try
A small woman with a clipped accent said: “So they found some idiots to buy it, then.” She proceeded to tell me that the asking price was ridiculous and that she would never have paid anything like that.
“We didn’t pay anything like that,” I said. It would have been great to close the door in her face, but the 200-year-old wood had swollen, and all I could manage was an awkward lift-and-jiggle.
As we began to work on the house backseat builders started cropping up to offer their two cents’ worth: “If I had bought this house I would have knocked out this wall/bricked in that window/changed the fireplace/put in five bathrooms/installed a kitchen upstairs/installed a kitchen downstairs/installed two kitchens/kept the stone/covered the stone/added some more stone. I heard it needs underpinning. Someone told me the roof is falling down.”
All backseat builders believe they could do better than you if only they had the time to try. As Jane Austen’s magnificently affected Catherine de Bourgh said of her piano skills: “If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.”
When we lime-rendered the house the floodgates opened. “I would never have covered the stonework on your house,” they all cried, shaking their heads, woebegone expressions swinging from side to side.
Little did they know that the “stonework” they referred to had been covered with a lime render since 1823. It was stripped off in 1994, when the property changed hands, altering the way the house had looked and functioned for 171 years. Water ingress and rotten windows and joists were a nasty side effect of this.
The house is now dry and free from moss, mould and woodworm. It is liveable again and should be good for at least another two centuries.
Typical backseat builders don’t own a drill or a chop saw. But they have watched all 18 series of ‘Grand Designs’
Funnily enough, not one unsolicited opinion came from our neighbours or other locals. They may have offered tips, but it was welcome advice. Warranted. Useful. Timely.
Typical backseat builders never live near you, probably don’t know you and have never undertaken a building project in their lives. They don’t own a drill or a chop saw. But they have watched all 18 series of Grand Designs (plus the 2017 special).
If one appears on your doorstep, to help with their understanding of an actual renovation, offer them the toolbox and a half -finished room. I guarantee they’ll be on their way.
Nine habits of backseat builders
1. They arrive at your house, park in the most inconvenient place, look you up and down in your gardening attire and demand to see the owner.
2. They listen to an explanation of your plans, pause poignantly and say: “Why wouldn’t you just [insert thing that you aren’t doing]?”
3. They’re suspiciously reluctant to discuss their own houses but like to speculate about the original design of yours and how you should “remain true to it”, even if their historical fact is fiction.
4. They’ve never undertaken any renovation work themselves but have a family friend/ex-wife/third cousin who has.
5. They’re happy to draw parallels between paying someone else to insulate their attic and your epic 12-month total house revamp.
6. They’ll say, “Oh, we’d never employ a general builder/electrician/plumber. You have to have one from [town you don’t live near].”
7. On rare occasions they turn up with their own spirit level. It happened to us. This is a dead giveaway.
8. Fifty per cent of their sentences start with “Yes, but . . .”
9. Backseat builders will never, ever say “Well done. Nice job.”