There's a new name in DIY – Irishwoman Laura de Barra. With her book Gaff Goddess garnering huge interest, she chats to Janice Butler about her unexpected career move and the tricks she’s learned along the way.
You may not have heard the name Laura de Barra, but expect to see a great deal more of her, thanks to her new book, Gaff Goddess. The Cork-born author has a busy life in London, where she is a property manager, looking after 30+ homes in the frantic property market there.
A former fashion designer, Laura began her path to what she calls 'SHE-IY’ two years ago when she started posting her daily DIY advice on Instagram. As a property manager, she had a list of contractors to do jobs for her at the rental properties she looked after, but she realised that with a bit of research, she could do a lot of these repairs and maintenance jobs herself, saving the company time and money.
These days, she takes on everything from assembling flat-pack furniture to transforming homes on a small budget. She now has a loyal audience on Instagram who love her tips on how to clean washing machines or tend to extractor fans.
Her book, Gaff Goddess, is a collection of tips and tricks, with quirky illustrations drawn by Laura herself. She outlines everything from how best to deal with household nuisances like mold, to how to fix a dripping tap. As someone with a rep for being handy, she found herself hounded by friends and family for advice, so she began putting together a SHE-IY handbook as a house warming gift. It was this that eventually led to her bagging a book deal and Gaff Goddess came to fruition.
Here she chats about her unexpected journey to DIY fame and shares some of her top tips to improve your own home.
Where did you get your wealth of DIY knowledge?
I work for a private investment company and I was told to set up a team of handymen and contractors. Any time anything went wrong, I was thinking I could do that myself, especially when you’re told that someone can’t get out to the property for three days.
Growing up, we were always taught to ‘figure it out’ so that would have been my attitude anyway. I completed a project fully by myself and didn’t tell my boss until I had it done and when he saw it, he told me to keep going!
My confidence grew from there and I continued to learn more and more. We’ve 30 odd properties now and what I’ve learned is it’s always the same problems that pop up: dishwashers not emptying, window handles falling off and drains backing up.
Were you surprised how you took to maintenance and repair work so easily?
Well, I’ve never had a lot of money and I don’t come from a family with a lot of money, so I was always independent and looked after my own space. I’ve always rented too, so I’ve always been restricted in those ways. When it came to having to work to a strict budget, to me it was a bigger budget than I’d ever had.
Were some kinds of DIY jobs easier for you than others?
Flat-packs and assembling the furniture is my favourite – I love it, it’s like mindfulness for me. My idea of heaven is being sent into room after room of flat-packed boxes. Crisps and flat-packing are on the same level of love for me. Anything to do with waste I find difficult; like blocked toilets and sinks, I’m not going to lie, I don’t love that!
Why do you think there is so little DIY advice out there for renters?
Most DIY advice comes from people who think you’re already an expert or it’s like ‘Ok girls, grab your pink tools’ and that’s my pet hate. Even when I go into hardware stores, I get ‘Alright darling, we have a nice pink screwdriver for you’. So there’s that huge gap where no one was giving simple, practical advice, especially for renters. I wanted this book to say; ‘You’re glam and you’re capable and you want to be more skilled – so come this way.’
Do you use any old housewives’ tricks in the book?
Oh, I totally use all those tricks! Say with something like putting bicarbonate of soda down your sink, you’re better off doing that once a week or every two weeks to keep the drains cleared; it’s not going to be strong enough if you do get a block. The old wives tales and remedies are amazing. I’m cleaning so much that I try to reduce the amount of chemicals I use, so I use vinegar and lemon in everything. Micro-fibre cloths are also incredible and people don’t really use them. They have an electric charge so you don’t actually need added product, as they can gather 99% of germs.
Damp is a big problem in a lot of rental properties in Ireland – what’s your advice for tackling this?
Ventilation is key – on a Sunday, open the windows and air the property. Also, think about smart ventilation: when you come out of the shower, leave the door open and the extractor fan on as long as possible.
People don’t normally check if the air vent in their bathroom actually works so I have a ‘tissue test’ in the book. If you’re going to dry clothes as a renter and don’t have a back garden, don’t pile them beside radiators in rooms that don’t have a lot of ventilation.
Also, put lids on your pots when you’re cooking; it makes a massive difference to the level of moisture you’re putting out into the room and make sure you change or clean the filter on your extractor fan.
Laura’s top tips:
I call them your ‘softs’: So if you’re stuck with your landlord’s furniture but want to make the place your own, add in curtains, cushions, shower curtains and anything that you can add in that you can take with you to another rental afterward. It’s such a surprise what a difference those small things can make to a room and if you get bored with them after five years, you can always change them up.
If you’ve horrible curtains in a room it’s never going to look good. What I did at college was to buy material that I liked and hand tack it to the landlord’s curtains. It blacks out the room and you have curtains you like. Then you can just pull out the whole stitch when you move. Just watch a Youtube video of how to hand tack, it’s much easier than you may think.
Flat-weave rugs are great and way cheaper than a rug with a pile in it, especially if you want to get a big one to cover a horrible carpet.
Gaff Goddess by Laura de Barra, published by Penguin Ireland, is on sale now