The outside shell of a house is a complex assortment of features, built with a variety of materials and techniques, with but one practical purpose: to protect its occupants from the weather. However picturesque the building may appear, it has to keep wind and rain at bay, and if it is not given its fair share of maintenance and repair it will soon deteriorate.
The guided tour
To get an idea of what is involved in keeping your house shipshape, go on a guided tour, with notebook in hand to make a brief record of the various features and their condition. You will then be able to plan a maintenance checklist, and to establish a routine of regular inspection and repair that will stop minor problems growing into major ones through neglect.
Start at the top with the roof and any chimney stacks you may have. Chimney stack faults are a common cause of damp penetration; the pots themselves may crack or shift in the mortar bed on top of the stack, while the masonry of the stack may crack because water has penetrated defective pointing between the bricks. Where the stack meets the roof slope, the apron flashing of lead or zinc sheet that is supposed to seal the junction may have become porous, or may have split, allowing water to penetrate. The same problem can occur where flues and soil pipes pass through the roof.
If you have a pitched roof, it will most likely be covered with tiles or slates. If these are displaced, missing or cracked, water can penetrate, especially at the roof ridge and on the sloping hips. Valleys — internal angles where roof slopes meet — are lined with lead or felt, which may be torn or porous. Flashings are waterproof junctions where the roof slope meets a vertical such as a dormer or a parapet wall; problems can also occur in this area.
With flat roofs covered in felt and chip-pings, problems are difficult to spot. The roof covering may have become porous, or may be damaged at one or more points, allowing water to find its way in. Where such roofs meet the house wall, a felt, metal or mortar flashing is used to seal the join; this too is a common point of failure. Flat roofs should in fact have a slight slope to allow water to run off to gutters at one edge, and the overhang must direct water into the gutters, not over them or between them and the fascia board.
Gutter and downpipe problems are usually easy to spot. The gutters may sag, pouring water down the house walls, or may actually be broken; blockages cause overflows. Bad connections between the gutter and the downpipe also allow water to run down the house walls, causing damp to penetrate, while the joints between successive downpipe sections may have opened up. Box gutters, found behind parapet walls and where two roof slopes meet, are usually felt or metal-lined, and may have become porous with age causing leaks.
Exterior woodwork is particularly prone to rot and decay. The fascias to which gutters are fixed, the soffits behind them and the bargeboards at gable ends may be rotten, while windows, doors and their frames may also need attention if they have not been properly protected against the weather. Exterior paintwork usually needs re-doing every five years.
Some paints and varnishes are more suitable than others for exterior use, especially in south-facing positions. A recent ‘flexible’ paint will not crack when exposed in this way, and some hardwood finishes contain ultra-violet light stabilisers which give high resistance to fading of the timber and breakdown of the finish.
Check that putty is sound and properly painted, and that gaps have not opened up between the frames and the masonry.
The next area to check is the surface of exterior walls. The surface of brick and stone may be damaged because water has penetrated defective pointing, allowing frost to crack the surface. Water running down the wall may have caused discoloration and mould growth. Rendering and pebbledash may have cracked or flaked away, looking unsightly and allowing water to penetrate, causing dampness in the masonry behind and further damage to the rendering itself.
The damp course, which extends right round the house wall and is intended to stop moisture rising up the wall from the ground, may be bridged (by soil, incorrectly laid paths and patios or adjoining garden walls) and rising damp in the wall will result. Airbricks below the damp course must be clear, allowing air to circulate , under suspended floors; if they are blocked, rot can attack under-floor timbers.
The drains need checking while you are on your tour of the house. Gullies taking waste water from the house and rainwater from the roof may be blocked, causing overflows and damp penetration. The brickwork of drain manholes may need repair, and manhole covers may be broken.
Check the condition of paths, drives and steps; the surface of concrete, stone or brick may be cracked and crumbling, allowing further deterioration of the subsurface and preventing proper drainage. Lastly, inspect garden walls, fences and gates; walls, especially earth-retaining ones, can soon become unstable and dangerous, while fences and gates are at risk from rot and poor fixings which can cause complete collapse.
Access to the job
Perhaps the biggest problem with all exterior maintenance work is getting to the job. For any work above ground-floor window level, you will need some form of access equipment — either ladders or, for large-scale jobs, a scaffold platform. With a two-part extension ladder about 4m (13ft) long, extending to about 6m (20ft), you should be able to reach safely up to eaves level on a two-storey house. Where you need a more comfortable and more permanent working platform, a slot-together scaffold tower with a 1.2m (4ft) square base can be hired by the weekend or week, and can be built up to heights of around 8m (26ft), making them particularly useful for work on gable ends and side chimney stacks. For repairs to centre chimney stacks, and pitched roofs, you will need a special roof ladder that hooks over the roof ridge and provides a safe foothold while spreading your weight over the roof surface so that you do not damage the slates or tiles.