Here is a list of 20 questions you should ask of any house you are thinking of buying. The golden rule here is to put the heart aside for a while and seriously engage your critical brain.
A brief but thorough survey before engaging the services of a professional surveyor could save you thousands.
Another way of using this list is to help you with a a thorough understanding of a surveyors report too. If having had the survey done already, go through this list and check to see what issues were brought up.
It is rare to find a perfect house, and going through these various points could help you make a decision that best suits your personal finances and / or time.
Repairs can be costly. Even if the house is habitable, there may be issues in the future which could cost you a small (or large) fortune.
1 Is the house falling down?
If your dream house is falling down as a result of foundation failure, however much you may like it, please avoid it because it may well turn into a nightmare. The reasons for settlement may be difficult to ascertain but the following may help to establish if the house has suffered, or is suffering from subsidence.
In surveying for signs of movement, look at the external walls. In houses up to the 1930s where the brickwork was laid with soft sand/lime mortar, the structure can be considered to be ‘flexible’. As a result the structure distorts before showing dramatic fracture lines with windows and door openings becoming out of square. Fractures develop later at the corners of the structural openings. With the introduction of cement in post-1930 construction, buildings have become substantially more ‘rigid’ and tend to show dramatic fracture lines through the brickwork.
The purpose of a foundation is simply to spread the load of the building over the ground so the load down is equal or less than the load bearing capacity of the ground. For instance a building sitting directly on rock needs little or no foundation whereas a building on sand needs to spread the load as much as possible or it will simply sink. The majority of buildings in Britain sit on clay.
There are four major causes for subsidence: design errors, a change in the bearing capacity of the ground, collapse of mining works, and land slippage.
The most obvious and much spoken about cause for subsidence in the UK was the drought of 1976, when a massive £80 million worth of claims were made to insurance companies for subsidence of houses on clay soils. The cause was that the clay shrank as a result of the drought, which was aggravated by trees and other plant life sucking up all the spare water.
Trees, however much we may like them, can seriously affect clay soils as they grow, even without a drought. The tiny fleshy roots which gather the ground water radiate from the tree at a distance equal to the height of the tree. Contrary to popular opinion there are no ‘safe’ trees. It is more a question of how fast and how tall a tree grows. Trees to be treated with respect are elms, willows and poplars, which reach mature heights of 27m, 24m and 30m respectively. The distance roots travel can be increased by hardstanding areas which prevent rainwater reaching the roots. Another reason for the clay shrinking may be the drying up of an underground stream covered over by building works. If you live in the London area, a useful book to establish if your house is built on top of an old river is The Lost Rivers of London by Nicholas Barton (Phoenix House and Leicester University Press, London).
In a number of cases settlement of the foundations happened many years ago, particularly with Victorian houses. This was caused by some walls being heavier than others, notably those with the chimneys. The heavier walls have compressed the ground more and have thereby sunk lower than the lighter surrounding walls. If the cracks have been made good and haven’t opened up again the building is probably quite safe. With the modern desire for open living many houses are losing some of their internal load-bearing walls, which in turn is increasing the load on the remaining foundations. Check with the present owners if the District Surveyor or Building Inspector required the foundations to be strengthened as part of any modifications that have been done.
Houses built on hills occasionally slide down as a result of the foundations not being adequately built into the ground.
Depending on how far the settlement has gone, most foundation problems can be halted by underpinning. This is a process of digging, in sections of 3’0” at a time, under the existing foundation and putting another foundation in at a lower level. This is a costly and time-consuming business, making the majority of home owners quite insecure during the process. At current prices underpinning a semi-D could be several thousands of pounds. If the cause of the settlement has been a tree, the underpinning company could require that all trees around the building, within a distance equal to their fully grown height, be cut down.
If you are suffering settlement in your present place, most causes of subsidence are covered by house insurances and you should contact your insurance agent.
2 Are the outside walls bulging or leaning or the chimney stacks leaning over?
These problems apply mainly to houses built before the 1930s and are a result of design errors of our forefathers and simply time, although we are suffering from similar problems on recently built high-rise buildings from poor workmanship.
In looking for bulges initially inspect the upper storeys. If you stand as close as possible to the outside of the house and look up, this may make the bulges more noticeable. If the house is at the end of a terrace, inspect carefully the end wall, ‘flank wall’ to surveyors, as you may be surprised to see it leaning out quite dramatically. Parapets and chimney stacks can, of course, be inspected through the binoculars in the survey kit. If you are really keen and you are not afraid to go on the roof, you could do a proper inspection by dropping a plumb line. If you fall off don’t blame me.
The major causes for failing brickwork are as follows: A very common failing is the bulging out of the top-floor brickwork on the front elevation of terrace houses. Where the roofs are of the butterfly construction, the brickwork is so slender that it is pushed out by the weight of the roof timbers. Such areas of brickwork are often rebuilt and you may notice the appearance of new brickwork in that dubious area on adjacent houses.
Another problem caused by roof structures is in connection with pitched roofs, where the same panel of brickwork is pushed out by the lateral thrust of the roof. Unlike modern timber truss roofs, Georgian and Victorian roofs don’t have the benefit of the principles of triangulation, which prevent the outward thrust.
The most alarming design error of our forefathers was the lack of restraint they offered to the flank walls of their houses. We hope you are aware from the ‘Basic knowledge of typical Victorian house construction’ that the floor joists run back to front and are built into the back and front walls, thereby tying the brickwork into the body of the house. However, with the flank walls the brickwork rises from the ground to roof level without any such restraint. This is, in theory, similar to brickwork standing freely some 30-40 feet high without anything to prop it. Eventually flank walls either buckle or lean over under their own weight.
Parapets and chimney stacks start leaning over because of their severe exposure to weathering and because of the action of calcium sulphate from fires on mortar. Over the years the rain saturates the brick-work, the frost and the sun alternately expand and dry out the mortar. Chimney stacks, you may notice, tend to lean one way and this is a result of the prevailing winds.
Although I personally have not had any experience of the metal corrosion of wall ties used in cavity walls, there is a tendency by Building Inspectors and District Surveyors to require nowadays stainless steel to be used in external walls. Even assuming the worst — that the wall ties of the cavity walls have corroded into a pile of rust — I wouldn’t suspect this would turn into a serious defect, as the majority of post-1930 houses are only two storeys high.
The first question asked by all home-owners with bulging brickwork is: when will the house fall down? The answer is generally couched in eloquent language but essentially means, I don’t know. The real decision makers are the Building Inspectors and District Surveyors who have a legal obligation to place an order on the building owner when, in their opinion, the structure is dangerous. One of the rules they use is when the brickwork is more than 2” out of plumb.
As you have probably seen with the new spate of rehabilitation, bulging brickwork can be rebuilt in sections and panels as required. The only drawback is the cost: starting prices are in the range of £1,000 for a few square yards of rebuilding. If you have a leaning flank wall you may be able to strap it back with steel plates on the outside of walls tied to the inside of the house for a lot less.
Timber that is attacked by dry rot becomes structurally unsound and eventually turns to dust. Moreover it spreads throughout a house alarmingly fast. A dry rot outbreak is something to worry about in any property, although more so in pre-1930 houses because of the extent of timber they have built into brickwork, which easily gets damp.
One sign of dry rot is a gap between the bottom of the skirting board and the floorboards. Tell-tale evidence of dry rot in wood is vertical cracks in the paintwork and a curving of the timber; if you can push your finger into the timber window sills it’s a pretty good sign, or you may be fortunate enough to put your foot through the floor. In pre-1930 houses look for the slipping of brickwork over window and door openings where the timber lintels behind may have decayed. If you are brave, do the surveyor’s trick of the ‘Jump Test’ on all floors. If the whole house rattles, there is a good chance that the joist ends built into the brickwork have decayed. If you suspect dry rot call in the timber treatment specialists who will provide a free estimate and survey.
Dry rot is simply fungus — mushrooms — growing in the dark humid areas of the house. Classic places in which dry rot is nurtured are in ground floors where the ventilation to the sub-floor has been blocked off. The mushrooms grow by eating the cellulose and drinking the water in the timber; when they’ve consumed all the food in one piece, they send their wispy white tendrils in search of more food and water. You may even see the actual mushrooms when surveying. They are orange, pancake-like objects.
The prime instigator of dry rot is dampness. If a house has not been properly maintained and gutters, downpipes, overflows or timber window sills have allowed water to keep brickwork and timber constantly damp, there is very high risk of an outbreak. The most essential action to prevent outbreaks is to ensure that all walls are free from dampness and that areas such as roofs and ground floors are well ventilated.
Depending upon the extent of an outbreak, a building can be treated to prevent further outbreaks. But serious treatment with a guarantee can only be effectively carried out by specialists, and it usually means tearing out the affected timbers and replacing with new — very messy and expensive!
The majority of roof coverings are designed on the principle of falls, so that the rain runs off them, be they severe pitches or gentle sloping flat roofs. If the roof structures start sagging the rainwater may not be shed as originally intended. To use that familiar builder’s phrase, ensure that you go and have ‘a look see’ by getting onto the roof and looking inside, and then most of the problems discussed below will be obvious.
The major roof structure problems in my knowledge are as follows: A common defect concerns re-tiling old slate roofs. With the increasing scarcity and price of slate, many roofs that were previously slated are being re-tiled with cheap, heavier concrete tiles. Unless either the existing roof structure is strengthened, by putting in struts, or was originally strong enough to take the load, then the roof structure will slowly settle, causing the roof covering to leak and pushing, as previously mentioned, brickwork in one or another direction. The District Surveyor or Building Inspector would require an inspection of the re-roofing work. But much of this work is carried out by ‘cowboys’ so he may never get involved, much to the disadvantage of property owners.
However popular Georgian architects may be today with those who readily reject modern architects’ apparent stupidity in providing flat roofs in a wet country, the Georgians created similar problems with their desire to hide their pitched roofs behind parapets. In doing so they created valley gutter roofs, which, instead of simply shooting the rainwater off, collected it and carried it in a lead-lined channel across the house. The channel is formed with timber joists either side of a flat board. These joists have had a tendency to sag and, in doing so, have allowed the rainwater to pond, which in turn has rotted the timber. This sagging has been aggravated in some cases by settlement of the spine wall.
It seems to me that the best roof constructions were built between the wars. The roof structures were soundly constructed and good timber was used. All of which might have led us to believe everything was going in the right direction, as far as roofs were concerned.
However, with more recent buildings the lightweight roof trusses, which you have probably noticed going around the country, stacked on articulated lorries, use the simplest joints and minimal timber sections. There have been problems with the metal plates which hold the timbers together, rusting or popping out, and of course once this has happened you should think about popping out yourself.
Roof structure problems can be cured, but obviously if a roof requires extensive work, it is unwise to be in occupation. If the roof is opened up for works, considerable damage can ensue in the house below, unless extensive precautions are taken. There can also be considerable damage to your pocket.
It may not come as a great surprise to you that the main objective of a house is to protect you from the inclement weather of this country. It will certainly drive you insane if, the moment you move, the roof starts leaking. A thorough inspection is required.
There are two main types of pitched roof covering, slates and clay tiles. Nowadays there are asbestos slates and concrete tiles, these having been introduced in the early 1950s.
Roof coverings of slates or tiles, except the variety with nibs that hook over the battens, become defective primarily as a result of the nails holding them to the roof battens rusting away and allowing them to slip. It can therefore be assumed that if a few tiles have slipped the remainder are on the way.
To establish if an old, pre-1950s, roof has been re-covered, go into the loft and look at the underside of the tiles. If you see a black felt covering below them, it’s been re-roofed. The practice of putting felt below roof tiles started about thirty years ago and provides a second barrier to rainwater penetration. More recently, this felt is being combined with fibreglass insulation. In some cases roof structures are covered in timber boards with the slates fixed over — this may confuse you.
The problem of nails rusting away is recognized by the Building Inspectors who have, since 1960, required tiles to be fixed with nonferrous nails, such as copper, stainless steel and aluminium alloy. If a roof has been re-covered, ask the owners when, who did it, and if there is any guarantee. It could come in handy.
Both tiles and slates can be re-used in roofing if they’re in good condition. Replacing a slate roof with new slates costs a fortune. Just one new slate costs about £2 and this is why substitutes have been introduced. If the roof looks a little suspect contact a local roofing contractor and obtain a free quotation for a new roof covering.
There are three main categories of flat-roof covering: layers of felt stuck together with bitumen, termed ‘built-up’ roofing by surveyors, asphalt and sheet metal.
The least effective of these are the cheaper forms of 3-layer felt built-up roofing which, depending on how well laid they were in the first place, have a short life expectancy of between ten and fifteen years. The felts expand and contract daily and, over the years, tend to crack as they become more brittle. However in recent years manufacturers of built-up roofing have introduced plastic sheeting, which is more able to take the stresses of everyday life.
The second best is the asphalt roof, which is simply made from 1” thick asphalt laid on a felt over the timber roof boards and carried up at the edges to form upstands. Good asphalt roofs have white granite chippings to reflect the sun and prevent melting. Most people, I am sure, have noticed how easily asphalt softens on hot days and certainly asphalt roofs should not have objects lying about on them, as the asphalt will dent very easily and form a weak spot. Look over an asphalt roof for dents, blisters and cracking, especially at the edges. I like asphalt roofs because, depending how old they are, they can be quite simple to repair and maintain.
The Rolls Royce of flat-roof coverings is the metal roof. Metals used in order of cost are zinc and zinc substitutes, the cheapest, copper and lead, the most expensive. The main cause for concern is electrolytic action caused by the closeness of dissimilar metals that cause corrosion of the metal. With all flat roofs inspect both the covering and the ceiling below closely. If the ceiling has been recently patched and decorated be a bit suspicious.
The most common weak spot of both flat and pitched roofs is the junction between the wall and the roof. This is where we find the flashings and soakers which join the two together. The problems are corrosion of the metals used, loosening of the mortar that keeps the flashing tucked into the wall and movement of the roof structure timbers, away from the wall. The most common remedy for these problems is to fill in with cement fillets and in simple language ‘they ain’t no good’, as the last thing cement fillets allow for is movement. Flat timber roofs should have 6” timber upstands around the edge to keep the roof covering away from the brickwork and a simple flashing covering the gap. It would probably cost about £20a yard to replace flashings in zinc or lead.
Are the drains in working order or are they fractured, or do they get blocked up often? If, after you’ve bought the house, you find that the drains are getting blocked up, you’ll want to commit hara-kiri.
Before purchasing, therefore, look for the manhole covers in the garden; it might be more easily said than done, for some misguided chaps go and concrete them over and just think of the headache that will cause when you have your first blockage. When found, have a look inside. If it’s full there’s something wrong, as your nose will tell you. If you have difficulties in locating manhole covers you could try going to the local council and having a look at the drainage plans kept by the Building Inspector.
It is imperative to have the drains tested by the surveyor. He may choose to test them in various ways, the simplest test being to fill the drain with water by putting a plug in and seeing how quickly the water seeps away; slowly — say a jam jar’s worth over an hour — is OK. The cause of cracked drains is either settlement of the ground, the reasons for which are discussed in question one.
If a drain fails a test you may be able to have it lined by a specialist firm which you will be able to locate through the yellow pages. Arrange for an inspection and ask for a quotation. Drains are lined by a process of dragging a canister full of cement through the drain and forcing the cement into the cracks.
We have already mentioned the evils of allowing water to dribble all over the outside of the house. Here we assume that leaking gutters have not yet caused the serious side effects of dry rot. But for how long?
If the downpipes and gutters are plastic or aluminium look no further, but make sure the joints are tight and the fixings secure. However, if they are cast iron, give them a thorough check, even by getting a ladder to look in the gutters. Be careful not to lean the ladder against the gutter; as you can imagine, the cast iron could now be very thin from rusting.
The cost of replacing pipework with maintenance-free plastic depends on accessibility more than anything else. The easy bits you should be able to do yourself. It’s more complicated, however, to replace cast-iron waste drainage, as you obviously have to get to the bath, WC and basin indoors.
You may find that the decay has not gone too far and can be saved by a nice bit of regular maintenance. See long-term drainage maintenance for gutter maintenance.
8 Is there dampness?
All dampness, although you may take a bit of convincing, has a cause. Establishing the fault that causes it is the most difficult bit. Most faults are simple to rectify.
For your survey take the damp meter from your kit and go round inside the house prodding in different places, not just the obvious places to find dampness, which are above and below windows, in chimney breasts and ground floor walls. Remember a wall can be damp and still not be showing signs, such as peeling wallpaper — especially if it was only wallpapered last week in time for your visit. If dampness has been hanging about for a long time it may have caused considerable damage that cannot be seen.
We list below five common causes of dampness. Of course any patch of damp could be a result of more than one. For instance moderate condensation on the inside of a wall will be aggravated by dampness on the outside, as moisture in the brickwork lowers the thermal insulation of the wall.
Rising damp is certainly the most discussed and familiar of all damp problems leading to its very own TV programme. As most people know, the reason is the breakdown or lack of a damp-proof course. Damp-proof courses abound in houses and are located in places where water would, unless prevented by an impervious material, simply be sucked by capillary action up the brickwork into the house. Capillary action is the sucking effect of the porous bricks. The Victorians used slates as damp-proof courses (DPCs), laid within the brickwork courses at best, or just allowed the basement to get damp. However, the best is still leadcore, a combination of a thin sheet of lead sandwiched between layers of bitumen coatings.
If you establish that the cause of dampness is failure or absence of a damp-proof course, you can now go to a whole industry set up for inserting or injecting damp-proof courses; for the price of £1500, or thereabouts, a specialist firm will block up your capillaries with silicone and guarantee it for no less than 20 years. However, they also recommend — and probably will not guarantee their work unless you do — extensive re-plastering to stop the water already in the brickwork from damaging your wallpaper, and this will cost, at current rates, about £8.00 per square metre, of the equivalent of carpeting the walls. If you are inspecting a Victorian house and everything is dry, it could be for two reasons. Either that the present owners have inserted a chemical DPC, or the house is sitting on well drained land. Obviously location affects rising damp, and if you are sitting on a hill the ground water below is going to be substantially less than if you are in a valley.
Rising damp of course does not just come up walls, it can also percolate through floors. The way of solving this originally was to suspend the ground floor and ventilate the cavity by means of airbricks in the outside wall. Quickly walk around the house looking for them. Some people, however, don’t understand the principle of sub-floor ventilation and merrily go and provide concrete floors in the back room, thereby blocking existing airvents, or add an extension at the back which prevents the flow of air.
In more recent years there has been a tendency to provide solid concrete ground floors and this brings us on to something called a damp-proof membrane, which uses materials like polythene or bituminous paint. Stick in the prongs of your damp meter to see if the water is coming through the floor. Even the slightest reading will play havoc with most carpets. Especially the foam-back kind. I also strongly advise home owners not to stick their carpets down. Dampness through a concrete floor can be cured at a cost by hacking up the screed, laying down a more expensive membrane and putting back a screed. However, this will effectively involve taking out all the skirtings, doors, kitchen and sanitary fittings, and joining the membrane to the damp-proof course in the solid walls. There is also a problem with the internal walls and staircases. I suppose the bill for doing it could be as much as £2,000-£3,000 for the whole of the ground floor of the average house and the result would be dependent on exemplary workmanship.
Falling damp is the failure of a damp-proof course in reverse and is most common in cavity brickwork above and below window openings. It means the builder forgot to put the damp proofing in. There is a lot of water floating about in cavities and as it falls it rests on window frames, unless it is directed away by a cavity DPC through weepholes in the brickwork. Below windows is another place to test; water on the external sill can soak through.
Next we have penetrating damp. Exposure is the greatest problem here because, as you may have gathered, brickwork is porous. Driving rain can penetrate cavity walls just as well as solid brickwork though it’s difficult to believe. The condition of pointing and rendering is important. The pointing (the layer of mortar that sticks the bricks together) should not be cracking or flaking away. To test the rendering (the surface coating, if any, over the bricks), tap it; if it sounds hollow, it’s deteriorating. Also watch out for earth banked up against a wall above the DPC, if there is no vertical protection or ‘tanking’ against damp.
Thirdly, there is hygroscopic damp; this refers to a particular plaster used in houses nowadays called ‘Carlite’. This plaster behaves like a sponge and will suck moisture from damp brickwork; you will see crystals on the inside of the wall. Used on a wall that cannot get damp, it’s a perfectly suitable plaster, but on solid external walls it will simply suck the damp in and this is stated clearly in the manufacturer’s instructions. It is used because it is cheaper than traditional methods as the plaster dries quickly, is light and therefore easy to put on. But it’s expensive to replace. Alternatives to this plaster in damp situations are sand/cement/lime rendering. If the present owners have carried out re-plastering ask with what, by whom and why.
Air carries water as vapour which, as we all know, turns into rainclouds and, when either the pressure or the temperature changes, rapidly forms rain or condensation. With houses becoming warmer and more draught-proof, they are therefore less ventilated, and the air within a house accumulates more water vapour. When it meets the cold surface of a wall it condenses either on the surface or, more dangerously, within the fabric of the wall. We have three contributory elements — the amount of water we put into the air, the amount of air to carry the water and the temperature drop within the fabric of the house’s external walls.
If you conclude that the dampness is a result of condensation you may also note that the present owners’ use of the house is the main reason. For they may never open a window, wash the children’s nappies in a bucket on the kitchen stove, like endless hot baths, heat the house with paraffin stoves or they may just be heavy breathers.
A classic place for condensation within the structure is where people have blocked up the fireplaces but not provided through ventilation. Cold, damp air comes down the chimney and condenses inside the flue.
Lastly the cause may be simply leaking plumbing, blocked downpipes or defective guttering, something never really noticed unless you like standing in the rain.
Sure it looks pretty, but for how long and will it then mean you spending several weeks decorating it to return the house to the picture it was when you bought it. Really for us reluctant chaps a pretty house is one that has lovely plastic or aluminium windows, plastic rainwater goods and is built in brickwork, all requiring little or no maintenance.
A small caution. Not all bricks last for ever, there are some soft red bricks — the Victorians were keen on them — which flake after fifty or sixty years permitting dampness to come in. The proper solution to this problem is to cut out the brick and replace it with a new one, which, as you can appreciate, will cost anything from £2 a brick upwards. Oh, by the way, there are 48 bricks to every square yard.
Whilst looking at the brickwork, check the pointing. The house may need re-pointing, and if it does it’ll cost per at least £5 per square yard at current prices, plus the cost of scaffolding, and you will have to find somebody reliable (you certainly won’t be doing it yourself, as you will go out of your mind within two hours). If the house has pebbledash all over the walls, it may be OK, but tap it with your penknife to see if it is sound. If the house has been rendered and it is obvious that it wasn’t when it was originally built — something you can see by looking next door — find out why, because it might be covering something evil. Competent external rendering is rarely carried out nowadays; if it isn’t competent it might be about to fall off.
Well that’s put a little colour into those charming houses painted in nice pastel shades which get all those civic trust awards.
10 What is the condition of the windows and external doors?
Flash out your penknife from the old survey kit and start surreptitiously prodding away at door and window sills in search of rotten timber. Be sure to open all doors and windows.
Firstly let us deal with old sash windows. You may have found that the sashes wouldn’t open because of the cords having broken. No big problem, it’s quite easy to repair them, it will only take you a day for each. (For ‘How to replace sash’ see Techniques.) You may find that the sashes don’t stay where you put them: this will probably be because some of the panes have been replaced with heavier glass, upsetting the balance. This too is no big problem. What is a big problem, or rather cost, is if you conclude that the window needs replacing, I.e. the sill has decayed. Replacement sash windows start at about £150 each and if all the windows need renewing there will be quite a bill. In the case of sash windows in bays it’ll probably cost even more as they hold up the bay structure and it’s very difficult to replace them without the whole thing coming down. Before considering cheaper alternatives to sash windows, be sure to check with the planners.
Then there is the casement or outward opening window; check for decaying sills, squareness of the casement and decay on the bottom rail. Rarely do decorators paint where it’s really needed at the top and bottom of the casement and this leads to decay.
- If you have metal windows, tap the metal vigorously and try to detect from the sound any rusting patches. Check the hinges aren’t rusted solid or about to fall apart.
- Roof lights and skylights are generally in poor condition as they are difficult to decorate from the outside and yet get the most severe exposure.
- Especially check the lowest section of the ground-floor door frames to see if they are rotten. If the frames were inadequately primed before installation, the grain abutting the ground will be like a sponge.
- If doors and windows fit poorly but are sound, you will nowadays be able to draught-proof them effectively and cheaply with one of the purpose-made draught excluders.
11 Are the ceilings falling down?
This is simply to do with lath and plaster and lime plaster, which tends to have a varying lifespan of 60 to 200 years — fabulous stuff, as it’s very good for sound insulation. If only I could think of some simple substitute I’d be a rich man. Around about the 1930s the evil plasterboard was introduced. As most people will agree, it is like building houses out of paper and it leads to articles in newspapers about hearing the neighbours four doors away going through their conjugal rites.
Firstly establish if the house has lath and plaster walls by tapping them; lath and plaster will sound dull, like a heavy blanket. You’ll know if it’s solid brick because you will hurt your hand, or if plasterboard because the whole house will rattle. If it’s lath and plaster ask if the house has been re-plastered and if so what with. If it’s ‘Carlite’ check with your surveyor. Look to see if the ceiling is covered in glorious polystyrene tiles which most likely means the ceiling has cracked. A close look at the ceilings should enable you to discover if there are cracks and crazing. You may be in the fortunate position of seeing some appear whilst you are visiting the house.
If ceiling or wall plaster is beginning to fall off, don’t contemplate patch and repair as a simple course because it will lead you into a very frustrating period of your life. If it is coming down, well, it’s going to come soon enough.
Re-plastering is expensive, partly because of the lack of skilled plasterers and partly because it is labour intensive. It will cost between £5 and £10 per square metre for re-plastering, producing a £3,000 bill for re-plastering a two-storeyed Victorian house with rear extension.
A tip, save money and don’t take the laths off. Have the house re-plastered with Limelite on the existing laths with a spot of goat’s hair mixed up in it. Remember, added to the bill will be the cost of removing and replacing skirtings and architraves (mouldings that go round doors and windows).
If the house is covered in plasterboard, there is not much to worry about. The only problem is if it ever gets damp, or you have a bath overflow. But plasterboard is very easy to patch and repair.
The only other problem I know of with it is that skim coats of plaster blow off because the solid wall plaster gets damp. Here again not much harm is done.
There was a time not so long ago when it was considered good practice to have cold-water storage tanks in the roof to which a pipe from the water main in the street would rise, only stopping off to give drinking water at the kitchen sink. From the tank the house would be served. However all this is changing and to the best of my knowledge only one water authority still requires tanks, the Thames Water Authority. A plumbing system is therefore only inadequate if it doesn’t supply the water where you want it, at the pressure you are looking for (particularly in the case of showers).
Start your survey by turning on all the taps and flushing the WC and cistern; gurgling noises are a bad sign. Then look for a cold-water storage tank, which will probably be in the roof. If you are in an area where the Water Board require storage you’ll need a tank capable of holding 50 gallons of water, which a tank 2’0” high x 2’6” wide x 4’0” long will do. Have a look inside the tank, especially if it’s galvanized, because it may be filthy, rusting and in need of replacement with a nice plastic tank. Whilst you’re there look for an overflow pipe and see it is insulated.
If the house hasn’t a central heating system find out how the water is heated; if it is an immersion heater inside a copper hot-water cylinder, run the bath to see if there is sufficient hot water and then run it again half an hour later, if you’re still there and haven’t already been thrown out.
If the house doesn’t have a bathroom or a kitchen and you are intending to put them in, just remember that you are jumping in at the deep end. To install the cheapest bathroom, kitchen sink and some form of water heating is going to cost £1,000 and that’s with white bath fittings and no allowance for drainage, which could cost anything depending on the existing drainage system.
13 Are the electrics out of date?
There we were only ten years ago sitting in the centre of white heat technology and being constantly bombarded by the idea of ‘all electric’ homes and still hundreds of homes throughout the country have barely more than one light in the centre of the room. I even know of homes in the centre of London with gas lighting.
The obvious first sign is the sockets. If they have round holes the system is out of date. However, there are chaps who go round removing the old sockets and putting new square three-point sockets, without replacing the wiring behind the sockets, which can be a bit misleading. So up to the loft where you should be able to see some cables going between the ceiling lights. If the house has been re-wired in recent times you should see white or grey flat PVC cables. There are two other types of cable: lead-covered cable and rubber insulated clothbound cable, both of which are way out of date and mean the system is certainly due for re-wiring.
If you are unsure of the electrics, call in the local Electricity Board, who will carry out a survey, and should give a simple answer of yes or no. If the answer is no, ask for a quotation for re-wiring. Even if the electrics are satisfactory, they may not provide you with all the outlets you require. For instance if you are contemplating electric central heating you will need a new ring main. Or there may not be enough sockets in the kitchen for your culinary arts. You may find that it’s simpler to have the whole house re-wired to meet your requirements; adjustments to existing electrics are time-consuming as it is so difficult to know what cable is what when you lift a floorboard.
14 Incompetent central heating system?
We have all heard stories of cowboy central-heating firms and there is, of course, the growth of DIY heating engineers. So there is a pretty good chance you’ll be getting one of these systems.
- Don’t buy a house without having the central-heating system run in your presence so that you can feel the hot radiators and hot water.
- If it’s a gas system you could contact the local Gas Board for a free survey.
- Wet systems, that is, radiators filled with water, don’t last for ever, especially pressed steel panel radiators and low water content boilers. Try and find out when the system was installed.
- Pressed steel panel radiators can rust away in a very short time if air continually gets into the system. Look around to see if there are any rust marks around the radiators or the valves at either end. Radiators can be replaced quite easily, but do remember that the current price of a 4’0” x 2’0” double panel radiator is £55, and the average house needs at least seven radiators.
- Low water content boilers, much heralded about ten to fifteen years ago as providing quick heat-up time and lower running costs, relied on a copper/aluminium heat exchanger, that is, the kettle the water is boiled up in. However, these lightweight exchangers suffer from the constant expansion and contraction and inevitably have short lives. More popular nowadays is the tested and tried faithful old cast-iron exchanger.
- Try to establish who put the installation in, when and if it has been regularly maintained, that is once a year, under a service contract.
- It might also be helpful to ask to see old bills for gas or oil so that you know what the system will cost to run.
15 Is it warm and cosy?
Everywhere you look nowadays there is someone telling you to wrap up and get insulated; turn on the TV and there it is again. It doesn’t matter what sort of house you occupy, you will have been told to do it. So before you start buying a house on the basis that it’s fully insulated because it has double glazing, here is a short explanation about how heat is lost from houses, which may help you to assess the level of insulation in the house you are inspecting.
Heat is obviously lost through the external walls, the roof and the ground by simple conduction. It is also wasted in the heating up of fresh air that is brought into the house to sustain life. If you lived in a completely air-sealed box you wouldn’t last long. What allows heat to pass quickly or slowly through the outside envelope is the thermal resistance of the material it’s made of. For instance metal lets heat through it very quickly but a nice fluffy duvet lets it through very slowly and therefore keeps your heat in.
So in theory it’s better to build a house out of duvet covers than, say, corrugated metal sheeting. Nowadays we have a new measure for thermal resistance called the ‘R’ factor, where the higher the ‘R’
the better. Some products such as fibreglass insulation have the figure printed on the packaging. To give an example, fibreglass insulation (3”) is 2 whereas solid brickwork (4½”) is 0.17.
Draughts are another big moan. In principle a house requires on average 1½ air changes/hour to keep the smells down. This to most people seems an amazingly high figure, but the truth is the non-draughtproofed traditional house probably has about 5-10 air changes an hour, with wind whistling through the sash windows and up the disused chimney. If all was well, with two air changes an hour, heating up the incoming fresh air would account for 20% of the total fuel bill.
Apart from double glazing, which is relatively expensive for what it saves, or not very cost effective, most home insulation is not expensive and fairly easy to install.
A quick list of checks for the house you are inspecting:
- Is the roof space insulated?
- Has the HW cylinder a comfy jacket?
- Have the cavity walls been injected with cavity fill? If so ask for the guarantee.
- Have the heating pipes been insulated?
- Is the cold water rising main insulated?
As stated before, the less there is to paint the better. If the paint on woodwork is cracking and peeling, you will have to paint it soon. Check with the present owners when it was last done. With any luck they are the sort of people who believe the house fetches a better price if it has been recently decorated.
17 Kitchen units in good nick?
Before jumping to the conclusion that you can just slip in some nice new self-assembly kitchen fittings to replace the 1930 ‘Easiwork’ units, remember that kitchens have everything happening in them from electrics to gas, from heating to water pipes, and as a result the cost of alterations is very high. The cheapest kitchen fittings, the knock up/fall down variety, cost about £300 for a set of units, so, if you are wise, remove thoughts of new ideal home dream kitchens and run through the following check list:
- Is the cooker position big enough for your present cooker?
- Can you get the fridge under the worktop?
- Is there room for the washing machine and can you simply plumb it in?
- What is the state of the kitchen units; are they gently rotting away under the sink?
18 Is the house suitable for future modification?
You may find a house that will suit your present needs and pocket and think that you will be able to adapt the structure to provide additional bedrooms in the loft, together with extensions into the garden to accommodate your anticipated future wealth and six children. However, bear in mind the following constraints:
The major constraint to altering or extending is planning permission, which, if required, must be obtained or else the council has the legal right to come and remove the offending structure. If you intend to extend you will not require planning permission if the extension is under 15% of the original floor area (be sure to check that some of this hasn’t been used already, for example, in conservatory extensions), as long as it is behind the original building line (I.e. the front of the house) and below the roof line. Then, as far as the planners are concerned, you can build your very own cruise missile launch pad, unless you are in a conservation area, or you are one of the privileged few living in a historic monument, in which case you can’t do anything. So if you are thinking of a small extension, it doesn’t do any harm to phone the planners and check.
Of course you may have something in mind that is totally impossible in terms of structure, for instance, building in the loft and removing all the struts that hold up the roof. This applies most to modern trussed roofs where there is little spare left to put anything, and insufficient headroom. By law a room must have a minimum headroom of 7’6” over at least 50% of the intended room area and a minimum window area of 10% of the overall floor area. If you are doubtful you can call in at the District Surveyor’s or the Building Inspector’s office and put your proposal forward and he should be able to give you some idea whether it will be accepted.
I bet you don’t like the internal decorations. Nice house, shame about the decorations. Careful before your best friend persuades you that a complete redecoration can be done over a weekend. Remember that it takes at least two weeks of solid work for a team of decorators to do the average semi. It’ll probably take you two nervous breakdowns and at least every weekend for six months.
Most people only visit a house a couple of times before they purchase and generally at the most favourable times with a charming salesman or estate agent. Probably the most disturbing effect on your life style (walking around in your neglige) is loss of privacy by either your next-door neighbour peering over the fence or the children studying to become rock stars and sending 200 watts of power through the party walls. So check out the possibility of having to erect screens or improve the sound insulation to make life bearable.