Home Surveys

DIY Home Surveying

If you really are reluctant to do household repairs, it’s obvious that you should buy a house that doesn’t need them. The right house would be one that has recently been decorated to your taste, has all the built-in storage you require and all the plumbing, electrics and roofing in working order. This will then enable you to spend more time watching the TV.

It is difficult, as most house hunters will tell you, to find a house in good condition, in a suitable location, at the right price. Most people accept that certain repairs and modifications will be necessary.

However, this will probably be only the beginning. Too often as a result of being ill-informed, we do not appreciate the implications of such a decision. I was recently asked by a new householder to give an opinion on an architect’s estimate for some small alterations to his house, namely a loft conversion and a conservatory. After some discussion, the architect’s estimate of £30,000, plus fees at 15% seemed realistic to me. The householder was aghast, he had already stretched his resources to buy the house and had estimated that at the most his alterations would cost a quarter of the architect’s estimate. Probably this householder will reluctantly attempt to do the alterations himself over the next few years.

So wise up, become your own ‘home surveyor’ and understand more fully what you’re letting yourself in for. When viewing a bijou property, ask yourself questions like, ‘Will the roof keep the rain out for the next thirty years?’ or ‘When will the outside of the house need redecorating?’ If there is some small task you think you will be able to handle, quadruple the time and cost you estimate will be involv

Your dream come true?

Having located the house of your dreams, quickly apply the ‘Top 20 Questions’. Your survey will, we hope, show how well your potential dream home will stand up in terms of maintenance and running costs, or regretfully tell you that it should be knocked down.

The questions are far from comprehensive and should in no way be considered as a substitute for a surveyor’s report; they can indicate when you should decide against a house and help you understand the construction of houses and some common problems. Having made up your mind about a particular house, you should approach a surveyor — but be sure, as you can probably only afford a surveyor once. The following list will also help you to understand the surveyor’s report, which should be read on receipt avidly for a couple of days.

Before setting out on your survey safari, you will need to collect together a small survey kit and a basic knowledge of how houses are constructed.


Most people confuse building society surveyors with building surveyors, assuming wrongly that if the building society agrees to a loan, the house has a moderately clean bill of health from their surveyor (whose report will not be divulged to you). However, the purpose of the building society sending its surveyor round — at your expense — is to discover if their loan will be secure should you default on the mortgage payments. Then in theory they would sell the house, take back the money they loaned you plus costs and pass on to you the change.

The only part of the building society’s survey that may reach you is any repairs they consider essential to maintaining the value of the property, such as broken roof tiles that may let the rain in and cause dry rot.

You really need in addition a ‘building surveyor’ or chartered surveyor employed directly by you to prepare a comprehensive report, which should note any defects that you may have overlooked in your own ’20 questions’ survey. Suitable surveyors in the area where the property is can be found from the Information Dept. of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors. Ask for three names and ring each to find out how much they will charge.

As well as finding any defects you may have missed and confirming those you found, a surveyor’s report can be very useful; your solicitor can ask that the price of the house be reduced by the cost of essential repairs. You should have made your offer to the vendor ‘subject to survey’ for just this reason.

Your surveyor should be able to advise on local builders if you need them.

Finally, your surveyor’s report acts as an insurance policy. If the surveyor has failed to inform you of defects in the house that he ought reasonably to have noted, you may be able to recover the costs of repairs through his insurance policy, if you’re unable to get them on your insurance policy. As a result, surveyors’ reports are pretty gloomy.

Local Authority Planning Department

Before doing anything else, whizz down to the Town Hall to see if the chaps in the Planning Department have plans to drive an inter-galactic highway through your dream home. Whilst there, inspect the council’s approved master plan for your neighbourhood, to see what they intend to build in the way of schools, shops and playing fields or other amenities.

National House Building Council (NHBC)

Since 1964 the NHBC has run an insurance scheme, primarily for owners of new houses, to cover builders’ mistakes (such as forgetting to put in the foundations). This insurance runs for a ten-year period after the NHBC surveyors, who will have inspected the house during construction, have issued their certificate. The scheme is now so extensive that virtually all houses built for sale are insured, and many building societies make it a condition for a mortgage.

The cost of the insurance scheme is borne by a lump sum paid by the builder before he starts work — you don’t have to worry about premiums. Recently the NHBC have index-linked the insurance.

Home owners: Why not apply the 20 questions to your house? You may conclude that you should move.

The survey kit

Before setting out on your survey safari, you will need to collect a small survey kit and a basic knowledge of how houses are constructed. Top of the list for the kit is a good camera with flash for indoors and, if possible, a wide-angle lens. You can then study the house at your leisure from the photographs; and don’t be mean, take the whole film. Next on the list is a damp meter which you will have to send for, and thirdly a powerful torch for looking in cellars and roof spaces. Other useful items are notebook for noting essential repair work, penknife for prodding render and timber window sills and tape measure to see if the four-poster will fit in, or if you can put another bedroom in the loft.

To carry out even a modest survey as outlined later on a semidetached will take at least four hours, and that’s without being interrupted by endless cups of tea with the vendors. So first ask the vendors if they mind you carrying out the survey and explain what you’re going to do. Above all, stress that you intend to make an offer when you’ve done your survey. Of course with a vacant house there isn’t a problem.

Roofs: Pitched roof structures are simply constructed with short wooden rafters 16”-20” apart, supported between a wooden ridge board and notched over wooden wall plates built into the external wall, and tied together at mid span with wooden purlins. Over the rafters wooden cross battens are nailed to receive the roof slates. Roof slates are nailed to the battens so that they overlap to avoid rainwater coming through the joints between the slates, clay tiles are either nailed or hooked over the battens. The junction of the slates to vertical brickwork parapets is protected with sheet lead fleshings.

External walls: are constructed from solid brickwork increasing in thickness towards the ground. A typical house would have 9” solid brickwork on the upper floors (one brick length thick) increasing to 13½” thick on the lower floors (one and a half brick lengths’ thick). The mortar used for laying is made from one part lime (which was used instead of cement) to three parts sand.

External openings: are formed by 4” wide timber lintels on the internal face with brick arches or stone lintels on the outside. Window sills are either made of stone or bricks plastered over with lime/sand mortar to look like stone.

Floors: are constructed with 2” wide timber joists (the large bits of wood onto which floorboards are fixed) supported on wall plates built into the external brickwork and on the internal partitions. Floor joists generally span the shortest distance possible — usually from the front and back walls to the main partition or spine wall in the middle of the house. This wall will be built more solidly since it is load bearing. Joists are spaced approximately 16” apart and covered with 1” thick floor boards. At the mid-point of the floor, the joists are stiffened with ‘herringbone’ timber struts to prevent the joists from twisting. The ceilings are formed with thin strips of wood — laths about Y4” thick by 1” wide, nailed to the underside of the joists 1” apart. These laths are covered in a plaster consisting of lime, sand and goat’s hair. This plaster is finished with a ¼” thick ‘lime putty’ which consists of pure lime. The ornate mouldings are made of cast plaster of Paris.

Internal partitions: are usually of timber-framed construction, with 2” x 4” upright timber studs, diagonal braces and timber plates spanning over floor joists. Both sides are finished with lath and plaster like the ceilings. On the lower floors the spaces between the upright studs are sometimes filled with bricks. Occasionally you might find partitions in basements are solid brickwork.

Ground or basement floors: similarly constructed to upper floors but with less deep joists. Spanning over small brick walls spaced at 4’0” centres built on the ground. Airvents are located in the external walls, providing through ventilation and preventing timber decay. Occasionally you may find solid floors formed with York stone slabs.

Foundations: of Georgian and Victorian buildings are rarely deeper than two feet below the lowest floor. However, it was considered good practice to remove the topsoil from the area of the building, which could mean the foundations would be anything between 2’0” and 6’0” below the original level of the ground. The foundations are formed by broadening the width of the brickwalls to spread the load.

Roofs: are constructed, generally, with wooden struts taking the weight onto the load-bearing spine wall to avoid outward thrusts on external walls. Rafters are of 2” x 4” timber, spaced at 16” centres, and span over heavy timber purlins or collar supported by struts onto the spine wall of the house. Battens nailed to the rafters support clay tiles which are hooked over the batten with projecting nibs. The junctions of the tiles to the brickwork parapets are protected with either lead or zinc flashings.

External walls: there is no specific date when contractors switched from building solid external walls to cavity construction. However the majority after 1930 have cavity wall construction formed with two 4 ½” brick walls (one brick width) with a 2” gap between, making an overall width of 11”. The mortar used is sand and cement mix, with lime sometimes added. Because of the cement the wall is very rigid. The two walls are tied together with metal wall ties, which are built into the brickwork (3′ apart horizontally; 1’6” vertically).

External openings: are formed with reinforced concrete lintels in the inner wall and concrete lintels or brick arches in the outer wall. As the windows are generally located on the face of the wall rather than being recessed as they were in previous eras, the timber window sill can deflect rainwater without the need of a masonry sill.

Upper floors: the floor joists are built into the inner brick wall of the cavity and generally span across the house over load-bearing internal partitions. Joists are spaced at 16” centres, stiffened with herringbone timber struts at mid-point and covered with 1” thick floorboards. The ceilings are usually of plasterboard coated with a ¼” thick finishing plaster. Decorative mouldings are simply curved plasterboard sections nailed into position.

Internal walls: on the ground floor are generally 4½ thick brickwork (one brick width thick) plastered on both sides with a sand, cement and lime mix, and then finishing plaster. In the last twenty years this has been replaced with lightweight plasters made from gypsum. On the first floor partitions are constructed with timber framework, using 2” x 4” timber studs at 16” centres, faced both sides with plasterboards coated with a ¼” thick finishing plaster.

Ground floors: are similarly constructed to upper floors but using 2” x 4” floor joists spanning over 4¼” thick honeycombed brick walls built off 4” thick concrete slabs, called ‘oversite’, laid over the ground; the void between the timber floors and the oversite is ventilated to avoid timber decay by means of airvents located in the external walls.

Foundations: are formed by digging 3’0” deep trenches in the ground beneath both external and internal load-bearing partitions. The base of the trench is filled with 9” of solid concrete from which the walls are built up using hard non-porous bricks until the wall is above the finished ground level.

Roofs: are constructed from light-weight factory-made trusses held together with metal plates and spaced at 24” centres; battens are 1” x 2” nailed over roofing felt to trusses. Tiles made of concrete.

External walls: the basic structure is pre-fabricated of timber, with 2” x 4” studwork faced with %” ply panels which are simply nailed together on site. The framework is then clad with a variety of materials, such as 4’/2” brickwork on the lower floors or timber boarding on the first floors — neither of which are used for structural support. The cavity formed is filled with fibreglass insulation.

External openings: are simply formed in the timber structure by leaving openings where required in the panels. Openings in the external cladding, where brickwork is used, are formed with light-weight pressed metal lintels.

Upper floors: are either constructed with timber joists set out on site and covered with %” tongue-and-groove chipboard sheets or with panels constructed at the factory. Ceilings are lined with plasterboard, with the joints filled; no plastering at all is used.

Internal walls: are part of the structure and are formed in the same way as the external walls. Additional partitioning may be made by plasterboards.

Ground floors: constructed from 4” concrete slabs cast in situ.

Foundations: usually dug with a trench digger, which cuts a neat trench, which is filled with mass concrete composite with the ground floor concrete slab.

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