Renovation of properties

Table of Contents


In this article I want to concentrate on what to look for when buying an older property in need of repair. It is only fair to warn you about the amount of work and hardship you are letting yourself in for! It is not all ‘roses round the cottage door’. Be certain that your partner (if you have one) is willing to stand the dirt, discomfort and hard work. There is no better way to test a marriage.

Some have a set area in which to look for a property, while others will be looking for the right property in any area. When choosing an area, as well as the personal aspects, consider property prices; the type of construction; the problems with planning permission and the sub soil. I have had to dig foundations 7ft deep in sand, which is expensive and hard work.

All areas have their own characteristics of house construction, and some are easier to work on than others. It is sensible to go to a library and read up about the different types of house construction in your area. There is a vast difference between working on a cob cottage and tackling a brick terraced house. If you have to travel a long way to the new area, spend a week looking around and getting the lie of the land. Arrange to have the local paper sent to you each week so that you can read through the ‘houses for sale’ section. Then with your knowledge of the area, decide whether to go and look at a certain property.

The first hunting place is the Estate Agent. It will help if you prepare a list of requirements – price, size of garden, number of bed-rooms, area, etc. If this is your first house you will have great fun translating the Estate Agent’s jargon. My favourite is ‘basic work done ready for modernisation’ . You could also contact church authorities or large land-owners like the Forestry Commission and British Rail. There are still railway stations for sale, or perhaps the local authority is selling a disused school. House-hunting is fun but often quite disheartening so don’t be tempted to buy a house you dislike just because you can’t stand looking any more. Go home and try again later. You need to be satisfied with the house you are about to modernise.

When you go and look for a property, first impressions are important. If you dislike the house at first sight then there is a good chance that you will never like it. But don’t be put off by dirt and decay. Look for its potential. My wife has had very strong feelings about certain properties, and it would have been unwise to go against her instincts.

Have a good look around the outside, and check cer-tain points. Is there access for a car and room to get building materials in? If you have doubts about the access, contact the Highways Department and the Planning Department. In some towns house-owners are allowed to park their cars in the front garden while in others they are not. The local authority has the final say. Have a look for all services – sewers, water, electricity, telephone and gas. In many country properties gas is not available. If any of the main services are missing get provisional estimates for running them in. Most digger owners will be prepared to quote for providing mains water, and the local water authority will have a standard fee for joining up to the mains. Finally, if you need to extend the property, make sure there is room to do so within the building line.

Check the drains. Most town properties are con-nected to the main sewer; however look into inspection chambers and make sure. I lift the lid of an inspection chamber and pour water down a sink or loo to check that it flows through the chamber. We have a sewer on our property which we cannot use. Most annoying! If there is no main sewer there may be an earth closet or cess pit. This will need to be altered to incorporate a septic tank or some other satis-factory means of sewage dis-posal.

It may seem idyllic to have a stream in the garden, but you will not be allowed to run land drains from the septic tank close to the stream. Make sure you have room for a septic tank and land drains somewhere in the garden. The local water authority will need to be informed and will give advice. While on the subject of streams, they are liable to flooding, so check with the neighbours to see if the house ever gets inun-dated.

A great deal of information can be gained from the local Post Office, neighbours and the local pub, but sift it carefully. Few people will deliberately highlight the faults of an area in which they themselves live.

The following hints are not intended to take the place of a full survey, but they will help you assess the condition of a property to decide whether it is worth buying. More details will be con-tained in each of the specialised articles. If in doubt, call in a surveyor. The building society inspection can never be looked upon as a comprehensive survey, though some societies will quote for one if you ask.


A sagging ridge could mean that the walls are bowing or that the rafters are bending.

Complete rows of slates or tiles slipped is generally an indication that the battens have rotted or, in the case of slates, that the nails have rusted away.

No sarking felt between rafters and battens could be a cause of damp, A roof uneven along its length could mean that rafters are broken or weak.


Look for mortar missing from chimney stacks, and damaged flashings.

Tar and soot on the out-side of a chimney may mean the chimney is in need of lining.

A pot at an odd angle often means the flaunching has decayed and is letting in water.


Look for cracks in the wall. They could be serious if related to subsidence.

Look at the wall corners and see if they are upright (plumb). And look along the wall for bulges.

Tap any rendering. If it sounds hollow it could mean water has penetrated, causing damage.

Gutters and Flashing

Leaking gutters can cause decay, as can leaking water pipes.

Try and see if any flashing is leaking around the chimney or in valleys. And where a sloping’ roof joins the house.


Is the ground level out-side higher than the floor level? Is there any type of damp proof course? If so, has it failed?


Are the floors solid or timber? Old solid floors are prone to damp and dark patches or areas of white salts are a sign of damp.

Timber floors (sprung floors) must be well ventilated, look outside for air bricks and make sure they are not blocked.

Jump up and down on the upstairs floor (if you dare). See if the windows rattle or the floor shakes.

Have a look under the stairs for signs of decay or woodworm.


Ceilings sometimes sag. Push them up, and if they move the plaster is probably coming away from the laths. If not the joists may be sagging.

The upstairs ceiling will give an idea if the roof is leaking. Dark areas with black spots are a sure sign of damp above.


Is the wiring obviously old – or has it been renewed? If the wiring is old it is easier to replace the complete system.

Has pvc cable been connected to old rubber cable? Try to look in the attic for signs of this unacceptable practice.


See what the main supply is made of and find the stop cock. It is easier to re-plumb than to pick up off old plumbing. Or has it been modernised?


Suspect all types of old panelling. It often hides damp and decay. Have a good look at all exposed timber for evidence of wood-worm or rot.