Home Buyers' Essentials

Robert Tavendale

 

Historic property for sale

Sunday newspaper property sections are saturated by stories, reviews and advertising for period properties. From journalists reviewing historic dream houses for sale to people revealing how they transformed properties in a state of dereliction. This constant drip feed of news matched by makeover shows on television ensures period properties are sought after as people look for alternatives to modern housing designs which lack both individuality and interest. But with this demand comes house price inflation, with many people prepared to pay a premium price regardless of a property’s condition.

The key element for all period property purchases is the survey, particularly if the purchasers have no experience of restoration and conservation. People want their fears to be allayed: they need reassurance that the property isn’t about to collapse and a feel for the costs of any essential works.

However, to gain a real insight into the property, its construction and potential problems, any old survey is of little use and the appointment of a surveyor without the necessary experience can lead to costly mistakes. Therefore, it is essential that a detailed building survey is undertaken by a professional with an affinity for older properties. A good survey can provide purchasers with the reality-check they need, by providing an overview of the property’s condition, a rough guide to the cost of the work, the relative importance of each element and the time frame within which each element should be undertaken. The purchaser may then use this information to gauge if the asking price is fair and whether the work required is within their own capabilities.

Unfortunately for most new period property owners, finding an architect or surveyor with the necessary experience to undertake such a survey is difficult, because they lack the experience required to judge whether a particular surveyor is suitable. Despite the growing profile of the conservation group of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), many homeowners still appoint non-specialist surveyors.

The recommendation by non-specialists of sometimes unnecessary work has important implications for the homeowners. Firstly, apparent defects such as woodworm holes in timber, distorted frames and cracks, may be the product of problems which have passed long ago; damp in a house which has been poorly heated with little ventilation may simply be the product of condensation. Vigorous treatment of such ‘problems’ is not only unnecessary, but it may also lead to further damage to the historic fabric of the building. Secondly, such work can actually start to undo the very character which attracted an individual to the house and, thirdly, inappropriate work can set the homeowners on a collision course with their local conservation officer if the property is listed. Finally, treating problems unnecessarily wastes money which could well be used to put right the real problems.

The areas of most concern to period property purchasers generally are likely to include:

  • damp
  • decay (including dry rot and wood boring insect infestation in particular)
  • structural defects
  • noise
  • flooding
  • cost of re-instating period features
  • private drainage systems.

DAMP

The incorrect diagnosis of damp is perhaps the biggest area of concern to period property owners in the UK. For worried property purchasers, problems are compounded by advice commonly given by surveyors that a free-survey be undertaken by a contractor thus passing the buck to a person who only gets paid if he can show that there is a need for work to be done. Many properties which are said to have a ‘history of damp’ are actually fine; past treatments have proved ineffective simply because either the problem being treated did not exist, or because the cause has been misdiagnosed. For example, damp at the base of a wall can be caused by moisture descending unseen through the core of a wall until it reaches an impervious layer, such as a previously injected damp-proof course, forcing it to spread outwards. Re-injecting a damp-proof course will not cure this problem. Likewise, a high reading on a ‘damp’-meter does not necessarily indicate damp since these meters measure electrical resistance not moisture content.

However, damp can be a real problem, and when viewing a period property there are some key areas which should be noted because they can cause or compound dampness: Are the external ground levels higher than the internal floors? Has a concrete path been laid around the property? Has the exterior been covered in a new cement render? Faulty rainwater goods, cracked cement-rich rendering and cement pointing, lack of ventilation in the roofspace also play their roles in ensuring the fabric of the building captures and absorbs moisture rather than allowing it to evaporate naturally.

In timber framed properties, purchasers should be wary of dampness causing sole plates to rot and rotate, leading to stud walls to slope outwards and floor joists becoming unstable, while any potential owner of an earth building such as cob or clay lump should be aware that cement renders can trap excessive moisture levels within the walls, leading to the wall’s total failure in extreme cases.

Another area of particular concern is traditional brick, pamments or flagstone floors which have been laid directly onto earth and are perceived to be a source of damp. Non-specialist consultants may well recommend lifting such floors to construct a standard modern concrete floor incorporating a plastic damp-proof course. Yet often all that is required is to remove the impervious floor coverings such as lino as, once these are removed, traditional floors tend to dry out and thereafter present very few problems. In contrast, constructing an impervious concrete floor which does not breathe can result in moisture concentrations in adjacent walls. Similarly, modern impervious finishes and sealers often used on floors and masonry walls only exacerbate problems elsewhere, by not allowing moisture to escape through the fabric of the building, and can cause the treated surface to flake and spall.

WOOD BORING INSECTS AND TIMBER DECAY

Show me a period house without a history of insect attack! Do not be deceived by the findings of a free survey from a company specialising in rot eradication: extensive replacement of original fabric and chemical spraying is rarely needed. So, take advice from an independent expert such as an accredited surveyor or architect before taking drastic action. He or she will be able to establish whether the infestation is still active. If action is necessary, it is possible that adjusting environmental conditions in the property – increasing natural ventilation, for example – could cause the infestation to die out naturally, saving you expensive and needless repairs and treatments, as well as avoiding unnecessary fears about what effect these toxic chemicals and solvents might have on your family’s health.

STRUCTURAL DEFECTS

The majority of period properties over their lifetime have experienced some degree of movement. However, because of the construction techniques and materials used traditionally, period properties can generally tolerate a fair degree of movement. Cracks and deformations do not necessarily indicate that there is something fundamentally wrong with the property. Therefore it is essential for the surveyor to be able to distinguish between old movement and active movement, as well as between minor seasonal movement which is harmless and progressive movement which may result in the failure of the property’s structure.

A classic example is a bowing wall caused by the removal of a tie beam in the upstairs of a cottage, or where a Georgian brick façade has not been tied in correctly to the earlier medieval timber frame behind it. Both can lead to cracking as well as bowing. The most appropriate solution in each case could be to reinstate the tie beam or to tie the brick façade back to the timber frame respectively. The appearance of the roof structures of period properties can be deceptive: often they are over-engineered, but in some cases they appear to be too flimsy. Thatched properties in particular often have simple roof structures comprising of no more than rafter frames plus purlins, yet have performed satisfactorily for centuries. Too many thatched roofs are stripped and re-covered completely due to the basic roof structure being condemned by inappropriately qualified and experienced professionals. Therefore, it is important not to assume that the roof frame of your property requires major repair or replacement because it appears to be inadequate by modern standards. Simple repair and strengthening can often ensure the retention of the existing roof structure, thereby avoiding the need for re-roofing and its financial implications, as well as the loss of historic interest and character which results from straightening out the kinks and undulations of an old roof. The use of a non-specialist surveyor and the subsequent structural engineer’s report can also result in techniques being used which, although perfectly suitable for a modern building, are inappropriate for a traditional construction, leading to further problems. If it is necessary to call in a structural engineer, to avoid unnecessary or inappropriate methods of repair, it is essential to consult someone who specialises in historic building defects.

NOISE

Many people choose to live in period properties because of their tranquil locations. But, in turn, television programmes on disruptive and noisy neighbours has heightened peoples’ concerns over noise. In detached properties this may not be an issue, but in terraced or semi-detached properties, noise from neighbours can be a serious nuisance. Alterations to the original fabric can actually increase the problem. For example, party walls stripped of their original lining to expose studwork or to be replaced with plasterboard will provide less insulation against noise than the original lath and plaster. Such alterations should be reported on in any survey because they can have a severe impact on the quality of people’s lives and may result in added costs to reinstate. They may even remove a feature which the new owners would have found full of character and charm. It is also worth remembering that, if the building is listed, any alterations would require listed building consent.

FLOODING

The damaging effects of flooding are frequently reported in the media, showing some people being unable to sell or insure their homes. This has resulted in many people checking to see whether the house they wish to purchase is in an area likely to flood. The prospect of using cellars as additional living space may be curtailed because the risk of increased rainfall leading to a rise in the water table causing intermittent flooding. Look for telltale signs: cellars are like garages, if they are dry or only slightly damp people use them to store all sorts of things. If you see a cellar that is empty or all of the items are raised off of the floor alarm bells should start to ring. A tide mark on the walls, rust on metal racking or rotten timbers are all indicators of a potential problem. Indirectly, the extent of the problem is demonstrated by the escalating sales of submersible pumps. Check with the local authority planning department whether the property is in an area liable to flood.

RE-INSTATEMENT OF PERIOD FEATURES

Time and time again estate agents and magazine articles extol the virtues of period features in old properties. Yet, it is increasingly difficult to find properties, which although modernised, still have their original features intact. So many people end up buying a property which has been stripped of many of its most important features and then set about restoring them. Advice from an accredited professional should be sought for alterations such as the removal of uPVC windows to reinstate sash windows, the removal of cement render or cladding from a fine brick terrace, or re-tiling a farmhouse with pegtiles once the concrete tiles have been removed. They will advise on the correct traditional materials and details to use. They will also be able to advise on whether listed building consent or conservation area consent is required.

PRIVATE DRAINAGE

For many people living in cities and towns with mains drainage, the issue of purchasing a period cottage in the countryside with private drains via a septic tank fails to register any concerns. Yet, many old systems date from a bygone age when lifestyles were less demanding and washing machines and dishwashers were rare, and problems may occur. Therefore, it is critical that the drainage system is checked: if an adequate modern system is not in place, the new owners may need to consider allocating thousands of pounds for the renewal of the system and to be prepared for the upheaval as the cottage garden falls victim to the JCB digger. Alarm bells should ring if an old system is still in situ and the owners of the property are using a submersible pump to remove excess water. Looking for such pumps is not a pleasant task but a quick look under the manhole cover into the main chamber of the tank is advised.

TO BUY OR NOT TO BUY?

Potential owners of period properties are often fearful of all of the areas outlined above, particularly damp and decay, wood boring insects and structural movement. Such fears are often based upon lack of understanding and are blown out of all proportion. A thorough survey is almost bound to find defects in an old house. The question is, how bad are they? Do they need further treatment? How much work is required? And what will it cost?

If the cost of all the work, plus the purchase price is significantly less than the value of the house when repaired, then you can be reasonably confident that the project is at least financially viable. Houses with the most visible problems will usually be offered at the lowest initial sale price, and may well prove to be the most financially viable, as hidden problems are unlikely to be reflected in the initial sale price, although there may be an opportunity for negotiation once the survey has been carried out and the extent of the problems is known.

If a house needs a lot of work to make it habitable, and the price makes it financially viable, the one remaining question to be answered before proceeding is; are you prepared to buy a house which requires this amount of work?

Conserving an historic building can be enormously rewarding because it provides individuals with an opportunity to own something genuinely individual, as well as taking a stake in helping to preserve our country’s heritage by undertaking sympathetic conservation and renovation work. But, there are risks if people take on properties which require extensive work without the necessary funds or high levels of patience to undertake the work over many years. Through financial necessity or lack of know-how, property owners may take short cuts or undertake inappropriate work, which in the long run could lead to the accelerated deterioration of the property. Education, education and more education has never been more needed to help prevent such work.

 

This article is reproduced from The Building Conservation Directory, 2003

Author

ROBERT TAVENDALE runs Period Property UK. The website provides listings of period property for sale in the UK, period home improvement advice, and other useful information for existing owners as well as purchasers of period properties and listed buildings in the UK. Its ‘Seeking Specialists’ section includes companies from The Building Conservation Directory.

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