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
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.
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.
areas of most concern to period property purchasers generally are
likely to include:
- decay (including
dry rot and wood boring insect infestation in particular)
- cost of re-instating
- private drainage
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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?
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.
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
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.
article is reproduced from The Building Conservation Directory, 2003
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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