As you become more experienced in property you become more familiar with the things to look out for when purchasing a property. No doubt your first purchase will not be the best one, as you will make mistakes. Let’s hope the mistakes are small ones.
I started off by viewing 159 properties in the north, in about 18 months. I soon learnt to see the obvious. With my Quantity Surveyor background I understand buildings and their structure and technical terms do not overwhelm me. With experience, you will also become familiar with building issues.
Let me give you a head start by showing you some of the pitfalls to look for in viewing a property and why.
Hopefully your surveyor will pick up all these items when carrying out the survey but it’s useful to be a step ahead. You can save yourself time and money by dismissing a property that is in too bad a condition for your needs. I would still recommend you employ a surveyor prior to purchase. You can always make an offer “subject to survey”.
The following items are useful to take with you when viewing:
- Pen and paper or tablet for notes
- Camera to take photos or video. If you are multi-viewing you will not remember everything when you return home!
- Powerful torch
- A marble. I was advised to take a marble with me but many of the floors I saw were so obviously out of level it wasn’t necessary. I could feel myself walking uphill and the door frames were crooked anyway!
- A tape measure is always handy
There are different problems in buildings depending on the age of the property so I have categorised these as follows.
- Pre-War Houses;
- 1920s and 1930s houses
- Post-War houses: 1945 to 1960s
- Modern houses
Also, different areas have their own local problems and I will pick up these at the end.
When I view a property I always start with the outside. I can do this while I am waiting for the agent to arrive so I may have a number of questions before they meet me!
I stand across the road and view the property from a distance. I start with the roof and work down. I also look at the gable end if it’s an old end terrace. If I can, I’ll go around the back and view from the rear. This is all before I go inside.
Pre-War Houses (before 1914)
These houses are generally small terrace houses, 2 up/2 down often with a downstairs bathroom off the kitchen.
- Chimney stack – check that pointing is solid. Is the chimney vertical?
- Roof sagging – if the roof sags it may need additional support or it may need battening. These properties when built didn’t have felt under the slates, a requirement of today.
- Insurers may not insure a roof over 100 years old so a ‘re-roof ‘may be required.
- Solid walls breathe. A render coat doesn’t breathe and can cause condensation. A rendered or pebble dashed wall may cover a number of issues. If your proposed house has a rendered front and none of the other houses in the street do, ask yourself “why”?
- End wall – is the external gable wall true/plumb? Are there cracks in the brickwork? Have there been any repairs? These are signs of movement. Old houses do move. This is not necessarily serious unless the crack is large and the walls are still moving.
- Gutters – early pre-war houses had gutters that sat on top of the external wall. When the gutter leaked, water ran inside and caused damp. On later houses gutters were hung on brackets away from the wall as in modern houses. Most damp issues inside external walls are a result of faulty gutters outside and can be a relatively inexpensive repair.
- Damp proof course (DPC)– these houses weren’t built with damp courses. There are a number of modern techniques to inject a damp course. Look for the telltale signs of post-drilling along the outside wall at low level.
- If the floors bounce as you enter the house there will be some movement in the joists. The area of the floor at the door entrance gets the most use and is susceptible to movement. An inspection of the under floor will determine the extent of any repairs required.
- Internal boarding can hide a few issues or may just have been fashionable at the time.
- External paviors on the kitchen floor suggests there is no DPC
- Internal walls may be made of lathe and plaster and is difficult to repair.
- If the chimney breast has been removed downstairs only, to make a room larger, i.e. a lounge converted into a kitchen, check that the immediate wall above has been properly supported. Ask for LA approval of the alteration.
- Services – old style pendant wires, round light switches and an old type fuseboard are signs of re-wiring being necessary.
- Check to see there is roofing felt fitted
- If no roofing felt, check for daylight suggesting a broken slate/tile or a lack of pointing.
- Is the roof space insulated?
- Is there a party wall between this house and the next door property or does the roof space carry right through?
1920s and 1930s Houses
These generally have larger plots with generous rooms, pebbledash frontage and bay windows.
- Roofs could be poorly insulated
- Roof may need replacing
- Walls could be poorly insulated (cavity walls)
- Metal windows could have lugs that corrode – cracks appear where the lugs have expanded
- Some windows don’t open and close properly
- Bay windows can be structural
- Although wiring may be more modern it may still need more attention. Check the earthing meets current standards.
Post-War houses (1945 to 1960s)
At this time the post-war estate layout was founded on the principle of the ‘neighbourhood unit’ – a planning concept that promoted the development of self-contained communities.
Some houses were built of conventional brick construction whilst others were of a non-traditional method like precast concrete. The ‘prefab’ construction type is not favoured by lenders and may need to be purchased ‘cash only’.
During the 1950s and 1960s houses were well built. Through the recommendations contained in the Dudley Report, post-war council houses were provided with more space and better services including better storage facilities. The use of the cul-de-sac became familiar with pedestrian access across open grass with no visible boundaries.
In the 1970s there were a number of poorly built houses. Barratt homes were criticised for their timber-framed homes and later for their starter homes.
- A distinctive sign of a 1970 home is the lack of a chimney.
- Early aluminium windows were of poor quality and prone to condensation.
- Electrics will need replacing
- Houses less than 10 years old may still have a NHBC (National House Building Council) (or similar) guarantee.
- Modern timber framed houses are very warm and successful. Obtain specialist advice before undertaking work.
- Owners of houses built in the last 20 years will be given a ‘building pack’ containing details of the products and their maintenance etc.
Specific Areas of Concern
- Dry Rot
- Wet Rot
- Red Ash
- Japanese Knotweed
In either situation, always obtain expert advice.
Damp walls are usually a result of two problems. Rising damp can be a damp course issue. Damp from above is more likely from a broken pipe or gutter/downpipe externally and is more easily treated.
Dry Rot is the most serious form of timber decay because of its ability to travel through buildings causing extensive structural damage. Dry rot tends to affect softwoods that have high and sustained moisture levels.
Dry rot fungus attacks timber where moisture is above 20-25%. It removes the moisture and causes the timber to become fragile and brittle and eventually to crumble. The fungus spreads across masonry towards other timbers in unventilated conditions. Causes of dry rot are condensation, leaking pipes, washing machines, baths and shower trays.
Wet Rot is not as difficult to eradicate as Dry Rot. Nevertheless, it can cause severe damage if allowed to go unchecked and is often a common cause of structural defects. In order to grow, wet rot requires a regular source of moisture ingress like defective plumbing, gutters, down pipes or weak pointing. The moisture together with the presence of wood can allow wet rot spores to germinate.
In certain areas, in houses built between the 1940s and 1970s, red ash was used as a fill material under concrete floor slabs. Building materials were scarce during the post war era, so solid floors tended to comprise a concrete slab on top of fill material.
Red ash sometimes contains sulphate. When dampened, the sulphate in the red ash gives rise to a chemical reaction with the concrete above it. This is said to ‘blow’ the floor, making it ‘crown’ or ‘heave’. Cracks appear and the floor tends to bulge.
Some types of ash fill are inert and cause no problems. If there is known to be red ash in the area, testing can be carried out involving the drilling through the foundations to take a core sample. This is a non-evasive test and requires a laboratory analysis to ascertain the material present.
If the floor has ‘blown’ the only solution is to dig up the floor and replace it. This will involve removing and replacing all fixtures in the room above like kitchen units or bathrooms fittings.
There may also be problems with lenders if red ash is present. Mortgages can be refused even if there is no sign of damp or floor movement.
Japanese knotweed is a plant that has recently taken root in the UK. The plant grows very fast; its roots are very deep and can even push through concrete foundations and brick walls.
The fast growth and deep roots of Japanese knotweed can cause structural damage to the walls and foundations of properties.
Sellers must specify if there is any Japanese knotweed on or near to the property in the Sellers Property Information Form (SPIF).
Buyers should be aware, as mortgage lenders are reluctant to lend against a property with Japanese Knotweed, even if it’s only in the vicinity.