Buying an Old House? Why have a survey?

You might be forgiven for thinking that, as a Chartered Building Surveyor, I am bound to be of the opinion that one should always have an independent building survey carried out when purchasing property.  I hope that by the end of this article you will agree with me.

However if you do not have a survey, you are in the vast majority.  Although a home purchase is by far the single most expensive purchase any of us makes, with or without a mortgage, it is thought that less than 10% of house buyers have an independent survey of any kind.  This does not include the mandatory bank or building society survey and valuation inspection. That survey is not there to give you comfort, merely for the mortgagee to ensure that (a) the house exists, (and indeed some haven’t) and (b) that it is adequate security for the loan.

I certainly believe that anyone considering purchasing a listed or older property should have an independent survey.

In the 2008 English Home Condition survey there were 22 million houses in England and Wales, of which some 15.3 million were owner occupied and 4.8 million were built before 1919.  There are 368,923 listed homes in England and Wales of which 8,920 are Grade I and 20,586 are Grade II*, and approximately 340,000 are Grade II.  Not all of these will be pre-1919 but most of them will be.

English Heritage in their latest survey “Buildings at Risk Register”, indicate that 1 in 30 listed buildings are at high risk in the south East of England alone – an alarming statistic.

So what should a survey do?

The main purpose of a survey – discounting the fallback position of suing the surveyor should he get it wrong! – is to inform a purchaser of the condition of a property and give advice on repairs, including an indication of how they should be undertaken and when. This requires an understanding of the problems that can be found in the various types of properties from Elizabethan timber framed houses through to brick Victorian houses.

With a listed building it is particularly important to have an informed understanding of what it is you are letting yourself in for.  The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, S.P.A.B, says that a homeowner is a “custodian for life” and has a duty to maintain these old and listed buildings so that they can be passed on to the next generation, hopefully in a better condition, and certainly not any worse.

There is often the view that while a house has been here for 250 years it will last a few years more without doing very much to it.  This is true up to a point but there will come a time in every building’s life when it needs some TLC, and while there is a growing appreciation of conservation techniques and most people have at least heard of lime mortar, – few still understand why or what will happen if you do not use the right techniques and products.  Unfortunately there are still too many builders who don’t understand conservation repair techniques and are doing more harm than good.

What are the main problems to look out for?

The most serious issue in old houses could be summed up in one word – Damp.  It is the enemy of most buildings, but that is far too simplistic.  A good roof, sound walls and well ventilated timber floors will go a long way to keeping most houses in good order. 

Looking firstly at roofs: they should obviously be watertight.  Felt or modern breathable underlays are not essential but if they are not present some Building Societies insist upon them. This should be resisted especially in listed Buildings.  However it is much more important to ensure that roof slates do not have nail failure, wooden pegs on your stone slates are still present and not altogether worm eaten; that the lead is sound and not leaking and that handmade clay tiles, although they look may uneven, are still doing their job satisfactorily.  Uniformity does not often exist in old buildings and its absence is not a defect but part of the character. 

Gutters where present – there is none on my 17th century thatched cottage – should work.  If the house is thatched ensure it has a drip zone – an area of gravel or garden rather than hard pavings immediately under the thatch so that the water does not splash back up onto the property.

Chimneys: – wood burning stoves are becoming ever popular. They burn at very high temperatures and it important that the flue is lined. If the property is thatched, is the flue insulated or ventilated?  Many old flues are interconnected and fumes can find their way into other rooms.  Is the brick or stonework sound and well pointed?  Is it stable?

Walls:- these are either timber-framed or solid, and of course the main object is to support the building and keep the weather out.  It has been said that if you live in a timber framed building and the frame is exposed both inside and out it will certainly leak, and this is generally the case.  Are the infill panels between the timber sound?  At the last survey I did 2 of the upper brick panels could be rocked backwards and forwards within the box frame.  Whilst decorating my own house I cleared up cobwebs below a cross beam and was able to see outside through a 10mm gap!  No wonder it was draughty. Out came the lime coarse stuff and a pointing tool and it was soon filled in.

Stone and brick walls should be well pointed in lime mortar – no cement.  Soft pointing is not necessarily indicative of a defect, and how boring it is to have uniform new pointing everywhere.  Keep as much of the old as possible, it is part of the history of the house and it should still last for many years to come.  So many stone cottages I see still have signs of old lime washing under the eaves to the exposed stonework.  This was never intended to be exposed in the way that it is now. It is a product of 19th and early 20th century fashion.  I have recently had consent to lime wash a Grade II* house to protect the external walls and coincidentally save a client many tens of thousands of pounds on expensive stonework repairs.  Yes it looks different but it looks as it was originally intended to. 

Damp and timber treatment – beware the specialists peddling treatments! Silicone Injection is known not to work in old stonewalls.  Some even say there is no such thing as rising damp, many say that the treatments don’t work and are only effective because of dense waterproof cement render that comes with the replacement of existing plaster, often to the detriment of the breathability of the structure.  My opinion is that these systems are often unnecessary and are contrary to the principle of breathablilty of stone and brick walls built with lime. Unfortunately we are too late for so many houses. If yours is one of the fortunate ones not to have had the interior plaster replaced, keep the old lime plaster. Often it is not advisable to have decorative wallpapers on ground floors that are slightly damp but there are so many breathable paint systems available now that colours are no longer so limited.  Distemper or lime wash doesn’t have be the only finish.

There were no effective damp proof courses before about 1850 and many houses pre-1919 did not have them.  When I carry out a survey I am looking for timber ground floors that are well above ground level and have adequate ventilation. Lime mortar and breathable finishes all contribute to giving a satisfactory internal condition where there are not damp proof courses. 

Modern services are a very important part of old houses. Good electrical wiring is essential as is ensuring that it is up to date, compliant with at least the 16th Edition and preferably the recent 17th Edition of the Institute of Electrical Engineers, (I.E.E), regulations and that it is regularly checked by an electrician at least every 5 years.  This is often an insurance condition, certainly in thatched houses and is becoming more so for all types of homes.

Central heating is a fact of life these days but old houses often do not like to be hermetically sealed with high internal air temperatures: some air movements are needed. – Insulation standards cannot often be achieved in older buildings to modern building regulation standards, but there are many things, which can be done to ensure that standards are brought up to a better level without damaging the character or appearance of the building. 

A few photographs accompanying this article show some of the issues found in many of the houses that I have looked at recently. 

I can remember one instance when I had to force open a ceiling hatch to gain access to the roof space to be confronted with enough guano to start a fertiliser factory- a rapid retreat was made and considerable expense to clear up the mess.

On another occasion in a rather nice house the owner dried her washing over the hot water cylinder in a ground floor storeroom and all the coat hangers were hung on the water supply pipes. Not unusual and they dried nice and quickly but the pipes were all covered in highly fibrous blue asbestos lagging which was flaking and falling over the dried washing! One fibre is enough to cause asbestosis so that all had to go double quick!

Roofs are often a source of long standing problems. Having met the purchaser at the start of the survey – not usually a good idea as I’ve nothing much to say at that stage –I was asked about roof insulation so up I went to have a look only to discover that the two principle king post roof trusses in the main roof were completely broken across the main tie beam and substantial repairs were necessary. It was not a popular discovery but at least the roof hadn’t collapsed – yet!

What should a survey cost?

Typically about £750 plus vat for a 2-3 bedroom terraced or semi-detached house and beyond that it rather depends on the size and age of the property as it is this that determines the amount of work for the surveyor. Typically this will be around £1250 to £1750 plus vat for a large 4-bed house. The report should be individually written up, not full of cut and paste standard phrases other than perhaps a few that recur every time, such as the need for “lime mortar repointing”.  The only exclusion clause that should be present is the one that basically says “if I can’t see it I can’t tell you about it”. However some things can still be detected such as by smell, for dampness and dry rot; and by feel for things like bouncy floors, which often tell a tale or two.  Typical reports are at least 20 pages long and should have a brief costed summary at the end. 

Who should one use?

Well I am bound to say a chartered building surveyor, but someone with some experience of old buildings and preferably a good track record and having good experience in conservation.

In conclusion, I hope I have been able to persuade you that the expenditure on a survey is value for money taking into account the increased risks in buying a listed or older property.  Don’t take the chance – survey it.