Older properties especially can be full of nasty – and expensive – surprises. Many of them are not that hard to spot, so before you even think of handing money over to a surveyor, or taking any further steps for that matter, you should have a good look at the property yourself in order to determine the condition and the approximate value, so as to see whether it’s even worth picking up the telephone to instruct a professional.
Starting from the outside and working in you should get up close and be nosy. Are there any tiles missing or falling off the roof? Is the brickwork or mortar crumbling? More importantly than that, are there any cracks in the walls? This possibly means subsidence and a house showing any of these symptoms should raise an alarm immediately. Subsidence is especially prevalent in old mining towns where disused mine tunnels run all over the place, so be extra careful if you are buying in any of those areas. Local knowledge will be of use to you here.
What are the windows frames like, rotting old wood or modern uPVC? Wooden frames that need a spruce up but aren't terminally rotten needn't necessarily be replaced; they can be patched up and repainted, but their shoddy look can be a useful negotiating tool.
One of the most important things to be looking out for in a prospective purchase is rising damp. Rising damp is caused by water from the ground soaking into bricks and mortar which, believe it or not, are porous and pick up water in the same way that a sponge does. The best way for you to envisage the way that rising damp works is to take a piece of kitchen roll and dip the bottom edge into a bowl of water. The water will then magically move up the piece of kitchen roll, against the force of gravity, until it reaches a point where the shear weight of the water in the towel stops it from climbing anymore. This is called capillary action and rising damp works exactly the same way. The towel above where the waterline stops, like the upper part of a wall in a house with rising damp, may be perfectly dry, but up to that point it will be soaking. It is this effect that causes the tide marks visible on the inside walls of houses with rising damp. As the dampness moves up the wall it draws up salts from the ground with it. These salts then attack the mortar and the plaster causing it to decay. All they may cause crystals to form on the mortar, these salts affect the plaster badly and cause it to come away from the wall. Also wooden floors and joists rot and can cause all sorts of expensive problems, including collapsing floors!
An expert could probably fill a book with sorry tales about the trouble that damo causes, but we’ll stick to the basics and a few important things to look out for. Newer properties tend to have a physical damp proof course, usually a layer of PVC, put in when they are built. These do not decay over time and should cause no problems. Older houses built with damp proofing tended to use slate or felt and these can break down over time, losing their effectiveness. Houses built before the turn of the 20th century are unlikely to have had any kind of damp proofing at all. If you are looking at an older property, ask the vendor if they have had any damp proofing performed. If so they should have a certificate to prove it. Ask to see it. However don’t take it as gospel, as some less than scrupulous companies will provide just the certificate for somewhat less than they would charge for actually applying the treatment!
Damp proofing applied retroactively to a house usually relies on the injection of chemicals into the walls. These then soak in to the pores in the brick work and mortar course, blocking the rise of water. Depending on the method used there will be holes in either the bricks or the mortar course through which the chemicals will have been applied. These holes may be filled with mortar or plastic plugs and will be visible a couple of inches off the ground. Inside have a good look for damp, even if damp proofing has been performed, because a house that’s suffering badly can take ages to dry out. Walls that have been affected by rising damp should have been re-plastered. Of course people who just want to sell a property with the minimum of fuss may just try to paper over the damp. Keep a look out and lift up the edges of carpets to check the floors etc.
Have a look at the boiler and central heating system to make sure that everything is working as it should be. New systems can set you back thousands of pounds, so budget for this if the current setup is prehistoric.
Ask the vendor if he has any objections to you looking in the loft. If he has nothing to hide, then he shouldn’t have, so get up there and have a nose around. Be careful where you tread, not everybody covers the loft in boards strong enough to take a person’s weight. You really will look stupid if your leg appears through the ceiling of the master bedroom! Turn off the light or your torch for a moment when you are in there. If you can see daylight then you may well have a problem with slipping or missing tiles. It’s not necessarily a disaster if there are problems of this nature or others, but you need to know what’s what so that you can work out the costs of putting them right, add a little bit for good measure and use them as a lever to negotiate with later on. However, if there’s anything suspicious, but you still think the house has potential, then get a professional survey done.
On the other hand, if there’s something obviously wrong, then save your money and just walk away. Don’t let sentiment get the better of you, there will always be something else. As you get more experienced you’ll probably know whether or not to walk away from something that appears to be on the borderline without needing a professional survey, but not at first.
To obtain a professional survey and/or valuation, you need the assistance of a chartered surveyor. You can locate one in your area using the website of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, www.rics.org. There are three main types of service that the surveyor can give. From the least expensive to the most, they are; the home buyer’s report, the non-structural valuation and the structural survey. The titles tell you what you need to know about the level of detail each one goes into and the cost of each service tends to increase with the value of the property to be looked at.