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How to spot problems when buying

Written by: Richard Sexton
Buying a house is one of the most important decisions you will ever make – both financially and emotionally. Don’t make the mistake of rushing in without giving due thought to such an important transaction. Buy with your head as well as your heart.
How to spot problems when buying

…without giving due thought to such an important transaction. Buy with your head as well as your heart.

Always view a property carefully and pay attention to the details. Get expert help if unsure of anything. Your dream house could quickly turn into a nightmare if the roof timbers are riddled with woodworm or the extension is sinking into the ground and you’ve no clue how to fix a sagging roof. Buying a property with problems could lead to costly works that you haven’t budgeted for – or a house that’s hard to sell. To put this in perspective, at e.surv our research shows that the average repair bill faced by homebuyers who do not commission an independent survey is around £6,000 – a huge hit to your bank account. So instead of risking one of the costliest mistakes of your life, instruct a surveyor to investigate your property properly before you sign on any dotted line.Don’t be afraid of a survey throwing up unwanted results with significant associated price-tags – you can use this information to your advantage. The detail of repairs needed can help you negotiate a lower price, freeing up funds to fix them. This is about protecting your bank balance and making sure you are paying the right amount for your property.”

Doing away with damp

When viewing a property, the first defect to look for is damp, which can cause real difficulties down the line. Not only could it make your property difficult to sell-on, it may affect your health, for example, causing you or your family breathing difficulties. There are tricks to spot this problem when viewing a property: one key indicator of a potential damp problem is a musty smell, while other tell-tale signs to look for include new plaster work just above floor height, excessive condensation on windows, peeling wallpaper, or mould build-up. A generally chilly feeling may also indicate something may be wrong.

But even with an informed-eye, it can be difficult to spot these giveaways. Sellers may attempt to mask any damp smell by opening windows or lighting scented candles, while strategically placed items may block other tell-tale signs from view.

Damp can have a number of causes, and while some can be easily and cheaply fixed, others can be very costly to put right. Signs of damp could simply stem from a leaking cracked gutter – a problem easily rectified However, damp may be the result of more serious flaws, like leaking pipes or problems with the construction itself. If you have any concerns it’s essential to get a specialist survey done, as this will inform you of the extent of the problem, how best to sort it and the likely cost of any work. For example, a damp proof course for an average three-bedroom house could cost between £3,000 and £4,000. [1]

Nearly a million English homes are afflicted with problems like rising damp, condensation and mould, with damp issues affecting three in every 100 homes. [2] However, problems like these won’t usually be flagged by a simple mortgage valuation – only a private survey will give the details of any damp presence. Depending on the age and condition of your property, different types of private survey may be more appropriate, with a full RICS Building Survey drilling down into the highest level of detail. You should consult a RICS qualified surveyor to discuss which option is best suited to your needs.”

Subsidence and heave

Subsidence is the downwards movement of the earth under a property. Over time, this can cause serious structural damage. There are a variety of causes for subsidence, including nearby large trees sucking up the moisture in the soil beneath the house or leaking drains softening the ground under the property. The most common cause is when a property is constructed on clay soil, without the appropriate foundations in place. This is because clay is particularly sensitive to moisture and expands when wet and contracts when dry, leading to cracks in the soil and subsidence.

“You should also be aware of heave. Heave has the opposite effect to subsidence. It happens when the ground beneath a building becomes saturated with water and begins to swell, moving upwards and often sideways. Heave has similar symptoms and causes as many problems as subsidence.

“When viewing a property you should watch out for cracks in the walls – one of the warning signs of a potential structural problem. Typically, these cracks can be more than 3mm wide and larger at the top of the wall. They often form in the weak spots above doors and windows, or where a new extension meets the main house. If you notice any cracking you should consult an expert to get clear advice and find out if the cracks are cosmetic – or signalling something more serious. Not all cracks are movement-caused, but with your finances on the line, you shouldn’t take the risk.

“In a worst case scenario, ground movement can destabilise your future home, as well as being extremely costly to correct. Some insurance companies will refuse to insure a property with subsidence, while fixing the problem is both a lengthy and costly process, and many homes have to be monitored for up to twelve months to discover if the property is still sinking or has settled. All this worry will be removed if an expert can diagnose subsidence before you purchase. Avoid the horror story and get cracks checked-out before you purchase.”

Getting rid of rot

Most houses use timber in their construction, and while it can last centuries in some cases, timber will decay unless properly looked after. There are a variety of problems associated with wood including wet rot, dry rot and insect infestation. Wet rot is where timber begins to decay due to the presence of high moisture levels, and symptoms include spongy wood that looks darker than surrounding timber. This weakens the timber, and when dry it easily cracks and crumbles. Causes can include a neighbouring damp wall, water collecting near the timber or even something as simple as damaged paint work, and the bottoms of window and door frames are particularly susceptible to this issue.

On the other hand, dry rot is a far more serious problem. It is a fungus that rampages through buildings, rapidly destroying any timber in its path, and it thrives in moist, unventilated conditions. Dry rot first appears as off-white, cotton wool like sheets on brickwork and timber, but it can develop into fungal strands as thick as a finger. In severe cases large, flat, mushroom like bodies can easily be seen growing through plaster work.

To rid a house of rot can be a costly procedure. You may need to remove and replace the worst affected timbers, while others may require application of an extensive chemical fungicide. However, in some early-stage rot cases, improving a building’s ventilation may suffice. An expert will be able to advise you on the best course of treatment. Qualified property surveyors have access to sensitive tools such as moisture meters to test for dampness in walls and timber, and a survey will tell you the scale of the problem.”

Roof problems

A well-maintained roof can last thirty years or more, but a shoddy installation, poor quality materials, or a roof past its sell-by date can lead to a host of problems. This means that checking the roof of a potential new home is absolutely essential when you are considering whether to make an offer.

Potential signs of poor condition include a sagging structure, light shining through into the interior, or any water damage. Other giveaways include damaged tiles, slates or flashings, or unsteady, leaning chimneys. Gutters and downpipes should also be free of debris to prevent water damage. Make sure to ask the seller how old the roof is and if you are able inspect the loft space, as this can be very informative.

Roofs are regularly inaccessible without a platform, and as a result, are often poorly maintained. This is an area where property defects can be very costly to correct. As part of a Homebuyers Report or Building Survey, a professional surveyor will inspect for all these issues – and more – informing you of any problems present. Their basic inspection could make you aware that a whole new roof would be necessary and end up saving you thousands of pounds.”

Japanese knotweed

Knotweed arrived from Japan as an ornamental plant in 1825, and it’s now wreaking havoc in certain areas. The plant is extremely destructive and fast growing – it can grow a foot a week in summer reaching heights of more than 7ft – and it strangles all other plant life in the garden. But the main threat is knotweed’s roots, which penetrate deep into the ground, potentially damaging house foundations, drainage systems and walls.

Perhaps more important than actual damage, some lenders will refuse to give mortgages if the weed is thought to be nearby. At the very least they often require a professional eradication plan that may cost £3,000,[3] with an expert guarantee, before any money is loaned. Whilst no house in the UK has ever fallen down because of knotweed, it’s now illegal to allow knotweed to spread onto your neighbour’s property.[4] Your local council can also order you to spend thousands of pounds destroying it to prevent its spread into neighbouring gardens.

Richard Sexton is director of e.surv chartered surveyors


[2] DCLG, English Housing Survey 2013-14, Table 2.2



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