Continuing where we left off, we’ll walk in the front door when viewing a potential house purchase. In part two I’ll cover what I’ve learnt to look for in general interior room condition.
Shut the front door
Before shutting it, take a look at it. It seems a bit odd, but much like shoes tell the story of a person, I reckon a front door tells the story of a house. There’s lots of different styles:
Look at the construction; is the door PVC/ composite/ wood/ metal? Is the style of the door in-keeping with the age of the property? White PVC doors are very common, because cheap, and if a prior owner has opted for a cheap door they may have opted for other cheap options in the house. Has the owner put a modern door on an old house, perhaps hinting at a major modern refurb. In an older property does it retain it’s original wooden door? If so, look at the state of the paint. Such doors can last hundreds of years with maintenance, but need periodic sanding and repainting to maintain integrity. Again you can learn a lot about the owners attitude to preventative maintenance.
Look at the locks and door furniture. As mentioned in Part I, many insurance companies offer preferential rates for BS 5-lever locks. Most PVC doors are safer as they will have a multi-point locking system. Don’t forget to change the locks when you move in. Look at the door furniture; it can hint at chintz inside. Front doors have changed dramatically over the years, they tell the history of a property, and are an easy way to improve kerb appeal (1, 2, 3).
You’re in the front door so look down. Victorian and Edwardian builders knew the importance of first impressions. Older properties will hopefully retain the beautiful parquet or tiled flooring. This can be replaced but it’s expensive and I don’t think it ever looks the same (although we have looked at reclaimed parquet in the past).
Worn parquet can be sanded back and re-varnished, as can original floorboards. This can be a DIY job if you fancy a go, budget at least £150 for a sander for a weekend and varnish. There’s lots of guides and Youtube tutorials which can take you through the process (4). Cover everything in dust sheets. We’re still finding dust three years later.
When viewing houses we would find try to find a neglected corner of carpet, or a piece where it had already come up, and peek at the condition of the floorboards. We were lucky with our first property that the floorboards had been hidden behind 100 years of layers of carpet and were pristine. We also discovered a hidden terrazzo floor in a property we lost out on.
Terrazzo is a polished solid flooring, produced by pouring a mixture of resin/concrete and marble/ stone chips (5). It has similarities with polished concrete and resin floors, which are both very fashionable currently (6, 7).
Laminate and carpet
Both of these I could write entire articles about. Laminate can be beautiful when done well. It also offers a cheap DIY way to update and upgrade a tired space, with ‘click-clack’ self-connecting forms available from most retailers. On the cons, it’s loud underheel, and is used by slum landlords to hide substandard flooring surfaces. Engineered hardwood flooring is the step up from laminate where a layer of real wood is added to a ply backing. This can really make a difference to a space but is understandably more expensive (8).
Carpet again comes in all shapes, sizes and styles. Look out for damage to carpet, lifting, or the carpet moth that will munch it’s way through natural fibre (i.e. wool) carpet in darker spaces. Bare patches in corners with discarded casings and potentially larvae will point towards the moth. We stripped the carpet from our whole house and switched to synthetic fibre to try and eradicate our infestation (9).
Wall and ceiling coverings
Lets talk plaster, paint and wallpaper. We’ll start with that perennial favourite, woodchip. Used in the 60s and 70s to hide poor plaster and imperfections, it’s wallpaper will added chips of wood to provide texture. It’s one of the main things to put potential viewers off a house. It’s a bugger to remove, as those woodchips soak up attempts to chisel it off. It’s super messy, takes ages, but is cheap to do DIY (main cost being a £30 wallpaper steamer from Screwfix etc). There’s plenty of guides on the internet into how to tackle removal (10).
The texture and endurance of woodchip means it can hide a myriad of problems behind it. To an extent any textured wallpaper can do the same, and should be treated as such. Anyone can wallpaper a room, and it’s a quick way to refresh a room or hide problems. Don’t be fooled by Victorian anaglypta’s either, which can look stunning but hide issues.
Another covering you may come across is Artex. This is a further 70s product designed to hide poor plastering finishes behind a textured fascade. To make things even better, pre-1980s Artex was made with our old friend white asbestos (11). Undisturbed behind paint this is fine, but sanding or removal risks hazardous dust. The asbestos can be identified and the Artex removed by a specialist company, using steam or preparatory products (12). Some people tackle it themselves, which I would not recommend unless you are willing to risk Mesothelioma. The other alternative is to plaster over the top to produce a new flat surface.
People also deployed Asbestos (the wonder substance) in tile form on ceilings or where drop ceilings have been installed. This is mainly found in commercial buildings, but we clocked some hiding in a renovation project (a right dogs-dinner of a property) and ran. Again it really needs a specialist company to identify. Some people choose to remove it themselves with commercial-grade PPE, but I would not advise due to the health and legal risks (do as I say not as I do) (13). Asbestos has to be disposed of safely, and rules vary depending on your locality on whether your local tip will take it.
The only real mention I’ll make of paint is lead-based paints. If your house was built before the ’70s it probably contains some lead-based paint. This is only really an issue if the paint is damaged, crumbling, and you go around licking it or sticking it in your mouth. Kids do. It tastes slightly sweet (Darwin at work). Lead accumulation isn’t something to mess about with, so keep on top of it and don’t let your kids peel it off and chow down (14).
With the exception of paint, all of the coverings above can mask potential plaster issues. This is one of the reasons in recent property searches I’ve tended to prefer properties where I can see what I’m dealing with. Plaster problems fall into three main areas:
- Dead Plaster
This is more an appearance than a problem itself. Traditional construction techniques were to use thin lathe battens nailed to the structural upright stud wall or brick. Movement of the wall, damp trapped in the plaster or superficial damage can all cause the plaster to lift away from the lathe. Attempts can be made to repair this by pinning the surround plaster and patching, but often it’s easier to hack off and redo with modern plasterboard and a fresh skim. On a ceiling this can suggest damp ‘falling’ from above, so a leak in a bathroom or roof (see below).
- Cracked Plaster
Smaller cracks caused by structural movement in the property or just general wear and tear can be dealt with filler and a scraper tool. It’s important to make sure this is not the above, by lightly pressing on the plaster. If there’s a ‘give’ and movement then the plaster may well have peeled away from the underlying lathe, requiring more significant attention (15).
Damp. The blank chequebook to a cowboy builder. You’ll smell damp as soon as you walk into a house, that mouldy, fusty odour. It’s nothing to fear as long as you remember one rule. Damp has to come from somewhere.
Actually two rules. Rule two: rising damp is a sales tool. Don’t believe me? RICS agrees (16, 17). While osmosis happens, water won’t climb up a wall in a warm home because it has to. There’s such a thing as gravity. Damp proof courses are a waste of money. There I said it!
I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but ground and construction conditions have to be really specific. Rising damp requires hygroscopic salts to be present in the minerals used in the walls construction and surrounding soil to create an environment where water molecules can move through osmosis. They’ll often leave crystals on the wall. ‘Rising damp’ as a ‘diagnosis’ got big in the ’60s and ’70s as a way to fix the problem of damp inside houses, right around the time lots of poor quality houses were being built and older houses being renovated by caking them in impermeable concrete (18). Same goes for cavity wall insulation. Older houses built of brick, stone and lime mortar were permeable. They would absorb moisture, they could ‘breathe’. If a wall was facing the predominantly inclement weather it could get damp, but it would dry out when the weather was dry again. The Victorians and Edwardians solved this by having an air-gap cavity wall. People in the C20th didn’t like the fact that walls would get damp, so they covered them in impermeable concrete render or membranes, plus plastic wall paints. They then added double glazing without air vents. This kept the rain and weather out, but also kept moisture produced by general day-to-day living in. If you breathe on a cold pane of glass it steams up. Multiply that throughout your home and you get condensation. This is the main cause of damp in homes. Other causes include:
- Insulation – (I look forward to the class action lawsuits in 30 years as swathes of government-grant retrofitted old houses succumb to damp damage)
- Heating on/off – must be constantly ON, but low temp = 15 degrees C – heating and then cooling creates an environment for condensation
- Ground levels outside higher than inside
- Broken guttering or missing downpipes
- Vegetation growing near the wall
- Trees creating shade and moist air near a wall
- Lack of ventilation – double glazing, no vents
- Blocked chimneys – fireplace blocked up, no vents
- Furniture against walls creating cold, damp areas (18)
The answer is (as always) preventative maintenance and taking a nuanced approach based on the buildings construction. If you live in an older home you cannot expect it to achieve modern standards of insulation. Ensure you use permeable materials to allow movement of moisture in renovation work. Appreciate your higher utility bills as a trade-off for period features and room sizes. As a slight aside here, if buying a new property ensure that there are air vents in the glazing, air bricks in the walls and plenty of opportunities for air movement. Amongst high-end architectural design the move is towards Passivhaus standards, where moisture, dew points and ventilation are carefully controlled as part of holistic approach to construction (19).
How to tackle damp?
Unsightly mould around windows (like above) or on walls (below)? Check for vents in windows and doors. Check the type of paint or wall covering used. Often this is down to people not opening windows or allowing ventilation in an attempt to keep heat in. Crack the window or buy a dehumidifier (20, 21).
Peeling plaster, cracked and lifting paint? The is more likely to be penetrating damp, or a leaking roof or bathroom plumbing if it’s the ceiling. This is often enough to scare off most buyers, but look carefully. Penetrating damp or a leak has to come from somewhere (22). Is the external ground level higher than the internal wall? Are there boundary walls abutting the internal wall? It could be caused by a sill or beam bridging a wall cavity. Go back outside and look externally for cracks in render, damaged, eroded or poorly pointed brickwork, absent flashing or leaking gutters. This is why it’s often good to view a house in heavy rain. If it’s on the ceiling is there a bathroom above? If so run all the taps and check for drips. Is the roof in good condition, and can you view the loft in rain to check for water ingress? We had penetrating damp in a previous house caused by a) a wooden sill which was exposed to rain which soaked internally, and b) an external garden boundary wall abutting the damp wall, with next-door slightly higher than our ground level. Solved by rebuilding the external wall with damp proof tanking. I worked on another house where a ceiling would get wet when the wind blew from the North-East, as it then forced the rain up a pitch through the roof so it could drip down. Had to put a new roof on to solve that.
Fuse boards, or more properly domestic consumer units, are a must check. They ensure electrical safety in your home, preventing you getting shocked (/dying) and the house burning down every time something short circuits. They’ve developed over time with progressive regulation changes. Up to 2001 most homes were fitted with fuse boards like the older Wylex one pictured, containing individual rewire-able fuses plus a main circuit breaker/ isolation switch. Since 2001 regs have mandated individual residual current devices (RCDs) protection for circuits, offering extra protection (23, 24). Any new electrical work being done to a property will require an RCD system to meet regs. Budget £300-400 for installation of this alone. My garage is currently (not working) on an old 1940s cast iron splitter unit like the last image piggybacked off the main RCD. I’m exploring ways to retain the unit as it’s bloody cool (25).
Sort of an extension of the above, but it’s important to ensure any electrical work that has been completed to the property has been done so by an accredited person. All work should be certificated and ideally marked as tested. Any changes to circuits like adding new sockets, adding new outlets, changing lighting circuits etc technically needs this (26). Ensure you get these certificates when purchasing the property and when you have any work done. It’s often a requirement for property insurance, it can be in the fine print in the mortgages, and you’ll need it to rent the property out (27). Work without certificates opens up a legal minefield, and can knock serious cash off the property value. Copy and paste this to central heating, gas work and plumbing.
One to check out as you look around. First, is wiring (and plumbing) fitted with surface trunking, or properly chased into the wall? Trunking fitted to existing wall is quicker, cheaper but looks less attractive (to me). Chasing into the wall is harder, slower and more expensive, but the flush finish looks smarter (28). This will give you an idea of the costs the owner has spent on this sort of work and the quality they’ve been happy with.
If you can see exposed wiring (try next to the fuseboard or under-stairs cupboards) look at the colour of the wiring. Wiring since 2006 has followed European and Australian code; brown is live, blue is neutral, green/yellow is earth. Prior to that we ran red live, black neutral and green earth (29). Since the 1960s most UK wiring has been sheathed in PVC. You can age your wiring on what it’s sheathed in. Prior to PVC was vulcanised rubber (notable by being black), before that was lead (notable because it’s… lead), and before that it was all sorts of odd stuff including cloth and paper-wrapped wiring (30). The cloth, lead and rubber all degrade, so will all be due replacement.
We made a not untidy sum ripping out the rats nest of old wiring in a previous property. Once we’d turned everything off at the main breaker we found cloth-wrapped, lead-sheathed (£££) and 1960s wiring had all been run in parallel circuits under the floor. The joys of renovation!
Other things to look out for are old plug sockets like the one below, featuring the earlier circular three pin plug. There were lots of variants of plug prior to the adoption of the ubiquitous three-prong plug and socket in 1947 (31). This means you can reliably date your wiring and definitely decide it’s due a rewire. The UK’s socket design is the envy of the world (32), so embrace it! Brown bakelite junction boxes, on the other hand, are not something to run from. They’re still in production, still used and definitely serviceable (33). I really like bakelite as I think it’s retro, but then I’m a bit weird.
Where’s the stop cock? Check if there’s one in the house as well as one by your meter (if you have one) where it enters the property. You and your neighbours will thank you when you’re not screaming “How do I turn off the bloody water?” at 3am.
The water pipe for your property is your responsibility from where it tees off the mains (34). Track it’s path throughout the house if you can, check for leaks and quality. Lead has not been used for pipes since the 1960s but most old houses will retain it somewhere (as it’s a pain to replace for various reasons). Most internal pipes will be stainless steel, copper or plastic. Old pipes may be iron. They all degrade over time (at different rates), so need periodic maintenance (35, 36).
Pipes in the UK for central heating are generally copper or plastic (often white). They come in various sizes. Size of pipe is an important consideration when fitting central heating, as you need to calculate the total thermal load on the boiler (the radiators) and the efficiency and flow rates (based on pipe diameter and water temperature) to ensure that your boiler has enough oomph to actually heat all the radiators (36, 37). There’s online calculators that can help you work out your heating requirement to spec this, such as here: https://www.plumbnation.co.uk/heating-calculator/ (38). Frankly, I just get a plumber.
While we’re on boilers, check if the property has one. There’s essentially two types of heating; wet and dry.
- Does the property have a wet system (i.e. radiators and a water boiler)?
- Is it gas, oil, coal, calor gas, solid?
- How old is it?
- Does it have a hot water cylinder or on demand?
- Has it been serviced?
This is a whole other set of posts. Essentially most houses are on gas boilers, of which the most common is combi-boilers which do heating and hot water. There’s system boilers, which have a hot water storage cylinder (so are better for households that have multiple bathrooms and need lots of hot water at once), but are generally less efficient. Then there’s conventional boilers which have a water tank and a hot water cylinder (39, 40). Newer boilers across the range are generally much more efficient. Google the brand and model number and check the reviews. Older boilers can be very reliable if well maintained, so check for service record stickers. Budget between £1-4k for a decent replacement, and remember you really get what you pay for with boilers (40, 41). Budget more for a new install on a property without central heating.
Oil-fired boilers and calor gas systems are generally used for the estimated 4 million households that are not on mains gas. Oil is a bit more fuel efficient than gas, but can cost more to buy as the cost fluctuates and you have to store it in tanks (generally bunded green things) (43, 44). You can also run out if you forget to order more, or the roads are shut. Same rules apply re: servicing and replacement.
In the UK this basically means electric heating systems in rooms. Other countries and some UK commercial and old buildings will use a central furnace and hot air vent system, but they’re inefficient for our construction practices. Electric heating costs more to run than gas, and should really be considered only where gas is unavailable, where heating is infrequently required or where wet system installation is impractical. We’ve gone through various stages of electric heaters too, with electric radiant heaters (i.e. old bar electric bar fires), electric fan heaters, through night storage, oil filled and panel heaters. Fan, radiant and oil column filled heaters are usually portable and can be used to heat up the room you’re in at the time (45).
Panel heaters can be very minimalist and are therefore currently the fashion choice. They’re generally touted as ‘eco’, but given all electric heating systems convert electricity to heat what that essentially means is they don’t use much electricity as they don’t give off much heat. Night storage heaters look more like a radiator and work by heating up a ceramic brick during the night (when electricity can be cheaper if you’re on Economy 7/10 or similar) and releasing it during the day (46, 47, 48). They work much more like a conventional wet system, and get a room toasty warm. Budget £500 per heater.
There’s also ground-source or air-source heat pumps, solar thermal, district heating, underfloor heating, biomass systems and all sorts of others which I can go into in detail if people are interested (i.e. leave a comment to motivate me to do it!). I may do an eco renovation post in the future.
In part two I’ve covered most of the general building fabric and utilities considerations. This should give you an idea of what to look for on property viewings and in your own home. In part three I’ll cover room specific considerations (kitchen, bathroom etc), construction (chimneys etc) and layout.