Tips on assessing the potential of a home so that you can avoid taking on a costly renovation project
When it comes to renovating old buildings, knowledge is king. Knowing that the cracks in the walls that have put most other buyers off can be fixed easily may mean you get hold of a money-spinning bargain. Knowing when it is best to walk away because the cracks mean that the wall has to be entirely rebuilt can save you sinking your last penny into a money pit.
Good Buy or Bad?
Assessing the structural condition of a house in need of renovation is critical in discovering what that building is worth in the current market. Knowing what is wrong with a building is important but you also need to know how much fixing any problems is going to cost. Deciding whether the property is a good buy or bad involves weighing up those costs, together with the purchase price, against the likely end value. A house that is a total wreck can still be a good buy at the right price, whilst a gem of a place, in need of only minor repairs, can be a bad buy if it is already overvalued.
Assessing Structural Condition
You can learn to spot many structural defects yourself through research and it is well worthwhile. However, anyone thinking of buying an old house, other than an experienced renovator, should always commission a building report by a chartered building surveyor. Unless you have real knowledge it is a false economy to save on the few hundred pounds that it costs for an experts opinion.
Whilst being able to spot major problems yourself is no substitute for a survey, it can help you decide whether or not it is worth forking out for one ($500-$1,500). Sometimes the cost of renovating a building, relative to its likely end value, is clearly so high that it is not even worth commissioning a survey.
If you do commission a building report, be aware of its limitations. A surveyor can only make a visual inspection of a building and so cannot discover or reveal hidden problems. The report is unlikely to include a valuation unless you specifically request one and whilst the report should include a schedule of any remedial work required, sometimes listing repairs in order of priority, it is unlikely to give a written indication of the cost of those works. Although some surveyors may be willing to indicate likely repair costs, this part is usually down to you to find out.
Will it need rewiring?
If a property has not already been rewired within the last 25-30 years the chances are it will need upgrading, at least in part. A full rewire will cost around $3,000 for a three bedroom terraced house and considerably more for a larger property, not including the cost of making good the decoration.
Often a full rewire can be avoided: providing the existing cabling is sound and able to carry any additional loads, it may be possible to upgrade it by adding a modern consumer unit, proper earthing arrangements and cross bonding. An electrician will typically charge $250-350 for a survey with a verbal report. This isn’t a wasted expense if it helps you decide whether the project will be financially viable.
You should be able to tell if a house has been rewired or not yourself by inspecting exposed parts of the wiring and by inspecting the electricity meter and fuse box (known as the consumer unit). Tell-tale signs are:
- an old-style fuse box with no circuit breakers;
- a mixture of switch and socket styles, especially old round pin sockets or dolly switches;
- any cabling other than modern PVC-insulated cable, coloured grey or white.
Are there signs of damp?
You can invariably smell damp before you see it, as mould and fungi are usually present, rapidly creating a musty or mushroom smell. You can also spot damp because of either the presence of water, damp patches, mould, wet or dry rot, white salt deposits on brick or stonework, and/or failing plasterwork on walls and ceilings. The key to understanding damp and its implications is to identify the source and then come to an appropriate solution.
Once a damp problem is resolved, any damage will have to be repaired, starting with the structure. Check all timber elements that have been exposed to damp, and get a specialist to look for signs of wet or dry rot or wood-boring insects. If evidence is found, lenders are likely to require chemical treatment and this will cost $1500-2500 depending on the extent of infestation.
Are there signs of structural movement?
Are the walls and floors square and true? If not, the building may have suffered structural movement. Look for signs of cracks in the walls, especially around windows and doorways. The building may have moved because of the failure of structural elements which have led to the building bowing, twisting or spreading, or due to movement in the ground, know as subsidence (collapsing ground) and heave (rising ground). Buildings that have moved can be repaired and it is typical for a period house to have experienced some movement in its lifetime.
The important thing is to find out whether the movement is historical, dormant or active. Historical movement may have long since ceased and been corrected with metal ties, underpinning, piers, metal staples and stitching and buttresses, all of which can add to the character of an old house and need be nothing to worry about. Some older buildings are prone to some movement over the course of the seasons. This may not pose a structural threat, providing the building is repaired appropriately with flexible materials like lime mortar.
Active movement is the one to be most concerned about, where there are visible cracks and failed structural elements, with signs of fresh dust and debris. Arches and lintels may be collapsing and windows and doorways out of square. The floors and roof may be damaged if the walls that support them have moved.
The building will have to be stabilised, possibly by underpinning or soil grouting, and then repaired. The work involved can be extensive and you should not proceed without specialist advice and detailed estimates for remedial work, which should be reflected in the purchase price.
How is it constructed?
The materials and methods used in the construction of the original house will influence the type of materials used for its repair and renovation, and this will influence costs. Houses built post-WWI may have cavities and these can often be insulated for very little cost. Older houses are likely to have solid walls, built using lime mortar rather than cement, and so any repairs need to be on a like-for-like basis. Insulation will have to be added on the internal face of the walls, and it is important that the walls remain breathable to prevent damp problems.
Older houses may have little or no foundations and this will have to be taken into account when designing any extensions to prevent differential movement (to stop the extension from damaging the original house), and may limit the scope for alterations or building up additional storeys which will alter the loading on the building.
Do the windows and doors need replacing?
Replacing external windows and doors will cost at least $3500-5000 for a typical three bedroom semi-detached house and a great deal more for a larger property or where period-style windows are required. Check the condition of the windows: is the paintwork intact and the timber sound? If you can restore original timber windows, it is worth doing so and this is likely to be more cost-effective than replacement.
Are the walls in good condition?
Look for signs of wear on brick or stonework. Inspect the mortar joints to see whether or not they are worn and need repointing. Look at any architectural details like stone quoins and check their condition. Take a good look at the chimney to see if it is square and stable, and whether or not it needs repointing.
If the building is rendered, make sure the render is solid and not coming away from the wall. Examine all external decorative timbers such as bargeboards, finials, dormer window cheeks and soffits to see whether they need painting or replacing.
Does the plumbing need replacing?
If you are altering, relocating or adding bathrooms it is worth considering whether you should replace the plumbing system. If you are going to be lifting floorboards anyway in order to rewire, or making other alterations, adding new plumbing, waste and soil pipes will be worthwhile. It is also a good idea to check that all of the drains are working. You can do this by lifting the inspection chamber and getting someone to pour food dye down each WC.
Are the flues working and intact?
These are quickly and easily checked with a smoke pellet — but do get the vendor’s permission before potentially smoking out the whole of the house. Repairing a chimney flue by relining it will cost from $1000-1500.
What’s the heating system like?
If there is a central heating system, find out what fuel it uses and the age of the boiler. Replacing a gas-fired radiator central heating system will cost around $3000- 3500. A modern condensing boiler will be more energy efficient than an old model — replacing just the boiler will cost $1500-3000.
If the radiators are in good condition but there are cold spots, you may be able to powerflush the system and avoid replacement (desirable if there are old column radiators).