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Damp

DAMPNESS

Damp has been found in properties since we lived in caves! During the feedback sessions after our surveys,  this is one of the most worrying issues for our clients.  They often prick up their ears at the mention of dampness in a property!  A recent survey suggests that 67% of people would consider pulling out of a purchase if damp was discovered.

Why is it such a problem? Dampness does not just damage decorations, wallpapers and paintwork. Where it has been present for some time it can damage adjacent  timbers, leading to expensive structural problems. How might you detect it without the sophisticated meters that we use? During a viewing,  your best friend in this quest is your nose – damp timbers give off a recognisable musty smell. This is often hard to mask, even with air freshener or the old favourites of coffee or baking bread.

We normally split dampness into 4 categories:

Rising dampness

This is moisture rising up the walls of the building from ground level. Look out for ‘tide marks’ around the base of the walls indoors, perhaps just darker paint near floor level. Look for salts crystallising on the surface of the wall or blistering to the paintwork finishes.  Can you see rust forming on the nails holding the skirting boards or along the metal angle beads at corners? If so, this indicates that the dampness has been occurring for a long time.

Penetrating dampness

This is dampness penetrating through the roof or walls.  Look for stains around the ceilings of the upper floor, beneath the roof. Especially look around chimney breasts and under window sills for brown staining. However, penetrating damp can be easily confused with condensation as they both normally occur in vulnerable parts of the building, such as in corners of rooms or around windows.

Condensation

Condensation can occur anywhere in the property.For dampness issues beneath a room with stripped  flooring,look at the nail heads to see if they have rusted. If so, this suggests excessive moisture in the area.

Bathrooms are notorious for condensation problems so inspect them thoroughly for mould growth. This normally appears in the corners of rooms and takes on a crescent shape due to air movement in the room. Mould can also appear behind large items of furniture so take a sneaky peek behind wardrobes. This mould suggests condensation related problems. Often painted over by canny vendors, the paintwork is still darker so inspect the corners of rooms thoroughly, especially if they have sloping ceilings.

Leaks

One of the most common reasons for escape of water claims with insurance companies is failed seals.  Look out for cracks to the grouting in bathrooms and also for failed seals around kitchen sinks, baths and showers. There might even be a darker stain on the ceiling of the room below the bathroom, a real giveaway.

Also have a look underneath the WC cistern. Modern close-coupled toilets in particular often leak –and what about that plastic tub beneath to catch any drips?!

Do you already have suspicions about dampness in a property ? If you have used our services previously, just contact our office with your invoice number and we will arrange to loan you a damp meter to use during your viewing. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say –

 

Internal Walls

INTERNAL WALLS

Internal walls divide the living space into rooms.  They also give strength and structure to the property. Imagine putting a heavy weight on the top of a very large box – it would normally collapse. If you sub divide the box into four smaller areas and put a load on the top, it is likely to bear a lot more weight before it collapses. Houses are very similar. Large open plan spaces in buildings are often a key selling feature. Unfortunately many such open plan areas were originally sub divided, with internal walls supporting the structure above. If adequate replacement supports have been provided, fine. If not, what is most attractive can also be most costly to rectify.

SOLID WALLS

Have you seen builders tapping walls? This is for two reasons – one to see if surface plaster has blown, the other is to determine if walls are solid or stud. A dull thudding sound often suggests a solid partition. These can be made from lightweight blocks or of old timber frames loosely infilled with bricks. When viewing an older property, look for cracks which could signify movement. If the partition wall is leaning, this may suggest something has moved or bowed over time,  usually the floors above or below.

STUD WALLS

These consist of timber frames which are covered both sides with either plasterboard or lath & plaster,  depending on the age of the partition. Contrary to popular belief, stud walls can become load bearing over time – when buildings settle, weight loading can be transferred onto the timber studs. If the building is timber framed in its construction, they certainly can be load bearing! They may be designed to be structural.

ALTERNATIVE MATERIALS

After the war experimental partitions of various types were used.  Usually this occurred in system build and council houses but some types  have been revived in more modern properties. These can sometimes be identified because their thickness is less than 110mm, sometimes as thin as 50mm.

After the war, Paramount partitions were common in Bristol and in PRC (PreCast Reinforced Concrete) houses. The construction was a plasterboard sandwich with cardboard infill for strength -imagine an eggcartontype of configuration.

Stramit was another interesting one. This time, compacted straw was sandwiched between plasterboard.  These were more common in Gloucestershire. They can be very problematic if leaks happen; we have seen plants growing from internal walls as the result of a leak!

Another system we have seen in Gloucestershire, most recently in a bungalow in Coal Pit Heath, is the “clay pot” or extruded clay brick. These are similar to blocks seen on the Continent and were  mainly used in the 1930’s and 1950’s. However, you are unlikely to be able to identify these on a viewing.

DRY LINING

This is a very quick and easy way to disguise poor plaster or dampness. It is literally gluing a plaster board onto a wall or nailing it onto timber battens again attached to a wall. Where dry lining is present, normally as the inner face of external walls, be wary!  Our YouTube video shows the problem, diagnosed by using thermal imaging.  If a hollow sound is heard when you tap the inside of an external wall, be suspicious.

 

REMOVAL OF PARTITIONS

In our first section about viewing a property, we suggested looking at the floor plans of similar properties nearby.  Trawl the estate agents’ websites!  These can give you an indication of the original layout of the house you are considering. Have walls been removed? If so, they should have been inspected in advance by a competent person (a structural engineer or surveyor) to check whether they are load bearing, structural. Ask the vendor if they removed the wall or whether there is any documentation to support the removal of the wall.

If the wall was load-bearing, supports should have been put in place to carry the weight of the structure above. Sometimes smaller nub walls are left to support steel lintels or there are boxed -in downstand beams. Keep an eye out for these – if they don’t exist, you may need to insert them later. Look for any signs of stress along the line where the partition was located, or where the beam is built into the wall. Cracks or failing plaster would be probable indicators.

 

Ceilings

Ceilings

Ceilings are made from a variety of materials and each has different associated problems!

Did you read our blog on inspecting lofts and venture into the loft space (wearing a PP3 mask)? If so, you might be able to lift the insulation and see the type of ceiling material below.

Lath & plaster

Lath & plaster ceilings were used extensively pre 1940. They comprise wooden laths coated with various layers and thicknesses of plaster.  The plaster may contain ash, horse hair and lime.

While working for many leading insurance companies, we have inspected countless collapsed lath& plaster type ceilings.Lath & plaster can and will eventually fail. It happens in the most expensive houses which have decorative cornices that run into thousands of pounds to replace in a single room. It also happens in pre 1930 council houses.  Famously, the ceiling collapse at the Apollo Theatre in London in 2013 injured over 70 people. Such ceilings are seldom used now except in restoration work in listed buildings.

These ceilings are very thick,  normally around 20mm. The tell-tale signs of failure are cracking, an undulating surface and sagging. Finishes such as lining paper tend to mask such cracks but the undulations are easy to see.   Sagging suggests that the plaster has detached from the wooden laths above.  The cracking is not inregular, straight lines -it is normally diagonal and irregular.

Removing such ceilings is a very dirty job!  And it is a real challenge to save any ornate cornices running around the perimeter of the room. This dusty job is often expensive as few want to undertake this work.

Sometimes you can deal with lath & plaster ceilings by underboarding them. Underboarding is screwing a layer of plasterboard beneath the lath & plaster to support it. This is an inexpensive repair but will lower the ceiling height and you will lose any cornicing.

Hardboard

Occasionally in the 1950’s and 60’s, ceilings were constructed from thin sheets of hardboard, ie reconstituted timber. It is normally fairly easy to spot these from underneath, as they have tape over the joints of the boards. This gives the ceiling a grid like type of pattern!

Plasterboard

Since the 1940’s, ceilings have been constructed of uniform boards of gypsum known as plasterboard. These boards have a long service life.In the early days, when plasterboard was first used, the joints were not taped with a netting scrim. Hence minor thermal movements and stress cause straight line cracking, sometimes at right angles.  When this is the case, the joints can be taped  over and the ceiling skimmed. Sometimes nail pops are evident. As long as these are repaired properly (not just covered in filler) they are unlikely to re-appear.

Polystyrene tiles

These were most popular in the 1970’s. They were often used to disguise cracking or damaged ceilings. However, they are a fire hazard as they were not intumescent .  If they catch fire, they can rain molten polystyrene,  a scary image! These should be removed as soon as practicable. While removing the tiles is fairly easy, the plaster beneath will probably be damaged as a result. The spots of glue are also very hard to remove. So allow costs for the skimming often required after removal.

Timber cladding

Timber cladding was another old favourite. These are strips of tongue-and-groove wood and hence are flammable. So they can pose a risk, especially if they are used in a Kitchen. The cladding is not fixed direct to the ceiling; it is often nailed to timber battens which are screwed through the ceiling.  Removing  these will disrupting the finish beneath. Hence you should only undertake this if you are willing to plasterboard and skim the ceiling beneath.

Artex

Artex has been used since the 1970’s, an applied finish with various patterns from stipple to swirl. It was sometimes used on plasterboard instead of a skim, so the characteristic straight line cracks, often with right angles, are very common. Patching Artex satisfactorily  is very difficult and the repairs always seem to be obvious.  Hence when a section is damaged, it is often better to simply skim over the entire ceiling.  However, Artex applied prior to 2000 can sometimes contain traces of asbestos so scraping off the more pointy bits can be hazardous. If such ceilings appear damaged, then it is always best to have tested  it prior to purchase, because  removal of a medium size asbestos-containing ceiling costs around £800.00. And you will still have to replace the ceiling!

Gutters

Examining gutters and downpipes

Background

The UK is a wet place as we all know!  The Bristol area averages around 800-900 mm of rainfall a year, which is slightly above the UK average. Even more rain fell in recent years such as 2012 with weather conditions changing. Interestingly, in the past, South Bristol has been wetter than North Bristol.

So this rainwater must be diverted from your roof into your gutters, on its way to the drains. Gutters don’t just remove rainwater, they are an integral part of the house design and character!

They should prevent water from penetrating the tops of the walls and leaking gutters can often cause dampness problems. Furthermore, this is sometimes wrongly diagnosed as rising damp and a large inappropriate repair bill follows – although just replacing the gutters would have solved the problem.

Materials  and Styles

Gutters have traditionally been made from many different materials. Historically, timber has often been used in the north of England, usually lined with lead. More common to Victorian era housing is cast iron and this is prone to rusting. In older properties, especially around South Bristol and Clifton, the gutters may be hidden behind parapet walls at the front of the property. Some Bristol properties have ‘butterfly’ roofs, where the gutters run in a valley hidden behind this parapet. Hence in such cases, inspection from ground level is impossible.

More recent  gutters can be made from asbestos type cement, which therefore will be expensive to remove. Fortunately,   you can carry out a simple check for asbestos gutters and pipework with a magnet;  see our  video https://youtu.be/tfihb5NdZRk . Recently, some gutters, especially long runs, have been made from extruded metal, usually aluminium, but the most popular material is UPVC – ‘plastic’ guttering.

What to look for?

Gutters

Now, you are looking for evidence of leakages and blockages.

Can you see any organic growth sprouting out of the gutters? That’s a sure sign that maintenance has been poor. Are there any overhanging trees whose leaves may have blocked the gutters in autumn?

Next, stand back from the building to check that the gutters are set to the correct falls. They should run in a straight horizontal line towards the downpipe with no dip or deviation.

Rainwater Goods Fastenings

Gutters should normally have supporting clips  spaced at around 750 mm apart. Since the average man’s footstep is around 780 mm, you can pace the length of the gutter with an “average” man and there should be 1 clip per footstep. However, if sufficient clips are not present, the gutters can twist or bow or sag. When this happens, the correct fall is lost and they will start to leak as the weight of water causes pressure which damages the joints.

The joints between the lengths of gutter are usually located at the clips. Hence this is an easy place to look for heavily stained or soiled clips, suggesting leaks in these areas. And if a gutter has been leaking for a long time, stalactites may have formed on the underside of the gutter where water has been dripping. Another great giveaway is staining to the wall; this normally takes the form of darker streaks or patches or green algae or moss growth on the wall. Take note, because this will certainly indicate problems not only with the rainwater goods but potentially inside the property as well.

However,unless you can find a high level vantage point, you won’t be able to see inside the gutters; we use mast cameras as standard on our building surveys to check for blockages and detritus in the gutters.

Downpipes

Now look at the junctions connecting  the gutter to the downpipe; these often incorporates an arrangement of curved sections. These joints are not normally supported by clips and are vulnerable to movement hence they are always susceptible to leakage. Again, this is a very common fault so look for moss growth or staining around the joints.

The downpipes should have clips securing them every 1.8 m. Again the average man is around 175 cm in height so this is a good datum. Downpipes often become blocked with moss and other detritus. So give them a knock to see if they sound hollow; if a dull sound is heard, then they may be full of moss and need to be cleared out.

The modern UPVC extruded parts for guttering and downpipes are very cheap to buy and the largest cost with installation is normally the labour element. As a result extensive repairs to gutters are normally a bad idea! Simply replacing them and obtaining a longer life is usually a better use of your money.

Where does that water go?

Lastly, are there any water butts at the foot of the downpipes? If so, are they overflowing into the foundations of the property? Do the downpipes lead into drains or do they splash their contents over the ground beneath, encouraging dampness, especially around bay windows ? We deal with dampness in another section, but the condition and design of the rainwater goods can give you some valuable pointers!

 

Location Location Location ……

domestic surveys

Location Location Location

Location Location Location…

Is this the neighbourhood where you really want to live?

A Building Survey will analyse the building in detail but other factors in the locality need to be considered. So before you make an offer, carry out your own research on things such as……

  • Flood Risk. This information is free and readily available from the Environment Agency through a simple postcode search on the following link:

http://apps.environment-agency.gov.uk/wiyby/37837.aspx

  • Google the postcode along with search terms such as ‘mining’– subsidence is an expensive problem! .This research will not only give you an idea of past activity but also whether there are any future proposals for the area.
  • Crime Don’t forget to check out the crime statistics on the following link:

https://crime-statistics.co.uk/postcode

Avon and Somerset Police also have their own archive for localised criminal activity.

Look for any empty or abandoned buildings nearby.

Check for syringes, beer cans  and  other evidence of antisocial activities.

  • Parking

Have a look at the parking provision in the area, not just at the time of the viewing but have a drive past when everyone is home from work.

  • Traffic

Is it on the route to an industrial estate, with heavy goods vehicles passing that could shake the property?

Is there a railway line nearby, factories or other activities that may generate noise at night?

  • Transport links

Is there any public transport in case your car is off the road for a while or you can’t drive?

  • Lighting

Is there adequate lighting at night? Would you feel safe walking home from the bus or train in the dark?

  • What’s in a name?

The road name may give an indication as to the history of the property for example Mill Lane,Quarry Road or Stream Way.

And  then of course, schools, shopping facilities, leisure provision…

 

Now, about the property itself.

Look carefully at the other properties in the immediate vicinity, particularly those built in the same style. Neighbouring properties have been re-roofed, but your target property hasn’t. For example – if the buildings are the same age, recognise that you may be facing a re-roofing cost  of upwards of £6k. The same applies to replacing double glazing, cracked render, leaking guttering, and removing chimney stacks – if the neighbours have already done it, your dream home may require it to. That sparkling new paintwork may be hiding a multitude of issues.

Check out the History

Check out the history of the property on Zoopla or Rightmove. If the past listings are available, look at the pictures see if there are cracks in the walls or changes to the roof. Especially helpful are previous or neighbouring properties’ floor plans – check to see what if any changes have been made, such as removing chimney breasts or internal partitions for instance, or installing ‘loft rooms’. All these need Building Regulations approvals, to ensure that the work has been done correctly.

Ask Questions

Above all, try to visit (again!) when the vendor is around and ask them what has been done, what permissions have been obtained, what guarantees exist– you will soon have a good understanding of the quality of the alteration or refurbishment work. And it will help to establish a relationship with the vendor, so they may be more amenable if you need to ask for a reduction in the price to cover any hidden defects discovered when you have had a Full Building Survey.It is always a good idea to speak with the neighbours and ask what they think of the area or future developments or if they know anything of past works at the property you are looking at.