To buy a house, you first have to look at it - you would be extremely foolish to buy any property unseen. When you find the property you fancy, do a ‘personal’ survey. Go dressed for the job. Be prepared for crawling into nooks and crannies, climbing up into lofts, and poking around in cellars.
Take a good torch and a pair of gloves with you. The following are some of the points to look out for:
1. As you arrive, look at the front door and decide if it is in good condition, or just thick paintwork holding a lot of rot together?
2. Take a glance at the nearest window frames for the same purpose. Later you will be able, with the seller’s permission, to tap or prod those frames. A solid frame gives a rich, resonant sound when tapped. A rotten one just sounds ‘mushy‘. If you have a pen knife with you, just poke it into the wood at some unseen place. If it goes in easily, new frames are urgently required.
3. As soon as the front door opens, take a sniff. Does the interior smell musty? If you get even the merest hint of mushrooms, keep wet and/or dry rot in mind. If it smells damp, keep your eyes open for stains or dark patches on walls or ceilings, or look with new eyes at fresh decor. If there is an over-powering aroma of coffee, lavender polish or some other powerful scent, you will have to decide whether the seller is trying to hide something or just trying to give a good impression?
4. Ask if the downstair floors are suspended or solid? If the former, jump up and down in various parts of the room and watch out for excessive movement. Do ask before you do though, in case a precious ornament falls and you get landed with a bill for breakage. If the floors are solid, try to look under the carpets, especially at the corners. If the damp-proof membrane has been breached, or doesn’t exist, you will see evidence of dampness on the concrete or tiled surface. Even if you can’t see the typical discoloration, you should see the odd wood louse scuttling for cover under the skirting.
5. Look carefully at the skirting boards. They should meet the floor with hardly any gap. Gaps between floor and skirting mean the floor has sunk - suspect subsidence. Beware of rooms where the children’s toys are scattered plentifully about, making passage difficult, especially if the child(ren) are in there playing. This could be hiding evidence of subsidence.
6. Look at the window frames. Do they look level? If you are buying a cottage three or four hundred years old, you can expect some settlement. If the property was built within the last 50 years, crooked windows could be a sign of trouble. In a subsiding property, cracks will appear in the walls, especially radiating from window corners. Again, look with suspicion at new decor.
7. Many houses with solid walls have the insides of exterior walls, dry-lined. This is an excellent point to look for in terms of insulation but, it must have been done properly with inserted vents. No vents can mean rot will soon set in, so look carefully. Again, dry-lining can be a method of hiding evidence of subsidence, so you will have to look at the outside of such walls and see if there are isolated runs of new pointing where cracks have been filled in.
8. If fireplaces have been bricked up, they too must have had ventilators fitted. If the chimney pots have not been removed, you will need to know that they were correctly capped off. If on the other hand, the grate has been removed together with the whole chimney breast, you will have to make sure the job was done correctly. If downstairs, you will want to know that there is some ventilation provided upstairs in the portion of the flue that remains. If upstairs, you will need assurance that either the whole stack was taken down or that it has been properly supported at ceiling level. Joists alone will never be strong enough to support its weight.
9. Look carefully at built-in wardrobes. If on outside walls, unless their backs have been dry-lined, they could become cold damp areas and clothes will become musty very fast.
10. Climb up into the loft. Look for signs of leaking. A large, closed tin trunk may hide a bucket carefully placed that when the lid is open, drips will be caught - it’s an old trick.
11. Tap the beams and rafters and watch for fine dust falling - a sure sign of woodworm infestation. Make sure the roof has been lined too, many pre-war homes were built without such lining.
12. Look at the insulation - there should be some. Is it thick enough? Look under it where the roof meets the loft floor, it sometimes hides wide gaps.
13. If there is a cellar, go down and look around. Check walls for signs of flooding, a line will show any water line. Look for greenish deposits on walls, or any wetness which could mean water seeps in.
14. Look at the electricity supply. Meters and fuse box should be clean and relatively new. You will need to ask when the house was last re-wired. Ask also the name of the contractors because the job should have been done by a professional. This information should be in the HIP if at that stage you have had sight of it, but still ask the question.
15. Ask as many questions as you have queries. You should be especially interested in alterations that have been made. Amateur jobs can be a source of expensive trouble, so find out who the contractors were and later on, you can always ask those contractors for confirmation before you finally commit yourself.
Taken in isolation, few of the problems you discover should put you off buying a property completely. They are all however, instruments for negotiation. If you find there are too many bad points, it will save you the expense of having a professional survey done. However, even if you can find no bad points, never proceed to buying a house without a full structural survey. Never think good, amateur observations can ever be a satisfactory substitute for the training and experience of a professional surveyor.