How to buy an old house

There are many things to consider before buying and renovating a period property, but the lure of a characterful house can be strong, so listen to your head and not your heart, advises Roger Hunt

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There is no doubt about it: an old house can be seductive. What’s often forgotten, however, is that the love story doesn’t always go to plan, so the simple message is not to let your heart rule your head. When you see the estate agent’s details, or first step through the door, there are certain questions that must be asked.

Does the house suit your way of life? Are you prepared for draughts and damp spots? Can you cope with low doors and beams, uneven plasterwork and sloping floors? Do you have the time and money for the renovation task ahead? If the answer to these questions is ‘no’, you may be wiser to walk away and put your dreams on hold.


Related articles: Guide to extending an old house | Structural problems in old houses | Your essential guide to listed buidlings | How old is your property?


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Top tips for buying an old house

Get a detailed survey: If you are thinking of buying an old house, always invest in a detailed structural survey — find a specialist via SPAB or your local council conservation officer. It may be expensive, but it is better to understand fully the extent of repair before committing to a purchase.

Check financial viability: Before putting in an offer, try to get some idea of the costs involved in repair. Ask a builder or your surveyor to provide estimates — you may be able to use the figures when negotiating the final price.

Keep a contingency: There may be defects that don’t come to light until work begins so always add a 20% contingency amount to your renovation budget; this figure could rise to 30% or 40% for large, complex projects in very poor condition.

Speak to conservation officers: If the building is listed, speak to a conservation officer about what may or may not be allowed — be certain that the house can offer what you need in the event of an application being rejected.

Be realistic: Too many people take a rose tinted view when buying an old house that requires work. Old building projects can be extremely stressful and put a strain on the best of relationships, so carefully review the task ahead, your budget and timescale before you proceed. Don’t be afraid to walk away if you have any doubts.

Check iron ties: Old homes have cavity walls to fight damp and improve insulation. Builders used various methods to tie the two leaves of masonry together but the most common was the iron tie. Check them for signs of corroding, which can lead to instability, unevenness and cracks in external walls.

Look at the Damp proof course: Damp proof courses in walls were typically formed with slate or pitch and sand. Frequently, they were built too close to the ground, meaning they became covered by earth and paving, making them ineffective.

Is there lead?: Lead was commonly used for the underground pipes. Now we know that lead deposits in drinking water can damage health, so all lead pipes should be replaced.

The appeal of a period house

An old house has many qualities that makes it special. Even the humblest two-up, two-down property will have little touches of craftsmanship that give it individuality. Walk down any street of traditional houses and you’ll see a plethora of what might seem like almost unnecessary detail. It may be moulded brickwork, carved stonework, or a simple flourish on a window frame. Coupled with the attractive patina of age, it’s this texture and thoughtfulness of detail that gives old properties character and makes them worth cherishing.

Another reason that we like period buildings is because of their idiosyncrasies and the qualities of the materials used to construct them. Many reflect the geology and landscape in which they stand because they’re constructed using local materials and techniques. Most have solid, ‘breathable’ walls and are built with lime mortars, renders and plasters. (Find out more about traditional finishes).

(Left) Walk down any street of traditional houses and you’ll see a bounty of original detail; (Middle) A well-maintained door in a Georgian terrace; (Right) Old brick floors have an irreplaceable beauty

Common issues with old homes

Many signs warn of potential problems. Damp is the first thing to look for and you may even smell it. From the outside, note any damage to the roof which might be allowing water in. Gutters and downpipes that are blocked or broken should ring warning bells. Similarly, plant growth on walls can indicate areas of damp. Inside, look behind curtains, under carpets and into cupboards for signs of damp and, if possible, investigate the roof space for further signs.

Cracks, bulging walls, sloping floors or crooked windows or doors are always a concern and might indicate serious structural issues. These may be due to historic settlement or – more of a cause for concern – decay within the structure or subsidence, possibly caused by nearby trees or damaged drains.

It is worth opening windows and doors to see whether they operate correctly and to inspect joinery for signs of decay. Similarly, ‘springy’ floors or rickety staircases can indicate that all is not well. Eroded brick or stonework, defective pointing and cracked or damaged render may also indicate trouble ahead.

Understanding the structure of the building is vital. Some properties that appear to be brick are, in fact, timber frame, while render coatings may cover a whole variety of unexpected materials. Never assume that, because one part of a wall is of a certain material, the whole house is the same: often a wide variety of materials are found in one building. Internally layers of plasterboard or dry-lining may be hiding all manner of problems.

Always seek out houses with original features. Few things frustrate me more than seeing a ‘modernised’ period home. That doesn’t mean that it can’t have a new bathroom or kitchen, new wiring or plumbing, or an extension. It’s when items like perfectly good original windows are needlessly replaced with poor replicas or, worse still, totally inappropriate styles. This devalues the property both aesthetically and, according to estate agents, financially.

Equally, be wary of past repairs or alterations, as poorly executed building work often holds unpleasant surprises. Quick fixes and the use of cement mortars, renders and plasters can all lead to problems in the future.

Blocked gutters and downpipes on period houses

(Left) Look out for blocked or broken gutters and downpipes when you inspect a house; (Right) This thatched cottage is crying out for attention

How to future proof an old house

Old buildings often have more green credentials than you think. Commonly they have high thermal mass, helping to prevent overheating in summer, use natural materials in their construction and have components that are easy to repair, while the materials used to build them are generally reusable.

Even so, it’s worth considering how you can make your home more energy efficient. It’s important to take a holistic approach right from the start because no single element will create an eco building; some may conflict or even do very real harm to the structure. The key is to achieve the right balance: get it wrong and there’s a real danger that retrofitting an old building will destroy the very things that make it special.

(Left) Edwardian terraced houses will have been built using traditional, breathable materials, so avoid cement repairs; (Middle) Think holistically about the way eco features will work together before installing items such as solar panels; (Right) Look for original features such as sash windows – these should always be restored rather than replaced

Budget and organise

For the best outcome to any project, try to plan ahead as much as possible and schedule renovation jobs in a logical order.

Before you start any building or renovation, make sure you have a working budget and sufficient funds in place to complete the work. Add a 20 per cent contingency figure for unforeseen problems, and double your contingency amount for large, very old or neglected properties.

If you are in any doubt about the health of the property before you buy, commission a specialist survey. This will then inform all subsequent work. Where necessary, enlist the help and advice of experts. For conservation experts in your area, contact SPAB or your local council’s building conservation officer.

If the building is listed, also speak to the conservation officer to find out what might and might not be allowed via the planning process when you apply for listed building consent. Once you are armed with this necessary information, you should then gain any necessary planning permissions.

It is important to do your research and find out about the history of the building and the materials and techniques used to build it. You can seek advice from expert companies who will research the history and heritage, or conservation of a building, such as House Detectives. Also engage a renovation team – architect, structural engineer, builder – that is sympathetic to old buildings with conservation needs. (Find out more about old house specialists).

A period house in good condition

A house kept in good condition costs less to look after in the long run

Obtaining consent

Don’t forget that consent from the local planning authority may be required when carrying out work to listed buildings, those within Conservation Areas, scheduled ancient monuments and buildings which are of architectural and historical interest within National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. A listed building is protected in its entirety, inside and out, regardless of the listing grade, and structures within its curtilage – the land around it – can be covered in the listing too.

Practical measures

  1. Once you are in the property, make it wind and watertight, even if this is only on a temporary basis. Ensure the roof is not leaking and that rainwater goods are in good working order.
  2. Check the safety of electrical circuits and heating systems, and for leaks.
  3. Ensure the building is secure. Protect features such as fireplaces, staircases and floors with temporary boarding.
  4. Concentrate on external issues: roof and chimney work; repair brick, stone and timber-frame walls; overhaul and draught-proof windows, doors and lofts.
  5. Install new plumbing and electrics.
  6. Undertake work to floors.
  7. Decorate externally and internally.