Buying a Victorian Property? Here’s What to Look Out For
Tick off this checklist of key signs to ensure you’ve covered every angle before purchasing a period home
When you’re viewing a property, look out for these key signs of the state of the building, so you know roughly how much of a contingency fund you’ll need to put aside to ensure your new home stays in top condition.
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Once you’ve decided to make an offer on a property, it’s important you book a RICS Building Survey (from £400) or a building or full structural survey (from £600), as they can identify many of these issues. Some surveyors will also note a likely cost to fix the problem, which will enable you to create a contingency fund.
Bear in mind that if you wish to do an extensive renovation, many of these issues will need to be dealt with anyway, so don’t let a specific problem stop you from buying your dream period home. Instead, make sure you carry out due diligence with a full survey.
Once you have that information, hire an architect and a builder with the relevant experience to guide you on the journey.
Find the local renovation specialists you need in the Houzz Professionals Directory.
When assessing a Victorian home, the first thing to look at from street level is the roof. Does it have a straight line like this one, or an uneven, wavy roof?
Many of the original standard Victorian house roof joists and rafters were made of 2 x 4 inch wood, which was designed to hold lightweight slate tiles. A couple of decades ago, however, concrete tiles became much cheaper than natural slate ones, so roofs were often retiled with concrete ones to keep costs down.
These tiles are much heavier than thin slate ones, and the original rafters were never designed to hold this type of weight. Consequently, in many cases, the rafters cracked or broke. So if you spot a wavy-shaped pitched roof, the joists and rafters could be in need of attention.
It’s easy to spot tidy guttering and rainwater pipes. Having a gutter system in good working order is a very important line of defence against water penetration.
If guttering is broken and water constantly splashes against the wall, it’s very likely you’ll notice an internal wet patch. So if your gutters and pipes are damaged, it’s important to get them repaired or replaced.
Pointing is often considered an unnecessary expense and consequently can be neglected, but proper pointing pushes the water away from the wall. If it isn’t looked after, water penetrates the brick, then, when temperatures drop below zero, it expands and, over time, destroys the brick.
If you do require pointing, make sure it’s done with lime mortar, as on this house, rather than cement. Lime mortar was originally used for period structures, and is more flexible and porous than cement. It works well with the natural movement of the structure and will allow moisture to evaporate from the joints more freely.
Lime mortar can also look much better than grey cement.
This is a structural issue that can easily be spotted by simply standing in alignment with the external brick wall. If the wall is bowing outwards, the foundations could be the cause and should also be looked at.
At the back of this property, you can see the straight brick line on the side of the building.
Another item that’s often neglected is the chimney, and in most cases it’s easy to fix.
Look to see if the chimney is leaning sideways in a way that’s not a design feature. Also check whether there’s missing pointing or if the chimney pots are broken. These are signs the chimney hasn’t been looked after for a good period of time.
Typical Victorian properties have suspended flooring, which usually means the ground floor is constructed from timber joists with floorboards on top. This is why the structure has to have a healthy ventilation system in place. The ground beneath the house is constantly wet, and if there’s no airflow, bacteria and mould will start to grow.
So when you arrive at the house, have a look for grilles or air vents between the steps or on the walls at low level. Here, for instance, you can see a ventilation grille below the doorstep.
Sand cement render became popular after the second world war, and was used with the intention of keeping water away from the bricks. However, sand cement is rigid, inflexible and in fact traps the moisture within the bricks.
Stucco render like this, on the other hand, is made of hydraulic lime, sand and hair and is flexible and breathable.
If your dream Victorian home has a cement render, you can find an experienced professional to remove it. Sand cement is very tricky to loosen, so it’s likely that, once removed, the bricks will have to be restored as well.
What to keep and what to change in your Victorian home.
Once you’re inside the house, if you notice damp on a wall, try to identify the source. Does it come from the floor upwards or from the ceiling downwards? Even though damp is water, the source is very important.
If the wet patch is coming from above, then it could be a roof, gutter, window or pipe issue. If it seems to be coming from below, it’s likely to be ground water that’s managed to penetrate the damp-proof course, or the damp-proof membrane. In this case, the cause and treatment will probably be a bit more complex.
If the property has been renovated, it’s important to make sure it was done well. Check all the work was completed according to the right statutory authority’s procedure. Also make sure your solicitor has checked for planning history and that it received full approval from Building Control.
A crack on the external envelope of a building is caused by one thing – movement. However, movement can be caused by many things. It’s not always an issue and it doesn’t always require action. Most importantly, it depends on the size and direction of the cracks.
This newly refurbished house is in excellent condition, with no cracking, but if you notice two nails stuck on the external brick wall of a property with a wire between the nails, it’s likely the building has been investigated for subsidence. Ask for the history and the outcome of any investigation.
Are you planning to buy a Victorian property, or have you recently moved into one? Did you find these tips helpful? Share your thoughts and experiences in the Comments section.