The scariest house issues buyers should look out for – and how to solve them

Damp is the biggest worry for homebuyers, according to a website analysing the concerns of more than 17,000 visitors searching for a surveyor in the past three years.

Not surprising, perhaps, given the floods of the past couple of years, but is it the only defect househunters should be concerned with?

Subsidence worried only a third as many, despite the fact recent heatwaves have prompted a 20% rise in insurance claims following the appearance of cracks in walls.

Yet hairline cracks are rarely serious, says chartered surveyor Gary Strong, who has 40 years’ experience.

Professional expertise like his is the name of the game for canny househunters, even though surveys are not required as a condition of sale.

A surveyor can identify a problem, which may require a five-figure sum to put right, providing leverage to renegotiate an offer to cover the costs or a warning to walk away from a potential money pit.

Even the cost of that survey can be negotiated, but there’s no substitute for credentials, says Dave Sayce, founder and director of Compare My Move, which produced the report.

‘It’s important to make sure any surveyor you contact is RICS qualified,’ he says, as a home is the most expensive purchase you’ll likely ever make.

We asked Strong, who advises the RICS on technical issues, to talk damp, subsidence and other buyer preoccupations, which can affect safety and lendability.

Damp

Said to worry a quarter of prospective homebuyers, damp may not be a huge issue if it is localised and the cause is easily fixed – a small roof or gutter leak, for example – rather than underground causes that require installing a damp-proof course.

‘This can be quite disruptive, involving hacking plaster off the walls and having to replace rotting timbers. You wouldn’t be able to still live in the house while the work is being done,’ warns Strong.

Even if the damp is confined to one room, the cost of fixing it is likely to start at £1,000. However, to avoid being quoted for unnecessary work, choose
a contractor registered with the PCA (Property Care Association).

Cracks

Cracks, a concern for 15% of buyers, may not be as alarming as they initially can seem. ‘You see hairline cracks in buildings all the time, which are due to thermal movement that causes walls to expand and contract,’ says Strong.

‘They may not be serious unless they are wider than 5-10mm. Those cracks could indicate a number of issues including settlement, where the weight of the building causes compression of the soil, or corrosion of the metal ties, which hold cavity walls together.’

Hairline cracks just need monitoring, he says, although wider cracks will need a full investigation to determine the cause.

Roofs

Roofs complete the top three concerns for homebuyers, who should be alert to loose or missing slates or tiles, which could indicate a problem with the fixings, particularly in an older building.

‘Tiles can be replaced, but defective fixings could involve stripping all of them off, re-felting and re-battening the roof,’ says Strong.

With a flat-roof extension, the surveyor will be looking at how long the felt is likely to last, and inspecting for any leaks, inside or out, in all kinds of roofs.

Gutters and downpipes should also be inspected for leaking.

Replacing slipped tiles or slate may cost only a few hundred pounds, but re-roofing a large house could be a five-figure operation. Strong recommends getting word of mouth testimonials for local roofers before commissioning any work.

Subsidence

Subsidence worried only 8% of respondents, yet can be an issue particularly in the southeast and wherever else homes are built on shrinkable clay soil.

Trees too close to the house – ‘closer than the height of the tree,’ says Strong – can exacerbate the problem as thirsty roots draw moisture out of the sub-soil, causing the foundations to drop.

This is a more serious issue than settlement.

Calling in a qualified tree surgeon to chop the offending specimen down to the ground will only cost a few hundred pounds – and in any case should be done in stages, taking off 20% of growth at a time – but having to underpin foundations is
a five-figure undertaking.

The good news is that subsidence caused by dried-out sub-soil may be reversible
as it hydrates during a wet season following a hot dry one.

Flooring

Homebuyers unused to period dwellings might be worrying unnecessarily. ‘Wood floors are rarely quiet,’ says Strong, who is less worried about creaky floorboards than solid concrete floors that are uneven or cracked – this can indicate movement and may require taking it up.

Where rotting floorboards are identified they will need taking up and replacing.

Any kind of re-flooring exercise is likely to run into four figures.

Cladding

Cladding is more likely to raise a red flag to lenders than any of the above. ‘They are all hot on it since Grenfell, and the issue has been preoccupying surveyors for the last few years,’ says Strong, a fire safety specialist.

Identifying the material and its combustibility is within the surveyor’s remit, but may end up being an expensive exercise.

‘If the builders are no longer around and the information isn’t available, you may have to hire a cherry-picker to remove panels, followed by a desktop study to see what the risk is from the cladding and the cavity and insulation behind it.’

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