How to Keep Your Ren­o­va­tion on Track

Start­ing a ren­o­va­tion project is hugely ex­cit­ing. How­ever, a lack of aware­ness about the hid­den prob­lems that com­monly go hand-in-hand with older prop­er­ties can mean the ini­tial ex­cite­ment quickly turns to stress, says Natasha Brins­mead

Homebuilding & Renovating - - Contents -

…and avoid the pit­falls which may put a span­ner in your sched­ule

PROJECT AD­VICE In-depth, need-to-know build­ing and project man­age­ment ad­vice from lead­ing ex­perts

Breath­ing life back into an old build­ing in order to call it home is one of the most sat­is­fy­ing things you can do. How­ever, it can also be one of the most stress­ful, not to men­tion a fi­nan­cial drain — to be fore­warned is to be fore­armed and know­ing what might lie in store can ease the pres­sure.

While some of the ren­o­va­tion work will be im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous – rot­ten win­dows, dated kitchens and bath­rooms, for ex­am­ple – other is­sues are likely to be hid­den from view, and per­haps not picked up on dur­ing a sur­vey ei­ther, wait­ing to dis­rupt your wellplanned sched­ule. Iden­ti­fy­ing these is­sues early on will help you keep your ren­o­va­tion project on track.

The Im­por­tance of a Sur­vey

A full struc­tural sur­vey should re­veal struc­tural is­sues, but it is amaz­ing how many peo­ple don’t have one. Don’t rely on mort­gage val­u­a­tions alone.

There are var­i­ous types of sur­vey avail­able, from the RICS Home Con­di­tion Re­port to the next level RICS Home­buyer Re­ports and more com­pre­hen­sive build­ing sur­veys. A Home­Buyer Re­port is a pop­u­lar choice, which should high­light prob­lems such as sub­si­dence and damp. How­ever, it tends to be less thor­ough than a build- ing sur­vey, where floor­boards are lifted, at­tics ex­plored and so on. In the case of a pe­riod prop­erty, a build­ing sur­vey is best. Sur­veys cost from £500 up to around £1,500, de­pend­ing on the sur­vey and the value of the house, but they are a worth­while in­vest­ment.

Struc­tural Move­ment

The word ‘sub­si­dence’ can cause huge panic among renovators (and mort­gage lenders), but the fact is, all build­ings move, and old prop­er­ties, usu­ally built with shal­lower foun­da­tions, move more than newer ones, par­tic­u­larly in ar­eas of clay soil. Some

“Al­though the first thought is of­ten un­der­pin­ning... this should be re­served as a last re­sort”

move­ment is harm­less, but iden­ti­fy­ing its cause early on, and pric­ing up the rem­edy, will avoid any nasty sur­prises and de­lays.

One of the most com­mon cul­prits is trees. They can cause the ground un­der the foun­da­tions to shrink as they ex­tract mois­ture, par­tic­u­larly in long pe­ri­ods of draught and in clay soils. The wall above then drops, caus­ing cracks to ap­pear.

What­ever the cause, the main is­sue is whether the move­ment is ‘ his­toric’ (i.e. no longer hap­pen­ing) or ‘progressive’ and likely to con­tinue.

The costs in­volved in rem­e­dy­ing this prob­lem de­pend on its cause and al­though the first thought is of­ten un­der­pin­ning, this is not al­ways nec­es­sary. Un­der­pin­ning typ­i­cally in­volves ex­ca­vat­ing the ground be­neath the sunken walls and pump­ing in con­crete. This should be re­served as a last re­sort — it is ex­pen­sive and can cause fur­ther prob­lems in old prop­er­ties.

If trees are caus­ing the sub­si­dence, there are two main op­tions: to re­move the tree or to heav­ily prune it. This won’t work in all cases — some­times cut­ting down a tree can ac­tu­ally cause the ground to swell, and if the tree has a Tree Preser­va­tion Order (TPO) on it you may not be al­lowed any­way.

In­stalling root bar­ri­ers is an al­ter­na­tive. All these so­lu­tions are con­sid­er­ably cheaper than un­der­pin­ning — the av­er­age cost of which, for a typ­i­cal house, is from £10,000-£15,000.

Other causes can be shal­low foun­da­tions — if you sus­pect this, look out for cracks that ex­tend be­low damp-proof course level. Di­ag­o­nal cracks that in­crease in width as they go up the build­ing are an­other tell-tale sign.

Fi­nally, leak­ing drains are a com­mon cul­prit and if fixed, the prob­lem is of­ten reme­died.


Al­though all renovators should be, and usu­ally are, pre­pared for some damp, the key to pre­vent­ing it caus­ing de­lays in your sched­ule is get­ting to the root of the prob­lem quickly.

Rot­ten Joists

No mat­ter how you dis­cover rot­ten joists (of­ten dur­ing a re­wire or plumb­ing job), you need to put them right and find out what caused it to hap­pen.

There are sev­eral pos­si­ble causes, in­clud­ing leak­ing pipes, raised ground lev­els around the house and blocked air vents. All cause damp which, in turn, causes tim­ber joists to rot. It could also be at­trib­uted to dry rot or a beetle in­fes­ta­tion — both of which are best dealt with by spe­cial­ists. Once the cause is elim­i­nated, the rot­ten tim­ber will need to be cut away and re­placed.

Mod­ern in­ter­ven­tions are one of the most com­mon causes of damp in old build­ings. Con­crete floors and mor­tar, for ex­am­ple, can re­strict the build­ing’s abil­ity to breathe — un­like the lime­based prod­ucts that would orig­i­nally have been used.

Sim­i­larly, seal­ing up houses with dou­ble glaz­ing and the like means old houses are not ven­ti­lated in the way they orig­i­nally were, so con­den­sa­tion oc­curs (see page 155 for more).

If there is damp along the base of your walls, you may find that de­bris has built up out­side or that the ground level is higher than the DPC, in which case, dig­ging out the sur­round­ing ground, and some­times lay­ing a French drain in wa­ter­logged ar­eas, will solve the prob­lem.

Faulty Roof

The down­fall of many a well-planned bud­get. While renovators are usu­ally pre­pared for re-roof­ing, what they of­ten fail to iden­tify is the dam­age that can lie be­neath, hid­ing away wait­ing to hold up the project and ex­pand the costs in­volved. Look out for leaks inside the house, along with bro­ken or

“All renovators should be pre­pared for damp... the key is get­ting to the root of the prob­lem quickly”

Dry Rot

A quickly. fun­gus Dry that rot will loves de­stroy moist, tim­ber poorly very ven­ti­lated con­di­tions and is usu­ally found in the roof­s­pace or un­der tim­ber floor­boards. Dry rot is easy to iden­tify. Spores send out fun­gal strands along the tim­ber and through/along any wall. These strands can be­come quite dense and form a cot­ton wool-like mass. The first sign is of­ten its dis­tinc­tive musty smell when you lift a floor­board or even just the car­pet. Get­ting rid of it may cost around £1,000 for treat­ment by a spe­cial­ist firm, with ad­di­tional re­pair costs for dam­aged ar­eas. The best way to pre­vent a re­cur­rence is to im­prove ven­ti­la­tion and erad­i­cate any damp.

Wet Rot

This is the nat­u­ral de­cay of tim­ber, ex­ac­er­bated by high lev­els of mois­ture. Tim­ber suf­fer­ing from wet rot will feel spongy and look darker than sur­round­ing tim­ber. When dry, the tim­ber will crum­ble into fine par­ti­cles. The cost of solv­ing it de­pends on how dam­aged the tim­ber is, but the prob­lem will not re­turn if you solve damp prob­lems in the house and im­prove ven­ti­la­tion.

slipped roof tiles, ab­sent or bro­ken flash­ings, dam­aged or miss­ing un­der­felt and worn point­ing on verges.

Al­though these do not al­ways point to rot­ten roof tim­bers, if they have been left in this state for long enough, it is likely that dam­age will have oc­curred and they will need re­plac­ing be­fore any re-roof­ing takes place.

This is a com­mon cause of de­lays in ex­ten­sion projects. Ad­di­tions to the older part of the build­ing can­not be­gin un­til the ex­ist­ing ar­eas of roof are made good. Re­plac­ing a few roof tiles and re­point­ing the verges is a rel­a­tively quick job. How­ever, if the dam­age is ex­ten­sive, then it may be cheaper to re­move the old roof and lay a new one. Re­plac­ing the en­tire roof over a typ­i­cal three bed­room ter­raced house may cost up­wards of £4,000.


Over­look­ing the need for a com­plete re­wire is a com­mon cause of ren­o­va­tion de­lays, so as­cer­tain whether one is go­ing to be needed early on. Ob­vi­ous signs to look out for are dated switches and sock­ets, and dam­aged ca­bles.

A re­wire is a messy, dis­rup­tive job. Floor­boards will be lifted to al­low ac­cess for ca­bling and lots of dust is stan­dard while walls are chased out. Re­plas­ter­ing will also be re­quired and your elec­tri­cian will need ac­cess to all ar­eas of the prop­erty at all times.

Ex­pect to pay from £4,000 for a com­plete house re­wire.

No Sub Floor

A com­plete lack of sub floor is a com­mon prob­lem that of­ten lies undis­cov­ered, wait­ing to cause de­lays.

Quarry tiles and par­quet, as well as flag­stones, were fre­quently laid on noth­ing more than earth, ash or sand. While this is not a huge prob­lem, it makes for a cold floor un­der­foot as there is rarely any in­su­la­tion. This can mean damp leaches up through the floor, par­tic­u­larly if a thick rug or car­pet is laid over it. These floors were de­signed to be ‘ breath­able’ and to ab- sorb and evap­o­rate mois­ture from the whole sur­face area with no dam­age to the ma­te­ri­als used. Prob­lems only tend to oc­cur when they are cov­ered over with a non-breath­able ma­te­rial, or an un­suit­able in­su­la­tion is laid be­neath them.

One so­lu­tion is to take up the floor cov­er­ing and dig out the floor to a level that will al­low for in­su­la­tion, a damp­proof mem­brane, con­crete and your new floor cov­er­ing.

The first prob­lem is that us­ing con­crete at all can re­strict the floor’s abil­ity to breathe. The sec­ond is­sue is that the in­su­la­tion ma­te­ri­als you use need to be able to with­stand the weight of the con­crete slab or screed be­ing laid on top, lim­it­ing the choices of in­su­la­tion to those that are ba­si­cally im­per­vi­ous to air and mois­ture. These types of in­su­la­tion ma­te­ri­als will dis­rupt the mois­ture bal­ance in quarry tiles, flag­stones or brick.

Tak­ing up your floor and re­lay­ing it on a con­crete sub floor with a damp-proof mem­brane can also cause salts within the old floor to come to the sur­face and these, in turn, can ab­sorb mois­ture from the air and re­sult in damp.

The good news is that there are meth­ods for in­su­lat­ing un­der these floor coverings that won’t in­ter­fere with their abil­ity to breathe — namely lime­crete. Lime­crete is a mix of nat­u­ral hy­draulic lime and sharp sand and deals with nat­u­rally oc­cur­ing mois­ture well. Re­cy­cled foam glass beads are of­ten used as a breath­able in­su­lat­ing base. Both tim­ber floors and stone can be laid over it — pro­vid­ing lime-based ad­he­sive and grout are used.

Fi­nally, sim­ply us­ing a breath­able nat­u­ral floor cov­er­ing, such as coir, will make things more com­fort­able un­der­floor and shouldn’t in­ter­fere with the floor’s abil­ity to harm­lessly shed mois­ture as it was al­ways in­tended to do.

For­got­ten Fees and In­com­plete Quotes

It is all well and good cost­ing up what needs to be spent on the fab­ric of your house, but don’t for­get to bud­get for pro­fes­sional fees too.

Ar­chi­tects, struc­tural en­gi­neers, Build­ing Regs and planning per­mis­sion all add sig­nif­i­cantly to costs.

Go through all your quotes from builders and trades with a fine-tooth comb in order to estab­lish what is and isn’t in­cluded — you are try­ing to avoid any nasty sur­prises here.

For a large-scale ren­o­va­tion, the to­tal amount of pro­fes­sional fees, in­clud­ing ar­chi­tects or de­sign­ers and struc­tural en­gi­neers, can eas­ily come to well over £10,000. H

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