Surveyors guide to buying older property

Fireplace in home
One home owner’s gruesome discovery – bird remains discovered behind a blocked off fireplace

Have you been seduced by a charming old property that oozes character and appeal, perhaps ripe for development into an exceptional home or investment property?

You may or may not be attracted by the prospect of sharing your home with bats or even ghosts, but few of us look forward to discovering damp, asbestos or dead bodies buried in the garden. A recent survey has found that 4o% of people avoid buying older property in case there may be hidden costs and 30% of people simply don’t want to clear up someone else’s mess.

Buying older property can bring with it more than the usual amount of anxiety attached to house buying, so don’t get carried away making a rash decision before you’ve considered a few things. 

Is this the right property for you?

Think before you commit to purchasing and consider, warts and all,  how you are going to use the property. Buying a pretty thatched property in a shaded valley may well seem attractive in the summer – but will it get any light in the winter months when the sun is low in the sky? Will your tiny new home have sufficient storage space so you don’t feel cramped and cluttered with your furniture and belongings installed? Will every sound you make be overheard by everyone else in the house? Can you even get a bed up the stairs?

While you might think that an alteration to the building could address some of these issues, make sure you don’t make amendments that would be unsympathetic to the character to the building.

The cost of working on an older property can be significantly higher than on new buildings, so don’t overstretch your budget if you need to make essential repairs. You may also need to refer to building professionals for advice, which comes at a cost.

Listed buildings

If your property is listed you should have been told this by your solicitor during the purchase process. Estate agent’s particulars may not mention it but your local planning authority can supply you with a copy of the listing details. You cannot modify an element of the building simply because it isn’t specifically mentioned in the listing description as it may still be legally protected. Listed planning consent is required if you intend to make any alterations that affect the character of the building and you should contact your local conservation officer to investigate the requirement for permission before starting any work. This process takes time, but obtaining permission can make the alteration eligible for avoiding VAT on the project. Failing to obtain necessary permission could end up in you being prosecuted and required to undertake expensive remedial work.

Buildings without listed status

If you are sure that your property has not been awarded listed status, you still don’t want to ‘update’ the building by obliterating all the features that first attracted you to it. Making ill-advised or hasty decisions can soon ruin any special character the building originally offered.

You will probably want advice from property professionals if you are doing major work to your property but take care before making decisions based on what your architect/builder/adviser suggests; they’re not going to live in it, pay for it or eventually sell it.

Make sure your initial survey is carried out by a RICS Chartered Surveyor who is experienced in surveying historic buildings. The surveyor’s job is to point out any apparent defects. Some of the points will be cause for concern while others may simply be mentioned for reasons of professional liability. Your Chartered Surveyor should discuss this with you to ensure you are fully informed of any matters that require immediate action.

Get to know the building before making major decisions

Your property may have been built long before modern building methods and the reasons for some elements may not be immediately apparent. Take care and get advice before making changes. 

Being familiar with your own building will make it easier to deal with property professionals as a client and to deal with builders.

Style and character

With an older building it is better to work with what you’ve got rather than to attempt to change it into something different. Fashions come and go but don’t often suit older properties. Make sure your builder understands the value of your building’s features and that suitable, traditional materials are used. For instance, adding an impervious finish to an older property can be disastrous.

Safeguard your investment by remembering what first attracted you to the property and make sure its next owner won’t feel the need to rid the building of your improvements the next time it changes hands.

If you’re buying older property, ask a Property Surveying RICS Chartered Surveyor for advice.

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