Protecting the house buyer – an overview
17 April 2018
Corrosion in steel lintels causing horizontal cracking in brickwork
The National Planning Framework has a National Policy Objective (No 32) to target the delivery of 550,000 additional households by 2040. There will be an increased need for engineers and related professionals to provide an excellent service to house buyers as they embark on what for many will be the biggest investment of their lives.
To create awareness and support the sustainable development of Limerick, Clare and North Tipperary, the Thomond Region held a public event during Engineers Week 2018. The aim of the event was to share knowledge. Those that attended included first-time buyers and those trading up or trading down. Architects, surveyors and solicitors were also in attendance. The presentation can be replicated in all regions throughout the country.
The presentation served to ensure that house buyers would know what to look out for, ask the right questions, take good advice, avoid costly pitfalls and enjoy insofar as possible the process of acquiring their new home. They were invited to take time to visualise and attend an imaginary inspection of their future home.
A safe place to live is a basic human need. Many questions must be asked. Is glass in windows and doors safe having regard to location? Are there smoke, heat and carbon monoxide detection and alarm systems? Are they in working order? Are there windows in bedrooms that will facilitate escape or rescue in the event of fire?
Are balustrades on landings and handrails on the stairs the right height? Can children get caught between spindles or other gaps? Is there adequate headroom over the stairs? Is the gradient of the stairs too steep?
Is there dampness in the house? Is there adequate ventilation? Is there mould on walls or ceilings? If there is a septic tank, is it securely covered? Are there any rusty covers on manholes or other service chambers? Are there lights in the garden? Are the cables serving these suitable and safely protected? Are there overhead cables? Are they insulated or uninsulated? Are cables concealed in trees or other plants?
Are boundary walls properly constructed and in good structural condition? Are precast caps on walls secure? Are steps, ramps and paved areas safe? Is there a risk of lights, antennae, guttering or other things falling from a height? Did you know that home owners have responsibility for safety when having construction work carried out on their home?
Has protection from Radon gas been considered? In Ireland, up to 250 cases of lung cancer are linked to Radon each year. So many questions and so many more? Be safety aware.
How often have you heard the saying ‘LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION’ verbalised to emphasise the vital importance of location? Is the house in a location where you want to live? What is the occupancy of the neighbourhood? Is it mainly owner occupied or is there a proliferation of rented accommodation? Will there be frequent student parties and resultant noise?
What will resale ability of the house be like in the event of a sudden change of your life circumstances? A poor house in a good location can often be considerably more expensive than a good house in an undesirable location. This is just one area where local knowledge can play an important part in informing your decision to buy or not buy.
Be prepared to ‘walk the walk’ and visit local shops, pubs and other landmarks to get a feel for the area. This can be especially important if you are from out of town. Check out the schools, churches, shopping centres, sporting and leisure facilities, bus routes and anything else that is important to you. How long will it take you to get to work?
Is there a history of flooding in the area – fluvial, pluvial, coastal or reservoir? Is there any evidence of sand bags on or near the site? Are there any streams or rivers close by? What is the gradient in the road fronting the property like?
Are there road gullies? In the event of blockages in roadside rainwater gullies, is there a risk of water running into the site? If this does happen, is the gradient of the site such that water can escape without harming the house or any outbuildings or services?
Is there an oil tank? Is it located near the house or adjacent to a neighbouring boundary or river? Bearing in mind that even small oil leaks can cause serious contamination on sites, rivers and streams, in boiler houses or in the houses themselves, great care needs to be taken in their siting and condition.
This contamination requires specialist excavation, disposal and decontamination works. This also applies to oil fired boilers and ranges. What is the condition of the drive, paths and patio areas? Is there evidence of Japanese knotweed on or surrounding the site?
In modern housing developments, there are normally separate drainage systems for surface water and foul sewage disposal. They should not be cross-connected. Services should go directly to the mains drainage systems without traversing other properties unless there is a formal wayleave agreement in place.
In older developments there were sometimes combined systems. If this is the situation with the property you are considering, there should be confirmation from the local authority that such is the case. Check and ensure that there is a good clean water supply to the dwelling.
Consider having the water tested by a laboratory, especially if the dwelling is served by a well. Ultraviolet treatment and a water softener may be required.
The outside of the house
Many roofs are finished with concrete roof tiles or artificial or natural slates. Old, artificial slates can contain asbestos and specialist advice may be required. Sometimes there are flat roofs which can be particularly prone to leaks. Insurance companies often ask what the percentage of the floor area is covered by a flat roof.
Are there cracks in walls? There are many causes or combination of causes for these. Leaking drains impacting the formation beneath foundations, tree roots, pyrite, poor quality blockwork, badly constructed foundations, foundations constructed on poor quality fill, poor structural design or construction, corrosion of steel window or door heads, rotten timber or excessive heat through chimneys to name but a few.
The roof space
What does your surveyor think of the structure of the roof? Is it constructed with prefabricated timber trusses or is it of ‘cut roof’ construction where roof timbers are individually fitted? Are internal walls supporting the roof? What internal alterations can be made to the layout of the house without negatively impacting the roof structure? Is there roofing felt.
Is it in good condition? What is the chimney like? Is there evidence of soot leeching through the chimney brickwork or blockwork? Is there any evidence of moisture ingress down the chimney or through valley rafters?
Is there any evidence of woodworm or wet, dozed or rotten timber? Is there attic insulation? Should you be thinking about having timber treated and increasing the amount of insulation? What additional ventilation do you need to provide?
Is there a water storage tank and expansion tank? Do they need to be replaced? Are they insulated? Is pipework adequately insulated? Are electrics safe? Do they need to be inspected by an electrician? Is insulation material kept well away from recessed light fittings? Tightly fitted insulation around these that can represent a significant risk of fire.
What are outside walls made of, blockwork, mass concrete, timber framed or other proprietary systems? Do they appear in good condition? Is there evidence of insulation in the walls? Is there a proper fire wall between this and any adjoining property? Is there evidence of fire stopping in appropriate locations?
The habitable areas of the house
Are the ceilings cracked? What is causing this? Is load being applied from the roof? Are the ceilings of plasterboard or of an old type lath and plaster where significant sections of damaged plaster can fall without warning?
Are walls built of concrete blockwork or stud partitions finished with plasterboard? In three-storey houses, is the stairwell protected in the event of fire? Are floors flat? Are there gaps under skirting boards suggesting shrinkage in timber or the settlement of ground-floor slabs?
Do doors open and close with ease? Are door heads level? Are there cracks on the inside of the building similar to those evident on the outside? Are ceilings fire rated where they need to be?
Is the chimney properly constructed? It would be advisable to see a fire lighting to ensure that this works well so the buyer is not left with a ‘smoky chimney’ problem. This should only be done with the consent of the owner after the chimney has been cleaned.
What about moisture readings? Your engineer or surveyor should have in his or her possession a moisture meter to check for rising dampness or other moisture ingress.
The site map
An accurate map prepared for transfer purposes should be provided and a Declaration of Identity should be prepared. This confirms that the dwelling and entire premises are entirely within the property on sale and that there is proper access to the property.
It also confirms that the dwelling is provided with all services necessary for the proper use and enjoyment of the property. The map should be checked on behalf of the purchaser to ensure it is accurate.
Planning permission and building regulations
The planning system was introduced in this country on October 1, 1964. It was not until the 1980s that building regulations were proposed and drafted. They were introduced on June 1, 1992. Prior to that, some parts of the country had building bye-laws. A suite of Technical Guidance Documents (TGDs) was prepared.
Compliance with the TGDs is considered prima facie evidence of compliance with the building regulations. Major changes in planning and building regulation legislation have taken place in recent years including the introduction of the Building Control (Amendment) Regulations 2014.
It is important that the property you are buying complies with requirements applicable at the time of construction including , if applicable, any extension or alteration. Appropriate certification should be provided. Remember, the day you buy is the day you sell, and all certification will have to stand up to scrutiny when you may want to dispose of the property.
Do you need further specialist advice about asbestos, timber treatment or dampness eradication? Do the drains need to be cleaned and inspected by CCTV and hydrostatic test? Wouldn’t a list of useful contacts be helpful?
Author: John Garrett is a chartered engineer and fellow of Engineers Ireland. He is director of John T Garrett & Associates. www.johntgarrett.ie
The slideshow that formed part of the presentation can be viewed on: https://www.dropbox.com/s/o35h0rpjdjzx6bj/Protecting%20the%20House%20Buyer%20FINAL.pptx?dl=0
The presentation can be viewed on:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qBV4EfR-8Hc&feature=youtu.be