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Engineer beware
Brian Morton discusses the pitfalls of surveying structures of historic buildings for prospective purchasers
Surveying historic buildings for prospective purchasers has always been considered a minefield and increasingly today we are finding that structural surveys carried out for Building Societies are requesting, additionally, a structural engineer's report related to even the slightest bulge or sign of problems.

We have found that we need to be given specific instructions as to the type of survey required, which is generally vague related to a Building Society survey. I usually indicate when quoting a fee for looking at an historic building that I will generally appraise the structure as part of the service provided.

Where we are requested by the Client to carry out a detailed structural survey prior to purchase, we always try and establish before hand the attitude of the prospective purchaser to historic buildings, i.e. whether they have lived in one previously or whether they have a paranoia about minor cracking, minor damp penetration etc. We have found that this probing of the Client's requirements is essential to providing a satisfactory service.

The principal consideration with most Clients is whether there are any substantial cost implications associated with necessary repair of the structure. Generally we will undertake to indicate how important a particular defect is to the Client's use of the building and, indeed, way of life.

In recent weeks we carried out several surveys on vastly different historic buildings and it is just worth indicating the importance placed upon certain aspects of problems I have highlighted for Clients generally related to cost implications. In almost all cases I am surveying an inhabited building, thus the conclusion is that a prospective purchaser could move in and live in it without carrying out much work at all. The question arises as to what happens when they try and sell it at a later date when it is likely they are going to have to spend money to prevent an escalation of problems.

A simple telephone call a few weeks ago asked me to quote a fee for inspecting two particular problems with an historic house which were the condition of a gable wall related to some vertical cracking and a front gable moving away from the roof behind. This appeared to be a simple quick survey and the fee I quoted reflected this. On my way to the property the prospective purchaser rang and said would I give the building a brief structural appraisal. In order to give an indication of fee I asked the purchase price and the Client indicated he was paying in the order of £700,000. I carried out my brief structural appraisal and suggested that unless he had £150, 000 available immediately to spend on the property and a further £50,000 per year available for the next five years, then he should not purchase the property. Although this sounds an unusual problem, on a smaller scale this is a situation that arises continuously.

The week after I carried out this appraisal, I was asked to visit a house described as a timber framed property because the Client felt a detailed survey was necessary following an indication from his Building Society that a structural engineer should carry out a survey of the timber frame following the Society's own Surveyor's report. The Clients said that they would like an appraisal of the cost implications of repairing the frame based on the information provided.

I found that, in fact, the timber frame was non-existent in the ground floor, over 90% of the area of which had been replaced with a solid brick wall and then lined with oak boarding internally to represent a timber frame. My report was duly submitted and my Secretary received a telephone call from the Building Society saying that the survey was inadequate because I had not surveyed the timber frame referred to in their Surveyor's report. Their view changed after I had spoken to them.

Another form of survey is for the purchaser who is extremely keen because they like the look of a particular property and it becomes clear in the initial discussion with them that they are determined they will buy it regardless of its condition. Usually we are able to guide them and indicate the priorities - generally to make the building initially wind and weather tight whilst strengthening the structure as appropriate in carrying out this work. So many of our Clients have bought properties on this basis, at very low purchase prices, successfully over a good many years and in some cases in twenty years have repaired and restored them to beautiful residences.

When we are asked to visit a building where there are said to be bulging walls, we endeavour to appraise the structure and decide when it was built. This then guides as to the possible form of construction from which can be deduced the importance of the bulging that has occurred. In a Georgian house of reasonable quality it may be that the external wall is built of fine brick-work not bonded to the rough brickwork behind, or in the case of a timber framed building the original wattle and daub has been removed and infilling blockwork has been built in which is now absorbing water. The position of a timber soleplate is also a guide, if it is fairly high up the wall and there is bulging above it, it is quite likely that the front face of the soleplate has rotted allowing the structure to rotate. In the situation with bulging walls an inspection internally to see whether there are any cracks at the junctions of ceilings and walls forms an important part of the assessment. Depending upon the age of the building and the particular reason for the bulging this is reflected in the opinion we give as to the extent of the work (if any) necessary. So very often simple bulging of walls can be cured by tying the outer face of the wall to the inner structure at comparatively minimal cost.

In new legisatlion to be introduced by the Government, the Vendor is going to be responsible for producing a survey report amongst the sales particulars. It seems to us that a normal Building Society Surveyor may have some difficulty protecting himself by the normal use of caveats. A detailed survey will be necessary indicating the problems and the solutions and the probable costs of dealing with the situation.

Brian Morton is consultant to the Morton Partnersbip, Consulting and Civil Engineers.
Context 64 December 1999
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