A charming millstone around your neck?

thatched cottageHow many times have you looked at the country house adverts in the paper, the Country Life, Worcestershire Life and other publications of that ilk. The advert starts with “A charming Grade II Listed house, built in 1854 with delightful gardens situated within the sought after Cotswold village of……” You visit the village, and find a small rural pub that serves a really nice Sunday lunch, dished up with a pint of real ale drawn from a fresh barrel. And after lunch, you walk round the village, see a small primary school, a village shop, and then look at the property you had seen in the advert, the roses around the door in scented bloom, the beech hedge, and the soft honey coloured walls, and the weathered terracotta roof tiles. And suddenly all is right with the world, and this is the dream location to move the family to.

But does reality match the dream?  What’s the reality check? Old buildings frequently come with a load of baggage, that is much delayed maintenance work coupled with a lack of construction details that we now consider as being normal, the minimum, and not as an add on extra.

Thatched Cotswold house and lane WEBLet’s take the “soft honey coloured stone walls”. Back in 1854 damp proof courses were definitely add on extras.  One or two houses had them built in, but they were restricted to the better parts of the house, and this did not include the servants or working areas of the property. Agricultural barns certainly did not have damp proof courses.  Where a damp proof course was installed, it was usually restricted to the outside walls, if timber floors were used, they would certainly be exposed to damp.

In particularly exposed parts of the country, where buildings meet the strong westerly and northerly winds, rain will be driven horizontally against the outer walls of the property. Quite often, particularly during the winter period the outer walls will be saturated with moisture. In the 19th Century, one way of overcoming this was to increase the thickness of the outer wall.  This was successful to a point, but there is a limit to what is feasible and economic, so corners were often cut, and wall thicknesses reduced to 450mm (18”), still thick by modern day standards, but often insufficient to stop penetrating damp.  Quite often during the winter periods of heavy rain, damp patches will appear on the inside of the house, leaving stains on the plastered walls.

How do you overcome the problem? Some owners lined the inner surface of the walls with panels of plaster on a latticework of timber laths. In effect this created a cavity. The downside of this remedy was that if the timber laths became damp, then the dreaded dry rot could start up and grow unnoticed in the cavity, until it had a strong hold and burst out of the wall with rotten skirtings, floors and windows. Remember, the builders at that time did not have access to the same waterproof materials that we take for granted today.

old terracotta tiles on roofWhat about the “weathered terracotta roof tiles”? The gentle undulation noticeable on the photograph, gives a warning that the timber structure might not be up to the job in supporting the weight of the roof tiles. Having said that, if the roof has been there for 150 years, surely it doesn’t have to prove itself?

It was not unusual in houses built 150 years ago to use heavy sectioned, second hand timbers in the roof.  Sometimes the timber was reclaimed from old wooden ships being decommissioned.  Being second hand was not a problem, but the notches and holes used in joints from its previous incarnation will seriously weaken the timber.  It was a good job they were heavily sectioned. But that would not cause the gentle undulations. It might quite possibly be caused by woodworm cheerfully boring its way through the timbers over many years.  It probably was present in the timber when it was re-used in the current building.

An inspection of the roof space may reveal newer sections of timber nailed onto the sides of the original decayed timber, to give added strength to the beam.  Quite probably the undulations occurred before the additional strengthening took place. Care will need to be taken with this roof structure in the future, to ensure it is not overstressed any further, as it is probably near its weight tolerance already.

What could increase stress on a roof?  Well the weathered terracotta tiles are probably near the end of their useful life. Over the years, moss and algae has established itself on the tiles, causing rainwater to sit longer than normal on the roof, which then soaks into the soft clay tiles.  Sharp night time frosts during winter will freeze this water in the clay tile pores, which then expands, causing the clay to split or spawl.  Over the years the tiles will become progressively thinner, reaching the point when they will be so weakened, they snap and slip off.

Lack of regular maintenance in cleaning off the algae, and patching the odd broken tiles, will eventually mean that the whole roof will have to be stripped off, and replaced.  An expensive process, particularly as the building is Grade II Listed. Before any repair works are completed, you will have to obtain Listed Building consent for the proposed works, and quite often the Listed Building officer from the local planning authority will be seen as an “unsympathetic dictator” particularly where you want to change the outward appearance of the property.  To the neighbours, wanting to maintain the overall dreamlike image of the village, he will be a Knight in shinning armour, crusading to preserve the authentic original style of the village. Replacing weathered terracotta tiles can be an expensive process, but at least you can take the opportunity to also put a layer of felt under the tiles to make the roof waterproof, and install some insulation to make the house cheaper to heat.

Two minor items on the description, and before you know where you are, some tens of thousands of pounds have been spent in maintaining the dream that arose in your mind after that distant Sunday lunch prior to purchase. Of course, if the buyer had purchased a survey before rushing into the solicitor’s office to complete on the house purchase, he would not have been surprised by the expenditure, but hey ho hindsight is a marvellous thing!

That said, not all old buildings will present such severe problems but it is always wise to obtain a full survey prior to the purchase of such a property for your own peace of mind.  A survey like this will highlight any issues and may help you set a reasonable budget for the works required.

Sheldon Bosley Knight will carry out all types of survey, using our highly experienced in-house Chartered Surveyors.  Please contact us for more information and assistance.

Tony Rowland SBK TLG


Tony Rowland BSc(Hons) MSc MRICS