Monday, 30 December 2013

Lead paint

I had an insomniacal night yesterday, and as I lay in bed coughing and spluttering quietly I suddenly remembered that i hadn't checked the house for the presence of lead paint. Commonly used in older houses, lead paint is a very nasty thing indeed when you start sanding and scraping and chipping at it, with particles being absorbed through the lungs and leading to many serious ailments.

So today I purchased a set of Lead paint Tests (Nitromors brand from B&Q). Small vials of reactant which goes red when in contact with lead. Rubbing it on the various green, yellow and white paints we've found in the house and I'm relieved to say that there was no reaction.

UPDATE: Yes there was. Overnight, the sample on some green gloss paint covering the original staircase went red, so we have lead on there. Not so much of a problem because it's out of the way.

So, no more losing sleep over lead poisoning, and just the mould, asbestos, cement dust and eons of lord-knows-what to kill us now.

Plumbing bodges, drains and mains water

I wanted a dust-free day, so I started trying to trace where the water pipes in the house went. Typically, as one job always leads to another, I discovered that they're impossible to trace without dismantling (presumably) stud walls in the Bathroom. The cold water main from the street delves in to a PVC sheath under the stairs and vanishes off through a stone wall, not emerging anywhere visible on the other side.

In an effort to try to locate the pipe on the other side of the Bathroom, in the Annex, I discovered a tangle of pipes and drains leading in to a concrete construction in the floor.

What's interesting here is that this appears to be an original (pre-dating the Sun Room extension) external drain and a previous owner has fed feeds for the kitchen sink, dishwasher, washing machine and toilet overflow down it and concreted them in to place. A little tapping with a club hammer revealed the older drain construction in-place and sound, under a concrete lid.

The black pipes with taps on them are hot- and cold-water feeds for the kitchen, and in turn vanish off behind cupboards.

Also of interest in this area is the fact that the wall to the south of this drain (left side on the pictures) is rendered in the same way as the brick external walls of the Kitchen/Bedroom 1. This makes me wonder if the current Bathroom is, in fact, either original or at least very old, and the Sun Room has been built around it. Certainly, I'd wager that this wall pre-dates the Sun Room by decades. Further bashing will reveal if the bathroom was once accessed from the house, or if it was an outside toilet. 

Back to the water pipes: My best guess at the moment is that the cold water main goes as follows:
In the front door, across the hallway ceiling, down and under the stairs, in to the bathroom, up the bathroom wall (via the sink and toilet), across the kitchen ceiling, down in to the porch to the boiler, back up in to bedroom 1, around the walls and down again in to the kitchen, underneath the concrete entrance to the annex and to the sink. Bonkers. 

We'll be looking to have the main cold feed moved to somewhere more sensible as part of the project to install a Rayburn to run the heating and hot water.

The Hole - a new flue next to an old chimney

A brave friend decided to stick his phone in to the hole we found/made next to the chimney breast in the Lounge.

We couldn't work out why there seemed to be a newer section of red brick in between the original grey-brick chimney breast and the stone wall. It was obviously deliberate, but what was it?

The photos, looking upwards inside the hole, reveal a secondary chimney flue running alongside the original, and the pattern of newer bricks would suggest that there was a fireplace or burner at floor level, and then something else at head-height which has left lots of soot on the bricks around it. (See 1st photo).

The external wall doesn't provide any clues or echo the internal scorching, so I guess it may be one of those things which is lost in history. Unless someone has any bright ideas - if so, leave a comment.

One issue this new flue does create is the need to seal it so gasses from the burner we'd like to install in the Lounge can't find their way through. We'll re-mortar the wall before rendering it, I think. We'll also have to address how to keep the spare flue breathing.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Major damp found in the Hallway

It has always been a concern why the wall between the hallway and lounge was so wet. As an internal brick wall there is no particular reason why this should exhibit more obvious signs of damp than any other wall in the house. As we stripped out the hallway, the smell of damp became strong and we noticed that the central heating pipes which run along the problem wall were slowly dripping from a pair of stop taps which had been placed just before the pipes vanish into the concrete bathroom floor. I can see the logic in adding these taps as a precaution, but since they'd been boxed-in and sealed off from any air, they'd been left to fester and damage the fabric of the house unchallenged.

The carpet directly underneath these taps was sodden and covered in mould, and the plasterwork on the wall surrounding this area was completely blown.  Both the original lime plaster and subsequent layers of gypsum rendering were falling off the wall. Even the concrete flooring underneath the carpet, the underlay and a layer of Lino has turned to powder where it butts up against the wall. For now I am convinced that this long-term drip is a major cause of the problems in this wall. I'll be removing the central heating completely from the Hallway and Bathroom this week.

The steps down into the bathroom - which is the lowest point of the house - have been revealed to be red tile. I was wondering if these were original and some sort of exit from the house but as I dug away at the concrete render I revealed a plastic membrane roughly an inch below the level of the red tiles. Presumably this means that there is a much older floor level at the depth of the membrane and it is to this depth that we may try to dig out the hallway and the sitting room.

I am still wondering if this was once the back door to the house because the red quarry tiles have a distinct feel of external rather than internal detailing. However if that's the case at the moment we can't see how any external toilet would have been configured. I suspect that when we start to renovate the current bathroom it will reveal the location of any preceding bathroom in that area.

The original staircase revealed

As well as taking up the floors in the hallway we started to reveal what lies underneath the wallpaper. On the western wall between the hallway and the lounge we found what we expected - the lime rendered brick wall of no particular interest. But on the eastern wall between the hallway and the sitting room we established that it has been clad with plyboard (presumably in the 1970s or early 1980s by the faux log-cabin look) to cover up some major renovation work when the staircase had been moved and presumably the internal wall dividing the hallway and cloakroom had been removed.

We also revealed that the cold water main inlet by the front door runs from floor to ceiling in an insulated lagging and had been plywood clad to hide it. This confirms that we are indeed on mains water, and that we'll have to get it moved to somewhere more sensible, and less likely to freeze!

I noticed for the first time that morning, as I looked in the under stairs cupboard, that the original staircase still runs along the north wall from top to bottom but the stairs that we use today run in an L-shape along that the wall then turn south half-way down. As we took the cladding off the hallway wall we revealed the original opening through that wall for the straight staircase.

At some point we would like to reconfigure the staircase to make the bottom four steps wider - they are considerably narrower than the top half of the staircase - but I don't think that resurrecting the original staircase, even though its opening and the stairs themselves are still there, would be a good idea because it would limit the living space in the sitting room.

Peeling back the years in the hallway

One thing that had intrigued me since we moved in was a strange lump in the hallway which meant that the lounge door would not open to its full extent. Yesterday we decided to start tackling the hallway and the first order of business was to pull up the carpets.

What was revealed was rather unexpected - there is evidence that the hallway was once divided into two rooms. You can see on the above picture that a dividing wall has been removed and the two rooms had differently coloured tiled floors. The middle appears to be a doorway between the two rooms.

I can't imagine why the owners would have done this because the wide doors  of the hallway would have been extremely difficult to open into this small space, and moving between rooms must have been an exercise in door management!

It's also rather interesting because we can't understand yet what the space with the white floor would have been used for. We can only guess at this stage that it would have been some sort of cloakroom. There doesn't appear to be any evidence of water pipes or heavy objects having been in this room.

We removed all the tiles from both areas to reveal a concrete floor, seamlessly poured with that of the Sitting Room. The concrete is extremely dusty and this makes for a very dirty and unhealthy work. The house is not pleasant to be in right now.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Soot - The chimney stack above Bedroom 2

Peeling back the layers of decoration from Bedroom 2 reveals more of that blue sealant stuff that some previous owner appears to have thrown at any area of the house where damp was evident.
It also revealed a lime plaster ceiling that had rotted from years of water coming down the Western chimney stack, so I encouraged a hole to let any further water come down in to the room (rather than sit in the ceiling).

You can see that the original wooden ceiling is pretty much rotten near the wall, but what was more concerning is the amount of soot that came down with it. It looks like the chimney stack above is compromised and would let smoke in to the loft area. We'll have to get this checked when we rebuild the stacks and add flues for the woodburner in the Lounge below.

Oh, and as is becoming an often-seen thing, we found an electrical wire which is cut off and 'terminated' in a blob of plaster. 

Foundations - or lack thereof

One thing I am acutely aware of as I remove all this concrete path from around the house is the potential to unstabilised the walls, so today I dug a small exploratory hole towards the south west corner of the house to see how deep the walls actually go.

As mentioned in the previous post the soil towards the south west end of the house is unlike that found more easterly where it is wet clay. The western end is a dark fairly dry traditional soil and it was very easy to dig the small hole down to a depth of around 9 inches where it became evident that the stone walls of the house ended.

I was able to put a garden fork underneath the second course of stones beneath what is now ground level. This new ground level is some 3 to 4 inches below the level of the concrete which I have removed and looking at the lime mortar in the original stonework the level of the soil appears to be more reflective of the original ground level around the house.

So I think we can assume that the house goes down to around 9 inches on at least the stone part of the building and that any significant works around the base of the building will have to be set back a fair way in order not to destabilise the building itself.

With this in mind and the fact that the clay towards the eastern end of the house is sodden makes me think that installing the French drain should be done at least 3 to 4 feet away from the house and that I should be putting in larger stones near the house to help prevent any potential shift as the ground dries out. 

I will be digging an exploratory trench around the house over the next few weeks into which I will lay the drainage tube... Unless anything unexpected is revealed, of course

Old pipes - possible damp cause?

As part of the clearance of the concrete path at the front of the house in order to install a French drain, today I discovered at a depth of around 4 to 5 inches below what would've been the surface of the concrete, two clay pipes.
The pipes are roughly 3 inches in diameter each and run side-by-side in sections of about 18 inches long. They are running at an angle to the house which would suggest that they are not servicing the house itself. 

My first thought is that they are part of what the locals refer to as the private water supply which is fed from a reservoir at the top of the hill which the house is half way up. 

I wondered if perhaps these pipes were an indication that this private water supply is somehow draining into the soil around the house and causing some major damp problems. I decided to trace them back as far as I could and see if there was any water moving through them all leaking that I could see.

The theory was put to rest when I found the detached ends of both pipes in the area of the South East corner of the house. I suppose that it is possible that whatever was feeding these pipes is still underneath the garden and potentially draining water into the garden and causing some damp, but you can see in the first picture that the garden is significantly higher than the house and to excavate these pipes would be a major job and I'm not prepared to engage in yet.

Interestingly, the soil around the south-east corner of the house is completely sodden clay and the soil at the south west corner of the house is much more like potting soil that you would find in a garden centre. Again I wonder if this is somehow being influenced by the raised garden in the south-east corner.

UPDATE: They're an old form of land-drain, similar in idea to the French Drain which we're looking to install around the house. Where on earth they go off to and drain in to is anyone's guess. They do, however, suggest that the South East corner of the house is a long-term damp area.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Breaking bad concrete

Surrounding the house on all sides is an old concrete pathway. In places this pathway has cracked and is obviously letting water through which then cannot escape back through the path. This is potentially one of the reasons why there is so much moisture coming up through the walls of the house.

So this week whilst working from home I have been attacking the concrete pathways with a mechanical breaker during my lunch hour.

In places the concrete is up to about 6 inches deep and the hard-core underneath seems to have been placed directly onto dirt (which is good).

Having a feel of the dirt underneath reveals that it appears to be some kind of clay and that it is significantly wet.

Here you can see that I have easily been able to form it into a smooth ball which behaves a lot like plasticine.

We plan to remove the rest of the concrete from around the house and then put in a French drain. A French drain, named after its inventor, Mr French, is a perforated tube which is placed underground and in to which water from the surrounding ground drains and is pushed away.

I will be investigating how deep the foundations of the house itself go because there is some suggestion that an old stone house like this will be extremely shallow and I do not want to undermine the fabric of the building by removing this concrete and digging a trench too close to the house. Drying out the ground under these stone walls too quickly or too severely could cause some major headaches.

We have ordered a skip at a cost of £180 to dump all this unnecessary concrete in.

During a talk with some neighbours who live in a similar-age property directly downhill from us, it seems that there is a stream running under their house and in severe rains it has been known to bubble up in their conservatory. I wonder if we'll find a well or watercourse under the floor in the house when we dig them up!

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

First rain

We've been extremely lucky since we moved into the cottage that it has been dry every single day. Today brought the first significant rain along with some high winds and the conditions have revealed the extent of the damage to a couple of things including the chimney and the flat roof.

The wall in bedroom number one where the plaster has clearly been subject to long-term water damage currently has water dripping down it in small rivers. You can see at the top of the first picture that the previous owners have obviously had some gypsum plaster added to seal out the water from above. This has merely masked the problem which stems back to the chimney stack itself being completely blown. 

I have removed a section of the gypsum to allow the water to flow freely through from the loft space to the bedroom wall hoping that this will stop the water soaking into the lime plaster which comprises the majority of the bedroom ceiling.

There is also a puddle on the floor and water coming down the wall in the Annex of the kitchen. This appears to be from a section of loose flashing where the flat roof of the extension joins to the original building which has come away. I will need to Jerry rig some form of bitumen seal to the section tomorrow when it has stopped raining. 

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Chimney woes

We've just had a chimney sweep come round to have a look at the woodburner in the Sitting Room and the open fire in Bedroom 1, and he refused to touch either. Apparently they're a fire risk because the burner is unflued (register plate) and the stack is so covered with tar and goo. He reinforced my belief that both will need the addition of a flexible flue, and suggested that we have the stack filled with vermiculite.

Vermiculite seems to be a substance that you mix with cement to fill the void between new chimney liner and old chimney, and helps the liner stay warm and thus draw a better fire.

The flip side, I guess, is that it's non-breathable, and all those salts and tars trapped in the damp bricks of the chimney stack will then not be subject to nice flowing breezes to help take away their moisture content, and either perish, or leach more salts in to the plasterwork on the inside of the house. More research is needed before we decide to fill the voids.

In the plus side, he said that the massive bird's nest would help keep the heat in over winter.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Woodburning stoves vs Open fires

Idly thinking about the fireplace we opened up in the Lounge yesterday, as well as the problem of the smokey, stained plaster in Bedroom 1, I've been doing some evening research in to wood-burning stoves and stumbled across an excellent source of information written by a stove-fitter from Wales.

Julian, the author, has simply and carefully explained all of the steps necessary in fitting a stove, including the area of Building Control / Building Regulations and saved me hours in alternative research.

I'm currently thinking that the plan will be as follows:

  • Rebuild chimney stacks at either end of the stone cottage (they're both knackered)
  • Fit 6 inch flexible flues down both during the rebuild
  • Connect to the existing Living Room stove, which currently has a short flue and register plate (a plate which blocks the chimney above the stove, sealing smoke above it but still in the building
  • Connect to a new small stove in the Lounge
  • Connect to the existing open fireplace with a 'gather hood' in Bedroom 1 and thereby stop any more ingress of soot & salts in to the chimney breast. Potentially install a small stove here in place of the open fire (tbc).
Bedroom 1 with tar-stained plaster
None of this can happen until Spring - it's too cold to successfully do the brickwork required of the refurbishment of the chimney stacks, so as an over-wintering measure we're having the existing stove in the Living Room, and the fireplace in Bedroom 1 swept this week, and assuming that a smoke test comes back as safe we'll use these two. I can't see that using them will contribute any more damage to the already ruined chimney stack and plasterwork in Bedroom 1.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Utility madness

As part of the Investigation phase of the house, we're working on a bit of a tracing project with the utilities.

The previous owners insist that the water supply to the house is from a private supply, although they won't say where. We're definitely NOT on mains drainage as we have no drains, and our sewerage goes in to a septic tank. (We'll come back to the fact there's no stormwater drains in a later post).
But our solicitor's searches came back with a report from the water authority saying that we are supplied with mains, and have a meter. They even give a location for the meter.
I've spent a good long while looking for this meter, and it's non-existent. And a confused call by me to the water authority leads to even more confusion because they (who supplied the survey information) have no record of the address.

The electric wiring in the house seems to vary from fairly new (in the majority) to dangerously DIY in some places. I've been tracing back each circuit as best I can to see which wire goes where because all wires in the house are surface mounted and look awful. And then in the garage, where an armoured cable directly from the house seems to supply some kind of child-fuse-box arrangement, wires vanish off in all directions which feed various underground (concreted in) wires to other outbuildings. It is, to say the least, a challenge.
I've now decommissioned a lot of this.

The Lounge: A Resurrection

The Western wall of the Lounge was a strange beast. It had obviously once had a fireplace, which backed on to an external Beehive-style bread oven in an outside room, and this has long been covered over and forgotten. We decided that the fireplace could be the key to resurrecting this room as an independent space rather than a thoroughfare and it was high on our list to investigate what was going on under the wallpaper.
Presumably centuries old wallpaper direct on to brick
Stripping back the wallpaper from the North and West walls in this room revealed two things. On the West wall the chimney bricks are beautiful, covered in 5 layers of ever more lovely wallpaper, the original wall is in great condition and dry as a bone. And secondly, unfortunately, about 4 inches from the floor is evidence that a previous owner has employed some sort of chemical or injected damp-proof course.
Holes just above floor level indicate a damp-proof injection
Not much we can do about the previous injections of damp-proofing, whatever it may be that's been forced in to the walls... so let's concentrate on revealing more of the house's secrets.

We discovered that the fireplace was covered in a modern gypsum plaster, and the entire right-hand third of the West wall is covered in a thick cement (?) render to bring it level with the chimney breast.

We had friends over for the day, and as you do, we decided to have a beer and set about with a sledge hammer taking off the gypsum plaster from the area around the fireplace.
This is posed: always wear goggles, gloves and mask

It was hard going. The fireplace had been completely decommissioned and filled with builder's rubble and cement. An hour's worth of hammering, chiselling and swearing and we managed to get it back to what, presumably, was the original construction to house a metal fireplace.
The old fireplace, with open chimney and interesting hole (right)
What's REALLY annoying is that the missing fireplace was in one of the outbuildings when we viewed the house, but the previous owners had a house-clearance company in and it's now gone.

However, frustrations aside, the opened fireplace was given a good sweep and plenty of coke, soot and what looked like old bread fell out of it, so we can be sure that it's had a good life at some point in the past. The place will need complete re construction because we can see through the back of it to the outside cupboard which houses the remains of the bread oven, but the flue looks sound and there's a draft coming down the chimney, so that's a start.

After opening the fireplace, we decided to start revealing what lies beneath the concrete render covering the right-hand side of the West wall. I took a sledge hammer to it, assuming that there would be a solid stone wall behind it, and managed to punch my way through a brick wall which set the hairs on the back of my neck on end. Why is there a brick wall here, when there's a stone wall on the outside? What's through the hole? Do we continue hammering or make good and pretend it never happened?

Well, this is an adventure, so we plunged a torch in through the hole in the bricks to reveal a small cavity roughly 12 inches wide and deep, for no reason that we can fathom yet. So the concrete removal will continue in the name of curiosity later in the week.

The Lounge: A Problem

There's an interesting space in The Cottage, which we'll call the Lounge for the purposes of this blog, but in terms of 'flow' through a space acts as a bit of a corridor between the Kitchen and the Living Room, and we think that's a crying shame. We want to bring this room back to its former glory and turn it in to a space that defines itself rather than acts as a conduit.

East Wall, Lounge. Major condensation problem
First though is a conundrum which needs investigating. The East wall of the Lounge, which is an internal wall, is the worst in the whole house for visual signs of damp. Its wallpaper had completely peeled away from the underlying blue sealant, which in turn had peeled off the crumbling gypsum plaster underneath. This didn't make sense. Why was an internal wall this bad?

We haven't gotten to the bottom of this yet, but we currently have three theories:
Unsheathed copper piping through a wall - bad.
There are two central heating pipes running through this wall which aren't sheathed and are showing signs of corrosion. Copper should never be in direct contact with any material which can carry water, including render, and there's a possibility that they're leaking in to the wall. They supply the radiators in the Hallway and WC, and we'll be getting them removed.

The second theory is that the concrete floor is forcing ground water outwards and up this wall. Why is it worse than the other walls in this room though? We may have uncovered that answer today as we started stripping it back to reveal brick construction, rather than the non-porous stone which the other walls are constructed of. Does the brick soak up more of the ground damp?
Bricks! I was expecting stone.

And the third theory is that there's a leak from somewhere in the WC, which is in close proximity to this wall, and that the Kitchen cupboards are hiding the problem in the Kitchen.

As we knock more of the plaster off in this room we'll be sharing updated thoughts on the cause.

Bedroom 1: The smokehouse

Our survey picked up on the fact that the Eastern end chimney stack was a major problem, and this was evidenced by some major damp problems in the Living Room and Bedroom 1. The next stage in the Investigation phase of our project was to unmask Bedroom 1, immediately above the Living Room, and see how much damage has been caused to the walls and beams by potentially decades of water soaking in through the leaky chimney stack.

Eastern wall, Bedroom 1.
The wallpaper in this room peeled off in whole sheets. It was ruined by the damp underneath and almost willed itself in to the bin bags. The Eastern wall was touch wet. Dripping in some places. And it hasn't rained in weeks. Several layers of woodchip wallpaper and emulsion paint had sealed the damp in and left the lime plaster to rot.

Peeling the wallpaper off revealed a room wholly rendered in lime and desperate to get rid of the water trapped in it. It stinks. Both of wet plaster and of smoke. The stains above the fireplace trace the line of the chimney up to the stack and I had a bit of panic moment when I thought this was black mould and gypsum plaster. (Black mould is really bad for health and toxic, and shouldn't be dealt with by amateurs like me.) So I abandoned the room with the window open for 24 hours while I did some research.

I ventured back in to the room with respirator, goggles and gloves and whilst the wall was still really damp, there was no smell of mould and the evil black sheen had gone to be replaced by a deep terracotta hue to the plaster. Further investigation of this (knocking a big chunk out) leads me to believe that the colour has come from years of salts, soot and water leaching through the brick chimney and in to the lime plaster. It's only a theory, of course, but my layman's brain says that that makes sense. A chimney letting in water (there are bricks missing in the chimney stack, and the mortar is shot) coupled with intense heat and a waterproof seal would surely force some elements outward in to the plaster, wouldn't it?

So, with that theory in my mind, we've been actively heating Bedroom 1, and airing it twice daily. The chimney is venting well and there's a good air-flow through the room. The smell of smoke is still very strong, but no longer overwhelming, and and we've made an effort to 'move in' to Bed 1 as our temporary living room and thus artificially dry out the worst of the damp in the house before Winter sets in and that chimney stack starts letting in more water.

Phase 1, Week 1: What lies beneath

We've been in a week now, having spent 3 days moving up to The Cottage, and week 1 has been the commencing of the Investigation phase of the project. There's been a lot of walking around, poking things, investigating wires, following pipes, listening the house as it creaks and breathes, and starting to learn about the way it works.
We've had the week off work, and with the exception of Bedroom 3 (where we're sleeping) and the Kitchen, we've taken a pretty gung-ho approach at finding out what lies beneath the veneer of decoration in the fabric of the building. The following few posts (tagged Investigation) will follow what we find as we remove wallpaper, rotten plasterwork and decades' old paint from the rooms.
Let's start, as we did, in the Living Room, which the survey showed was the coldest in the house, and where we assumed that the damp problems would be worst.

Living Room: Under the (mouldy) carpet were old vinyl tiles, and under that concrete
The Living Room stank of damp. It was horrible, and instantly make you want to leave the room. We invested in Class 3 respirators and set about removing the carpet and curtains, which were both damp and mouldy. Under the carpet was an expensive and breathable woollen underlay, but this in turn was placed on some very old vinyl tiles. 
We read up about these tiles, and noted that they potentially contained asbestos, so continued to wear the respirators as we carefully prised them up from the concrete underneath. They will be disposed of at our local refuse tip, which accepts Asbestos waste.
Underneath the tiles was the remnant of their glue, stuck to a crumbly concrete layer which we have left as the floor of the Living Room for now. Concrete isn't breathable, and the assumption at the moment is that this flooring will be encouraging the water in the ground below it outwards and in to the walls, and contributing to the damp that is evident in them.
Living Room, North Wall. Seems to be painted in some sealant
Once the floor was out, we moved on to the walls, where the woodchip wallpaper peeled off very easily from the lower 3-4ft. Underneath the wallpaper on the North and West walls is a light-blue coloured substance which seems to have been painted directly on to the lime renders as a sealant. 
I can understand why the previous owners did this - to mask the dampness which the lime render underneath it was 'breathing' out - but it seems to have trapped the moisture in the wall, and this is evidenced by the sealant (and wallpaper) bubbling up and peeling off in large patches where this moisture has forced its way out of the lime.
We've exposed an area of gypsum render in the North East corner of this room, which is 4 inches thick, and at some point we'll knock this open and see what it's all about.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Exchanged contracts

After much legal wrangling and blaming of Solicitors, we've exchanged contracts and will be moving in at the end of November. Slightly later and colder than we'd hoped, the new tentative plan will be to move furniture in to the delapidated (but dry) summer room, and begin getting rid of all the wet gypsum plaster in the stone parts of the house as a priority. And then investigating the state of the concrete path immediately surrounding the house, potentially converting it to a gravel path on top of a French Drain.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Valuation survey

The valuation survey for the mortgage has come back today, and the surveyor has picked up on the damp, and the shocking condition of the flat-roofed rear extension.
He's valued it at the price we're paying and given an estimate of £15,000 for the repairs, with a final value of £20,000 more than we're paying.
So, a quick call to the mortgage provider and they seem happy, pending the report going to the underwriters.
The underwriters may request a copy of the detailed report and cause a bit of a hold-up, but we'll see.

Update: the underwriters are happy, and the mortgage is approved. 

The strange Concrete moulding

I had one question from the Survey which I hoped that the previous owners, who had been resident for 30+ years could shed some light on. The odd concrete moulding at the upper end of the house. Was it some kind of structural support, or maybe a flood defence? We couldn't tell.

You can see it creeping around the corner of the house.

And here's the gable-end. Structural, or what?
Unfortunately, the response from the vendor doesn't shed any more light.

"I have spoken with my parents who confirmed that the "concrete moulding"  referred to below was already in place when they bought the house over 30 years ago. They have no idea what its purpose is, but have certainly never experienced any flooding during their time in the house.  The only thought they had was that the ground may have originally sloped down to that end of the house and a previous owner may have dug away from the side of the house to allow a path to go all the way around the property.  However, they have no evidence to support this possible theory."

These two photos: Copyright

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Offline reading material

I picked up a copy of the Haynes manual for Period Property by Iain Alistair Rock, which is a great introduction to purchasing, and the possible pitfalls of owning an old house.
I noticed that Pete Ward, who did the survey on The Cottage, is listed as a contributor, which is confidence inspiring. It also echoes everything Pete said during our day at the property and his subsequent report on what will need doing and why.

Link to the book here: Haynes

Old-Building Survey - the results

We've had the survey report back from Pete Ward at Heritage House, which gives us something written to plan around. Hopefully it will also help when we talk with Building Control about what we plan to do, and why. Here's an extract:

Building construction type:
The house is what is known as ‘solid walled’ construction.  The building needs to be treated as a breathable structure – local brick, stone and timber, built with lime mortar, and lime plaster to the walls.   The building and additions need to breathe – and problems are endemic in such structures when modern materials are used that trap water into them.   There is a modern addition to the rear which is built with what appears to be cavity brickwork.

The building is in poor condition as a result of a lack of maintenance over the years.  The building is suffering badly from dampness from a variety of sources.    Stormwater drainage is unmanaged.  Ground levels are too high and causing penetrating dampness.  Chimneys may need rebuilding, and most certainly need correct flashing. The building needs total re-wire, and re-plumbing. Windows are similarly in poor condition.
I will attempt to describe the issues seen below in no particular order of importance:


  1. The roof appears in good condition structurally.  I can find little or no sign of water ingress at this point in time, although there are signs of past problems.  Chimneys are in very poor condition – tops need re-building, repointing in lime, and re-flashing.
  2. Verges to the roof have been cemented, and are cracking – these should be done using lime mortar.  There are numerous slipped tiles, especially towards the verges and some are sliding into the gutters.  Gutters need attention – I suggest most joints leak.
  3. Stonework around the house appears to have been painted in some sort of peculiar green paint, which apart from being unsightly is probably causing moisture entrapment – ideally it should be removed.
  4. At the right hand gable end, is a rather strange concrete structure which may or may not be supporting the wall.  It is most certainly trapping moisture into the wall which is transferring into the house and showing as excessive penetrating damp internally.
  5. Some of the stonework is in good condition – other areas are very poor – with mortar falling out, heavy cement strap pointing, and disintegrating stone.  These areas will need raking out and re-pointing in lime mortar. 
  6. The ‘flat’ roofed extension to the rear is scrap.
  7. The ‘new’ kitchen extension is cement rendered – ideally this should be removed.  It is already hollow in places and showing signs of moisture entrapment.
  8. Internally there is extensive condensation and dampness – mainly because gypsum plaster has been used to coat the walls – this is trapping condensation into the walls and soaking them.  All of this needs to be removed, and the walls allowed to dry out.  Lime plaster should be used to replace – and clay based paints or limewash used to decorate. 
  9. Many skirtings and architraves are damp and rotten.  Door frames show a peculiar form of twisting and cracking at the base of the frames – I have never seen this almost rotational cracking before...
  10. I would go so far as to say wiring is dangerous and needs total replacement.
  11. Plumbing is in similar condition – many pipes appear to run under concrete, and are badly corroded.
  12. Ground levels, especially at the front, are way too high – these should be at least 6” below the top of the internal floors.  Rainwater is being trapped around the house, and is undoubtedly causing penetrating damp internally.
  13. There are a number of trees around the house which are too close – root systems will be drying out the ground (which is mainly boulder clay) and can cause shrinkage and consequent structural problems.  Ideally all these trees should be removed.
  14. Install humidity controlled ventilation £1,000  I’ve added this as an item for consideration – most problems in buildings of this type are related to human interference with the fabric – moisture is the key to damage.  Remove moisture, and the building stays dry on its own.  Moisture sources are people, kitchens, bathrooms,  and point sources such as high ground levels.  Good ventilation and removal of humid air as it occurs is vital.  

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The old house survey

I'm no fan of the Homebuyer's Report type of survey. I had one done once and the surveyor missed a fairly obvious structural flaw which resulted in my claiming compensation to help rectify the problem. I think that there's much more value in viewing a property with a specialist builder (or surveyor) and working around it together discussing the implications and options for any problems.

I found a superb source of information online called Heritage-House, and gave the chap who runs it a call on the day we viewed The Cottage to see whether, if our offer was accepted, he'd be free to come and help survey the property with me as soon as possible. His name is Pete Ward and on the phone he made a great first impression by taking the time to talk about the house and my expectations.

Our offer was accepted by the vendor within an hour of making it, and a call back to Pete at Heritage-House confirmed a visit to have a looksee on the following Monday.

It's a hell of a drive from Surrey to The Cottage, so I set off early and collected the keys from the estate agent, who was happy to just leave us to it as the property was empty.

Pete turned up in a well abused Discovery with his bonkers companion Soot the Collie, and set about in a manner akin to a man assessing the temperature of a swimming pool before jumping in wandering around all sides of the property to get a feel for how it sat in its location, and what its purpose in the world was.

Over the following 6 hours, Pete paid more attention to the details of the house, it's original Victorian construction, adaptations, and butchering with modern materials than anyone I've ever seen do any job before. No wall was left un-tapped. No carpet left un-lifted. No rafter left un-checked. And no patch of condensation left without tracing its cause. We went in to the drains, the loft, the cupboards and the chimneys. And at every point Pete took his time to explain WHY each problem was occurring and how it should be remedied. This was so much more than the stark white-paper survey that some modern firms would produce. This was a lesson from a man who knows old properties inside-out, and how modern materials can damage the structure in a fundamental way. In my opinion it was worth every penny of the £600 bill.

Finding the right house

I reckon that I must have browsed through the on-line details for over a thousand properties on Zoopla and Rightmove. Those two sites have grown in to an amazing resource for anyone considering a wide property search, and in particular the map views which allow you to draw areas for consideration allow a superb away of discovering areas which you don't know exist.

And as we browsed properties over the course of around 6 weeks, our criteria changed and adapted because of what we saw. Our initial thoughts on getting a smaller house (2-bedroom) were realised to be a false economy because of less adaptable space, and our early searches in the cheapest areas of the country (West Wales, Lincolnshire, Dartmoor, Scottish borders) all became less viable as we looked at maps of rail, bus and road networks, and considered what would happen if one of us was injured or sick.

And slowly we narrowed it down to a search based on 3-bedrooms, the keyword 'outbuilding' and a price of under £275,000. We had a shortlist of 10 properties and two clear favourites.

When the choices numbered only a few, I took to my copies of Ordnance Survey maps and scoured the areas around each house for Pros and Cons which don't show up on a street map. OS Mapping is, in my opinion, one of the most valuable tools for rural house-hunting. A 1:25000 map will show up hills, tracks, public rights of way and local features which no other kind of map will be able to. For instance, we ruled out one property which was surrounded by farmland and otherwise stunning because there were no public footpaths anywhere nearby and thus no ability to take the dog for a walk and enjoy the countryside outside of the garden. For £8, an OS map is a cheap and foolproof tool for property search.

And, of course, Google Earth (or Google Maps and Streetview) is a stunning piece of software which gives you a real feeling for the area you're moving in to. Be warned that some of the photos can be years out of date though (our current house is still shown with the people who lived here over 5 years ago).

So, armed with our map research we visited the two favourite properties on Friday 27th September, and of the two we both decided that The Cottage was the one we could see ourselves throwing our passion and time in to, and we made an offer of £249,950 on the same day.

An introduction to the project

The Wife and I live in a small village at the foot of the Surrey Hills, where the price for property has escalated beyond anything sensible and would require us to be slaves to our wages for another 20 years. We've just finished a long-term project to transform a tiny little 1930's terraced house in to a cosy nest and it's being bought by a couple who are trading up from a 1-bedroom flat.

We've decided that the time is right for us to make The Big Move, the one where you take the leap in to a property which you hope to be in for 20 years, rather than the stepping-stone properties that we've both bought and sold before now. But we're combining that leap with the desire to drop our mortgage, and for The Wife to give up her job and concentrate on making a small business out of her crafting hobby instead.

This rules out any property in Surrey. Even the scarcely available derelict ones are out of budget so we've looked further afield.

And we've found a property which ticks all our boxes; land for growing, plenty of outbuildings to convert to a studio, 3-bedrooms and scope to improve and maximise a long-term investment.

But, it's been neglected over the past few years as the couple who owned it have grown old and less able to maintain the house. It's very, very damp with condensation, and colder than the ambient temperature on any given day. This blog will follow the story of us purchasing, renovating and living with The Cottage for anyone interested, or those considering purchasing a similar property. Thank you for reading.