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5 tips for house viewings – from a structural engineer

So you’ve been to a fair few house viewings. You look around the house and speak to the current owners and are pretty well versed in looking past the swirly carpets and dodgey décor. As a serious investor you are seeing the services in the building, rather than the cosmetics.

You find yourself wondering what the real heffalump traps are. How can I tell if something is potentially going to add thousands to a refurbishmet? What are the warning signs at a viewing that might indicate that there is a reason not to buy?

Here are a few tips, things I’m looking at when I initially view a house with the aim of refurbishing it to top level professional let standard.

· Measure the basement height. Measure the area as normal, but add on the important dimension of head height…and not just in one place, in multiple places in case there is any indication of sagging joists. You are looking for nice even heights between the bottom of the joists and the floor. Really though, we are looking to see if we can get a basement room in here.

You will need to allow for insulation under foot, underlay, carpet, as well as plasterboard and 3mm of plaster overhead. If the height from the bottom of the joist to the floor is 1.9m or less at this time, I’d consider this space storage, unless there is a low enough price tag to absorb the cost of a dig down and all the associated extras. Although you may not want to use the basement as a room in the short term, at some point in the life cycle of the property, you may want to. This would typically happen late in stage 2, or when you are planning to convert to flats in stage 3. Keep your options open.

· Before you visit the property, you’ve looked at the floorplan, and made a quick sketch of how you think potential en suites and additional bathrooms will fit into the property. All very well on paper, but a floorplan doesn’t tell you what the materials are. When you plan your plumbing, take care to plan the actual route of the pipework, not just the start and end points. If you plan on adding bathrooms on the ground floor, as I do a lot, it’s a good idea to check whether the kitchen floor is concrete. If it is, you’ll need to allow for that in your refurbishment calculations. The other thing is whether you need an additional Manhole? Waste, and solving the pipework problem can really sting you, so take care of the entire length of the plumbing route, not just the ends of it.

· Asbestos. While swirly carpets and dodgey decoration have us all like a moth to a flame on rightmove, take the time to look up. If the ceiling was decorated at the same time that that brown and yellow wallpaper went up, there’s an increased chance it is Artex and contains asbestos. If it does, or even if your builder thinks it does, and you discover it the same day you’re dropping the ceilings to run your lovely new services, it’s all stop until your test results come back if it has been disturbed.

· Which walls are structural and which can be removed? Tapping a wall to see if it is hollow, doesn’t tell you anything, and certainly doesn’t make it non–load bearing if it sounds hollow. After being battened and plaster boarded, a brick wall can sound hollow but may be holding a significant amount of weight if it is supporting a main beam for the floors above. Similarly, Internal walls can be made of brick and may not be structural, for example chimneys, which themselves aren’t structural but are self supporting. You can remove chimney without having to add extra supports, as long as you remove the whole thing. If in any doubt, get a structural engineer to take a look.

· Which leads me nicely onto the last of my 5 tips for viewng a property, the position and projection of the chimney. As a rule, if I’m doing a major remodel, I’ll remove the chimney, including the stack, on a house destined for HMO of 5 or more people. It creates bigger, squarer rooms which can more easily accommodate en suites. What I’m looking for is that the chimney shares no party wall with a neighbour, as this opens a can of worms regarding party wall agreements and big delays and more expense. Larger, end terrace properties are best suited for the 5-6 bed HMO’s with the chimneys removed, as you get more bang for your buck. This upfront cost also doubles down later on in the life of the property when we convert to flats. There are a few extra considerations with the chimney removal that I’ll take you through in a separate post.

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