What to inspect in your property inspection
As an astute buyer of property, you’re probably totally across key factors such as infrastructure, pricing, great areas and demographics. But there’s another line of knowledge you’ll find useful.
To make the most of your purchase, it’s advantageous to have at least a basic understanding of the key components of property – particularly important when it comes to your building and pest inspection.
We’ll cover the pest inspection items in another blog, so outlined below are the key items you should consider during your building inspection.
Illegal construction – By law, substandard existing extensions, renovations, home improvements and repairs become the responsibility of the home buyer after settlement. They may be dangerous, and/or they may have to be removed prior to further building work if very substandard. You should check with the vendor or their solicitor to ensure any works have been undertaken with building approval. Building approval enquiries can also be made to the local council’s building department.
Cracking in brickwork – Most cracking in brickwork requires cosmetic treatment only. The majority of cracks are not indications of grave structural damage. If you have concerns, an independent assessment can be sought from the local council or a structural engineer. Cracking can be vertical, horizontal, cogged, stepped or a combination. The form it takes is sometimes a clear indication of the problem. It can be informative to watch what the crack does over various seasons.
Footings and foundations
Foundation movement depends on the type of rock or soil and how that type is influenced by changes in moisture, temperature and imposed loads. Movement is rarely uniform over the whole of the building site, and different movement under different parts of the footings creates stresses in the walls that result in cracks.
Foundations are usually classified as either reactive or non-reactive to changes in their moisture content. Reactive soils are typically clay soils that shrink and swell rapidly as their moisture content decreases or increases. Non-reactive soils are soils such as rock, gravel, shale, phyllite or sand whose volume does not increase or decrease with the moisture content.
Information regarding soil type can be obtained from the local council or a testing by a soil engineer. Movement in foundations is caused principally by the following.
Moisture movement in reactive soils – Experts suggest that changes in the water content of clay type soils cause up to 90 per cent of all cracking problems in houses. Factors that affect the water content in the soil include extraction of trees and shrubs, solar radiation, migration of moisture.
Uneven settlement of the foundations – Where a particularly heavy load, such as a large column, is placed on foundations, movement may occur as moisture is squeezed out of the soil or as the soil readjusts. This consolidation will stop when the soil has compacted enough to support the load.
Sliding surface layers – Overloading can cause shear failure in the soil. The soil can slip in a downward, sideward or upward movement, causing the footings to settle as a result.
Building on variable foundations – Building on part-rock, part-shale, or part-clay does occur on flat sites but is more frequently undertaken on sloping sites where part of the slope has been cut into and the material cut out has been used as fill to extend the horizontal surface for the house. The fill can compress more readily and uneven settlement can ‘bend’ the house at the point where the two materials meet.
Additions to existing buildings – Building an addition onto a house can impose a load intensity on the soil that is different from that which was there before and so cause differential settlement. Even if the loading intensities are similar, the difference in time between when the two settlements occur can be enough to create cracks.
Excessive vibration – Damage caused by vibration from earth tremors, heavy traffic or pile driving is fairly rare. However, if the vibration is great enough to actually cause the foundation to move, cracking can occur. In this case a rock foundation is not the best as it can easily transmit vibrations to the building.
In brick houses where the bearers are supported in brick priers at the ends, rotten footings or stumps will cause a ‘trampoline’ effect in the centre of the rooms.
Contrary to popular belief, the conditions of stumps in weatherboard houses cannot be definitely confirmed by jumping on the floors. If the stumps have rotted away evenly, the floors may appear firm, however they will almost always slope away from brick fireplaces. Other symptoms are crooked door and window frames. It should be remembered that these symptoms are only evident after the stumps have failed completely.
A house may appear quite sound during a visual inspection, but could start to sink shortly afterwards if the stumps have just reached failure point. The condition of the stumps can be ascertained by scratching away 50–100 mm of soil from the base of the worst stump to check its condition below the ground. Stumps deteriorate most quickly in wet conditions and generally the worst stumps are those with the highest and most prominent water marks. If only a few appear faulty, individual replacement may be the best solution. However, if more than 20% to 30% of stumps show serious deterioration, total re-stumping should be considered’ (ArchiCentre, 2003b).
Types of dampness
Rising damp – Rising damp occurs at the bases of walls. Water accumulating there has a tendency to ‘wick up’ through the capillaries that are present in the walls, be they brick, block or stone; and through the mortar in which they are laid. Damp-proof courses are there to block this upward movement of moisture but sometimes are ineffective.
Falling damp – Refers mainly to leaking roofs, pipes etc., which if ponding near a wall can increase rising damp.
Horizontal damp – Various defects can cause water to move horizontally through a wall at any height and create a damp patch.
Condensation dampness – Moist air inside a house will condense into its liquid state if it touches cold windows, walls, or the underside of metal roof sheeting.
Common signs of dampness
Surface stains – Water moving through bricks and blocks may dissolve some of the alkaline salts from the mortar. The salts can then react with the tannins in timber, wallpaper or the like to produce stains that are usually brown.
Lifted surface finishes – As a rising damp wall dries, the water will be drawn to the surface and find itself trapped under the paint film or other surface finish. The evaporating water lifts the film in bubbles that will eventually break to leave blisters.
Efflorescence and fretting – Where there is a continuous supply of water rising up a wall, it will contain dissolved salts and when that water dries out at the surface the salts will crystallise. If the crystals form on the surface of the wall as a white furry coating, this is non-damaging efflorescence, but if the crystallisation occurs within the bricks or mortar, the forming crystals can exert pressure that causes the surface to break down and fret away. In most of Australia this phenomenon is called ‘salt attack’, but in South Australia it is called ‘salt damp’. With rising damp, there is a continuous supply of water, so salt attack damage worsens over time, but it usually reaches a stage where crystallisation occurs only on the surface as efflorescence and fretting stops.
Causes of rising damp or ‘salt damp’
Disrupted damp-proof course (dpc) – The minor movements to which all structures can be subjected sometimes cause brittle dpcs to crack and thus create a path for dampness. Slate and mortar dpcs are the sorts most subject to damage from this cause, but tar and sand can also become brittle enough to crack. The result is usually a local patch of efflorescence, fretting or timber rot.
Damp-proof course no longer copes – Some change to the conditions at the base of the wall that put increased pressure on what was always a deficient dpc (e.g. a mortar dpc with adequate waterproofer compound mixed into it) is the most common reason for a building to develop a dampness problem.
Damp-proof course is bridged – If a membrane dpc is not placed through the full thickness of the wall, a mortar ‘bridge’ exists at the face of the mortar joint. Moisture will cross that bridge and can cause salt attack fretting in the bricks and mortar above. ‘Bridging’ can also occur where brickwork or blockwork is rendered and the render bridges the dpc. Another bridging problem can be created where mortar droppings in the base of the wall cavity build up and cover the stepped flashing/dpc and thus provide a passage for dampness from the outer to the inner leaf of the wall. This type of bridge is seldom continuous and usually causes only local patches of damp to develop.
Cures for rising dampness
- Repair the damaged damp-proof
- Improve sub-floor
- Repair leaking
- Repair damp-proof course
- Install new damp-proof course by physically inserting a new damp-proof course or by creating a chemical damp-proof
Causes of falling dampness
Water pipes, stormwater pipes, roofs, gutters and downpipes can all leak water into roofs, down walls and also into the ground, which will also increase the chance of rising damp.
Water from leaking roofs or condensation on the underside of roof sheeting can travel for some distance before it finally appears within the house as falling dampness, making it difficult to determine the precise source of the problem.
Cures for falling dampness
- Tracing the origin of white salts on the underside of the sheets or tiles may produce the answer.
- Replacing the roof sheeting or tiles, patching partly defective surfaces or reducing condensation where possible are the best
Causes of horizontal dampness
Where horizontal dampness is present in a cavity wall, it is usually because mortar droppings lodge on the ties joining the two walls and form a bridge for water to cross and create damp patches internally. Bricklaying that leaves mortar joints less than perfectly full is a common reason for those gaps, but footing movement that creates cracking, cutting holes in walls or defective flashings can also be the
Cures for horizontal dampness
- Horizontal dampness is usually cured by the application of a waterproof coating to the outside of the wall (e.g. painted-on coatings, either obscure and pigmented, or as clear coatings such as silicones).
Causes of condensation dampness
Cold surfaces within the house on which condensation takes place are typically ceilings or windows, the tops of walls or in stagnant areas such as behind cupboards. The underside of the roof-covering can also become cold enough to be the location for condensation, particularly with metal
Cures for condensation dampness:
- Simple cases of condensation dampness on ceilings and the top parts of external walls can often be ended by installing ceiling
- Increase airflow through the house at times when the external air is drier, thus decreasing
- Vent all exhaust flues from cooking, bathing and clothes-drying externally and not into the roof
Roofing and guttering
The following information is reproduced from ArchiCentre 2003, Roofing and Guttering Technical Information Sheet.
To discover the source of leaks in the roof, the best approach is to examine the roof from underneath, in the roof space, preferably on a very rainy day. It is likely that the leaks will be evident. If it isn’t raining it is sometimes possibly to locate the origin of a roof leak by examining the roof framing timbers. White powdery trails of mineral salt deposits can sometimes be left behind after water evaporates from timber. Brown stains on timber can also be a guide, although sometimes they have nothing to do with the roof leaking. Holes or rust decay in metal roofs will show up brightly if you are in the roof space during the day.
Repair of tiles
Tiles rarely need repair. They do not become more porous over time. If anything, concrete tiles become more impermeable to water. All tiles absorb water. It is normal for the underside of tiles to be damp, although if it drips water there is a problem. In such a case it is most likely that the tile is cracked. Ageing tiles become more brittle and more likely to crack. Often minor leaks in a tiled roof occur through mortar cracking away from ridge or capping tiles or mortar joints near valley gutters. These can often be fixed by sealing the underside with a silicon sealer. Significant roof leaking may require re- bedding the tiles in new mortar. Slipped tiles most often occur when fixings deteriorate or mortar joints break down. Such tiles need to be re-bedded in new mortar or re-fixed by re- nailing or renewing the ties.
Repair of metal roofs
It is possible to insert ‘slips’ of new corrugated iron between the overlaps of corroded metal sheets, this being a common deterioration site. These ‘slips’ need to match the profile of the existing corrugations. Silicon sealant and paint can sometimes extend the life of a partly decayed metal roof, otherwise replacement is the best option.
A roof has to sag noticeably before any serious framing problem exists. When significant sagging occurs, tiled roofs will deflect, admitting windblown water. A sag may occur through deterioration due to age, or when lightweight roofing materials like corrugated iron or slate have been replaced with heavier materials like concrete tiles. The roof framing should have been reinforced during the changeover, but often this is not done. Sagging can also be caused by purlins incorrectly affixed to the house frame. Purlins support the roof frame and should be attached to the tops of walls, not to the ceiling joists which will bow under such weight. The above structural defects can lead to costly repairs and should be professionally assessed before they are rectified.’
Rusted or poorly installed gutters are common problems. Some of the easily recognisable signs of deterioration are bubbling paint or rust on the underside of gutters, stains on the underside of eaves and the presence of rust generally. If the problem is minor, small holes can be patched with tapes or silicone sealants. Indications of major guttering faults are stains around windows, sometimes down the walls and even on ceilings in the case of flat roofs. Such leaks are likely to be caused by gutter overflows. Gutters overflow for a number of reasons.
They may be clogged with debris, or the slope towards the downpipe may be insufficient, or the downpipe may be blocked. Overflow faults are worsened when the outside edge of the spouting is higher than the inside edge – a common installation fault.
This can often be remedied by loosening the gutter brackets so that the outside edge becomes lower than the inside edge. The way to discover an overflow problem is to climb a ladder and carefully lift one of the roof tiles. A look inside the eaves should reveal if leaks have occurred and if any timber-rot problems exist as a result. Inside the gutter should also be checked by scraping away the dirt and checking for ponding.’
Decks and balconies
All exterior timbers are susceptible to insect attack and decay, with only pressure-treated pine being resistant to deterioration for any length of time. Wet rot is a particular danger. A properly applied stain or paint finish will inhibit water entry through the faces of timber, but gaps, joints and unprotected end-grain provide a ready means for moisture to penetrate.
A typical concrete cantilevered balcony has its main reinforcement at the top, and with normal deflection a crack can develop in the concrete just outside the wall of the building. Such a crack allows salt air to penetrate the slab, resulting in corrosion that reduces the steel cross-section over time, and consequently the capacity of the balcony to carry its design load.
Drainage: Stormwater – Check condition of gutters and downpipes, and connections of downpipes to stormwater drains.
Drainage: Sewerage – Check outlets from sanitary appliances (if visible) for evidence of water damage.
Water supply – Check the water supply in and out of the dwelling, including checking the water pressure from the fixture furthest from supply. Check water pipes for excessive corrosion or deterioration.
Electricity supply – Check the incoming electrical supply line to the dwelling. Determine if there is a for safety switch (RCD Residual Current Device) on the switchboard. Check for any obviously illegal wiring.
Most houses built before 1983 will contain asbestos in some form. In most cases, the presence of asbestos products in houses is no cause for alarm and it should be left in place. In the past asbestos was extensively used in many products, one of the most common being ‘a/c sheeting’ or asbestos cement. These sheets were most often used for cladding (sometimes known as ‘fibro’) and roofing. The asbestos in these products is usually firmly embedded in the cement. Surfaces that are weathering and could release asbestos strands from the surface can be covered with paint, or better, anacrylic waterproof membrane resembling thick paint.
Removal and disposal of asbestos cement sheet should be undertaken only by a licensed asbestos removal company. Asbestos removal can add substantially to the cost of renovation or maintenance.
Specialist removalists will take precautions such as:
- Wearing protective masks and clothing
- Using hand tools and not power tools for cutting
- Not abrading or breaking up the product whenever possible
- Thoroughly wetting the product prior to working with it
- Working outdoors rather than indoors
- Wetting any residue prior to sweeping.
Old painted surfaces, particularly those painted pre-1970, may have a high lead content which can be very dangerous, especially to children up to four years of age, as it can interfere with their neurological development. Care should be taken removing or renovating old paint surfaces to ensure lead is not ingested or inhaled. For more information contact your State’s Environmental Protection Authority.
Aim to maintain a constant minimum level of moisture in the ground near the house to prevent sudden and severe brickwork cracking caused by drying and shrinking soils. Do not plant fast-growing trees near the house as tree-induced drying is the biggest cause of footing failure and brickwork cracking in clay soils. Ensure that the garden is properly drained and that excessive water accumulation does not occur.
Regularly cut back trees and creepers and drain away boggy soils to prevent early deterioration of your fences. If soil build-up is inevitable, renew the ordinary hardwood plinth with CCA treated pine or a rot-resistant hardwood such as redgum.
Regular roof checks are important, particularly after severe storm events. Cracked or dislodged tiles should be replaced and pinprick rust holes in metal roofs should be sealed. Gutters should be examined and cleaned regularly and eaves linings maintained to prevent animal penetration.
Watch for signs of dampness on external cladding and act immediately if detected. Maintain a good protective paint or stain coating on all exposed timberwork to prevent deterioration such as splitting and rotting. To prevent cracking in brickwork, do not plant trees or allow them to exist closer to the house than their natural height unless their roots are discouraged or contained in some way. Keep the garden and lawns around the house evenly damp throughout the drier months.
Don’t neglect one side of the house just because nothing much grows in the area. Regularly check existing drains, down-pipes, guttering and service piping to ensure no leakages occur over the life of the building. If you think your house needs underpinning or other building work carried out, make sure you have an independent assessment undertaken first by an architect or engineer. Then obtain at least three quotations and make sure you have a firm written contract with the company.
Internal ceiling and walls
Recurring cracks in internal lining may indicate a structural problem and warrant further investigation. If deterioration is evident, and the structural problem is not significant, the plaster walls and ceilings should be replaced.
Internal air quality
Maintain a reasonable circulation of air in the house, to prevent stale air, excessive humidity and condensation. Vapour-producing items such as stoves, clothes driers and showers should all be well vented to the outside of the house. Prevent mould from developing by ensuring good ventilation and avoiding moist conditions.
Maintain services in good order. Have gas leaks fixed immediately. Fuses that blow with increasing regularity indicate a fundamental wiring problem and should be attended to immediately. It may be an indication in older homes that rewiring of the house is required.
Keep the sub-floor free from debris to maximise ventilation. Clean out sub-floor vents regularly, to prevent these stagnant conditions occurring. Install more vents if mouldy smells develop and persist. Periodically check the ground below the shower recess, and other wet areas, to ensure that the water seals have not broken down over time. Houses that have timber stumps as part of their sub-floor structure will eventually be subject to stump rot. If more than 30 per cent of stumps are affected with rot, they should all be replaced. Periodically examine the sub-floor for signs of termites.
Yes . .I know. This should be a booklet rather than a blog, but I thought it best to keep all the information together and have summarized as much as I dare. Further information can be found at the federal government site http://www.yourhome.gov.au.
Of course, we need to leave the inspection to qualified representatives, however the information here will help you understand the content of your inspection reports, as well as understand how to address any issues.
Part of our service at Crave is to run through inspection reports with you to ensure you’re clear on the condition of your property and if required, we’ll obtain quotes and negotiate with agents if a price recalculation is required.
(Adapted from ArchiCentre, 2000b)
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Crave Property Advisory is a unique property strategy and buyers agent service. As the only independent and unbiased advisory that can help you use any property strategy Australia-wide, Crave’s services extend to home, investment and commercial property. A highly client focused organization, Crave developed the Modular Investing System (MI System) to provide clients with the ability to use a tailored mix of strategies and efficiently build profitable portfolios that create lifetime income.
Debra Beck-Mewing is the CEO of Crave Property Advisory, and has more than 20 years’ experience in property investing, Australia-wide. She has used a range of strategies to build her property portfolio including renovating, granny flats, sub-division and development. Debra is skilled in identifying development opportunities, and sourcing properties that have multiple uses and multiple exit strategies. She is a Qualified Property Investment Advisor, licensed real estate agent and also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and Master of Business.
Disclaimer – This information is of a general nature only and does not constitute professional advice. We strongly recommend you seek your own professional advice in relation to your particular circumstances.