The term ‘period’ when applied to property generally means a building constructed prior to WW2. After the war and into the 1950s and 60s, the British government entered into a wide scale programme of house and property building. This was in someway a means of replacing the houses lost through bombing in the war, but also because with the introduction of the welfare state times were changing rapidly. The days of houses providing accommodation for several generations of a family were swiftly departing. The scenario we are familiar with today where only 1 or 2 generations occupy a home (known as the ‘nuclear’ family) had arrived.
It is fair to say that the houses built after the war are generally regarded as less visually appealing than period homes. However this gets in the way of the fact that post-war houses generally offer superior thermal efficiency, space and internal natural light over period homes. Therefore there should not be any snobbery involved in assuming period properties are better than more modern homes.
That said, many purchasers (myself and my wife included) are enticed by the romanticism of a period property. Our current house was constructed in the Georgian Regency era and it’s from this experience I write this post.
The construction of a period house can be substantially different from a modern house. To begin with, the plot often provides no parking area (for obvious reasons). Previous owners might have changed the plot layout (perhaps by adding a driveway or moving a wall etc) to provide parking and if so, this can increase the market value of the property. Be warned however that period properties often have listed status or are in Conservation Areas. Planning permission will almost always be needed to make this alteration. If the property is being purchased with the benefit of an added parking provision, your Solicitor should confirm that planning consent is in place for it.
Period buildings often did not have damp proof courses. This depended on the size and location of the property and the specific era it was constructed in. However as a guide, it was unusual for houses built in the Victorian era in rows of terraces to have had a means of damp proofing incorporated. On the other hand larger houses (maybe constructed earlier in the Georgian era) might have had a slate damp proof course fitted in the construction. Of course it is possible to retrospectively install a damp proof course to any property but it is quite a time-consuming task and the question should b asked “if it’s lasted well enough for x hundred years, why change it now?”.
One of the most critical points of period brickwork is understanding how it is different to modern bricks and mortar. If the 2 different approaches are mixed, significant brickwork damage can result. Portland cement forms the base of modern mortar used in property construction. This was only invented and came into widespread use in the nineteenth century. Naturally adoption of it was not uniform and within any era from the early 1800s to the early 1900s it is not possible to say conclusively whether a property was constructed with it without an inspection. Prior to the adoption of Portland cement, lime cement was the norm. This behaves in a different way by allowing the clay bricks to expand and contract naturally as a result of weather conditions and temperature. The clay bricks of the period were fairly brittle and porous but the lime mortar offered flexibility and the ability to absorb small movements within the brickwork. Adequate ventilation of this system was vital because as the bricks were porous, they had to be allowed to dry out naturally otherwise they would begin to deteriorate and break down. No cavity was provided and the walls were typically constructed as a double skin. Therefore if a period building is constructed using this method, the internal surface should be coated in a lime based plaster or paint finish to prevent dampness being ‘held in’. Lime mortar and plaster can be identified by the feel; it is much more pliable than modern cement and can even break off reasonably easily in your hands.
It is a very common situation where a lime mortar and clay brick wall has been re-grouted using Portland cement mortar. The old clay bricks cannot expand and contract as they were designed to do and the face of the brick begins to separate from the rest. Water enters, freezes during low temperatures and pushes the face of the brick off the rest of the brick (known as ‘spalling’). This leaves the less-durable remainder of the brick exposed and a similar action continues to occur over time leading to the eventual collapse of the brick. If this has occurred over time on an extended stretch of brickwork, it can be time consuming to repair.
Internal period brickwork that has not been allowed to breathe becomes quite ‘powdery’ and loses its structure. It can be difficult to establish enough support when attempting to fit rawlplugs/screws for internal fittings. The ideal remedy for this is to remove and replace however this would add substantially to project time and cost. If the area is not too large, a less expensive remedy might be to apply another coat of lime plaster which should stop the problem worsening.
It is common for internal beams and joists to ‘sag’ over time. This in itself doesn’t usually create problems, but it’s definitely worth mentioning that they can be weakened and will not offer the same level of floor support as modern beams. If there are any concerns prior to purchase, it might be worth having a timber infestation/rot specialist inspect the woodwork and provide a report.
As mentioned above, ventilation is vital in a period property. It is common for mildew to develop in the corners of rooms that have not been adequately ventilated. That said, it’s easy enough to remove with modern cleaning products. The expense however might manifest itself in mouldy curtains or carpets that constantly smell of ‘damp’.
Sash windows are a common source of expense when renovating a period property. If they are intact and in good condition prior to property purchase, they should be maintained by regular painting. Again, it’s common for black marks to appear on the inside of sash windows in unventilated rooms. This is mildew and can begin to rot the wood if not cleaned off regularly.
When looking at the roof, don’t forget to inspect the lead flashings if possible too. As they tend to be hidden from view from the ground, it is easy to overlook them. Leaks can result in brick/woodwork degradation and/or internal leaks if not rectified reasonably swiftly. Many potential purchasers simply look at the general condition of the roof for lifted tiles/slates etc.
One last point to mention is blocked gutters. I have seen many, many buildings suffer substantial structural damage because of blocked gutters. This is no exaggeration as it is common for vegetation to grow in the sludge build-up and break apart brickwork with its roots when left unchecked. The upside to checking and cleaning gutters is that this can be a very easy way of eliminating and preventing significant internal problems.
It is tempting to believe that property designers and builders of several hundred years ago were not as ‘enlightened’ as we are today. I feel this would be an unfair assumption. What our ancestors lacked in technology, they more than adequately made up for in innovation. Provided some basic rules are followed (as above), a period property can still offer a warm, comfortable and durable place to live.