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10 ‘Gotchas’ when buying a Victorian House – Knowledge is Power

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When buying a Victorian house it is important to do your research to ensure that you are getting a good deal. You must remember that a Victorian house will have stood for more than 100 years and there will be many factors affecting the value of the property. Generally they are not designed for modern day living and you may need to undertake a number of modifications to make the house your home.

What is the Victorian Project all about? Find out here.

The house used for the Victorian project is our first property of this era and all of the information and issues contained within this post have challenged us along the way. It would have certainly been beneficial to have been much more clued up in some of the main problems with Victorian houses prior to our purchase and the project has been a massive learning curve to say the least. [See also: Should I Get A Building Survey & Are House Surveys Worth It?]

 In this article I discuss some of the key areas of a Victorian property that you should look at prior to any purchase. Many of these areas can be visually assessed when you know what to look for, or most can be covered off by one of the many different building surveys that you can have done. I hope that this information will allow you to avoid some of the “gotchas” that we have come face to face with and to help you to know exactly what you are buying. If you are buying a Victorian house for the first time then this post will most definitely be of use. [See also: Main Living Room Transformation (Before) -Decorating Begins]

1. Listing Status & Historic Significance

First on the list of problems with Victorian houses is the listing status. If a building is listed it means that it is of architectural or historical importance. It can be nice to own a piece of history however listings place many restrictions on what you can do in terms of change and modifications. The grading system is made up of the following tiers: Grade I, Grade II*, Grade II in order of importance. The higher the grade the tighter the restrictions! With listed buildings you have legal obligations to keep the buildings in a good state of repair and often in line with other properties in the same area. [See also: Remove Stubborn Wallpaper – Stripping Back]

On the flip side of all this, listed status ‘can’ add value to a property. It is vital that you fully understand whether or not a house that you are looking to purchase is listed and to what grade. Then educate yourself on what this means. Be sure to ask the current home owner or the estate agent about the listing status at the viewing stage. If a property is listed it should be highlighted by your solicitor’s checks in the early stages of purchase.

2. Structural Stability

Unless you are in the building trade and are competent in working with properties of the Victorian era then having a property that is structurally sound is crucial. Structural issues can be one of the primary problems with Victorian houses. Any Victorian house will have stood up to the elements now for 100 years and will have had to withstand a lot. Subsidence can be an issue and should be assessed prior to any purchase. If you do suspect subsidence then it is definitely worth getting a survey done by a professional. If a surveyor suspects that a building has moved over time they will use a whole host of techniques to assess the extent of the problem.

Buying a Victorian House
Victorian House Structural Issues & Subsistence

Aside from subsidence look for other visual clues as to structural damage including damage to brick work, joists and roofing (discussed later). If you doubt the structural stability of a property then get a survey done! Fortunately our house had no significant structural issues to raise any concern.

3. Damp & Internal Moisture

When we purchased our property we specifically wanted something with as little damp as possible due to our perception of the difficulties in solving damp problems and the associated costs. Many specialist damp proofing companies will lead you to believe that high priced chemical injection courses are the only way to resolve the dreaded ‘Rising Damp’. This is far from the truth and is in fact a complete con! You should NEVER use chemical injection for damp proofing in any Victorian property. When used in a Victorian property or anything built pre 1950 really a chemical injection course has the potential to make the damp problem worse! Every patch of damp in a property will have a cause and it is far better to treat the cause rather than try to block the moisture out. You can see more on this is some of our other articles. [See also: Fix Damp in Victorian Houses and the Common Causes]

Buying Victorian Houses
Victorian House Damp Issues & Penetrating Moisture

If when buying a Victorian house the property has signs of damp then spend some time on a second visit trying to identify potential causes. Although damp is one of the common problems with Victorian houses it doesn’t have to be a show stopper. When you know what you are looking for the required corrective actions should become apparent. Our house had a number of damp spots that were later resolved by making a few relatively minor changes to the property. Some severe damp areas are now completely dry without the expense or the damaging effects of a chemical injection course.

4. Roofing & Protection from the Elements

Most Victorian houses will come with a slate roof and a number of chimney stacks. Whilst a slate roof looks great and really compliments a property of the Victorian era they require regular maintenance to keep the house safe from the elements. A new roof is expensive and the price of minor repairs is also inflated by the requirement for scaffolding. [See also: Victorian Roof Repairs – Starting Point for any Renovation]

Problems with Victorian Houses
Victorian House Roof Repairs & Damaged Slates

On an initial viewing of a house assess the condition of the roof looking for damage or slipped slates. Look at each chimney stack to ensure sound brickwork and whether brick repointing is necessary. You may not be able to see the flashing from ground level. If you can, make sure that it is fitted securely to the base of each chimney. Excessive moss and vegetation can also cause issues and should be factored in to any roofing repair plans. When you go to view a property always ask to see all attics as this will give you full visibility of the roofing joists and may highlight damage that was not visible from the ground. Our roof needed repairs in a number of areas and proved to be a significant early cost.

5. Windows and Original Sash

If a Victorian house has been well looked after it may come with the original sash windows that were installed at the time of build. You cannot beat the look of original large sash windows and in our humble opinion it is a crime to replace them with UPVC unless absolutely necessary. The downside is that by comparison they are inefficient and are expensive to repair. We were fortunate in that the vast majority of our windows were original and well looked after. To give you an idea of cost we had a quotation of £16,500 to apply double glazing to our windows. As window restoration doesn’t come cheap fully assess the type, age and condition and work out in your head how you intend to take them forward.

Purchasing Victorian Properties
Original Victorian Sash Windows

6. Electrics & Modern Living

When it comes to electrics there are two areas for consideration. Firstly is the electrical wiring of the house safe? With the age of your Victorian property it may be that the wiring and fuse box were fitted some time ago and may not meet the safety requirements of today. This may be visibly apparent and if so both the extent and cost of the works should be considered. Electrical work must be carried out by a qualified and competent person and should not be undertaken by yourself (unless you are an electrician of course!).

Pros and Cons of Victorian Houses
Old Outdated Electrical Fuse Box in a Victorian House

Secondly are socket numbers and distribution suitable for modern day living? If your electrical installation was done some time ago then you may not have enough power points for all of the appliances modern life requires. With our house we found out very quickly that one socket per room simply won’t cut it!

7. Heating System & the Old Boiler

An old house can be expensive to heat due to its higher ceilings and sometimes lack of insulation and you should certainly bear this in mind when buying a Victorian house. It is important that the heating system within the house is up to the job and as energy efficient as it can be. When I refer to the ‘Old Boiler’ I am not talking about the wife here. If the previous owners have owned the property for some time it is likely that the boiler has been in place for while and not up-to-date with its servicing. It may be that your house has a newish boiler but utilizing older pipe work and radiator systems that are inefficient. A full heating system replacement can be pricey. It is imperative that you try to gage whether it will satisfy your daily heating requirements.

Updateing Victorian House Heating System and Boiler
Suitable Heating Systems for Victorian Houses

Our house came with a new boiler but it was very poorly located. Part of the main bathroom had been partitioned off since the property was built to accommodate the boiler making for a rather poor use of space. Early estimates suggest that we are looking at around £2000 to move it to a better location. This is certainly an expense we could do without. Also the radiators were unsightly and most valves throughout the house had sealed and needed to be replaced in order to keep the heating system efficient.

8. Trees, Vegetation & External Problems with Victorian houses

If you purchase a new build property it is unlikely that you will have any trees in your garden and bushes and shrubbery will be minimal. One of the external problems with Victorian houses is that the garden will have stood for many seasons in which time trees can reach substantial sizes. Although large trees can look beautiful and the idea of cutting them down can seem unthinkable it is important to be mindful of the damage they can do to a house. If roots are reaching the edge of the property they can damage the foundations and brickwork.

Victorian House Tree Damage
Victorian House Ivy Infestation

Our property has two large trees one of which has lifted and cracked concrete fence basing. A good tree surgeon can advise on what action should be taken and we are currently in the process of exploring this. It should also be noted that some trees are protected and simply hacking them down may not be an option. This is known as a Tree Preservation Order or TPO.

Another enemy to your Victorian property is Ivy. Whilst Ivy can provide the traditional secret garden look if left unattended it will grow out of control. This has the potential to damage bricks, lift roofing slates and hold moisture in places where it should drain. Before buying a Victorian house it is more about looking at the damage that Ivy has done rather than the presence of the plant itself. You can see from the image above that our house was inundated with the plant! [See also: Ivy Invasion – Removal from Bricks, Roofing & Gutters]

9. Chimneys & Wood Burner Potential

Almost all Victorian houses come with multiple chimneys. Many buyers intend for the early installation of a wood burning stove. You can’t beat the look, sound and smell of a log burner situated within a grand Victorian fireplace. If wood burning stoves feature within your plans then it is important to check that your chimney meets the requirements to fit one of these. This is one of the problems with Victorian houses that is often unseen until it is too late.

Issues with Victorian Houses
Victorian House Chimney Stacks

For a newbie buying a Victorian house this is probably something that you wouldn’t think of. Our log burner was fitted by a professional company and it was a little touch and go as to whether the installation could be completed. To meet the necessary requirements of a stove a flue is required to run the length of the chimney and the diameter of ours had been reduced with cement at some point since it was built. It took a good hour and a lot of elbow grease to get ours to fit. The guys doing the installation said that you would be surprised how many installations they have to call time on due to the chimney not being suitable. If a wood burning stove is essential to you then have the chimney inspected before you book an installation.

10. Shared Structure & a Troublesome Neighbour

The vast majority of Victorian properties are semi-detached and if you are looking at a semi then you should assess the joining property to try and identify things that could affect your side. We speak from experience in this area as next door had work done on their property not long after we moved in which caused us problems. Unfortunately it is difficult to know what your potential neighbours will do when you are buying a Victorian house.

Next door had all gutters replaced including a shared gutter running across the centre of the two properties. The replacement was not fitted correctly causing water to spill from the roof onto the ground below. This excess water then penetrated the walls of our cellar causing a large puddle directly below the main living room causing a risk of damp to us! They have also undergone a full roof replacement which of course connects to our roof. Time will tell if this has been done properly and is in fact water tight.

Knowledge is Power when Buying a Victorian House

It is important that you know what to look for when you are buying a house. This is particularly true with one as old as the Victorian era. Educating yourself in the areas highlighted will ensure that you get the right deal or even help you avoid a project that is beyond your limits. If you are aware of the ‘gotchas’ and the work that they can require you can equip yourself with additional bargaining power that can be used during price negotiations.

This post is a collection of issues that we experienced when buying a Victorian house and some of the general problems with Victorian properties. Remember though that every property is different and there will of course be many more! This has been our very first Victorian house and I truly believe that you need to live in one for a period of time before you will fully know how they work. Should we buy another we will without doubt be looking at them from a completely different perspective.

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Paul Sharpe
Paul Sharpe
With a whole lot of research, graft & enthusiasm, navigating through this Victorian Project turning an old shell into a rejuvenated and stylish Victorian home.

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About Victorian Project

Giving a new lease of life to a Victorian property built in 1910, documenting progress and posting our journey.

With limited prior experience we aim to share our research & the lessons we learned along the way. 

For a little more background see our Victorian Project Start-up post.

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