3 top tips for renovating or buying an old property

PUBLISHED: 12:48 06 January 2017 | UPDATED: 12:48 06 January 2017

Bruce Clark of Nash Partnership talks through tips for renovating property

Bruce Clark of Nash Partnership talks through tips for renovating property


Heritage specialist Bruce Clark from built environment consultancy Nash Partnership tells us what to look for before buying or renovating an old property

Modern methods or materials may be inappropiateModern methods or materials may be inappropiate

When viewing properties, people often focus on the internal decoration that they intend to replace. The first aim should be to make the building structurally sound, waterproof and safe. Here’s some guidance:

Identify condition issues

It is important to distinguish between the works a property needs as opposed to the works you wish to do. A good place to start is to identify the issues with the building fabric and their causes. Unless the property has been surveyed by someone familiar with traditional buildings, work advised and/or undertaken often uses modern methods and materials that may be inappropriate with unintended side effects on the historic fabric. Historic England has issued some technical advice notes concerning works to upgrade Listed Buildings and their consequences.

Tackle problems at the outset to avoid escalating costs

Completion using traditional materials and re-laying roof and guttersCompletion using traditional materials and re-laying roof and gutters

Updating, re-fitting and redecorating an old property can involve treating a myriad of issues. These can range from damp, timber decay, beetle attack, and spalling stonework, plaster and mould.

Problems multiply and are often not addressed until they are unsightly or cause habitability issues. Even then, people often address the symptoms and redecorate rather than face the issue, or adjust how they use the property. Over the last 30 years, we have seen many homes where rooms or even whole floors have been abandoned because of the escalating costs of dealing with what was once a simple problem. In a large house in North Wiltshire, the top floor had been completely abandoned, together with large sections of the ground floor. The electrics had fallen out of use and the owners were reduced to living with numerous extension leads run from dry sections of the building because large sections of the electrical system were unsafe.

Underlying conditions must be treated correctly to avoid causing greater problems (and more expense) later.

Consider maintenance

Underlying conditions must be treated correctlyUnderlying conditions must be treated correctly

The base cause of fabric issues is most often water penetration, where neglect spirals until a simple problem becomes a major issue. This often starts from blocked and uncleaned gutters and rain water pipes. If the surrounding planting is not kept under control, the below-ground drainage system can also be compromised. It is important to understand that damp leads to timber and plaster decay and frequently insect attacks.

Typical neglected maintenance issues are:

• Gutters – keep clear to prevent blockages from vegetation growth, which can lead to drainage problems and leaks. Parapet gutters especially will cause damage to the roof and inside of the building if not kept clear. Check joints are sound and outlets run freely.

• Rainwater pipes and gullies – these can leak if damaged.

Derelict building with no bathroom, heating or inside WCDerelict building with no bathroom, heating or inside WC

• Roof – replace loose or missing slates/tiles. Check tile laps.

• Lead work – torn or displaced flashings cause leaks typically around parapet walls, valleys, chimneys and bay windows.

• Stone work – can need repair/cleaning due to lichen, moss growth and weather damage. Pointing can also need repair.

• Paint work – its first purpose is to conserve the timber. Modern paints often crack and flake, allowing water behind.

Building in process of repairBuilding in process of repair

• Lead lights and glazing – secure, repair or replace damaged glass in windows/doors.

• Heating systems – misunderstanding them can lead to interstitial condensation.

Interior maintenance

Fine decoration specialist Lucinda Rowan-Mayberry (Mayberry Fine Interiors) suggests looking at these particular hotspots for interior maintenance:

A property during the workA property during the work

• Basements and walls at low level - rotten skirtings and floor boards can signal blocked ventilation or raised ground levels.

• Re-decorate when necessary to protect surfaces from wear and to maintain a ‘tidy’ appearance. However, try to avoid decorating over problems without addressing the causes.

• Joinery/carpentry work - select an architrave profile/style that is correct for the building’s period.

Historic buildings are often very robust and can recover, but - like any structure - even the most robust will fail if neglected over a long period. By addressing the underlying causes, quite serious decay can be paused and works made less invasive.

Property following workProperty following work

By addressing the roof surfaces and gutters, the owners of one Cotswold property were able to dry out sodden walls and timbers and retain Georgian panelling in situ that would have been lost if removed. In turn, this meant the internal works were reduced, avoiding wholesale reconstruction and the likely loss of key internal features that were one of the reasons they bought the house.


Householders are often quick to treat the surface conditions without looking at why the problem occurred. However, without tackling the base causes of any problems, results are likely to be short-lived.

A little basic maintenance can go a long way towards addressing even serious issues. Buildings need time to dry out properly, so don’t expect instant results – they respond slowly.

Nash Partnership is a built environment consultancy with conservation expertise and have nearly 30 years’ experience of conserving built heritage for private owners, local authorities, trusts and national companies. We’d love to hear from you if you’re interested in the subject. Please contact Bruce Clark at Nash Partnership on 01225 442424 or Lucinda Rowan-Mayberry at Mayberry Fine Interiors on 07713 632276.

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