How to Assess a Home for Renovation

Almost all properties have some potential for renovation — the key is assessing design and financial potential before committing. Follow this advice on evaluating the potential of a home so that you can avoid taking on a costly renovation project

All renovation projects start, of course, with a house that needs some work. Whatever the motivation, the original house is key, because if you choose badly, then your work will almost certainly be in vain. So what you’re after is that magic word – ‘potential’ – and assessing that from the hundreds of thousands of properties for sale each year isn’t as easy as you might otherwise think.

Deciding whether the property is a good buy or bad involves weighing up those costs associated with rectifying defects and problems, together with the purchase price, against the likely end value.

Before you Begin

Before you even begin to assess the design potential and structural condition of a property, there are a few basic things to ask yourself:

  • Is it in a good location? This could mean that it is in an area known for its good schools or transport links, away from any main roads or next to land that is likely to be bought up by a developer.
  • Is there scope for off-road parking where there isn’t any?
  • Have neighbouring properties recently been extended (indicating that local planners are open to the idea)?

These are all things that are fixed and can’t be changed, unlike rotten windows and a damp problem.

The first place that most people this would go for design help is a professional designer or architect, but it doesn’t make sense to spend on design fees before buying a house — so the duty falls on you, the potential homebuyer, to work out what can be done in the name of renovation and improvement.

Firstly, consider the basic things that need to be done in design terms to bring the house you’re considering up to your requirements.

  • How many extra bedrooms or bathrooms will it need?
  • What about kitchen size (the smaller kitchens common in older properties being the number one ‘room for improvement’?)

These ‘essentials’ will form the basis of any renovation works (although don’t assume they necessarily require an extension to achieve).

Secondly, number and size of rooms aside, assess the problems with the layout and look internally.

  • Do the rooms flow?
  • Have previous extensions created ‘corridor’ rooms that seem awkward?
  • What about orientation and room positioning?
  • Do the main living areas overlook the garden or view?
  • What about the position of what will become the master bedroom?
  • Is the only bathroom downstairs?

Lastly, consider the exterior. Assess windows not just for rot, but aesthetically.

  • Can the external cladding be improved?
  • Is there room in the roof for conversion?
  • Is the garden big enough?

All of this will help you begin to form an idea of what you would want to do to the property — planning permission allowing.

Assessing Structural Condition

Once you have ascertained whether or not it is worth even stepping foot in the property, an assessment of the structural condition of the house is essential — not only in order to work out how much work is going to be required or whether it is even a viable project, but also to give an idea of whether the asking price is a fair one.

You can learn to spot many structural defects yourself through research and it is well worthwhile. However, anyone thinking of buying an old house, other than an experienced renovator, should always commission a building report by a chartered building surveyor. Unless you have real knowledge it is a false economy to save on the few hundred pounds that it costs for an experts opinion.

Things serial renovators look at first of all when assessing a property’s potential include:

  • is there useable roof space?
  • is there a need for replacement windows?
  • is there room for extension?

Whilst being able to spot major problems yourself is no substitute for a survey, it can help you decide whether or not it is worth forking out for one (£500-£1,500). Sometimes the cost of renovating a building, relative to its likely end value, is clearly so high that it is not even worth commissioning a survey.

If you do commission a building report, be aware of its limitations. A surveyor can only make a visual inspection of a building and so cannot discover or reveal hidden problems. The report is unlikely to include a valuation unless you specifically request one and whilst the report should include a schedule of any remedial work required, sometimes listing repairs in order of priority, it is unlikely to give a written indication of the cost of those works. Although some surveyors may be willing to indicate likely repair costs, this part is usually down to you to find out.

Will it Need Rewiring?

Electrics in old buildings will often require updating — look out for old-fashioned fuse boxes, light switches, round pin plugs and fabric-coated flex.

Rewiring a typical three bedroom terraced house (90-100m²) will cost from £2,500-£3,000, including removing the old wiring, lifting and replacing the floorboards, and installing a new consumer unit, but excluding making good the plaster and decoration. The job should take a pair of electricians five to seven days.

You should be able to tell if a house has been rewired or not yourself by inspecting exposed parts of the wiring and by inspecting the electricity meter and fuse box (known as the consumer unit). Tell-tale signs are:

  • an old-style fuse box with no circuit breakers
  • a mixture of switch and socket styles, especially old round pin sockets or dolly switches
  • any cabling other than modern PVC-insulated cable, coloured grey or white

Are there Signs of Damp?

You can invariably smell damp before you see it, as mould and fungi are usually present, rapidly creating a musty or mushroom smell. You can also spot damp because of either the presence of water, damp patches, mould, wet or dry rot, white salt deposits on brick or stonework, and/or failing plasterwork on walls and ceilings. The key to understanding damp and its implications is to identify the source and then come to an appropriate solution.

Once a damp problem is resolved, any damage will have to be repaired, starting with the structure. Check all timber elements that have been exposed to damp, and get a specialist to look for signs of wet or dry rot or wood-boring insects. If evidence is found, lenders are likely to require chemical treatment and this will cost £800-1,500 depending on the extent of infestation.