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10 Essential to dos before you buy a Period Property

Ireland Homes & Interiors, July 2011

We define period properties as properties built prior to 1919.

They account for about 10% of our national building stock and range from traditional cottages through to Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian structures built up to the second quarter of the twentieth century.

Period properties invariably have character and can have a charm that is very seductive. They are also associated with expense and high restoration costs. Restoration projects can be a challenge and while fulfilling, are not for the faint hearted.

If you are serious about buying a period property, look before you leap. Research is essential. The more you do before you buy the better. The more informed you are, the more problems you will avoid later. I could write about this at length, but for the purposes of this short article, I would recommend the following essential research.

1. REVISIT THE PROPERTY

You have visited the property once, I recommend that you go back and visit again and again. Preferably, go on a grey wet day, which should not be difficult. A sunny day will flatter any property. You are trying to spot potential problems and will increase your chances by seeing the house in its worst light.

You could visit it at different times of the day and it would be wise to walk the area at night.

Go alone and then go with someone. Arrange a visit outside of the scheduled open viewings so you can view the property with fewer disturbances. Take your time and really look at the condition of the property, room by room. Do the same for the exterior, front, back and sides.

2. DOCUMENT IT

Our memories are subjective and can distort. We remember with exaggeration. Faults get worse, big rooms get bigger, non-descript areas are forgotten. To get around this, you should document your inspection of the property. Take notes during your visits. You can use a checklist, see our example on www.aof.ie and note the condition of different aspects, item by item.

How much of the original features such as the plasterwork, floors, doors, windows, glass and shutters remain? Feel the house: does the floor vibrate as you walk into a room, does a window rattle as you walk by, does the house shake as a bus or truck passes? Assess the age and condition of the mechanical and electrical installations. For example, will items such as the boiler need to be replaced?

Take photographs. Capture each wall of each room, with the camera view parallel to the wall.

Take photos outside also. Take photos of any potential flaws or things you are unsure of.

All this will be very useful later. What you are trying to do here is to cover as much ground as possible and to record as much as possible. Later, when you are studying it and when a query arises, which is inevitable, you can check through your records/ photos and answer it.

3. CHECK THE ORIENTATION

You can do this roughly at the property by checking the time of day and the angle of the sun to establish the orientation. For example, at 12.00 noon the sun will shine on to the house from the south. So if it is shining directly on to the front, the house has a southerly aspect or orientation.

Another and maybe easier way of establishing orientation is with a map. Most maps, paper, phone, google, etc are deliberately arranged with north to the top and by comparing the alignment of the site, you can quickly establish its orientation. Clarify where the sun rises and its path through the day to where its sets, in relation to the house.

Certain orientations have more favourable daylight than others. Assuming that you like light, east is good for morning activities, south is good all day really and west is good in the evening. A north façade in Ireland will get direct sunlight at dawn and dusk in midsummer only. This is a generalisation and depends on the layout of the property but, in my opinion, the best orientation for a period house is east west with the front to the east and the rear to the west. South, south west and west facing back gardens are great.

With rural or exposed properties, it is worth noting the direction of the prevailing wind. Nearby trees might hint from the way they lean or stoop.

4. GET A CONDITION SURVEY DONE

Before you make a bid, you should arrange for a condition survey of the property to be carried out by a professional surveyor. The investment, typically €400 to €600 is money well spent.

This is an investigation of the building to assess its condition, construction and services.

Use an experienced and professionally qualified surveyor who knows what to look for and where to look.

A survey should comprise of the following:

  • an appraisal of the form and materials of construction.
  • a technical analysis of significant defects revealed and advice on appropriate further actions.
  • a budget estimate on significant repairs.
  • identification of less significant defects, general disrepair and shortcomings in its physical condition.

In short, the survey will warn of works required and the associated costs that will need to be incurred.

When you receive the survey report, read it several times and understand the consequences of its content.

If you are unsure of anything go back and query the surveyor.

You may, at this stage on the basis of the survey, decide not to proceed any further in your pursuit of the property. If you do proceed, at a minimum, you will be making an informed decision.

5. DO PLANNING RESEARCH

It is essential that you are aware of the planning history of a property you intend to buy. While your solicitor will be doing due diligence on the property to establish any planning permissions, compliance, rights of way, way leaves, etc. you should also do some research.

Most local authorities, have an on-line planning search facility, where via an address or map you can search the planning history of a property. Search the property itself and then search the neighbour’s and similar properties nearby.

Be particularly aware of any refusals and the reasons for those refusals. If there is a pattern of refusal of certain works, for example new entrance gates, then there probably is good reason. Also be aware of the conditions attached to grants of permission. Is there a history of objections in the area? Is there a difficult neighbour, a serial objector?

Your walk about of the area, may give clues on the planning restrictions. For example, if there are no two storey extensions along the rear of a terrace, there probably is a reason or policy against them.

Also the council’s zoning maps are informative. Establish what the permitted uses are. Is the property listed or protected? Is it in a conservation area? etc. While planning is an area of specialist expertise, it is wise for you to have an overview at this stage, of what is possible. If the property is protected, any work that would materially alter the character of the structure requires permission, this would include the majority of works.

This research will give an indication on what work the local authority view as permissible and what to expect later in the event of a planning permission application.

With all properties, rural, urban and suburban, it is now increasingly important to research flooding patterns. It would be wise to check with the local authority, if the area has a history of flooding; if the site is on or near a flood plain, if there is a watercourse or river nearby. If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then investigate further, before you proceed with a bid.

6. DECIDE WHAT OTHER WORKS ARE NEEDED

The condition survey will not include works that you want to do, to adapt the property to your needs.

For example, if the house really needs another bathroom to work as a family home, this will not be called up in the condition report. Or if the kitchen is outdated, etc, this will not be called up.

Typically, this is a problem with period houses; they have wonderful rooms, often with beautiful proportions and detailing, but are short on back up services. They usually do not have the standard of kitchens, toilets, bathrooms, utilities, storage, etc. which we take for granted today.

So you will need to give thought to decide on what other works are needed to be done to the property to make it work for you. You may be clear on this already or you may need the advice of an architect.

It may be necessary to extend the property to make it work for you and this may raise further queries:

  • is there space to extend? what will the garden be like after?
  • is it appropriate to extend? might the original be damaged by extending?

Again here, to answer these and avoid problems later, you may need the advice of an architect.

7. DO A WORKS LIST & COST IT

The next task is to make an overall list of works you intend to carry out; this is called a schedule of works.

This schedule will include the recommended works from the condition survey and other works that you want done. List every thing you can think of, it is better to be exhaustive at this stage, than have surprises later.

See our schedule of works example on www.aof.ie. It is helpful to prioritise the list into essentials, preferables and luxuries.

Then cost your schedule of works. Rules of thumb, based on rates and size, ie €1000 per square meter of renovation, can be quick and useful as an indicator.  But they are limited and invariably they leave you short.

I find it more accurate to estimate item by item. Put a column down the right hand side of your list and put costs against each work item. Err on the upper, conservative side and allow for vat.

Again this is an area of expertise and if possible it would be wise for you to get advice here.

Get an opinion from an architect or quantity surveyor.

Do this research thoroughly, as the overall cost of works will directly relate to what you can bid.

8. ALLOW A CONTINGENCY

Period properties, by their nature, will throw up surprises during the course of a restoration.

It is wise to make an allowance for these surprises in advance, a contingency fund to cover unforeseen expenses. It is difficult to judge an appropriate amount, as this depends on the property and the extent of work required. The more of the above research you have carried out the better informed you will be as to an appropriate level of contingency. A minimum allowance of an additional 10% on top of the cost of the works would be prudent.

9. GET SPECIALIST ADVICE

Much of the above touches on areas where specialist expertise really is required.

While you may need to limit expense, particularly before you have even bought the property, it would be wise for you to get advice from an architect. Use an experienced registered architect and ensure they have conservation experience accreditation and insurance cover.

Period properties generally have a charm that can be very seductive. Ideally, what you are trying to do here is to remove the rose tinted glasses that may have been acquired in the initial visits and calm your enthusiasm with the charm of the property so that you reach an objective and realistic view of what owning it entails.  You will be prepared for what you are getting into and thereby will avoid trouble along the way. Good luck with your restoration!

10. SOME USEFUL PUBLICATIONS & CONTACTS

The Advice Series, Dept. of the Environment, Hertige and Local Government.

Period Houses, A Conservation Guidance Manual, Dublin Civic Trust.

Architectural Heritage Protection, Dept. of the Environment, Hertige and Local Government.

A Practical Guide to Reducing the Energy Costs of your Period Property, Aughey O’Flaherty Architects.

Irish Georgian Society, 74 Merrion Square, Dublin 2  01 676 7053  www.igs.ie

Dublin Civic Trust, 4 Castle Street, Dublin 2  01 475 6911  www.riai.ie

Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, 38 Merrion Square, Dublin 2  01 661 1794  www.scsi.ie

Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland, 8 Merrion Square, Dublin 2 01 676 1703 www.riai.ie

Aughey O’Flaherty Architects, ! Swanville Place, Rathmines, Dublin 6, 01 4982222 www.aof.ie