for People with a Passion for Period Property
Ask an Agony Uncle!
Stephen Boniface - Stephen Boniface specialises in building conservation providing multi-disciplinary consulting services. He is Chairman of the Building Surveying Faculty and member of the Residential faculty. He serves on the RICS Building Conservation Forum Board and is the 'Agony Uncle' on the Period Property UK website (www.periodproperty.co.uk).

Ask our Agony Uncles ...

You can write to our panel of experts free of charge on any subject, providing it's got something to do with Period Properties.

Our experts are all specialists in matters directly involved with older properties. So, if you have a problem with an older building - or if you think you might have a problem - ask an Agony Uncle...

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SUBJECT:
Fire damaged property could lead to further damage to my home
FROM:
Stephen Andrews
(Yorkshire)

I live in a 3 bed semi. Since a house fire started in my next door neighbours loft 6 months ago his roof remains missing and no work at all has been done on repairing his property. My property has been repaired and redecorated. The partition wall remains exposed and i am worried that damp will set in ruining my repairs. What rights do I have if this happens?

Stephen Andrews

The question you pose is one that really requires a legal answer and you may need to seek advice from your solicitors. In this connection you may find that your insurance policy includes cover for legal costs in which case your insurance company will put you in touch with a solicitor who can discuss the matter with you. In any event your insurance company may be interested in knowing that the property next door has not been repaired and that there is a risk of on-going damage to your property. They may well intervene on your behalf.

In a general sense if damage occurs to your property that is due to something related to the neighbouring property you would have a right to sue for damages? In this instance your first port of call may be the building control department of the council on the basis that the neighbouring property could be regarded as a dangerous structure and may have powers to force work to be undertaken.

If this is party wall, as I suspect, you may be able to give notice to the neighbour that you will undertake work to protect your property if they do not take action within a set period of time. The problem with this is that it may involve trespass to undertake the work. Before embarking on such course of action you should take legal advice.

The fact that the neighbouring property has not been repaired following a fire may suggest that the neighbouring property was inadequately insured or perhaps not insured at all. Again this is something that your insurance company and/or legal advisors should pursue.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at The Whitworth Co-Partnership for responding to this question.
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SUBJECT:
Builder wants to standard rate VAT work despite listed consents being received
FROM:
James Steven
(Strathclyde)

We have just completed work to our B listed property which is in a conservation area just north of Glasgow. The work was classed mainly as alterations and has been approved and listed building consent received. Our contractor has been grumbling on about the VAT issues and wants to standard rate the work to be on the safe side. I was under the impression that the work would be zero rated on investigation I can see a case for part of the work being classed as repair, to try and explain the work involved the property being taken back to the bare four walls mainly due to problems with damp/wood worm in almost every part of wood in the property, would the replacement of the first floor and walls and new insulation (there was no insulation previously) be classed as a repair?

James Steven

Ultimately it is for the contractor to decide whether to zero rate any work with regard to VAT. Normally this is a matter that should have been resolved before work starts. If the contractor had indicated a willingness to zero rate some of the work it would be normal for the contractor to speak with the contractor's local VAT office to see more specific guidance if necessary.

The contractor will need copies of the listed buildings consents and appropriate drawings and perhaps even copies of the schedule etc. so that if the VAT office check the records the contractor has all of the information readily to hand. Normally there is an agreement between you and the contractor on which items to zero rate, the contractor then rates them at zero and you pay accordingly. If at a later date the VAT office decide that it should not have been rated at zero you may find yourself having to pay the VAT later.

From the contractor's point of view it is merely additional paperwork but if the contractor is used to working on listed buildings the contractor should be used to dealing with this.

As for the actual specific works that could be zero rated the definition of alteration for listed building consent and alteration for VAT can be very different. Alterations for VAT purposes have to be very specific alterations that are easily recognisable as such. Therefore if one were to rake out cement pointing and change it to lime pointing it might be an alteration for listed building consent purposes but as it is not an obvious visual alteration it would not be regarded as an alteration for VAT purposes.

With many projects there will be specific items that are clearly alterations, some that are questionable and some that are definitely not alterations. In your instance as a general comment I would suggest that replacement of the first floor and walls would not be regarded as an alteration because the property previously had a first floor and walls. Of course if there are additional walls then those might be regarded as an alteration and could be zero rated. The installation of insulation would normally be zero rated and the associated works to enable that insulation to be installed could probably be zero rated.

Without having specific information about the works carried out to this property I cannot provide more detailed guidance. There are specialists that deal with VAT matters and if you are a member of the Listed Property Owners Club (www.lpoc.co.uk) they do offer advice on this very subject.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at The Whitworth Co-Partnership for responding to this question.
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SUBJECT:
Who should maintain a share firewall?
FROM:
Jill Sinclair
(East Sussex)

Who is actually responsible for the upkeep of a shared firewall between two mid terraced houses? Is it a) both residents either side - so joint or b) counting from the very end of the terrace (where the end wall of course does not have one) - is it the residents whose property it would seem to fall on? Also, is there anything written in law proving the fact?

Jill Sinclair

By shared firewall I assume you mean the party wall.

The maintenance for the finishing surfaces would normally be down to the occupants of the property either side of the wall. If the wall required more substantial maintenance such as rebuilding because of a structural problem etc. the cost of dealing with the work would normally be shared.

The issue of counting from the end of the terrace is irrelevant. If the wall is between two houses and it is shared in any way (i.e. any parts of the properties physically adjoin the wall) the wall is a party wall.

It would be sensible for you to look at the Party Wall Act. Although the Act only relates to when work is undertaken it might help you in providing some answers to your questions. In terms of defining a party wall it is very clear. In the sense of something being written in law I would suggest that the Party Wall Act is the most appropriate reference for you to consider. For further information I suggest you go to the Government Communities site (www.communities.gov.uk/publications/planningandbuilding/partywall) where you will find a free downloadable copy of an explanatory booklet. You might also find the question and answer section on the Pyramus & Thisbe website helpful (www.partywalls.org.uk).

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at The Whitworth Co-Partnership for responding to this question.
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SUBJECT:
How should we finish flags on limecrete floor?
FROM:
Sue Cornah
(Shropshire)

We are renovating an old cottage and replacing the floor with a fully breathable floor (limecrete etc and underfloor heating). We want to finish the floor with natural limestone flags but the vendor is saying we need to seal the flags to prevent stains. Is there anything available on the market to do this and retaining the breathable quality of the floor?

Sue Cornah

The whole purpose of a limecrete floor is to allow breathability. In fact the best finish for a limecrete floor is really bricks set on sand with lime pointing. However, limestone flags are a suitable finish. I would not normally recommend sealing them. For a period the underfloor heating will force some moisture through any finish and if the limestone flags are laid on to the screed at the time that moisture will force its way through the limestone flags and you might find some efflorescence on the service or some staining.

With underfloor heating one would normally turn on the heating with the screed in place but without the floor finish laid to allow the floor to dry out. One of the suppliers I have used recently recommends placing a plastic sheet over the floor with the heating turned on quite low. For some time one will find each morning that there is moisture under the plastic sheet because of the moisture being drawn out of the floor and forming condensation on the plastic. Once that condensation on the plastic stops one can be reasonably certain that the floor has dried out and then the finish can be laid. If you were to follow this process it is highly unlikely that the limestone flags would be stained by any residual moisture in the floor screed.

Being a natural and absorbent finish if anything is spilt on the flags it will of course stain and of course any moisture on the surface could cause staining etc. I would not however recommend sealing if you wish to retain breathability. I have heard that some people use beeswax on the floor and sometimes linseed oil and it would be sensible to speak to other owners that have undertaken such work to see what their experience might be (I suggest you post on the discussion forum on this website). But my general reaction is not to seal the surface of the flags.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at The Whitworth Co-Partnership for responding to this question.
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SUBJECT:
How do I protect my property from neighbour's loft conversion work?
FROM:
Lynda Price
(London)

My neighbours have submitted plans to the Dulwich Estate and Southwark Council for a loft conversion. As the adjacent property in a terraced house what legal steps should I take to protect my property against any damage, i.e. cracking of walls etc. that might ensue?

Lynda Price

In terms of the extension and alteration itself if you choose to object to it you have the normal procedures for objection when the planning application is made. If you have missed this opportunity or did not make any objection then the planning decision stands and that is the end of the matter - your neighbours have the right to undertake the work.

Your protection against damage etc. arises from the Party Wall Act. Please see the answer given above with references to the brochure and the Pyramus & Thisbe website because these will give you answers to your questions. Your neighbours need to serve you with a party wall notice which will define the works that fall under the Act in terms of work to the party wall itself. This will include inserting any load bearing beam etc. into the wall or any other physical work to the wall itself. It would also apply to any excavation for foundations etc.

When you receive that notice you can decide to consent to the work and this will be the end of the matter or you can dissent, if you dissent it triggers the process of a party wall award. The award will define what works are to take place and will set parameters for those works. More importantly from the question you pose it will include a schedule of condition of your property. Should your property be damaged during the work the schedule will be used as a guide as to what that damage has been and will then be used for agreeing how to deal with that. The neighbours (realistically their contractors) might be required to physically repair or you could reach an agreement with regards to a financial solution. The important thing in this instance is to ensure that the Party Wall Act is followed to provide you with protection.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at The Whitworth Co-Partnership for responding to this question.
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SUBJECT:
Does foamed sprayed on the underneath of our roof lead to the timbers rotting?
FROM:
Jen Smith
(Yorkshire)

We own a large three storey, Edwardian town house with its original roof and slate tiles. The previous owners had foam sprayed all over the roof for insulation purposes. It's has been maintained over the years, as expected for its age. We are now in the process of selling and the surveyor for the new buyers has told us that this foam insulation is not good news as it potentially traps moisture and causes the beams to rot (not originally pointed out to us in our survey when we were buying). Please can you recommend how we should proceed - not only has the mortgage valuation been reduced, our primary concern is we're not sure what condition the roof is now in. Having the roof changed when it is in good working order is not an option financially at this stage but can we get a surveyor to assess what's happening or do we just wait until it collapse!

Jen Smith

Unfortunately spray on foam applied to the underside of a roof is almost irreversible and is potentially damaging. Some time ago there was a discussion amongst surveyors on the RICS website and the end conclusion is that surveyors generally could not find a good reason for anyone wanting to spray foam on the underside of a roof. It does create the problems that have been pointed out to you and it prevents any salvage of the existing roof covering etc. and it makes any future maintenance or even stripping and recovering much more difficult and therefore costly. Generally speaking I would not recommend spray-on foam to a roof surface.

I could argue the technical points but from your point of view it is sufficient to record that the advice you have recently been given is correct.

That said one has to take a pragmatic view on the matter. If I were surveying the building I would start by stating that it is a bad thing to do to a roof but I would then have to assess the roof as it stands and try to advise the client as to when problems might occur. This is not easy but if the roof covering is generally sound with no evidence that maintenance is needed it is reasonable to assume that it might be a while before any work is required. However, as soon as maintenance is needed problems occur because maintenance is not easy. If I were advising I would suggest that a purchase of the property would have to budget for complete stripping and recovering within the foreseeable future say five to ten years, or sooner. In this instance because the roof covering could not be saved at all the cost of the work will involve a completely new roof covering and may even have to include some new roof structure if the foam has caused any damage.

If you are particularly concerned about the condition of the timbers it might be sensible to have some localised opening up carried out and this would involve cutting away the foam. This is a messy and awkward job but the foam could be cut away to expose some of the batons and rafters to assess whether there is actually a problem present.

It is very rare and unusual for a roof to collapse with no warning and I would suggest that if the application of foam had led to a rot problem with rot and deterioration of timber would become evidenced before collapse actually occurred.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at The Whitworth Co-Partnership for responding to this question.
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SUBJECT:
Ventilated channel solution for earth against building wall
FROM:
John Sidoli
(Caerphilly)

My very old thick stone walled cottage (not listed) is on a steep hill. My neighbour's garden earth is against the side wall of my cottage to a height of approx. 4ft. up from my floor level. This past year a patch of damp about 3ft. wide, at the front end of the house low down where there is earth against the wall outside. What would be the best method of solving this problem externally with the earth having to be put back in place?

John Sidoli

Without inspecting your property it is difficult to say for certain what might be the best method of resolving the problem you have mentioned. It does however seem that the high ground level against the wall is the most likely cause of the dampness seen internally. In order to resolve this I would normally recommend excavating the earth and lowering the ground. Obviously if the ground level is some height and is a neighbouring site etc. this might not be practical. However, it might be possible to create some form of open channel between the earth and the wall so that air can circulate and the wall can dry out naturally. This is not necessarily easy especially if the height of the area involved is over one metre as indicated in your question. Below I have provided a sketch of what I assume to be the existing situation and provide that a suggested solution involving the creation of a retaining wall. The gap should be no less than 75mm and preferably 100mm or slightly wider. You can get proprietary grills of these dimensions and even up to 150mm.

Of course this work can impact your neighbour's site and you will need to liaise with your neighbour about the work.

If your neighbour is against the idea of creating such a channel (because they lose ground etc.) they might nonetheless be prepared to allow you to excavate and install a vertical external membrane so that water cannot easily transfer straight into the wall. This is a far from ideal solution but might hold back quite a bit of the water. Internally you might however still need to have some form of dry lining because inevitably some moisture would still remain in the wall or get beyond the barrier to cause some dampness.

My preference is for the ventilated channel as indicated.

Ventilated Channel

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at The Whitworth Co-Partnership for responding to this question.
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SUBJECT:
High water level could be causing damp
FROM:
Louise Hedley
(Kent)

Last year we bought a 250 year old timber framed cottage on the Romney Marsh. We noted the cottage had a lot of damp in it but the house had not been lived in for 3 years so we took it on as a bit of a project. We had damp specialists in as soon as we owned the property but we decided as there was so much damp that injecting every wall may be unnecessary at this stage and a waste of money. The house had been shut up and not had any heating on through the winter so we let the cottage air as much as possible through the summer.

We are now into our second summer and the damp that appeared to all start drying out seems to be getting worse again. The brick floor in the living room is very damp and the inglenooks both in the living room and dining room are quite wet. Neither are painted with anything. The house certainly breathes well as there are rather large gaps around the sash windows!

What seems strange is although in the winter the water table is very high here on the marsh in summer it goes right down.

We have dug out drains right round the house to take excess water away (in which there was a lot of when we bought it).

We would love some advice on this as a lot of companies don't understand old properties and therefore we don't want to waste money on unnecessary treatments.

Louise Hedley

In this instance you have already identified one of the problems and that is you are on low lying land where the water table within the ground is probably quite high for much of the year.

You have mentioned you have excavated drains around the house. This is the solution I would normally have recommended but you must ensure that the land drainage you install takes the water away and does not simply allow it to build up after a while. You might even have to consider some form of pumped system if the amount of water is significant.

The installation of damp proofing by retrospective means is not necessarily going to solve the problem and could actually make the problem worse. The only way that damp proofing in this sort of situation could help is if the whole building (walls, chimneys, floors etc.) could be completely isolated from the wet ground by continuous damp proofing. This would be by way of damp proof courses in the walls, membranes and the floors etc. When dealing with a situation where the damp proofing has to be applied retrospectively it is almost impossible to guarantee absolute continuity. For this reason retrospective damp proofing is rarely successful with such a situation and certainly with this type of property.

The excavation and drainage around the building is something you say you have carried out but has not been successful. The question I would have is whether the ground level itself is high in relation to the floors etc. If the ground level is at least 150mm below the floor levels etc. it means that there is a zone of at least 150mm at the basis of the walls where moisture can escape externally before it rises high enough to cause any damage internally etc. You might have to consider lowering the ground. If you cannot lower the ground entirely you could consider creating channels as indicated in one of the previous answers above.

Another possible solution in this instance might be to install some form of external membrane to try to stop the moisture getting into the walls but unfortunately if moisture is under the building it would simply bypass the membrane and come up under the building anyway.

I come back to the best solution as being to ensure that the moisture either does not reach the building or can escape very quickly before it rises high enough to cause any damage.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at The Whitworth Co-Partnership for responding to this question.
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SUBJECT:
Property is 'white elephant' after work is undertaken without being listed
FROM:
Steve Marston
(Dorset)

I am trying to buy a 400 year old Grade 2 listed farmhouse. It was listed in 1965 and since then, the current owner has done a number of works on the property, without ever once seeking listed building consent, things like replacing a roof with machine made tiles, spray insulating another roof, installing 4 or 5 double glazed wood windows, knocking through some walls etc. None of these will ever get retrospective building consent, as they have not been done in the right way, but if I buy the property 'as-is' then in theory the local council could come along, any time they like, and request that I repair every single thing the previous owners did since 1965. What are my options here. Is there any way I can buy this property and be safe, or have the owners truly created a white elephant that can never actually be sold to anyone?

Steve Marston

You are indeed fortunate to have realised the problems before you have committed yourself to purchase. The legislation is quite clear that where unauthorised work is carried out to a building those undertaking the work can be prosecuted and it is a criminal offence. In this instance you as a purchaser of the property would not be open to prosecution but the present vendor could be as there is no time limit on such prosecution. This is not something that need cause you concern but of course if the vendor is aware of this it might make future negotiation or dealing with the conservation officer etc. prior to your purchase extremely difficult because the vendor will simply not allow the officer near the building.

From your perspective the worst that could happen would be enforcement notices requiring you to rectify the past alterations. These could be quite extensive or not depending upon the nature of the work.

Part of the problem here (for both parties) would be evidence and trying to prove what has actually been undertaken. Some things might be more obvious such as the installation of the double glazed windows. Similarly the spray insulation of the roof and replacement with machine made tiles matters that are quite obvious and are likely to attract enforcement proceedings to change back to what they should have been before. It is quite likely that old photographs do exist that either party could refer to for reference.

However, there may be some alterations whereby enforcement proceedings do not provide any benefit in terms of the listed building and therefore no enforcement would take place. In addition, there might be some work that if an application had been made the works would have been permitted in which case enforcement probably wouldn't have been pursued but you might have to apply for retrospective permission.

My basic advice to you would be to have an early conversation with the council conservation officer to discuss what they might choose to enforce upon and therefore what works you might have to carry out. This will help inform you with regard to likely cost and help you with your negotiation.

An alternative might be to take an insurance policy. This is something that you could ask the vendor to pay for but of course you might not get insurance if the insurers feel there is a high risk of enforcement proceedings.

I do not think that the property is unsalable but I think the vendor's have to be realistic and understand that there past unauthorised works are likely to be exposed and will need to be paid for in some way by someone. They might simply have to accept a reduced price for the property and the purchaser accepts that there might be enforcement matters.

My main piece of advice however is to have an early conversation with the conservation office.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at The Whitworth Co-Partnership for responding to this question.
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SUBJECT:
Traffic noise drives us crazy
FROM:
Jane Wilson
(Buckinghamshire)

We have recently moved into a lovely grade II listed cottage and soon discovered that a high level of traffic passes from about 6am - 9am and 5 - 7pm each week day. This is quite disturbing, especially in the bedroom and living room. We have looked into (sympathetic) secondary glazing and been informed that this does not require listed building consent or planning permission. Is this correct?

Jane Wilson

The advice you have been given is incorrect. Any alteration to a listed building (regardless of grade) requires consent. Failure to obtain consent is a criminal offence. The installation of secondary glazing would normally be regarded as an alteration to character and would need consent.

Because the work does not affect the exterior of the building and is not an extension etc. it would not normally require planning permission and therefore your application will only be for listed building consent.

Most conservation officers would accept the need for secondary glazing in the circumstances that you describe but of course you might have to have it specifically made for the property rather than using off the shelf systems. This is something that you will need to discuss with the conservation officer.

An early discussion with the conservation officer would be sensible in this instance.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at The Whitworth Co-Partnership for responding to this question.
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SUBJECT:
Do we need roof insulation in thatched property?
FROM:
Heather St Michael
(Oxfordshire)

We have recently bought a grade II listed, timber-framed thatched cottage, estimated to be built around 1650, in Oxfordshire. At present, there is no insulation in the roof and we would like to install some before winter arrives (as it is, single brick walls and original lead windows mean we are keen to minimize heat loss, of which I suspect there will be plenty, wherever possible). I have read advice, in relation to more modern homes, on putting in a waterproof membrane under the insulation material in order to prevent condensation, but given that the general rule of a house of this age is 'breathability', I am wondering what the best course of action would be.

Heather St Michael

The waterproof membrane you refer to is probably a vapour barrier. The reality is however that the majority of houses are insulated without any vapour barrier at all across the ceiling and do not suffer condensation problems.

If the insulation is properly laid over the ceilings (one layer between ceiling joists and the other at right angles over the ceiling joist) this will give a good layer of insulation in the roof space. If the void above this is well ventilated then no condensation should occur and therefore no moisture should drip down through the insulation to reach the ceiling. The risk of a condensation problem is therefore extremely low.

I would therefore suggest that you consider insulating the roof properly but without any membrane.

You could use a breathable insulation such as thermafleece (or similar).

As the building is thatched you must also bear in mind that the thatch itself provides some insulation. Recent research suggests that a conventional thatched roof of about 300mm thick gives the equivalent of about 100mm normal insulation. Of course if the thatch is thicker it probably provides a better level of insulation but it is difficult to assess in detail.

Being a thatched roof it should provide good natural ventilation throughout the roof space unless of course the slopes have been lined in some way. If they have then the lining ought to be cut away because not only does it prohibit ventilation of the roof space generally but it could accelerate the decay of the thatch. I would normally recommend any lining under thatch to be carefully cut out.

I therefore conclude by suggesting that you should lay insulation but you don't need to worry about a membrane and you could consider a breathable insulating layer. You should however ensure that there is good airflow through the roof space and indeed through the thatch itself.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at The Whitworth Co-Partnership for responding to this question.