Assessing a House’s Renovation Potential

In the first part of this series on how to ensure your renovation is a success, Emily Smith looks at how to tell if a house is worth taking on as a project
by Emily Smith
26th June 2019

Buying a fixer-upper is an attractive and popular project for those looking to make their stamp on a house and achieve great value for money.

Get it right, and it’s a fantastic way to invest your cash. Not only will you be creating a space that’s tailored to your needs, you’ll also reap the rewards in terms of the property’s end value.

Get it wrong, and it has the potential to turn into a disaster akin to a never-ending soap opera, guzzling up your finances with no hint or hope of a profit at the end.

Over the upcoming issues of Build It, I’ll be investigating what it takes to ensure your renovation works result in a wonderful home that you can enjoy for years to come.

The first step, of course, is having a house to renovate.

Finding a renovation project

A quick look on the online property search engines will show you that there are plenty of buildings out there for sale. But sifting through and determining what has the potential to be transformed into your ideal home requires you to first establish some fundamentals.

Think about where you want to live – not only in terms of the geographical location, but also regarding what amenities your perfect future dwelling has access to (ie good schools, transport links, a decent pub etc).

To what extent would you be willing to sacrifice your dream location for the right house? How much do you want to spend in total (both on the purchase itself and the works needed) and how much of a project are you happy to take on?

Something key to bear in mind is that a house with renovation potential in a sought-after area is likely to come in at a premium cost because it’ll be in high demand.On the other hand, doing up a property that’s in an undesirable part of town may not yield a big return once renovated, regardless of how much money and wow factor you pump into it.

Fundamentally, it’s about weighing up your budget and local sale prices with what you’re hoping to achieve. 

Chalet bungalow self-build with straw bale

Don’t know what to consider when hunting out the perfect location? Mike Dade offers his inside tips. 

Read in full: Assessing Plots & Property

Online property portals are a great resource for finding an opportunity, but make use of all routes to enhance your chance of success.

Register with local estate agents, investigate property auctions and don’t be afraid to track down the owners of empty properties that could have potential – the online Land Registry is a good option here.

Local planning policy

Before you walk through the door of what could be the right house, it’s wise to do some local investigation to arm yourself with a good understanding of what works the planners might accept on the property you’re keen to view.

You don’t need to worry too much if you’re purely aiming to do internal works, as they won’t require planning permission. But there’s no point in imagining totally revamping the front facade and adding a shiny new extension if you’re not going to get it past the planners.

Have a look at whether the property still benefits from permitted development (PD) rights, as this could put you in good stead for some changes.

However, on a really involved renovation and extension you may well intend to go in for a full planning application, so understanding local policy before you buy is crucial. Check if the house is positioned in a protected area, too.

When Mark and Stephanie Fernandez came across an outdated bungalow in Berkshire, they knew a renovation and extension project could turn it into their dream home.
The couple overcame planning permission difficulties to create a contemporary home, packed with wow factor

Designated conservation zones and areas of special interest will have more planning restrictions, potentially making getting permission for external alterations trickier.
Planning applications are logged with the local authority, so make use of these by investigating if works on nearby buildings have been approved.

Were there complications with the planning process, such as local objection? Does the property in question have its own planning history? It’s also a good idea to actually visit houses on the same road – can you see any evidence of recent works?

Looking at structural quality

It’s exciting to find an opportunity that seems to tick all the boxes on your renovation wishlist, but it’s vital not to jump straight in with an offer before establishing if the structure is capable of realistically offering what you want, if doing so is financially plausible and if the asking price is fair.

You don’t have to be a building professional to be able to get a good sense of the condition of a house when giving it a look over. Aesthetic upgrades, such as replacing dated wallpaper, carpets and bathroom suites, will need to be budgeted for, but the cost of doing so is fairly easy to predict.

It’s what’s going on behind the scenes that can be a little trickier to check and price up – stripping out and modernising the electrics and heating, for instance, could push fees beyond your budget.

Glenys and Paul Ferguson decided to renovate their Victorian-end-of-terrace home in Lancaster
The couple modernised their home to Passivhaus standards of efficiency

Other problems to look for include damp and any structural movement, but these will probably need to be reviewed by an expert – more on key areas to investigate overleaf.

If a quick scout around shows that the amount of work needed is way beyond your project scope, there’s no point in taking things further. But if you think it might work for you, the next step (unless you’re extremely experienced in renovating) is to commission a building report by a chartered professional.

Obviously, the more thorough the investigation, the bigger the fee. It’s reasonable to feel nervous about commissioning an in-depth report before you know for sure it’s worth buying the property in question, but it could be riskier to go ahead with the purchase without one. Also, if it turns out that lots of work is needed, then you’ve got a good reason to haggle down the vendor’s asking price.Various levels of investigation are available, from a basic condition report (which you’re likely to need for your mortgage valuation anyway) through to a full structural survey by a qualified structural engineer.

KEY THINGS TO INVESTIGATE
  • Damp Mould, damp patches, white salt deposits on bricks, rotting timber and failing plasterwork are all signs of too much moisture in a property – you’ll probably be able to smell it before you see it. Don’t let it put you off a house, though, as resolving issues might be fairly simple. Just remember you need to budget for getting any damaged parts of the structure repaired.
  • Structural MovementCracks on walls are an indication that the building might have moved, potentially because of a structural failure of some kind or because of changes below ground, known as subsidence and heave. You need to establish if there is active movement – which will need to be fixed – or whether these are old scars that just require a cosmetic facelift.
  • ElectricsIf this hasn’t been updated for over 25 years then it’s probably going to need some work. Tell-tale signs to look out for include dated looking fuse boxes with no circuit breakers, round pin plugs and old-fashioned dolly light switches.
  • Plumbing Replacing dated sanitaryware with modern units is easy to estimate in terms of costs, but if you’re thinking of relocating or adding bathrooms then the plumbing will need to be extended to these areas. So why not consider upgrading the supply, waste and soil pipes at the same time?
  • HeatingFirst establish if the property has a central heating system in place – are there radiators powered by a gas boiler? Electric storage heaters are a tale-tale sign of no central heating. If it’s old, then it’s worth replacing a boiler with a new energy efficient model. Remember that the performance of your heating system will have a lot to do with your property’s thermal efficiency, which will need investigating, too.

“You have to make a judgement based on what you see, but I believe it’s worth digging deep for the full works on an old house or somewhere with lots of damage,” says architect and Build It expert Julian Owen.

Investigating design potential

When you’re assessing a property that you’re thinking of renovating, there will be signs to look out for regarding what kind of changes could work with the building.

Firstly, look at the layout of rooms and establish if they would suit your needs.

If the current arrangement wouldn’t suit your household or lifestyle, understand what’s missing – an extra bedroom, bathroom or spacious kitchen-diner overlooking the garden, for instance. Could these be integrated?

Would any rooms benefit from being knocked together in order to create one larger area? Perhaps an old conservatory would be better replaced with a new extension to provide a big living zone with glazed doors opening onto a patio?

If you’re thinking of extending a property, look at the garden and how close the walls are to the boundary to establish what space there is to play with.

The style of building could also hint towards what’s possible. For instance, side returns are a popular space to build into on Victorian terrace houses and dormer loft conversions are often seen on 1960s bungalows.

It’s worth peeking into the loft to investigate how high the ceiling is – could a small dormer window and rooflight combo be enough to make the storey habitable, or would it require major structural alterations, including removing trusses and putting additional support in?

Obviously the more work needed, the higher the fees.

Estimating building costs

While you want to understand how much a house project is going to cost before going ahead with the purchase, you also don’t want to spend too much money before knowing for certain it’s going to happen.

There’s a delicate balance here because getting firm costs will come with a price tag.

If you’ve forked out for a structural survey, then you’ll have an idea of what works are needed. But getting them accurately priced will still be tricky if you don’t have at least sketch drawings from a designer.

Trouble is, paying for these before buying is a risky investment in itself.

You could ask a general builder to do some educated guesswork, but remember this will just be a rough estimate rather than a full quote. If you’ve got an established relationship with an architect or builder, from a previous project or through personal connections, it’s worth asking
if they’ll walk around the house with you to give some professional insight into how much things might cost.

A good builder will have access to information and experience from past jobs to give them a rough idea of what things come in at, as well a general understanding of the trades needed and how long they might be on site for.

“Do be wary, because whatever price a builder does estimate might be generous in a bid to guarantee you go back to them when you put the project out to tender… only to find that the final quote comes back higher,” says Julian.

There’s another big tipping point to keep in mind – are the changes you want so expensive that it’s more cost effective to knock the whole property down and start again?

This is something we’ll look at later in the series, but it’s a question that’s worth debating early on, especially if the house is in a very sorry state of disrepair.

Final thoughts

Fundamentally, when assessing a potential project, use your common sense and get help where necessary.

“It’s a false economy not to pay for professional advice before buying, especially if the renovation requires significant work,” says Julian.

“Just recognise that any quotes given at this stage should be taken with a pinch of salt.”

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