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  • Writer's pictureRichard Peck

What Type of Survey Do I Need? - Why We Only Offer RICS Level 3 Building Surveys on ‘Traditional’ Homes...

Updated: Jul 3

RICS Level 3 Building Survey for stone property

When it comes to surveying homes, the type of survey we recommend greatly depends on the age and construction of the property. For what we consider 'traditional' buildings, we exclusively offer Level 3 Building Surveys. Here's why...


What Do We Mean by 'Traditional' Buildings?


A traditional building typically refers to those constructed before 1919. This year is often referenced by educational providers because most homes built before this time used solid wall construction methods and permeable materials.


The Joint Position Statement from RICS, Heritage England, and The Property Care Association in their September 2022 document, "Investigation of moisture and its effects in traditional buildings," provides a useful definition:


"The term ‘traditional’ refers to buildings with solid walls built from permeable materials such as brick, stone, earth, timber and lime-based mortars, plasters and renders. Traditional construction absorbs moisture but allows it to evaporate when conditions become drier. This is in contrast to modern construction, which relies on impermeable barriers to prevent moisture entering the fabric."



After 1919, construction methods evolved rapidly, incorporating new materials and faster techniques. Due to regional differences and differing styles, we try not to get too hung up on the specific 1919 date, as we sometimes find that even homes constructed in the 1930s are ‘traditionally’ built and require a Level 3 Building Survey. So, we like to consider each property based on its merits. However, as an example, we wouldn’t offer Level 2 Home Surveys on Victorian homes.


The Complexity of Traditional Buildings


Our experience as residential surveyors has taught us that traditional buildings are complicated and are often misunderstood by homeowners and, in some cases, even professional tradesmen. Modern approaches and principles that apply impermeable barriers to prevent moisture from entering buildings do not typically suit older homes, which were designed to work with permeable materials. Such building material changes and other alterations often carried out to older homes have led to increased dampness and condensation issues, often exacerbating the problems they aimed to solve. Plus, there are general building fabric defects and locational/environmental considerations.


To give some examples of common problems we find in older homes:


  • Repointing with hard cement, which traps moisture.

  • External application of non-permeable cement-based renders, which aren’t flexible enough for older structures and crack/break down, allowing dampness to penetrate and become trapped.

  • Use of inappropriate impermeable paints on older external walls, which deteriorate and trap moisture.

  • Applying cement/gypsum-based plasters and impermeable paints internally, which aren’t permeable enough to allow moisture vapour to pass through and evaporate.

  • Ventilation problems, often from the removal of original fireplaces and blocking of flues, replacement of vented timber flooring with concrete, and inappropriate insulation materials.

  • Poor maintenance of the building’s external fabric (e.g., leaking gutters, drainage issues, eroded pointing, and deteriorating render).

  • Raising ground levels around a building or bridging damp-proof courses.

  • Factors affecting walls' exposure to sunlight and shade, such as surrounding vegetation and attached climbing plants.


The Joint Position Statement acknowledges these challenges and is a significant step forward in improving education on the care of older buildings, in my opinion. The document outlines how surveyors should help clients understand the building and moisture in general, diagnose moisture-related defects and provide recommendations for works while considering legislative and regulatory issues.


Necessity of Level 3 Building Surveys

The RICS provides a table comparing the features of the different types of Home Survey available in its consumer guide, "House surveys (UK): the costs, types and benefits of an RICS Home Survey."

The table provides tick boxes for the features of each survey, and among the features only ticked for Level 3 Building Surveys are:


  • Establishes how the property is built, what materials are used and how these will perform in the future.

  • Describes visible defects and potential problems posed by hidden defects.

  • Describes the repair options, gives you a repair timeline and explains the consequences of not carrying out repairs.

  • A longer and more detailed visual inspection of a wider range of issues, including a more thorough consideration of the roof space, grounds, floors and service.


I would argue that these are all essential for compliance with the Joint Position Statement.


One of my favourite parts of the JPS is when it recognises a holistic approach is required for dampness and moisture management, that identifies and deals with causes rather than focusing on symptoms. This is in contrast to historical approaches, which have treated dampness as a simple issue (as in rising moisture from the ground, let’s add another damp-proof course). These chemical treatments are still being used relatively widespread. My own personal record for the number of injected damp-proof course treatments found on a property was three (these all above two separate, original layers of felt and engineering bricks) – what’s the definition of insanity again?


The document also notes that dealing with dampness should be a staged process, where the obvious defects should be dealt with first, before a period of monitoring, natural evaporation, and reassessment, before moving on to other treatments.


The comprehensive nature of our Level 3 Building Surveys ensures that the ‘obvious’ issues are identified and addressed by our surveyors, regardless of whether internal dampness is actually found. Also, given that RICS pre-purchase Home Surveys are non-invasive (RICS surveyors don’t typically open up the building fabric), we have to be mindful of potential less-obvious issues that might require further investigation. This could be things like the internal plaster having been taken down below the damp-proof course levels (but hidden behind skirting boards, which might need to be removed to confirm). Given the reporting requirements outlined above, combined with the complexity and specific needs of traditional buildings, I believe a Level 3 Building Survey is essential for ‘traditional’ buildings.


Conclusion


Traditional buildings require a specialised and detailed approach to surveying. The extensive inspection and reporting provided by RICS Level 3 Building Surveys are crucial for these older, complex properties. We recognise that Level 2 Home Surveys have a valuable place in the RICS Home Survey lineup and are very useful for less complicated homes. However, by exclusively offering Level 3 Building Surveys for ‘traditional’ homes, we ensure that the unique needs of these older properties are met with precision and thoroughness.


As a side note, I'm looking forward to learning how the guidance and advice in the Joint Position Statement are incorporated into upcoming updates to the RICS Home Survey Standards. Honestly, while I think the document is great, I think RICS could promote it better to its members. I have spoken to some surveyors who still aren't aware of it, which I find astonishing.


It will also be interesting to see how 'traditional' buildings fare going forward concerning the Minimum Energy Efficiency Standard (MEES) Regulations, especially with proposed changes to increase the minimum EPC rating required for domestic private rented properties, potentially going to increase from an ‘E’ to a ‘C’. There is a bit of a clash between improving the energy efficiency of our older ‘traditional’ homes and caring for them as they delicately require (being allowed to ‘breathe’). However, this is perhaps a blog post for another day!

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