Property: The hammered house of horror

Buying a wreck to do it up may seem a good idea, says Gwenda Joyce- Brophy. But expensive and hazardous surprises may be lurking...
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The Independent Online
It's a common problem. You've set your heart on living in desirable area A, but your budget only stretches to the less-than-leafy area B. If that sounds like you, or if there are pressing factors requiring you to buy somewhere that you just can't afford, taking on a house that in estate agent lingo "may benefit from some attention", can seem very tempting.

Choosing a house in less-than-perfect condition may not be simply the product of necessity. Some buyers prefer to do a place up and extract any value added for themselves. When banker Anthony Moran bought his house in South London, prices were rising steadily.

"I bought a Victorian terrace that needed doing up quite drastically," he says. "The difference in price between mine and those in rather more pristine condition in the same street was substantial" - in his case around 30 per cent. "The difference in price was attractive, but I also liked the idea of stamping my own individual style and taste on the house."

It sounds a tempting solution, but you would be wise to think carefully before you buy your 'bargain'. The various finishes, effects and materials that have brought the price down will at best be a time-consuming chore to remove, and at worst could be downright dangerous.

Some of this will be all too apparent before you move in, but other, more insidious legacies can remain hidden. When Labour MP Steve Ladyman and his wife Janet moved into their home last summer, despite detailed surveys they still found something nasty behind the walls.

"When builders began on the sitting room to remove a 1950s fireplace and old plasterboard they found asbestos behind the walls," says Janet. "We knew from the survey that there was asbestos in the house, even on some of the bedroom doors, put there years ago for fire prevention, but it is always worrying to find it in places you didn't know about. In the end we all went out for the day, and the specialists came in and took it away".

Asbestos was used in so many roles and for so many years that it can still be found lurking in weird locations within some houses - not just behind plasterboard but in ceiling claddings, in pipe and boiler lagging and on heater tanks.

If you do come across a substance that you suspect may be asbestos, your first point of contact can be your local Environmental Health Department for general information. The material then needs to be tested to identify it and determine the type. If it is asbestos, the Asbestos Removal Contractors' Association (ARCA) recommends that any removal be carried out by a licensed contractor. Such a firm may not necessarily be part of ARCA, but all ARCA members will be licensed.

Other substances, which may seem hazardous only to your sensibilities, can also be damaging to your health. Artex, a once widely used wall and ceiling finish, is anathema to current tastes for a smooth, polished finish. If your new living room is covered in it should you, as an acquaintance of mine did, attack it with a sander, in the process creating a blinding dust cloud?

"Definitely not," says ARCA. "You are disturbing the fibres, and until the mid-1980s the ubiquitous asbestos could also be found in Artex."

One solution is to re-plaster the entire surface. This can be costly, depending on the area to be covered. In areas where the property market is booming, you are likely to find that so are the charges of plasterers. An alternative is to cover the surface with plasterboard, filling in any spaces with filler. These solutions also yield a clean slate in terms of a new, smooth surface. Remember - Artex may have been used in the first place because the surface underneath was in a poor state.

Those who, like Anthony Moran, find polystyrene tiles on their ceilings might, after asbestos and Artex, think them relatively easy to remove. But it's time-consuming, and you'll end up with aching arms.

Anthony found removing the tiles themselves a reasonably simple task - a triangular shavehook to loosen corners then a stripping knife to lift away the file is all that should be needed. But the adhesive residue that determinedly clung on caused his biggest headaches.

Tiles are typically stuck on using the five-dab principle - a dab of glue in each corner and one in the middle - but if you are really unlucky you may find the installer was overenthusiastic and used an all-over cover of adhesive. The least hazardous method - warm water - should be tried first. If you need something stronger, wallpaper or even paint stripper should do the job, but you must take great care to avoid splashes - goggles and gloves are essential.

Now for the horrors that lurk outside the front door. Pebbledashing has long been a popular finish - Lord Everhulme's architects used it in his Port Sunlight model village at the end of the last century - and many firms still thrive on a continuing taste for it. But pebbledash is not to everyone's liking. A survey of prospective house buyers recently grouped it with such other notorious undesirables as underfloor electric heating.

Part of the dislike is based on fear of what may be hidden underneath - defective brickwork, for example. But can you do anything about it, and with what likelihood of success?

The answer is that it all depends, although it has to be said that the prognosis is not generally good. First, it helps to find out why pebbledash was used in the first place, says the Brick Development Association, but that may prove difficult if it was done by one or more owners ago. Look at neighbours' brickwork - the brickwork underneath may have been intended for a pebbledash finish and theirs may provide a clue.

If you're feeling brave and persistent, the British Cement Association suggests chiselling it off - a slow and painstaking procedure. While a high-powered waterjet with grit added to make it more abrasive can be used, this will only work in addition to, not instead of, the chiselling process.

Even if the brickwork beneath is sound, you run a real risk of damaging it by removing pebbledash. If this happens, or the brickwork you uncover turns out to be dodgy anyway, the Brick Development Association provides information on several techniques that may help. These include a process called 'dubbing out' - using a special mortar to patch up the damaged parts - and tinting bricks.

But is it worth all the effort, cost and risk? Probably not, is the general consensus. The only hard and fast rule for the amateur buying on the cheap and planning to do their house up is that they are far more likely to underestimate than overestimate the costs of removing all those unwanted extras and repairing the damage.

q Useful contact numbers: ARCA (Asbestos Removal Contractors' Association), 01245 259764; Brick Development Association, 01344 885651; Graham Taylor at the British Cement Association offers a fee-paying Technical Consultancy Service, 01344 725755.