So you've found your dream home. It's taken you two minutes to fall in love with it and you are already visualising yourself on the roof terrace on a Sunday morning with croissants and the morning papers. It's now not a question of if you'll buy, but how much you are prepared to pay. First you need to have a second visit and, as any property professional will tell you, be ruled by the head, not the heart. And it's the details – brick equivalent of the small print – that matter.
Jeremy Leaf, a north London estate agent and chartered surveyor, says only one in five purchasers bother to invest in a survey, homebuyer's report or comprehensive building survey. "A survey can tell you if the house has damp or condensation from being empty for a few weeks. It can tell you if those cracks are from subsidence.
"Just because a mortgage valuation is done by a chartered surveyor, it doesn't mean he has spent three hours examining in a property," he adds.
You'll need to follow the clues to find out what your dream home is hiding, he says, recalling a time a vendor positioned an elderly relative, apparently asleep, on a strategically placed armchair to hide a patch of expensive damp.
So, snoring pensioners aside, what should the sensible buyer be on the look out for?
Julian Murch, a former estate agent turned chartered surveyor, starts with the obvious: "Obviously you need to have a good look around but your nose is a pretty good tool, too. Does it smell damp or musty? Look up at the ceilings for signs of damp." You should also be looking at the corners of wallpaper for any bubbling or looseness.
Check brickwork for diagonal cracks which may have been partly hidden by repointing. Come back inside and open and close a few doors – do they stick? Ask why? Internal walls often have plaster cracks but look for long diagonal ones – particularly where they might correspond to outside cracks.
Murch tells of one tale where a vendor had tried to cover up a problem: "I was in the roof space and there was a door propped up against the party wall. It seemed like an odd way to store an old door so I moved it and found a huge hole between the two houses.
"Do look out for things that appear to be in the wrong place – piles of laundry or bookcases in odd places – then move them."
Spencer Cushing, associate director of John D Wood's South Kensington office, has experience of problems arising from bad plumbing. "Check the silicon sealant round the bath and shower," he says ruefully. "I didn't and, on the day we moved in, my wife went to run a bath and I was in the kitchen when water started pouring through the lightbulb fitting. When I took the panel off the side of the bath I discovered a huge pile of rubble. That wasn't a problem in itself, but did point to sloppy workmen and you start wondering what else you are going to find."
Gavin Scott-Brooker, a seasoned chartered surveyor from Nantwich in Cheshire, recommends checking out the electrics. "About half of all old houses don't have up-to-date circuit breakers and that can cost about £800 to upgrade. That might also point to problems with the rest of the electrics and wiring."
"This is increasingly an issue," says Scott-Brooker. Check for double glazing and ask if the vendors have taken steps to improve insulation. If there are window locks, make sure to ask if they've got the keys."
Scott-Brooker says: "It's a total myth that, in a modern house, there is less to look for. These days a development is often run by a project manager rather than a builder and things are just thrown up in a hurry to avoid penalty clauses. Just because it's new, doesn't mean it won't have problems."
One good tip is turn on the hot tap and ask someone to stand near the boiler to check how much noise it makes, says Cushing. A new boiler is a big expense so find out how old it is. The ideal is a modern condensing boiler.
PARKING AND NOISE
The best way to assess the noise and the neighbourhood is to visit at different times of the day. This will tell you about parking and about the neighbours. Visiting a house at 11am may not reveal the chaos at 8.30am caused by the school in the next road. Drive round the block a few times and find out if the local supermarket has adequate parking, or will shoppers use your road. Cushing recommends checking on a Sunday evening as that's when people come back from a weekend away. In a flat or a maisonette, find out if they've got floorboards and see if you can check the noise levels. Ask how old the neighbours are – if you've got a small baby you don't want 20-year-olds playing music at midnight.
No, not those living above or next door, but those of the pest variety. Check all the carpet for signs of moths, which are tricky and expensive to get rid of. And Cushing has a cautionary tale. "If the vendor isn't there, kneel down and take the kickboards off in the kitchen. One buyer found mousetraps filled with dead bodies."
In a Victorian house, you can't be surprised if there are mice from time to time, but it's worth checking for poison and traps and asking if the vendors have tried to proof the place.
ONE MORE THING
Take a look at homecheck.co.uk to find information about flooding, subsidence, pollution and landfill in your area. There are also links to planning information and crime rates. Otherwise, Scott-Brooker says: "Make sure you have a contingency budget for those minor trivial matters that might crop up in the first 12 months as the seasons change and you get to know the house."