Hidden problems when renovating older properties

To prepare you for the unexpected, we've made a list of common hidden problems you might discover in an older property.

Ceiling damage

By Joanna Jefferies
‘Do you want the good news or the bad news?’ – it’s the question every renovator dreads from their contractor – because bad news often means an unexpected blow to the budget. The good news? Experienced contractors will build a contingency into your renovation budget and will also inspect your home for common issues before the renovation begins. To prepare you for the unexpected, we’ve made a list of common hidden problems you might discover in an older property.

Exterior issues

Patched up cracks in plaster walls are a common way of hiding earth movement, leaks or structural issues, so it pays to ask questions if you can see that there are new patches of paint or plaster on your exterior walls and check if they correspond with patching on the interior. Sydney Refresh consultant Hashim Nasser says these cracks may re-appear post renovation and to seek a structural forensic investigation from a structural engineer.
“S/he will conduct a structural assessment and inspect the surrounding area, perform a wall plump check, analyse any distress and recommend rectification. Further investigation may be required like getting a geotechnical report, moisture content check, or assess plumbing.” Once those patches are properly investigated you’ll have a much clearer idea of how much it will cost to rectify the problem – and just remember it’s unlikely an issue can’t be rectified.

Under the house

Having your consultant inspect under your house is an invaluable exercise, especially if the underfloor space isn’t yet insulated because they’ll be able to take a good look at the sub-floors or floorboards, plumbing and structure. Inspecting areas with plumbing for rot and floor damage will allow this to be taken into account in the renovation budget; likewise damaged floors can be assessed for replacement; and any structural issues resulting from poor design, insect damage or rot can be allowed for. Hashim says it’s also important to assess areas that will need excavation.
“Be mindful that the area under the house may have been used as a burial place for asbestos,” he says.
Excavation issues can also include hidden buried objects, says Refresh Central Coast NSW contractor Stephen Cox, which was his experience on one job when he was excavating for footings “we discovered a large old unused septic tank!”.

Uneven interior

Uneven floor surfaces are the biggest tell-tale sign that your house has been there a long time! Often houses settle, which means piles or foundations sink and floors can become uneven.
If walls have been removed, there can also be added weight on heavy load-bearing points, and this can also cause dips in your floor. But the good news is most of the time you can get your floor back to level, or float new level flooring over existing floors.
“Clever installers can overcome these issues - but not always,” says Hashim. “You need to be mindful that doors may not swing fully open if floors are raised. Doors will then need to be cut and depending on the quality of the door timber, it could be difficult to create a clean seamless cut in the door.”
On that note, it’s always best to leave any interior renovation until after your home has been re-piled or brought to level. This is because cracks can occur in the plasterboard, and you’ll have to repair any new work.

Wet area & Wiring Woes

When doing wet area renovations it’s an ideal time to take preventative measures at a minimal cost by replacing old copper pipes with new PVC ones. From there it’s simply a matter of assessing any water damage created by old leaks.
If there are any blockages Hashim says it’s advisable to do CCTV pipe check and “when removing an old water heater with the intention to reinstall it back, look out for the water heater pressure release valve and connectivity to a drainage pipe - the previous plumber may have taken a short cut in the installation.”
Likewise, with your wiring, overloaded electrical circuits and DIY electrical installation are common issues with older homes.

Insect Invasion & Asbestos

Asbestos can have a very severe impact on your health and your contractor’s health when renovating, so it’s something you need to take seriously. Stephen says it’s a hidden issue and all renovations of homes built before the mid-1990s need to be assessed by someone who knows what materials to look for.
Another threat to your home is insect and rodent damage. Every country has their own species to contend with, and the worst Stephen has seen was a case of “severe white ant damage – when removing wall linings and finding almost no timber left supporting walls and ceilings.”
While some damage will remain hidden behind walls, borer holes and termite damage can often be located from the exterior, underfloor or ceiling cavity.

Poor planning

Funnily enough, poor planning can often be one of the biggest unexpected issues when renovating an older home. “Logistical problems such as the inability to get large objects - especially beams and large heavy stone bench tops inside a house or to higher level apartments situated at the back of a building can be an issue,” says Hashim.
Buying a bath that’s too heavy for the foundations or can’t fit through the doorway is yet another common issue.
But it’s not all bad news – there can be hidden surprises of a positive variety too. Hashim recounts one hidden surprise that made his clients day: “When doing a full renovation for a house with a column in the middle, it was difficult to plan a nice island without interfering with the column. When we took the timber side covers off we discovered that it was not a structural column, but it was housing a sewer pipe. The customer was overjoyed when we were able to redirect the sewer pipe and remove the column from the middle; it made a huge difference to have a clean open space.”

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