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Winkling out the cold truth.

Homemaker house doctor Peter Fall has concrete suspicions.

It's funny how we find ourselves with a worry, but when we check it out we discover it's the wrong worry.

It happened this week. My client was buying a house and the vendor had proudly announced that when they had moved in two years ago, they installed a damp proof course in the walls and stripped out the original timber floor and installed a concrete floor.

My client was concerned: "Surely this will make the house colder and cost more to heat?" On hearing this, my concern was, why strip out a perfectly sound timber floor? It must have been rotten. If so, what sort of rot? And was that fully treated?

Let's think about the client's problem of the cold floor. Yes, the concrete is cold to touch, but heat loss would not be a problem. The timber ground floor loses far more heat than the concrete floor. A correctly-constructed timber ground floor must have a constant flow of fresh air blowing underneath it from outside. Despite global warming, this will be cold air, so the floor will always lose heat.

The concrete floor, on the other hand, is laid directly on the ground and so only the edges that are nearest the outside will get cold. The remainder will stay at a constant(ish!) warm temperature, so it will only lose a small amount of heat. In addition, modern solid concrete ground floors are insulated to reduce heat loss.

So, Mr and Mrs Client, don't worry, the concrete floor is more efficient now than it was before.

Unfortunately, there were two points in the story, which caused me concern. The first is that the vendor had installed a damp proof course in the past two years. We must assume from this that the house was suffering from rising damp before this and probably there was no damp proof course beneath the timber floor. It would be unusual if there had been a damp proof course under the floor, but not in the wall.

The second concern was, why had the vendor replaced the floor? It must have been in a poor state to go to that expense. If the floor had not had a damp proof course and had become wet over a period of years, then a wood rot decay could have set in.

The type of rot is important. If it had been wet rot, it would only have spread among other pieces of timber that were similarly wet. Once the wet rot reached dry timber it would stop. But if the rot was dry rot, then once it became established in wet timbers, it would spread into dry timbers. Both of these rots will spread across plastered walls for a reasonable distance to reach new wet or dry timber. Failing to find wet timber will stop the growth of wet rot, but once the dry rot finds dry or wet timber, it will continue with its growth.

If the vendor replaced the rotten timber floor because of dry rot, did they get the full extent of the attack or is there some still dry rot lurking in the wall? Slowly spreading up to the first floor or even back down to the new skirting boards to restart the attack?

It shouldn't be all doom and gloom. The vendor should have evidence of what they did two years ago. I will be looking for quotations for the necessary work, backed up by a report on the extent of the attack at the time. I will then want to see invoices that match the quotations and reports, with hopefully a guarantee from a specialist company for the treatment.

If you do have work carried out to your home, especially this type of work, always ensure you have detailed quotations, matching invoices and where applicable guarantees. These are clear evidence you care for your home and reassure any surveyor who, like me, is initially suspicious of what might be lurking unseen.

* Peter Fall is former president of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. He is managing director of Clear Building Survey, tel: 0800 072-9003
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:May 5, 2007
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