There is no doubt that old buildings carry a certain charm and appeal. And if you’re looking at purchasing one for your family home or your business, there are some real risks you need to consider before parting with your cash.
Here, we list eight potential dangers of old properties that you need to know about.
Penetrating damp is the development of moisture through the walls and roof, or below ground level of a building. And while a property of any age can experience damp, older buildings that have suffered from a lack of maintenance can be more prone to penetrating damp.
Missing or broken roof tiles and flashing, leaking or faulty rainwater pipes and guttering, faulty joints between doors and windows, and missing or cracked pointing in the brickwork are all common defects that can often go ignored. If you’re looking to purchase an older property, make sure you scan these areas for signs of defects. If building materials have suffered damage and have not had the proper repairs carried out, they will not work in the way in which they were designed to do.
It’s also important to note that both brickwork and render can deteriorate with age. They can become more porous and are more likely to have suffered from storm, physical or frost damage, allowing the potential for penetrating damp. Again, if the correct repairs are not carried out, then water is left being able to penetrate the materials, causing damp problems.
A watermark appearing on internal walls is often the first sign of penetrating damp. The damp patch is likely to grow as the water continues to enter and is likely to get worse following periods of heavy rainfall. Another early indicator of penetrating damp is droplets of water appearing on internal walls which will vary depending on the severity of the problem.
Wallpaper will start to peel, paint begin to crack and wood can start swelling and warping if there is excess moisture, which is a huge indicator that you have a damp problem.
Penetrating damp can form in isolated patches or it can affect an entire wall. If left untreated, building materials can start to biodegrade in extreme conditions and mould can start to appear on the affected areas.
While the penetrating damp itself won’t cause mould growth, it can encourage condensation to form on the damp patches which can subsequently lead to microbial growth. The damp patch on a wall is usually much cooler than the surrounding surface and when moisture-laden air comes into contact with a colder surface, it causes condensation. To learn more about condensation and how it affects mould growth, read our blog post about whether your lifestyle is causing mould.
Condensation, if not dealt with, will go on to cause mould growth (see more on mould below). This excess moisture on the wall can also cause superficial damage such as peeling wallpaper and blown plaster, as well as leading to possible structural issues such as rotting wood. In extreme conditions, damp can also cause organic materials to biodegrade, compromising the structural integrity of your building.
2: OLD WATER DAMAGE AND MOULD
Materials can deteriorate over time and if not maintained correctly, can go on to fail. Old plumbing and pipework is no exception.
Checking an old property for signs of previous water damage – even if the cause has been fixed – could save you costs and headaches in the long run. If the cause was fixed but the areas never dried out properly, you could be taking on a lot more than you think.
All the time that excess moisture is in the air, mould is a huge risk for buildings. Able to grow wherever there is moisture, organic material, warmth and oxygen present, mould can colonise in a matter of days and will continue to grow.
Not only does mould naturally decay and “feed” on organic matter, it’s also a risk to your health. Both the WHO (World Health Organisation) and the NHS agree that exposure to mould can cause an increased risk of experiencing respiratory symptoms, infections, allergic rhinitis and asthma. Inhaling or touching mould spores can also cause allergic reactions such as sneezing, a runny nose, red eyes and skin rashes. Mould is also cited as a cause of asthma attacks.
There are other structural risks to old water damage, too. If wood gets wet and has no way of drying out – for example, there’s little to no ventilation – then wood-boring insects and fungi can quickly cause damage. Timber, notably floor timbers, are particularly at risk of rotting when there is a complete lack of ventilation. Rotten wood can be a huge structural issue that could cost thousands to rectify, not to mention the significant disruption that would be incurred trying to fix it.
Although asbestos has been banned in the UK fully since 1999, its presence in buildings built before 2000 still remains a risk – whether from asbestos itself or asbestos-containing materials.
In the UK, there are three main types of asbestos: brown (Amosite), blue (Crocidolite), and white (Chrysatile – the most commonly used). While the sale of brown and blue asbestos was banned in 1985, white asbestos was still in use until it was finally banned in 1999.
While asbestos can be found almost anywhere in an old building, it’s most commonly found where fire resistances and/or insulation would normally be required. This is because asbestos – notably amosite – was commonly used as a fire retardant due to it being made up of a group of naturally occurring silicate minerals which are fire-resistant.
Recognising asbestos by a visual inspection alone can be difficult. That’s because asbestos is usually covered with painted coatings or hidden by fixtures, heaters or hidden within voids.
Common areas where asbestos is usually found include:
- Textured coatings such as Artex
- Within floor, ceiling and roof tiles
- In lagging around boilers and pipes
- Insulating boards
- Loose-fill insulation
Why is asbestos dangerous?
When asbestos is disturbed, the fibres are released into the air. And it’s these fibres that are dangerous. When inhaled, they can cause serious illnesses over the years. So while you may not be affected immediately, by time the illness is diagnosed, it’s often too late. Despite its ban, asbestos still kills around 5,000 people each year.
Some illnesses brought on by asbestos exposure include:
Mesothelioma is a cancer affecting the lining of the lungs, and the lining surrounding the lower digestive tract. It is almost always exclusively related to asbestos exposure and by the time it’s diagnosed, it is almost always fatal.
Asbestos-related lung cancer
Asbestos-related lung cancer looks the same as lung cancer caused by other factors such as smoking. It is estimated that there is around one lung cancer for every mesothelioma death.
Asbestosis is a serious scarring of the lung that normally occurs after heavy exposure to asbestos over many years. This condition can cause progressive shortness of breath and in severe cases, can be fatal.
Pleural thickening is generally a problem that happens after heavy asbestos exposure. The lining of the lung thickens and swells. If it gets worse, the lung itself can be squeezed and cause a shortness of breath and discomfort in the chest.
If you suspect asbestos or asbestos-containing materials within your property, or you have disturbed asbestos during works, then stop work immediately and refer to the HSE for guidance on what steps to take next.
4: LEAD PAINT
One of the charms of older buildings is their characteristics, which often includes impressive doors or intricate windows. But original features like these can come with a potential danger: lead paint.
While it’s an idealistic thought that an old building has original woodwork, the chances are that if it was built prior to the 1970’s, there is lead within some of the paint. That’s because up until the mid-1960’s, lead was used in paints commonly used to coat windows, doors, and other woodwork. It was also commonly found in some of the paint used to coat certain metal items, such as radiators.
Breathing in or ingesting lead dust or fumes can lead to serious health problems including kidney, nerve, and brain damage, and even infertility. That’s why it’s so important to remove lead paint properly if you suspect its presence.
If your property has original paintwork that’s just been painted over time and again, the lead in the original paintwork could be “locked” into the oldest layers. And as long as it’s in good condition and you’re not planning on decorating (which has the potential to disturb it), you needn’t do anything further.
However, if there’s a chance that it may be disturbed, it should be carefully removed using methods that do not create dust or fumes.
The easiest way of recognising lead paint is by its unique pattern of deterioration. Unlike other paints that tend to peel as they deteriorate, lead paint tends to crack in distinctive rectangles. If you’re unsure if your paint contains lead, contact a professional for further advice.
5: OLD ELECTRICS
If you look around an old property before purchasing and all looks okay, can you be sure it is? What about the dangers that you can’t see?
It’s highly likely that the electrics in an old property are just as old as the building itself. And old electrics and wiring bring with them their own dangers. While the electrics are safe as in they would have met regulations at the time of installation, that’s not the only concern.
Many buildings built before 1984 didn’t use earth cables and they often had aluminium wire rather copper. Copper wiring is generally much safer and less flammable; aluminium wire is over 55 times more likely to cause a fire than copper due to its extremely high operating temperatures.
Faulty and ageing wiring is one of the major causes of electrical fires in the home. Damaged plugs, sockets and flexible cables can cause electric shocks, burns, and devastating fires.
Obvious warning signs of a fault with the electrical system in your property include:
- Dim and/or flickering lights
- Interference with or shrinking of your television picture
- Frequent power cuts (isolated to your property)
- Sparks from sockets
- Sizzling sounds when using an electrical device or appliance
- Burning smells and/or smoke
- Electric shocks, no matter the severity
- Warm or hot switches/plug sockets
If you’re unsure how old your electrical system is, a qualified electrician will able to carry out an inspection and advise of any amendments or updates required. The general rule of thumb is that a privately owned property should be inspected every 10 years, while tenanted and businesses should have an inspection every five.
6: CARBON MONOXIDE
Carbon monoxide, often referred to as “the silent killer”, is an odourless, tasteless, colourless gas which can make you seriously ill and often proves fatal without its presence ever being known.
So why is this a problem for older properties?
Carbon monoxide is produced by the incomplete burning of carbon-based fuels. This can include a boiler, or an open fire. Older properties often have more chance of carbon-burning appliances being neglected and left to deteriorate; a lack of maintenance is one of the most common causes of carbon monoxide poisoning.
When carbon monoxide occurs, it will rapidly fill the immediate space before gradually seeping out into the rest of the building. If you have the following symptoms while at the property, which reside when you’re away, you could very well have a carbon monoxide leak.
Look out for:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Tiredness and confusion
- Stomach pain
- Difficulty breathing / shortness of breath
Low-level exposure to carbon monoxide can cause symptoms similar to the flu. But if they ease off while you’re away from the property, install a carbon monoxide alarm as a matter of priority to rule out a leak.
Higher levels of exposure can cause the following:
- Change in behaviour / impaired mental state
- Loss of physical coordination
- Tachycardia (an increased heart rate above 100bpm)
- Chest pain
- Loss of consciousness
If you suspect a carbon monoxide leak, contact a gas safe registered plumber straight away.
7: PESTS, RODENTS AND BIRDS
With buildings that haven’t been occupied for some time, or older buildings where there are perhaps building defects which allow access to the eaves or loft space, there is a higher chance of an infestation of some kind – whether that be pests, rodents or birds.
Rodents and birds can carry a host of different pathogens including viral, bacterial and fungal. They can range from the relatively benign right through to potentially lethal. Unwanted guests can also cause damage to the structure of your building. Birds will scavenge materials to build their nests and can cause damage to roofing materials as they try to gain access to loft spaces. Leaks, damp, and other issues can arise as a result of eager birds.
While bugs and rodents can be a problem in any building, older properties may be at higher risk of infestation. Poorly maintained buildings allow cracks and gaps which small rodents like mice can easily enter through. Large voids such as basements are appealing to rats and softwood often featured within older buildings is particularly appealing to termites.
Mice and rats can cause unhygienic environments, putting your health at risk, while other insects can cause structural damage to your building. Rodents can also present fire risks by chewing through electrical wires without you even knowing.
Animal droppings can be hazardous, carrying a range of bacteria and diseases that can make you sick. But, additionally, bird droppings are actually acidic, bringing further risks. Unless cleaned properly and promptly, bird droppings can cause damage to stone, woodwork and paintwork.
Nesting birds might not seem like much of an issue, but can actually pose the following risks:
- Nesting near downlighters. If a bird is nesting by downlighters, not only is there a risk of it nicking the wiring, but nest materials can cover the ventilation of the light, allowing it to overheat. Both are potential fire risks which can have devastating results.
- We briefly mentioned the danger of bird droppings earlier and the damage it can cause to your building. But if birds are nesting near your water tank – which is often in the loft space in older properties – there is a much more serious risk. Bird droppings coming into contact with the water can contaminate the water in which you and your family drink, risking serious illness.
- Many birds carry blood-feeding parasites and nest mites such as fleas, ticks and lice. More than 5,000 nest mites have been found in one house martin’s nest! What’s more, they can easily travel to other areas of the property.
If you think you have a rodent or bird problem in your building, contact a local pest control company for further advice.
8: RUSTY IRON
Old buildings often boast iron fixtures and fittings and arguably, the ironwork is one of their biggest charms. However, if not cared for correctly, iron can be one of the biggest expenses you’ll face as an owner of an old building.
When iron rusts, it can expand nearly 25 times its original size. So those lovely iron gate pins that add to the charm of the stone wall can actually be enough to jack up the entire wall by several inches if left to rust.
Common signs to look for which indicate rusty iron include:
- Shattered stones with radial cracks around the iron
- Shattered stones on parapet walls where iron cramps have expanded and broken the capstones
- Exploding stonework around windows due to the use of iron pins
Not only does cracked stonework cause concerns for the structural integrity of your building, it also opens up the potential for damp which brings on another host of problems, which we covered earlier. If you’re worried about rusty iron in your periodic property, contact a specialist who will be able to carry out a survey and advise you further.
If you’re worried about mould, undetected leaks, lead paint removal or hazardous environments left by pests and birds in your property, don’t hesitate to contact us. Our highly experienced advisers are on hand to give you all the guidance that you need.