How serious are the problems with this property?
May 14, 2021 11:24 PM   Subscribe

We recently saw a terraced house for sale in London with a mouldy smell and some other visible issues. We're trying to figure out what that tells us about potential issues we can't see, and how much hassle and expense we'd be in for if we bought the property.

For background, the house was built in 2001 and is about 1700 square feet. The property owner lived in it for a while and then rented it out to tenants.

The taps, cabinets, carpet, and other fixtures appear to be the original 2001 ones.

No one is living in the property currently so it doesn't get any fresh air when it is not being shown. There was a very strong mouldy smell throughout the house (overlaid with a cloying air freshener that had clearly been sprayed shortly before we arrived.) Some rooms had carpets and some were tiled. The mouldy smell was present throughout the entire property. I knelt down and smelled the carpets, and they smelled mouldy -- but whether they're the source of the smell or they're just absorbing it from somewhere else, I don't know.

Some of the taps in the bathroom were rusty. When we ran the taps, we didn't see any rust or discolouration in the water.

We did not see any visible mould anywhere. In two rooms, there were small dark patches on the paint that looked like water damage had occurred sometime in the past. They were dry by the time we saw them, and we didn't see any wet spots or leaking.

The best case scenario is that replacing the carpets takes care of the mouldy odor and replacing the taps takes care of the rust. A much worse scenario is that the interior pipes are rusted and leaky and mould is growing inside the walls.

Are there possibilities I'm not considering? Whatever the possibilties are, can we distinguish between them before we make an offer? If not, is a survey likely to distinguish between them, or is it unknowable until we get into the house and start replacing things? Are there any other questions we should be considering given the warning signs we've seen?

I've made a throwaway account if you have questions or want to message me directly:
posted by anonymous to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Ex-rental carpet is often pretty rank, especially ex-rental carpet that's been given a token steam clean as the last tenants leave and then shut up inside an unoccupied, unheated, unventilated dwelling before having been given time to dry properly.

In two rooms, there were small dark patches on the paint that looked like water damage had occurred sometime in the past.

Those would concern me unless I could find out exactly where the water involved had come from and know for sure that the issue had been properly fixed.

Sneaky leaks from shitty roofing will kill property value very very fast.
posted by flabdablet at 11:36 PM on May 14 [4 favorites]

If it was built in 2001 the pipes won't rust - they'll be copper. They can get pinhole leaks - you'd be unlucky but it's possible. The radiators can rust, but you'd see stains under them if they had. Your surveyor should take a damp meter to the plasterboard to confirm there isn't damp in the walls, though I imagine it isn't infallible.

You might also consider if the U bends have dried out, which tends to let sewer smells in. That doesn't typically smell like mould, though.

More seriously, you could be looking at a leaky roof. Again, for UK houses that would be unlucky, we build with materials that tend to stand the test of time.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 11:47 PM on May 14 [1 favorite]

I’d make what’s called a pro/pro list here. Get two sheets of paper and one one label it ‘buying this house’ and on the other ‘passing on this house’. Focussing on one sheet at a time, write only your positives about making this choice at the top of the page. Only the things that excite you, just the pros.

When both your sheets are filled out as much as possible, compare them. Which reasons do you like better?

Our worries, negatives, concerns all really cloud our thinking. This lets us put that aside for a moment and try on a different perspective.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:27 AM on May 15 [5 favorites]

I would highly recommended paying for your own surveyor to do a survey before purchase. The estate agent will do a survey as part of the sale process, but these can be... less than thorough.

When I bought my house (7 years ago, UK), the estate agent survey didn’t pick up certain issues. By using our own surveyor, we found out there were problems with the roof that would need expensive repair, and we were able to get a lot off the asking price to account for this.
posted by Dwardles at 12:55 AM on May 15 [7 favorites]

Survey before purchase - sure it may be a few hundred pounds but the risk of not doing it is worth far more!
posted by socky_puppy at 1:08 AM on May 15 [3 favorites]

Usually the culprit for mould in a British home is people drying their clothes indoors without enough ventilation. This is particularly a problem in rental properties (because tenants don't often realise it's an issue) and in newer properties (because they are more airtight). Given the smell I would be more worried it was something else if they had switched the water off completely to hide a problem.

For any house you are interested I would recommend getting some kind of survey done. Usually there are three levels on offer, a valuation, a homebuyers report, and a full survey. Unless the house you are buying is unusual or more than say 150 years old you probably don't need a full survey. I normally get one anyway, but for a house built in 2001 I'd probably get a homebuyers report. They cost a few hundred £, but tell you what's wrong with the house. You can then work out whether it's worth fixing it to you. If you organise the surveyor, then you can tell them about the things you identified and then they shouldn't be missed.

Also, keep looking at other houses.
posted by plonkee at 1:11 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]

we build with materials that tend to stand the test of time.

Not so much in the last 20 years, though. The Parker Morris standards that applied to council houses until the 80s for an extended period don't apply to modern-ish new build. A 2001 terrace in a part of London where you could build a terrace in 2001 -- and then rent it out for much of that 20 years -- is probably going to be a bit shit.

The question becomes how long you want to live in that house before selling it on to someone who is okay with a 2001 house in London that is a bit shit, after which you move out to somewhere where London house money will actually buy you something that isn't a bit shit.

If you're intent upon buying (which would be reasonable) then your plans (and budget) should really be directed towards making things tolerable for the length of time you want to stay there. If your aim is to buy for the indefinite long term then you may be constrained by all the things that constrain you when dealing with London housing, i.e. space and location and distance from where you work and proximity to public transit. You need to work out whether the cost of mitigating the problems is less than looking further out or further away from a Tube/railway line .
posted by holgate at 1:12 AM on May 15 [10 favorites]

This is why you pay for a detailed property inspection. There are three types of property inspection

- a basic valuation, which is really just the surveyor looking round the house without detailed inspection (will cost around £500). This will highlight anything obvious to the naked eye, but won't identify any hidden structural issues or look for the causes of any problems. So they don't go into the loft to look at the roof supports, or inspect plumbing, or anything like that. They might look at the roof from outside with binoculars. If there's, say, an obvious smell of damp, or a big crack in the wall or gaps above the windows, the two-page report might suggest you get an expert (damp company, structural engineer, etc.) in to look at this further.

- a Home Buyer's Report, which is a much more detailed inspection where you get a 15-page report in a format approved by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (cost around £1,500). This is generally what most people will need. The surveyor will identify any issues where you might need to carry out urgent work, or where it's recommended that you get an expert report for more information, as well as things that might need attention in the future.

- a full structural survey, where a surveyor will go into the ins and outs of every little detail of the property. This is expensive, at least £3,000, and because of the depth of the report, it can seem as if everything is wrong with the property due to every tiny little defect being highlighted (such as chipped paint on the skirting board, etc.)

You'll find more information about the different types of reports here.
posted by essexjan at 1:48 AM on May 15 [4 favorites]

Was the property newly repainted inside? If the paint is clearly old and scuffed, that's a better sign. If it's all new, there's a good possibility it was moldy as hell and they bleached and painted over it. That was the case in one house I rented and it was a nightmare, with any wall behind furniture and anything left in a cupboard too long growing mold. Two houses, actually, the other was a duplex and the lower level was below grade on one side, and that was always a bit damp and fusty.

I am very, very wary of damp moldy places. They are miserable to live in. I don't know if you can get a survey that actively measures and searches for damp and mold, but I would try.
posted by stillnocturnal at 1:49 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]

Also, you can go ahead and make an offer, it's not binding until contracts are exchanged. Then get your property inspection done and, depending on what that shows, revise your offer if there's a lot of work to be done. Sellers will generally prefer to reduce the price for a purchaser who's going to pay for the work rather than have to do it themselves in order to get the price they want.
posted by essexjan at 1:51 AM on May 15

Damp is a huge thing in rental properties here, because people fix them up with insufficient ventilation, thinking that it will be less draughty and cold. Then the tenants have no incentive to do anything different than shower a lot and hang out their laundry without using the crappy noisy extractor. Sometimes you see mold on exterior walls where the insulation is insufficient, because the high internal moisture caused by the lack of ventilation condenses on these cold spots. For example, the inside of a bay window is a good place to look, because that's a common place for builders to take shortcuts with insulation. But the vendors have probably cleaned it up and painted over it.

If that's the problem (not rising damp or leaky roof etc) then you can probably remediate relatively cheaply with better ventilation, possibly better insulation, and not fogging the place up with all your laundry.

You can get easily installed units that take (relatively) dry air from your loft space and push it out onto the landing. Add bathroom and kitchen extraction that has a sufficient flow rate and is quiet enough that you will actually use it. Get the air reliably above the dew point and your mold problem vanishes.
posted by quacks like a duck at 2:37 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]

I’d worry about wet or dry rot. The former is perhaps more likely, the latter is a much bigger problem. I wouldn’t want to get involved with either, though.
posted by Phanx at 4:37 AM on May 15

I am baffled by some responses here. I have known so many people buy/rent properties from completely different periods in London and subsequently have long-term, unsolveable damp/mould problems. It is easy to completely disguise/remove mould from sight for the purposes of viewings. I have seen people spend five, ten years fighting damp and still their homes smell damp and nothing will ever fix it. It's such a big problem in London. I would advise you to steer clear of any property where you can smell dampness when viewing.
posted by cincinnatus c at 6:09 PM on May 15 [2 favorites]

I bought my current house in 2015, so my experience is a little out of date but not too far in the past. When I was viewing houses, I saw a couple that smelt strongly damp/mildewed/mouldy. One had visible high-water marks on the walls, and the estate agent volunteered the fact that the water tank in the loft had burst. Another clearly had no damp-proof course in the part of the house that smelt iffy (a former outbuilding that had been incorporated into the main house without any additional modification; the damp in the adjoining corridor practically rose as I watched).

I did also view one house that smelt absolutely fine, but the survey subsequently turned up minor damp issues needing addressing. I take from this that minor damp problems are unlikely to be enough to imbue a house with a smell of mould. I find it suspicious (although not entirely surprising) that whoever showed you round didn't offer an explanation.

It's not really what you asked, but in your shoes, I would keep looking. However, if the house is too good to walk away from if it's fixable, a homebuyer's report should at least point you in the right direction. Based on my experience, one of the things it might flag up is the need for a specialist damp survey.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 10:56 AM on May 17

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