Posts by Author: 4 posts by Peter

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Following Tuesday’s announcement that a phased reduction of Building and Planning Regulations is underway as part of the government’s Red Tape Challenge, I breathed a small sigh of relief.

I have had enough close encounters with Building Regulations to make me wary of them – and like me, there are few homeowners or sole traders who can claim to know their way around them…

..but ignorance is no excuse for non-compliance, Gary O’Neill, Chartered Building Surveyor and Lecturer at Coventry University tells us, writing in a recent blog post about Statutory Approvals (in relation to Building Regulations and Planning).

No excuse perhaps but in my view, understandable. Building Regulations run to hundreds of pages and they can be a nightmare for an ordinary homeowner to navigate!

O’Neill points out that “…there is a general lack of awareness (amongst members of the public), sometimes complete ignorance of which statutory approvals (permissions) may apply to any works they are proposing to undertake.”

With serious implications for failure to comply, there is a burden of responsibility that property owners cannot afford to ignore. With such high stakes, you would imagine a robust framework exists to help property owners meet their responsibilities. You should be so lucky!

There are several ways to ensure works comply with Building Regulations: have local Building Control or a private sector Approved Inspector sign off the works, or have work carried out by a tradesman who belongs to one of the Competent Person schemes – organisations authorised to self-certify and notify low-risk work to Local Authority Building Control.

O’Neill points out that many Local Authority websites provide good levels of information and guidance. In my opinion, Local Authority websites at best offer a short list of FAQs peppered with links to the Planning Portal – but all too often, useful content is given over to veiled threats about what might happen should you fail to comply. Solihull Council adopt a positively hostile approach on their website:

“We do not fulfil the role of a ‘Clerk of Works’ as is often assumed, quite inappropriately and furthermore, have no responsibility for dealing with poor workmanship and issues of quality, unless they impact on compliance with building standards.”

My personal experience of working with Local Authority Building Control reflects this standoffish attitude. When I refurbished my house, I submitted a building notice because I planned to replace a window and the builder did not employ a FENSA installer. Building Control wrote to me, explaining that the window should meet current energy efficiency standards and use toughened glass. The timber frame and glazing units were supplied by a reputable company who manufactured all of their products to meet Building Regulations standards (it would be crazy not to). The Building Control officer agreed that the windows appeared to be well made but wanted to see proof that the windows were compliant. Building work resumed a week later after suitable written evidence had been gathered.

Now, Local Authorities are legally obliged to provide a building control service under the Building Act, whereas Approved Inspectors are engaged in a commercial contract with their clients. Both organisations are obliged to ensure works are compliant with Regulations. The key difference is motivation. In my case, an Approved Inspector would have possessed or had access to meters capable of confirming that the glazing was toughened and had a Low-E coating to meet energy efficiency regulations.

The Building Regulation Matrix

The Building Regulations themselves comprise fourteen highly technical documents. Even the Planning Portal cautions casual visitors, for which read ordinary homeowners, who happen upon their section regarding Building Regulations:

“This part of the Portal contains information aimed at users with a degree of familiarity with the Building Regulations and the Building Control system.”

The Planning Portal actually does a much better job of explaining the ins and outs of the planning process. As do many Local Authority websites and their staff, who are able to offer better planning guidance and support to the general public. By contrast, Building Control are the clip-board wielding administrators. Often unwilling or unable to advise, yet quick to point to the rule book when a violation is suspected.

Even after providing the documentation I was asked for, my Building Control Officer then insisted that trickle vents should be installed in the windows to meet ventilation requirements. I had to point out that the window was situated in a through-sitting room with two open fireplaces, two doors, a large draughty bay sash window and floorboards with gaps in them. My challenge would be keeping my fuel bills down in winter, not adding more ventilation. His response was that fireplaces are designated as flues and are not considered ventilation.

It’s been an eductaion and you can be sure that next time I won’t go it alone. I’ll use a tradesman registered with one of the Competent Person Schemes or I’ll go private and use an Approved Inspector. It will be less of a headache, which is more than I can say for my current encounter with Local Building Control. I have yet to receive my completion certificate from Building Control but I have high hopes for 2014!

 

Home improvements should generally add value to your property and make it more enjoyable to live in. Then there are projects that could ruin the look of your home and send buyers running for the door.

Here are but a few of the home improvement projects you should think twice about before taking the plunge.

Artex

This nasty, textured coating was daubed over many a ceiling and wall throughout the 70s and 80s. Modern artex doesn’t contain traces of asbestos like it did in the 70s but there are other good reasons why you should leave well alone. Artex is practically impossible to remove without tearing strips off your knuckles, or gouging holes in the ceiling. To get rid of it, you’ll need a plasterer to skim the room. You should also think twice about choosing artex if you want to sell your home – most people hate it which could impact the sale price.

Artificial grass

A worrying trend is developing up and down the country where people are turning their gardens into small 5-a-side football pitches in the name of low maintenance. We don’t care what people say in defence of artificial grass, it’s simply not acceptable in a British garden.

Changing the layout of your home

Aspirational home improvement shows have turned ordinary folk into visionary property developers. Knocking down walls and creating new rooms can be a smart way of adding value to your home. Get too carried away with the sledgehammer however and you could see the asking price tumble.

An ensuite bathroom is often given the thumbs up by estate agents and potential buyers. Creating a well proportioned en-suite in a sizeable master bedroom would probably add value. Shove a pokey shower room into the corner of a small bedroom though and you’re likely to scare buyers away.

Open plan layouts are fashionable these days, particularly in period properties. Go easy with the loft look though. Removing a hallway so that the entrance opens into the living room can be off-putting, as can building a staircase in the middle of a reception room.

Above all, no matter how tempted you are to turn ‘that box bedroom’ into a walk-in wardrobe or mammoth shoe cupboard, don’t. Removing a bedroom, no matter how small, is likely to knock £££ off the value of your home.

Painting brickwork or stone

Applying masonry paint to brick or stone is possibly the most fun you could have with a paintbrush. Pause for a minute though before you commit to livening up that tired old brickwork with a lick of paint. You may be glossing over underlying brick problems that could cause freshly applied paint to flake off. You can also expect to repaint it every three to five years. Finally, it’s worth noting that removing paint from brick or stone is extremely difficult, if possible at all.

Pebbledash

This spiky exterior finish has been used to to cover walls in England and Wales since the the turn of the 20th Century. Fashionable for a time, it was commonly used by builders to cut costs and cover up poor quality brickwork. Use has declined since then, but it’s indelible mark has been left on millions of semi-detached suburban homes.

So why should pebbledash be consigned to the history books? Supporters might speak highly of it’s hard-wearing characteristics and low maintenance. It’s near indestructible qualities, however, make it nearly impossible to remove without destroying the brickwork – meaning that you may live to regret peppering your walls with the stuff. Or maybe you won’t – it’s not unusual for pebbledash to last 70 years or more without maintenance. It’s also a nightmare to paint and likely to lower the value of a modern home.

PVCu windows and doors

Even the best maintained windows and doors will need to be replaced at some point. When this financial bombshell eventually lands, the choice of materials available to most of us will be either PVCu or timber. All replacement windows must comply with building regulations, so a timber framed window should be as safe and energy efficient as it’s PVCu cousin. The deciding factor for many people is cost. Timber framed windows are often significantly more expensive than PVCu. So why should you think twice about choosing PVCu?

Supporters (salesmen) will claim that PVCu is hardwearing, long-lasting and easy to maintain. What the brochures won’t tell you is that PVCu degrades in the sun, becomes permanently discoloured if not cleaned regularly and that window mechanisms require annual lubrication and adjustment if they are to last for the advertised lifespan (typically 20-25 years). Damaged windows can be extremely difficult to repair and units that mist or fog will usually need to be replaced. PVCu is also environmentally hazardous. It contains the chemicals chlorine and dioxin, making it a material that is both expensive and dangerous to recycle. Last but not least, many people dislike PVCu windows which might well make your house less saleable.

Removing chimney breasts

Before central heating was introduced in the 1970s, fireplaces served a very practical purpose, heating British homes throughout the cold winters. Over the decades that followed, period fireplaces were gradually discarded and hearths were either filled with decorative paraphernalia, or simply covered up. For many, chimney breasts were something that, if removed, would make the room bigger. What could make more sense?

For a start, the chimney forms an integral part of the house structure so you will need to get a structural engineer involved. Removing a chimney breast from any part of the house without suitable support may cause serious structural damage or worse. Without building regulations approval you could also face prosecution which in turn will cause problems when it comes to selling your home. Don’t forget the neighbours either. There’s a good chance that works may be governed by the Party Wall Act.

Chimney breasts are built using bricks. Lots of them. As you might expect, they also contain lots of soot. Plan on filling several skips and living with dust for weeks or months afterwards. You will also need to make good each room afterwards which might include fixing joists, plastering walls and decorating.

One final point to consider: it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever have an open fire again. That may suit you down to the ground but prospective buyers may not share your point of view – especially if you live in an otherwise well maintained Victorian town-house.

If you’re seriously thinking about carrying out any of the above home ‘improvement’ projects, do yourself a favour and call the experts in first.

Decor Builders
I posted my first job on MyBuilder in 2008.  My experience with personally recommended builders up to that point was not great, so I didn’t know what to expect from MyBuilder. Within no time at all we met and hired David, a true craftsman who made a fireplace surround that we talked about until the day we moved out. I remember writing to Ryan shortly after posting my first feedback comment, enthusiastically telling him why he should hire me as head of customer service.

I’ve hired lots of tradesmen through MyBuilder in the time I’ve been here and learned a lot about home improvements. I hoped to put my knowledge to good use as we embarked on the most ambitious project to date: buying our first house.

As anyone on the London property ladder knows, unless money is no object and you’re paying someone to do the legwork for you, finding and buying a flat or house is a process that consumes your life. At the time we were looking, demand greatly outstripped supply and prices were so high that most houses were simply beyond our reach. We had two options: move out of town or try to find a wreck and do it up. Moving out simply wasn’t practical and in any case, we were up for a challenge – despite the fact that my wife and I work full time and have two young children.

The problem with viewing refurbishment opportunities is that you need a builder who is willing to come along for the ride. This is a punt for the builder and while some are prepared to accept the risk, others are not. So long as the builder is made aware before he gives up his valuable time, I think this is a reasonable request. I made a point of declaring our position when posting our job.

I shortlisted Jacek, a builder who had no previous experience through the site to speak of, but whose references were very complementary. He spent a good chunk of time at the house with us and followed up a few days later with his estimate. Unfortunately, our offer on that house was unsuccessful. We thanked Jacek for his time and parted company. I appreciated the effort he made though and wanted to return the favour at a later date. So, when our offer was later accepted on a different house, we posted another job on the site and, along with other builders, invited Jacek to quote.

Make no mistake, organising quotes for a big job takes time. Three builders each spent around 90 minutes at the house, gathering information and discussing options with us. Factor in at least two rounds of revisions and then waiting to receive the amended quote (yes, good builders normally work during the day and most don’t have office staff who are on hand to prepare quotes). As Ryan once wrote on this blog, builders are providing a service from the moment they walk through the door. I would have gladly paid to receive a detailed quote as part of the service we received from all of the builders who tendered for our job.

A word or two on price. When the first quotes came in our faces dropped. Friends had once warned us of what to expect but we laughed it off at the time. Over the next few days, our original plans changed dramatically as we battled to keep the job within budget (who needs furniture anyway?) Getting a range of quotes is essential, if for no other reason than to confirm that your expectations were wildly misplaced.

In the end, we chose Jacek. Why? He wasn’t the cheapest, appeared no more qualified and had less feedback than the others. Yet, of all the builders we met, Jacek was the person with whom we felt most comfortable and trusted. In my opinion, these are the most important factors to consider when deciding who to hire – it’s not just about the quote. Did we make the right choice? Watch this space to find out how the refurbishment unfolds.

MyBuilder talks to Annabelle Webster of South East Timber and Damp

Damp proofer at work

During certain damp works you may expect a small amount of mess and disruption to your home.


When would I need to call a damp proof specialist?
You might need a full Timber and Damp survey prior to purchasing a property or if you have a specific damp or timber issue that requires an inspection.

What does a survey involve?
To carry out a full damp report, the surveyor will need to take moisture readings from all internal and external walls. Heavy items may need to be pulled away from walls ahead of the visit to allow for access.

Before a full timber inspection can be carried out, carpets must be pulled back and floorboards lifted to allow the surveyor to inspect the timbers below. Loft areas should  be accessible and cleared of items to allow a full inspection. If the property is occupied, a limited inspection may only be possible.

If remedial timber or damp works have been carried out in the last 20 years, certification documents will help the surveyor determine if any of the works have failed.

How much mess and disruption can I expect?
If the work involves removing internal plaster and render from the walls then dust is unavoidable. Covering furniture and taping doors shut will help somewhat, but dust carries in the air and will settle in all rooms. Timber treatments can also be disruptive.  We would always suggest rooms are cleared and not used during and after works for a few hours to allow the air to clear.

Should I expect you to be a member of a trade body?
If you are looking for a specialist damp proofing or remedial timber treatments company, we recommend that you choose a full time member of the Property Care Association. PCA members have passed a series of stringent checks, and are regularly audited on health & safety procedures, complaints handling, training and much more. Members are also required to abide by high standards with certified surveyors in place.

Can I expect your work to be guaranteed?
All our specialist remedial works are guaranteed unless specified in the surveyor’s report.  As a PCA member, we can also offer a limited insurance policy to cover the guarantee. If a PCA company ceases trading and the works fail, another PCA contractor will carry out the works under the guarantee.

A “guarantee” can be printed by any firm. If the contractor goes out of business though, or if the works fail and the contractor refuses to return, their guarantee is worthless. We regularly get called in to assess failed damp works because the original contractor no longer operates and the guarantee cannot be honoured.

Are there any common scams or cowboy behaviour I should look out for?
There are some basic checks that you should carry out before choosing a damp proofing contractor:

  • Research the contractor online and read any feedback that has been written about them.
  • Be wary if a contractor ONLY has mobiles and 0800 numbers or does not have an office address.
  • Look out for “post box” addresses in central London or local towns as these may be mail drop addresses.  Ask if the contractor has an office you can visit.

Do you provide an estimate or a quote?
An estimate is an educated guess at what a job may cost – it is not binding, however.  In this case you may receive several estimates covering various scenarios.

We provide a fixed quotation which cannot be changed once accepted by the customer. This quotation relates to the report which clearly specifies the exact works that are to be carried out along with a sketch plan of the area.

In the damp proofing industry we generally work to quotations and specify the exact works that we would carry out.  Additional works may be needed that could not be accounted for at the time of quoting. Extras will be appended to the report and quoted as a variation. Generally the quotation will have an expiry date.

Do I need to pay a deposit? What about money for materials?
As a rule of thumb, we ask for a 25% deposit upon acceptance of the works. Deposits allow the contractor to cover some of the initial material costs.  For waterproofing works, this could amount to thousands of pounds of materials that need to be pre-ordered. If you hand over any money, you should either have signed an acceptance form detailing the agreed quote or received a receipt detailing the monies paid.

How do you take your tea?
Lots and mine’s strong, no sugar!

If you are a tradesman or tradeswoman and have a view or topic you’d like to share then please contact us.


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