An annual ‘MOT’ on your period property will save you money in the long run, advises Roger Hunt as he begins a new series on old house maintenance.

All buildings have one important thing in common. Whatever their age, type, size, shape or location they need to be maintained. For many of us maintenance is seen as a chore but, without regular attention, the effects of the weather and the wear and tear of everyday life will slowly, but inexorably, cause deterioration and decay.

It is incredibly easy to ignore the fact that paint is peeling or a tile is slipping and the seemingly insignificant creep of moisture from a broken gutter, or even the gradual fraying of an electric cable, may not seem immediately important. This can be disastrous, as putting off repairs to another day will allow such problems to get worse: the moisture will penetrate causing tendrils of rot to twine around hidden timbers while the cable may short and catch fire. As a result the building’s history, character and value will be eroded or lost.

Every period home will have maintenance issues that need to be dealt with
ABOVE (left-right): This pretty cottage gives an attractive first impression, but will only stay that way if maintenance issues are dealt with; This house needs help – it has rotten window frames, failing brickwork and rusting downpipes.

Whatever the level of the eventual damage, lack of care and making good inevitably means that the job of repair will be larger, take more time and be much more expensive than if the original problem had been fixed quickly. What is more, a poorly maintained building will almost certainly lose its value and be less appealing to purchasers. It will also be less comfortable to live in.

Importantly, looking after a property has very real ecological benefits because it saves wasteful replacement and results in a reduction in CO2 emissions. For example, by promptly replacing a missing slate or tile, the loss of rafters and ceilings due to damp and rot is prevented so fewer materials will be used in any repairs. Clearing out or mending gutters means walls stay dry: wet walls are less thermally efficient than dry ones. Fixing a broken pane of glass or ill fitting window keeps heat in and replacing a tap washer will stop unnecessary water wastage.

Nature needs no encouragement with plants lifting tiles and causing cracks
ABOVE (left-right): The lead flashing is redundant if the gutter and downpipe are blocked with vegetation – the pointing around the bricks needs attention too; Nature needs no encouragement with plants lifting tiles and causing cracks.

Looking for trouble

Identifying potential problems and undertaking regular maintenance is not necessarily difficult, time consuming or expensive and relies largely on a common sense approach. Even a casual glance may reveal problems but, every so often, it is worth having a more thorough look and once a year carrying out a full ‘MOT’ of the building. For this it is sensible to wear old clothes and be equipped with a notepad, pen, torch, binoculars, a hand mirror, a penknife, a ladder and perhaps a camera, as pictures are good for monitoring a problem or for showing builders or surveyors.

Start outside by looking methodically at all parts of the building and from as many different vantage points as possible, such as from a neighbour’s property and by using binoculars. If a ladder is available take a closer look at potential problem areas. Note anything untoward as you go. This might be loose or missing roof tiles, damaged gutters or downpipes, defective flashing around the base of chimneys, eroded mortar joints between bricks, cracks in walls, or damaging plant growth. All external timber and joinery should be checked and, if rot is suspected, test with a knife – sound timber resists penetration.

Look on the ground for anything that may have fallen from the building such as broken tiles, bolts from gutters or dried putty from windows; all indicate potential problems. It is also worth going out during heavy rain with an umbrella and a pair of binoculars and looking to see if water is leaking or spilling from gutters or downpipes. Inspect drains for blockages or other signs of trouble by lifting inspection covers and ensure oil tanks are not failing.

Period properties need to be regularly checked for any potential problems
ABOVE (left-right): Stylish period architecture is a draw for many homeowners, but such properties need to be regularly checked for any potential problems, such as blocked guttering and crumbling brickwork; Neglect quickly leads to deterioration – here water is penetrating the house where the roof slates have slipped.

Inside the building, start at the top and work down. If there is access to the roof space, look at the underside of the roof for evidence of leaks or damage to the roof covering. Ensure loft insulation is not restricting ventilation at the eaves.

Throughout the building check for signs of fungal or insect attack using a torch and mirror where necessary. Dampness and poor ventilation promote these problems and they frequently occur under stairs and in cupboards. If you can smell damp investigate thoroughly.

Inspect waste pipes from sinks and baths for leaks and ensure all stopcocks work. Check hot and cold water pipes are adequately lagged, that radiators are not leaking and that the thermostats are working.

Wherever possible, check electrical wiring. Vermin sometimes gnaw through electrical installations so clear away rubbish or food that may encourage them to nest.

This gracious 18th-century house has been allowed to slide into neglect; Traditional lime mortar, rather than cement, should have been used to repair this brickwork
ABOVE (left-right): This gracious 18th-century house has been allowed to slide into neglect and show the signs of damp, not a homeowner’s pride; This brickwork is failing because of lack of maintenance and inappropriate repairs when cement has been used, rather than historically appropriate lime mortar, which allows household moisture to escape through walls and prevents a build up of damp.

Swift solutions

Where problems are evident deal with them promptly but be sure to address the underlying cause rather than rely on quick fix solutions. Sealants, coatings, water repellents, spray on foams and mastics can cause more problems than they solve in old buildings because they trap moisture that would normally migrate through brick and stone. For the same reason avoid cement based renders and mortars; instead make use of traditional lime-based products and techniques. Always try to repair rather than replace so that as much of the building’s original fabric as possible is retained.

Among the regular maintenance jobs is clearing gutters. Spring and autumn are good times for this but it should always be done whenever gutters become blocked, otherwise water will quickly spill and potentially cause damp problems. It is always worth making extra checks to roofs, chimneys and gutters after high winds, prolonged heavy rainfall, freezing temperatures or snow.

Other regular jobs include ensuring chimneys are swept, boilers are serviced and that smoke and carbon monoxide alarms are tested. Where appropriate, external joinery should be painted on a regular cycle to guard against decay.

Renovation safety essentials

  • If in any doubt about a project, employ a surveyor or reputable builder to carry out a full inspection, especially of inaccessible areas such as a roof.
  • Think about your own safety and that of others – don’t take unnecessary risks.
  • Always take special care when using ladders, and have someone support the bottom while you climb.
  • Use gloves and other protective equipment, especially when clearing drains or gutters.
  • Leave work on electrical and gas installations to qualified professionals

Visit Roger Hunt’s website at

Marianne Suhr and Roger Hunt's "Old House Handbook"
Buy Marianne Suhr and Roger Hunt’s “Old House Handbook”