How to spot a property lemon

So, you’re about to purchase a dream home (or have already), and it looks like a sound investment … but as the old adage goes, ‘buyer beware’! The first thing you should do is hire an expert to look through the property, but in Australia, many houses and apartments are sold without the purchaser having had the home inspected for structural damage or pest problems. In fact, 80 per cent of Australian property transactions take place without such checks. In all cases, I highly recommend having an independent, reputable and experienced inspector come and help you diagnose the problem and suggest remedies. But even still, it’s good to know what they will be looking for and to try to identify the problems yourself. Here are the top six structural issues that can affect a house, how to identify them and what to do about the problem.

1. Floor framing and stumping
In Australia, the majority of homes have been built on a ‘suspended floor’, generally timber framed, that is, up until the 1980s when concrete slabs became more common. A suspended floor generally consisted of timber stumps sunk into the ground, with timber bearers and joists crisscrossing the stumps, creating a stable platform for the flooring and remainder of the house.

THE PROBLEM: The timber stumps are susceptible to rotting from exposure to moisture and damage by timber pests like termites, sometimes known as white ants. The damage could be contained in one area of the floor, or it could affect a large portion of the house, giving the floor a slope in one direction. In extreme cases, the doors and windows no longer open or close properly due to movement in the frames brought about by stumping problems. Fortunately, modern suspended floors now use concrete stumps, but if you are purchasing an old home, there could be an issue with the frame.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: As you walk through a house, the most common way to detect this problem is to feel for movement under your feet as you walk – a ‘springy’ floor suggests problems down below. You may also notice glasses or crockery rattling in the sideboard or flowers shaking on the table when you walk through the home. My favourite, though, is the ‘marble test’. Put a marble on the floor (assuming it’s not carpeted) and if it runs off in one direction, you have an uneven floor. This often indicates deterioration in the stumps or floor framing. Check other areas of the house as well.

NEXT STEPS: If you are uncertain about your flooring, it’s time to get an inspector in to do a thorough check for you. Look for an inspector who is independent – in other words, not someone who also has a vested interest in selling you a solution. Make sure you ask for a report that includes: the state of the sub-floor area; specific detail of any problems; and recommendations as to how to rectify the problem. Be prepared for some form of building work such as re-stumping.

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