Retrofit tips for first (and second and third…) time buyers

by Blog

What are the considerations for house buying when you’re planning to retrofit? We spoke to Carbon Co-op members Richard, Margaret and Lorenza about their experiences, and asked them what they would look for when viewing homes with a plan to retrofit. Here’s what they had to say.

Lorenza, Lyra and Paul in front of their house

Lorenza and Paul bought their house 10 years ago. They were looking for a house that would be affordable to buy and to heat, and would be a comfortable family home for many years. They wanted to buy in Manchester, but were flexible about the location.  

Margaret and John were looking for a house to retire to, in a very specific location in Anglesey, where home ownership tends to be for life and houses rarely come onto the market.

Richard in his new kitchen

Richard was looking for a house in Manchester that would be big enough to house lodgers, and needed some work but would be OK to move into straight away.

All three were already environmentally conscious, and keen to avoid excessive heating, whilst also wanting their homes to be warm and healthy and comfortable.

So, what to look for in a house?  It really depends on your needs and priorities

Awareness of any structural work required

One of the properties Lorenza visited was a really architecturally interesting house, an old church hall with a double-height space, but it would have needed a lot of work, and the seller wasn’t prepared to recognise what need doing and lower the price.

Richard viewed a large old farmhouse, but it had damp issues, and would have been a very absorbing project. If he’d chosen that house, it would have taken up his entire life.

The house type makes a difference

Margaret and John’s house is a detached bungalow, so it loses heat quickly: there is a lot of floor and roof and wall area relative to the living space.  They hadn’t realised at the time how much that would affect retrofit costs. People approaching retirement often like the idea of a bungalow, and knowing that there won’t be stairs to deal with when getting older, but they don’t realise that bungalows, which are generally detached, are harder to heat.

Margaret and John’s house in Angelsey

As an architect, Lorenza was aware that a mid-terraced house would have the least external wall area to treat, and so would be inherently more energy efficient. This is a real advantage of terraced housing that many people don’t recognise, as a lot of people aspire to a semi-detached or detached house, and see terraced homes a just a ‘starter home’.  

Lorenza also chose an east-west facing house, so that both sides of the house would be warmed by the sun at some point in the day.

Richard was happy to have the extra light and views, and reduced neighbour-noise from an end of terrace house. He did also recognise the warmth gain from neighbours across the party wall.

Fabric first approach

Margaret and John had planned to put solar panels on their south-facing roof, but since attending Carbon Co-op courses, they have decided to invest in the fabric of the building first, and to install solar panels as the last thing they do [although with the end of the Feed in Tariff coming soon, you might want to think about installing solar sooner rather than later!]

Richard’s house in the process of double glazing installation

Richard prioritised replacing single glazed windows with good quality double glazing. This made an immediate difference to comfort and warmth. He also discovered that the reason the front bay was so cold was that there was nothing between the bay and the cellar below – which he straightforwardly solved by putting some rockwool insulation in from the cellar.

Try to find out as much as you can about the structure – but there may always be unexpected surprises.  Richard only learned that his house has cavity walls when he replaced the windows. These have a lot of connecting bricks and rubble which cause thermal bridging, but there is an unexpected opportunity to fill the cavities with insulation.

Ownership

All three of the members we interviewed bought houses rather than apartments. For Lorenza, this was an important retrofit consideration, due to the potential for complex ownership relations in an apartment block. A top floor flat, for example, might need additional insulation in the roof, but it may take a long time to get agreement from a building management committee to get the work done, and it may not be clear who should pay for it.

Logistics

Richard chose a house that he could move into straight away and live in during retrofit.

Lorenza learned how to manage the logistics of moving in and retrofit.  For the most disruptive part of the work, they moved the furniture into one side of the house, leaving the other side empty for the building works, then moved it all to the other side to do the other half of the work. This is a good tip!

Margaret is aware that treating the floor is really important for their house, and this is going to be really disruptive – and sadly may require to take out the kitchen, which they really like!

What the market recognises

Margaret Biddle 

Negotiating price reductions due to retrofit works needed may be easier for homes with obvious need of modernisation.  

Carbon Co-op members have a good awareness of the value of a warm home, but not everyone buying a house does. This means that the housing market does not recognise the value of good building fabric. Margaret and John’s seller would probably not have made any price reductions based on poor quality insulation, as other buyers would probably have come in and paid more. On the other hand, Lorenza and Paul were able to negotiate a £10k price reduction, as the house was in need of a full upgrade of the heating system as well as roof insulation, and the seller could see that this would be a concern for anyone buying the house. This freed up budget for retrofit.

Local microclimate

Margaret and John’s house on Anglesey has a beautiful sea view – and is very exposed to sea weather! The previous owners weren’t aware that this climate is not suitable for cavity wall insulation, due to horizontal driving rain leading to it getting wet, and Margaret and John have had to take out the old cavity wall insulation and replace it with external wall insulation.

Each house is unique, and whilst there are some generic things to look out for, some issues will be specific to your particular situation.

Take away messages

I asked each of the members interviewed what their take away message for new house-buyers would be. Here are their tips:

  • Learn about different house types (e.g. terraced, semi-detached, detached, bungalow, modern, Victorian) before you buy a house.
  • Architectural simplicity is likely to be much easier to treat than complex details – although you might need to be careful not to interrupt stylish simple lines!
  • Choose a house based on your needs rather than based on status and climbing the property ladder.
  • It’s worth investing in retrofit if you plan to live in the house for a long time – think beyond a 5 year investment.
  • Employ a trusted surveyor to do quality control, as they are less emotionally involved and able to make better judgements.
  • Be very aware of your skill level – DIY may look attractive, but may turn out to be more costly in the long run.
  • It is useful to have an overall understanding of retrofit and the cost of different measures before buying, to stay within budget – but then again there can be benefits to committing first, then doing what it takes!
  • Educate yourself about building fabric and ventilation!
  • Develop a good relationship with your builder – if a builder thinks you are going to be too demanding, they may be reluctant to quote. Be reasonable in your expectations, and make some allowance for mistakes.
  • Consider getting a single quote for all the works at once, so you know how much it will cost upfront.
  • Talk to neighbours and look at their houses if possible, to see different issues and possibilities with your house type.

This is what some of our members have to say about house buying tips. What do you think? Get in touch if you have your own experiences to share!