PROPERTY JOURNAL

Structural problems in empty properties

It is important to be aware of the issues that can arise with long-term vacant properties

Author: Mike Parrett

18 January 2019

The longer a property lies empty, the greater the risk of further devastating dilapidation, compounding the cost and timing of eventual remediation. So, to understand the problems that arise with a dwelling that has been unoccupied in the long term, we must consider why it became empty in the first place.

Common reasons include the following.

  • Construction and materials: some blocks of flats from the 1940s to the 1970s, for example, have ring beams and projecting balconies that suffer from concrete carbonation. Tenants may need to be relocated and blocks will therefore sit empty until funds are found to fix the problem or demolish the flats, either of which may take years.
  • Estate disputes: where a homeowner has died then if they were intestate, or there are disputes over the estate or problems identifying a next of kin, a property can lie empty for a long time.
  • Extensive remediation after natural disasters: an extreme case of this is in Carlisle, which was extensively flooded in 2005 and again in 2015. While many properties were insured, those without cover remained empty for even longer until funding was found to repair them.
  • Legal issues: resolving structural and subsidence problems may be complicated where there are adjoining properties and the Party Wall etc. Act 1996 applies. Disputes between adjoining owners can often delay the resolution of a problem.
  • Local authority policies: some councils plan to demolish blocks of flats and build new homes on the site. But there are often cases of flat tenants or owners who refuse to relocate, so a block remains semi-empty and deteriorating.
  • Poor surveys: council properties are often bought by housing groups that commission surveys. However, these are often just a cursory external review and a sample internal check, which fail to identify their true condition and the extent of funding needed for repairs before properties can be occupied.
  • Repossessions: if a homeowner cannot pay their mortgage, a lender will repossess it and look for a disposal, which can take time.
  • Vegetation: many landlords do not regularly check plants in the curtilage of their properties that may be hidden from street view. This can cause extensive damage to drains and structures; repairs may then have to wait until funds are available, and require tenants to be relocated.

Occupation issues

Problems with vacant properties often start when they are still occupied. Long-term neglect is usually caused by poor maintenance as budget pressures may mean owners or landlords cannot afford to look after their properties adequately. I am always reminded of William Morris, founder of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, who proposed 'regular maintenance to stave off decay' in his 1877 manifesto.

Disrepair may also be caused by landlords' access being restricted over a long period. I was once involved in a case where an old man didn't allow anybody inside his flat. His rent was always paid on time and there were no immediate external signs to warn his local authority landlord of problems. However, we had to force entry under emergency powers when there was a serious water escape from his property, which resulted in flooding and damage to the flat directly below during a period of freezing outside temperatures. We found his property to be in a severely distressed state, including a collapsed ceiling caused by a burst water tank. The local authority had to place the house on its long-term void list as the repairs had not been budgeted for.

It is not just local authorities that cannot afford to properly maintain a property. I have performed many surveys in Central London where a house is worth millions of pounds but the homeowner cannot afford to maintain it. The cycle of degradation can happen in expensive homes and council flats alike.

Recurring issues

If problems return after a renovation, they are almost always caused by an inappropriate initial diagnosis of an issue, poor-quality work or both – particularly so where commercial companies have a self-interest in the diagnosis and remediation of a problem and then often use inappropriate corrective measures.

I have seen whole streets of vacant council houses that eventually had wholesale refurbishments, including chemically injected damp-proof courses, retrofit cavity wall insulation and waterproof renders. However, when investigating subsequent problems, I found poor original diagnoses; for instance, original damp-proof courses had not failed so walls did not require chemical injections. With no budget available, these houses again sat empty and so the cycle of degradation continued.

Problems may also recur in once-vacant properties due to poor-quality repair work. Acute skill shortages mean that labour can be expensive, while tight project budgets may lead to less-experienced workers being employed or work being done too quickly. Until work is completed correctly, a property may remain empty.

Retrofit solutions may also be ill judged, poorly diagnosed and badly executed. I am presently handling a case where a council decided to pebbledash a 1920s cottage, but the work had to be redone five times because workers had not properly adhered the pebbledash to the substrate walls. The final coat also contained and leaked pyrites, which resulted in rust-like streaks running down the wall. It is difficult to prevent pyrites from leaking as they are hard to detect in certain gravels, so it is important that constructors source materials from reputable suppliers. One attempt at pebbledashing also used non-galvanised chicken wire mesh as a key to the substrate, to which the new cementitious render could adhere. However, this later corroded and caused whole sheets of render to fall off.

Damp and subsidence are the types of problem that recur because there has not been an holistic review of the property and its environment. Yet this is imperative to prove causation and the true source of a problem. Identifying symptoms without considering other defects, the building's design or use and occupation factors means you run the risk of making a misdiagnosis that will lead to inappropriate remediation and unnecessary delays and costs.

A practical approach

The Dwelling Stock Estimates: 2017, England report from the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government states there were 605,891 vacant properties in England on 2 October that year, up by 16,125, or 2.7%, from 3 October 2016. Vacant dwellings accounted for 2.5% of England's overall dwelling stock – a huge number, and many of these properties will have physical problems.

The starting point to reduce this figure should be preventing a dwelling falling into disrepair in the first place. But where there are problems, there needs to be a full pathological assessment of the issues. Such an holistic and independent review may involve a degree of destructive and intrusive testing to fully understand the particular defects. If the diagnosis is correct, the remediation – often requiring a multidisciplinary approach – is more straightforward and should avoid problems returning.

info@michaelparrett.co.uk

Related competencies include: Building pathology, Housing maintenance repairs and improvements

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