In the fight to grab part of Sydney’s property market, some buyers might find themselves tempted to take on what is commonly known as a renovator’s dream. But buyer beware: what initially seems like a bargain might end up costing you much more than you expected. Older rundown properties are full of hidden problems, which if left unfixed can deteriorate further and, in the worst case, destroy the value of your property. Even more recently built houses can be problematic. The increasing popularity of DIY is resulting in many properties suffering unprofessional alterations, which means a buyer could find him or herself fixing up the previous owner’s creative efforts.

Getting the advice of a professional early on before buying is the best insurance and allows the buyer to confidently assess the potential up-front and hidden costs.

There are things to look out for. White ants or termites are extremely common and not necessarily terminal. They are mainly an issue in older properties built before white ant treatment was available or mandatory, and it is not unusual for an owner to have to replace every piece of timber in a house. Floorboards, window frames, architraves, you name it. This is obviously an expensive exercise, but is often worth the effort as long as precautions have been taken to prevent future infestations.

Also, white ant damaged-timber is not necessarily completely useless. Depending on the extent of damage, and provided there are no live termites present, floorboards can be sanded back and reused -“ definitely a tad on the shabby chic side of things, but potentially full of character. Structural timber is a different issue and should be assessed by a builder for adequacy before being reused. Properties with a history of damage will need regular treatment, which is a hassle, but unavoidable. Modern white ant treatments are generally pretty reliable if somewhat toxic.

Other common problems are drainage, dampness, plumbing and electrical problems -“ all of which can result in big headaches and light wallets. Concrete cancer is also worth looking out for. A suspicious lump under the carpet can be the sign of something ominous -“ or the underlay might just be bunched up underneath. A quick check can avoid thousands of dollars’ worth of remedial work.

Another thing to be aware of is the potential for disaster you could encounter if you try to make alterations to your home without consulting a professional. Let’s just knock down that wall should ring alarm bells. Recently I inspected a property where someone had made a hole in the wall between the kitchen and lounge to try to open up a tiny apartment. It had probably been there a few years, and no-one had bothered to install a lintel above the new opening. Consequence: fine cracking both above and below the opening indicating that the whole wall was unstable. Rather a worry and not just for the occupants of this apartment, but also for those of the apartments on the two levels above. Their units are quite likely relying to some extent on this dodgy wall for support.

The only way to be confident you’re not buying a money pit is to engage a building inspector before you buy. Call the Royal Australian Institute of Architects or the Master Builders Association for more information.

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