Help! My House Is Falling Down


Sarah Beeny saves a

17th Century building



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In this week's edition of Help! My House Is Falling Down Sarah Beeny was looking at an old bake house which had been purchased by a couple Nick and Becky. The programme was very much as Becky's dream to have an old building; in this case a 17th Century stone built cottage and Nick when asked wasn't even sure of the age and quoted, 17th, 18th or 19th Century. The house was a nice looking stone building with three bedrooms and good sized reception rooms and the possibility of converting the roof space into a fourth bedroom, which was important as they had three children. Becky's idea/dream was to convert the top room into a master bedroom with en-suite.



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They had £5,000 set aside for this; however they hadn't budgeted on carrying out any other repair work, etc to the property. We can only assume they didn't have a structural survey or a building survey on the property and when they moved in they found things they hadn't expected. The main ones that were mentioned were:

1  chronic woodworm throughout the property

2  walls crumbling away,

3  masonry bees hitting the masonry

4  the cellar flooding under three foot of water


With the above descriptions we have tried to use the essence of what was said in the programme to give a flavour of how it's prevented and what Sarah Beeny was up against. Sarah Beeny is filmed in early part of the programme asking the new owners what is their biggest fear? This ranged from not being able to do the loft conversion to what is described as the woodworm invasion. Sarah Beeny advised that in a structure which is 80% made of wood with water problems as well woodworm can cause a structural problem. Whilst we would agree with this in our experience this does tend to be emphasised by the damp proofing companies.

Nick advised that he was out of his depth and needed advice from the experts. In steps Sarah Beeny and her expert property professionals.


Problems in the Cellar

There is a lovely bit in the programme where Nick discussed how he knew there was a well in the cellar and wanted to make it into some sort of feature. We are not sure whether this was tongue in cheek, it certainly got a laugh from Sarah Beeny and his wife when he described how he wanted to make into a wishing well with a bucket, etc.

On a rather more serious note he also described how he walked down into the cellar to find it full of water. We are sure they quoted three foot in the programme (a metre or so for those who have gone metric). As Sarah Beeny pointed out the electric fuseboard in the cellar and that the flooding water from the well and electricity really do not mix.


Problems with the outside walls

The stone walls were eroding away. Sarah Beeny advised it was some of the worst pointing she had come across. In our experience we come across problems of this magnitude fairly regularly and unfortunately we have seen walls in far worse condition.

Sarah Beeny went on to explain how the deteriorating pointing and holes in the wall were allowing dampness to get into the property. We are not sure if it was mentioned but the walls looked to be made of sandstone which can deteriorate and the original mortar would have been a lime based mortar, which as far as we recall, wasn't mentioned at all, but this would all be very important in how to resolve the problem with the walls.


Homes constantly under attack

Sarah Beeny then describes how homes are constantly under attack from the elements with the weather of rain, wind, frost and sun. Sarah Beeny describes water as number one enemy, which we would very much agree with, in its many forms of rising damp, lateral dampness which is dampness going through the wall. We would add also condensation, although it wasn't covered in this programme.


Spalling brickwork and spalling stonework

In the case of the house that Sarah Beeny looked at; this 17th Century stone built three bedroom old bake house (we were trying to remember how much it cost but really it's not relevant as these problems can occur on any value of house), explained that spalling brickwork or stonework was due to freeze and frost action and related to the face of the bricks and stones being deteriorated. Sarah Beeny listed the main things to do with spalling walls was:

1  Fill cracks

2  Replace bricks or replace stones

3  Re-point.

Pointing refers to the mortar that sticks the bricks or stones together.

Spalling brickwork

"Spotty dog" effect

Attack from masonry bees

Sarah Beeny next describes how the house was under attack from masonry bees. Sarah Beeny said this was quite unusual and they will eventually cause structural problems. We would add that we have seen this in other areas where there has been building from sandstone so it may be that masonry bees are more common in these areas. However, to a surveyor these are fairly easy items to spot and there are various ways of resolving them, though the holes in the walls caused by the masonry bees do look quite bad and also they could be mistaken for other problems, such as general movement in the structure as a whole.

Sarah Beeny discusses the house with the owners

Sarah Beeny had a very interesting with the owners. We thought she was going to lead onto why on earth didn't they have a structural survey before they purchased the house, however the conversation really went along the lines of was it bad luck they were having or bad judgement and it came down very much on the side of it was bad judgement to buy this house. Nevertheless, as they now own it they need to find a solution.

We are more than happy to come and survey a property that you already own and indeed have done this several times and give advice on how to resolve issues. We would add that many times builders can give good advice, although equally they can look at the effect of the problem and not really know how to resolve the cause, or simply not be independent in their thoughts and advice and want to carry out the repair work in the only way they know how; not necessarily the best way. Whereas, a surveyor should be able to give you various alternatives and also various alternative costs.

Another Sarah Beeny quote was that the years of neglect have brought this house to its knees (or something along those lines) with the following problems:

1  Potentially lethal woodworm that needs investigation

2  Disintegrating walls

3  Flooding cellar

Sarah Beeny summed up that these could all add up to serious structural problems.


Budgeting for repair work on the Listed building


Sarah Beeny's couple had set aside some money but they weren't sure if it was enough considering the cost of the building and the age of the building. Another Sarah Beeny quote was - Should I say it nicely or not when referring to how far out their budget was? This is something that we come across a lot of times; people budget to the amount of money they have available rather than the amount of money that the building works will cost.


Sarah Beeny's expert property professional team are called in

The next stage of the programme was when Sarah Beeny called in her various experts. That part of the programme ends with Sarah Beeny talking to one of her specialists who advises Sarah Beeny that if these problems persist will the building eventually collapse? To which Sarah Beeny's expert advises yes.


Building under attack from every direction

This is something we have said is very good about the Sarah Beeny programme is how she repeats and re-emphasises the various issues. So, was the next part in the programme, where Sarah Beeny reminds everyone that the couple originally just wanted to convert the loft into a bedroom, the woodworm that was found in this area would cause lots of problems. Sarah Beeny then goes onto explain a bit about woodworm, about it being the general name for a beetle that can live inside wood for years, before eating its way out and it is this eating its way out that causes the holes.

Sarah Beeny refers to woodworm being able to be in the wood for ten years, which relates back to some research that was carried out, and mentions that you need to look out for the frass, which is the chewed up wood. Sarah Beeny calls in expert Steve Hogson. As we have said previously within our website, there is no need to have a whole team of experts as one building surveyor will be able to advise you on all these different things, but in this case, Sarah Beeny chose to have separate experts.

The woodworm person is shown examining the floor on his hands and knees with a torch light looking for woodworm. A bit more about woodworm is explained, with particular emphasis on the death watch beetle, which is always quite a dramatic name that we know has been used to good effect by the woodworm industry. They have a particular liking for open Elm, which co-incidentally is what the old Tudor type timber frame buildings were built in, often known as timber buildings or black and white buildings; the sort of thing you would expect to see in a Charles Dickens show.

This is where the comment is made, we believe by Sarah Beeny, that where timbers houses such as these are made up of 80% wood and woodworm can have dramatic consequences. We would agree with this, but the number of houses now built of 80% wood are diminishing and with modern treatment of timber woodworm is no longer a problem in the way it once was many years ago.

We were pleased that the programme also mentioned the timber has to be more than 16% damp. This is a major factor in woodworm we find in roofs and under the floors.


Example of woodworm found in a roof space

Boroscope used to investigate woodworm under the floor


We were very pleased to see that they used a boroscope to investigate the woodworm under the floor. We were very pleased because we have been using boroscopes to do the same type of things. The boroscope that we use has a digital screen, with the ability to photograph or video what we see. Then a long tube with a light at the end, through which the camera can look down and we can get around and into gaps, such as under suspended timber floors. This is relatively easy, without causing too much destruction. We are more than happy to do this on a survey but you do need to get permission from the owners, as we will literally be drilling a hole into their floor. What would be even better is if the owner would allow you to open up the floor as we did very recently.


Opening up a suspended timber floor

Under the floor

Sarah Beeny then talks about chemical treatment of woodworm, which we would agree, but we would emphasise that you do need to first of all make sure you have got woodworm, as many of the cases that we come across the woodworm is simply not active and is what is known as historic woodworm. It is these clauses you need to look out for in the woodworm reports that are very cleverly written. We would also say that you need to be very careful about the poisons that are used to kill of the woodworm and the way this is used on the timber, as we have seen the treatment of woodworm cause more damage than the woodworm would have caused in many decades to come. If you can imagine woodworm are a few millimetres big and even where there are lots of them it takes a great deal of wood eating to cause damage.


Stonework and the pointing

Sarah Beeny explained how the stones were stuck together with mortar that over time wears away. We think she used the words wasted away. In this part of the programme a thermal imaging camera was used to identify the cold areas between the pointing where there were problems.

We have thermal imaging cameras available and are more than happy to do this, although we have found from past experience that you need a combination of a good eye and understanding of how the building works as a whole to best rectify the problem of deteriorating walls.

The thermal imager was used very effectively to show in the programme the cold areas where the pointing was not working. The stonemason was brought in as one of Sarah Beeny's property professional experts to comment on the walls. When asked by Sarah Beeny when was the best time for the work to be carried out he advised tomorrow, which was quite comical in the programme. He then said that he estimated the stonemasonry work alone to the front of the property would be £5,000. Sarah Beeny then related this back to Nick and Becky's situation where they simply hadn't got the money so they would need to the work themselves.

Later on in the programme we visited the Building Research Establishment: BRE, where Nick and Becky are given training on how to re-point stone walls.


Good news, woodworm not active

Sarah Beeny next advises that there was good news with regard to the woodworm in part, as the woodworm holes that were noted in the roof space, where they wished to carry out the attack conversion, were not active so it is bug free, as she describes it. However, Sarah Beeny also adds in that unfortunately in the dining room they have found woodworm so bad that the timbers have disintegrated.

In the floor there is a mixture of woodworm and wet rot which would cost approximately £4,000 to do correctly and involves the removal of the floor. Sarah Beeny then describes the couple as being a bit optimistic when they originally bought the property and Nick was described as not being a happy person.

Next the Help My House is Falling Down film shows the couple pulling carpets away in a room to expose the timber beneath and showing the deterioration in the floor generally. Sarah Beeny helps out, in what she describes as giving Nick a jump start, to do the work which he is very reluctant to do. This is also explained in the programme that as he is very busy with work he simply doesn't feel he has the time to come home and carry out more work. He also comments that he would like to spend the time he does have available with his children and family, rather than working on the house. This is often the case with someone buying a new home or repairing a house; the amount of work simply takes over their lives.


Sarah Beeny explains what a suspended timber floor is

The next section of the programme was very good where Sarah Beeny explained what a suspended timber floor is. She advises the principal behind a suspended timber floor is to operate the wet earth, which will always be wet, from the dry timber by four inches (100mm). We can't recall her mentioning about the need to vent a suspended timber floor. It is often these vents that we find blocked that are causing the problems, as well as the woodworm and wet rot, but it is the very fact that these vents are blocked that allows the woodworm and wet rot to attack the property in these wet conditions.


Extreme DIY


Sarah Beeny uses this term extreme DIY, which we have come across a few times. In this case it's used in relation to replacing the floor, which is quite a job to take on. Whilst a little bit is shown of this in the programme, where the floorboards are removed and the floor joists are removed and then it shows some of the joists being put back in and Sarah Beeny comments that you now have 20 odd joists to go, it really just sums it up in the programme by saying that the next door neighbour came in to help. We would comment what an excellent next door neighbour to come in and carry out all that work, as it really is a painstaking and skilled job to get the timbers into an existing house and ensure they are level and supported properly.



The programme then refers to the Channel 4 website, which is


The flooding cellar problem solved

Next came the good news about the flooding cellar. Just to explain a bit more about cellars; we always comment that they are never meant to be dry so be careful about what you store in them and don't store anything that's particularly valuable to you, as what's in there will perish. Before they were given the good news it was explained how they pumped out the water that's in the well to see what's in there and find a gully that is an overflow gully and decide to clear this out. This is after they've had a camera down the drains to have a look at what the problem is and they see debris, etc.

Simon Pictor is the expert they used with regard to the drains, who comments that repairs to drains can run into five figures.

The next section of the programme is then given over to the problems with drains. Simon Pictor comments that the eventually leaking drains can undermine your foundations, which we have come across a few instances of and the associated movement in the house.

Help My House Is Falling Down then moves on to how they found the blockage, which is some three metres out into the road and two metres down. It was explained how normally you can high pressure water jet the blockage, but in this instance it just won't budge and they use what's known as an electronic pipe snake, with their structural engineer advising that it's much worse than he would have expected and he was simply unable to unblock the blockage.

The expert advised that the options are to dig up the road and the pavement and re-lay the drain, which is very, very, very expensive (and we think we've got the number of very's correct!), with the exact figure not given. However, they have come up with a different solution, rather than solve the problem they will get around the problem by the use an independent pump for a few hundred pounds, which is placed into the well to pump it every time it fills up to ensure it doesn't flood.


Soft sandstone the property is built out of

Next the Help My House is Falling Down programme looks at the masonry bees and how they damaged the sandstone walls and associated mortar joints and pointing. It is advised that whilst you can actually kill off the bees that possibly a friendlier alternative is to put artificial bee nests close to the house to encourage the bees to relocate. We would add that repointing the walls will also encourage the bees to relocate, as they will have to re-burrow into the mortar.


Building Research Establishment test centre

Sarah Beeny's couple of willing house renovators are then taken to the Building Research Establishment test centre, where two panels of walls are built and then sprayed with water to simulate heavy rainfall. This shows just how much more water comes through a badly pointed wall. From memory it was within seven minutes that the water leaked through the badly pointed wall.

The stonemason, then gave the couple a lesson in repointing, with a very useful tip that it should be done in small patches and packed in. In our experience, pointing is usually, and often, carried out badly on newer buildings, equally on older builders when repointing is carried out and has to be carried out very carefully to get an effective, solid repointing and also for it to look good. Whilst Sarah Beeny�s reluctant couple didn't do a bad job we think they also decided how difficult it would be to do the wall and needed someone with some skills to come in and do the work before the winter came in.

Later on in the programme they were looking at the pointing again that had been partly done and it was explained how they had found someone from the local pub (not the best place to find people always) that had carried out the pointing.


The loft conversion happens

Sarah Beeny advises that loft conversions rely on four things:

1  The head height

2  Strengthening the floor

3  The light

4  Insulation

We would add there are a few other things that we think are important:

1  How appropriate the structure of the roof is to have the loft conversion carried out, as some roof structures, particularly more modern ones, are far more expensive than the older ones, where a lot more timber was used rather than modern engineered roof.

2  We would also comment that fire safety is important, as often it's a long way from the loft conversion down to safety should a fire break out and it isn't the case of being able to jump from the windows, so thought needs to be had in relation to this.

3  One of the major things Sarah Beeny didn't mention was that you will be required to have Building Regulations from the Local Authority to have the roof converted. In this case, we believe, it is mentioned that the roof has been legally converted previously but we feel more emphasis should have been put on this because it did look as if they were just allowed to convert the roof without any problems.


Thermal imaging and heat loss


Next the programme looked through a thermal imaging camera at how heat loss occurs in the building. Sarah Beeny advises that a quarter of all heat loss is lost through the roof, which is why we would always recommend insulation in the roof and equally it does need to be vented as well to avoid condensation. The property is looked at using thermal imagers which show there is a big problem with heat coming through the roof, which we wouldn't be surprised about in this older property.

With this in mind, they looked to insulate in the loft conversion. Becky starts the bedroom and en-suite conversion and we have to say it does look good when it's finished. There's also a nice scene showing Nick disagreeing with his daughter's paint scheme, where he says it looks like congealed blood and is in fact quite a dark claret colour.


Sarah Beeny's Summary


Sarah Beeny, as we have mentioned, repeats, reiterates and re-emphasises the points made throughout the programme, which we feel is great for those who have not come across these problems before. So in summary Sarah Beeny says that Nick and Becky bought a lovely, charming cottage through rose tinted spectacles and it's taken a lot of work to give it a clean bill of health.

The solutions in the end were for the repointing on the outside of the property to be carried out. If you recall it was budgeted at many thousands of pounds and this alone was over the budget they had set aside on this property.

The rising damp in the cellar was resolved by the addition of an independent pump.

The woodworm in the roof was found not to be active. The woodworm in the flooring was found to have caused its destruction already and needed replacing.

With all this work carried out Sarah Beeny said they now have their 350 year old dream property, however we were pleased that Sarah Beeny then went on to say that older properties do need maintenance and now the problems are fixed they need to carry on maintaining the property to ensure they don't happen again.

Sarah Beeny concludes with saying that many people dream of living in a chocolate box type cottage and this needs to be tempered with reality and we would comment that a building survey or structural survey would have allowed them to have budgeted for all this work prior to costing them a fortune.


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We hope you found the article of use and if you have any experiences that you feel should be added to this article that would benefit others, or you feel that some of the information that we have put is wrong then please do not hesitate to contact us (we are only human).

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We would refer you to other interest articles on our website:


Cracking and Movement Information

Loft Conversions Do They Add Value?

My property has been repointed in a cement mortar, what can I do?

Rising damp, condensation and damp through your walls


building engineers

Home Buyers Reports Property Surveys - why we're the best. Engineers Reports
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