How to fix common building problems

The “original features” and “great potential” have you hooked. The price seems right so you get a building inspection report a must for any home buyer but then have palpitations about the list of problems. Alex Brooks explains the problems and solutions to common building problems.

Fixing common building problems

A building inspection report can seem frightening to those who don’t know their flashings from their fretting bricks.

David Santilli, Sydney Building Information Centre’s inspections manager, says most problems on a report are minor and not necessarily expensive to fix.

More complex building problems will be highlighted and referred to experts as necessary for a more accurate picture of the problem and costs.

“The reports are just a visual assessment of what might be wrong with the property. We recommend that the only accurate way to find out the cost of repairs is to get three or four quotes to fix the job,” says Santilli.

So what are the most common building problems and how can they be fixed?

Building consultant Joe Pizzinga, who works for the Sydney Building Information Centre and has more than 18 years’ experience as a builder and lecturer, helped compile this list.


The problem A flashing, the strip of waterproof material which is fitted to cover a joint where water would otherwise penetrate, is leaking. Roofs, doors and windows all need to be flashed correctly to stop rain or run-off water getting into the house.

The solution You may need to simply replace old flashings. If the problem is corroding flashings or an incorrectly flashed window, then a more extensive replacement might be needed.


The problem The biggest problem with lateral damp is finding the source is it a leaky pipe in the wall? Is it inadequate waterproofing on an exterior wall? Santilli says the most common cause is the bathroom leaking.

The solution Pulling up bathroom tiles is expensive, as is knocking a hole in a wall to get to a leaking pipe. A Band-Aid solution, such as a silicon membrane over the shower area of the bathroom, can keep the damp at bay.


The problem Moisture in the ground rises through the wall, ruining plaster and causing mustiness and mould.

The solution You have to remove the source of the moisture. Sometimes this is as easy as digging down the soil next to the outside wall. Sometimes a new damp course (a watertight lining in your wall) needs to be installed, which can be messy.


The problem Subterranean termites are active throughout Sydney, especially in older homes where timber is in direct contact with the ground. Newer homes near bushland are also vulnerable. The real issues are whether the termites are still active and how much of the structural timbers they have eaten.

The solution Active termites can be eradicated with baiting. If termites have eaten through the floor and ceiling joists the only solution may be to virtually rebuild the home by replacing all the joists. Ensure there is adequate subfloor ventilation or thorough termite-proofing of the slab in new homes. Even then, regular pest inspections are recommended.


The problem The earth the house is built on will always move but in some cases it subsides severely, causing structural cracks in the foundations and around doors and windows. But signs you have a serious problem include bulging bricks in the exterior walls and the spreading of roof tiles.

Pizzinga says: “If it’s just a bit of cracking, I say don’t worry about it you’ll spend more money trying to fix it than leaving it alone.”

The solution Subsidence is a complex problem to fix. Sometimes it’s just a matter of a well-built retaining wall slowing down the problem. Or it can take thorough investigation of the cause by structural or geotechnical engineers. Sometimes underpinning work is needed. In some cases, restumping a house may be a solution.


The problem Surface drainage (how rain and run-off water drains over the property), seepage (where the water table seeps through sandstone, for example) and detention pits (where water collects rather than runs off). Easements and covenants can cause added headaches. Drainage problems can attract termites and mosquitoes, cause settlement cracks and make it hard to grow anything in the garden.

The solution The ideal is to have the house situated on a block with all land gently sloping away from the house. Good gutters and drainpipes are essential.


The problem Old wiring goes with old homes. Check the fuse box for the condition of the circuits and if you discover cotton-wrapped wiring in the house, it has to be rewired. New standards require all homes to have safety switches and smoke detectors installed.

The solution Rewire with a licensed electrician.


Survival guide: tips on renovating

When James and Kylie Kennedy bought their rundown Maroubra bungalow last April for $556,000, Kylie moved straight back home to her mum’s for seven months.

“There was no way I was going to live through renovations again,” she says. “The last time we renovated I broke out in really severe hives. I’m asthmatic as well and the dust is just horrible.”

The list of problems with the house was hardly inviting drainage problems on the block of land, lateral damp between the bedroom and bathroom walls, structural cracks, a leaking bathroom and roof, old wiring and cosmetic problems.

James estimates that they have spent about $60,000 fixing the house so far. “We’ll probably spend another $40,000 before we’re finished,” he says.

Their biggest disaster has been fixing the sunroom.

Once James dismantled the old roof, he discovered termites in the ceiling joists.

“The cost blew out from what I thought would be about $4,000 to about $9,000,” he says. “The real cost is replacing the timber.”

James says it takes experience and time to get to know your property and its faults. “Even when you have the experience, you still get ripped off somewhere.”

He recommends:

* Try to be at home for the quote. That way you have an understanding of how the tradesperson proposes fixing the problem. “Sometimes they just want to do a Band-Aid and sometimes they want to make it perfect.”

* Be there while the work is being done even if you just pop in for five minutes.

* Get quotes for repairs rather than “do and charge” (where the tradesman charges a labour rate per day plus materials). “With a quote you have an upper limit of what you will spend and you have a comeback if something goes wrong,” he says.

* Don’t rush the repairs or you may find you are double-handling. For example, don’t replace the roof first-up if you plan on extending the property in a few years’ time and don’t replace the ceilings before you rewire.

* Make tradespeople a cup of tea or coffee at the beginning of the day and offer them a beer after work.

“Treat them nicely and you’ll be able to communicate with them better,” he says.

Renovation & DIY