Buying a House Off-Plan

Studying house plans

Unless you have a very expensive taste in cars, your house will almost certainly be the biggest purchase you are ever likely to make. Even when buying a house in the conventional way it is surprising how few details the potential buyers absorb during their pre-purchase viewings. Many people discover the property’s annoying idiosyncrasies only after they’ve moved in.

This strange behaviour is magnified to its extreme when the purchase is made off-plan.

To interpret plan drawings and elevations is easy with a little thought and practise. To form an accurate perception of the space using only these drawings is a rare skill. Consequently the finished property will likely seem smaller than you had imagined it. The show-house or show-flat is your most useful tool in gauging the reality. If the show-flat is exactly the same as your prospective purchase things are a lot easier. If your property is different from the show-flat don’t be scared to spend time working through the differences, with a tape-measure if necessary, until you’re happy you can visualise your own property.

 

 

The show-flat will be your best friend if you know how to use it. Visit it as early as possible in the building process:

Examine in detail all the finishes – The same people who finished the show-flat will be finishing your property. Look carefully at all edges and joins, especially between wood floors against skirting, wood floors against tiles, and wood or tile against carpet. Check all paint for thorough coverage and smoothness of finish.

Use the appliances – Sit on the toilet to see if it’s the right height. If it is then measure it and note the measurement. If it isn’t, find out how to change the specification in your property. Try out the cooker hood and the extractors in the bathrooms. Are they quiet, are they powerful enough?

Look carefully at the furniture that’s been installed - The developers’ brief to the designer of the show-flat was very probably to “maximise the apparent space and light.” This may give you a few tips for a new style that will fit your new home perfectly. But if you’re bringing your own furniture along, don’t be distracted. Be honest with yourself about how big your furniture is. Measure it and draw it in on the floor plan they’ve given you. That way you’ll avoid nasty surprises.

Check the quality of the carpet – This is probably the carpet option that you will be offered. It’s also a favourite area where the developer will cut costs. Buying all the same colour will slash the cost, especially if the colour is one that isn’t selling very well at the carpet warehouse. You won’t get a discount by rejecting the carpet, but choosing and buying your own is guaranteed to improve the completed interior.

 

 

Look at the structural details – Pay particular attention to the windows. Ask to open them, ask how they work and how they lock. Ask where to get replacement keys (the builders will have lost them all by the day you move in). Check the type and style of the curtains and blinds installed. There is an alarming trend amongst new builds to allow the tiniest of wall space between the top of the window and the ceiling. We have seen this vanish to nothing where the plasterer has laid it on a bit thick to achieve a level ceiling. This problem is sometimes made worse by the use of windows that open inwards. The ease (and therefore relative expense) of installing window treatments is very important, especially as in the typical modern development you will almost certainly be overlooked by other properties.

Once you’re happy with the developers’ technical competence and you are sure there are no structural bloopers to come back and haunt you, you can buy your off-plan property. But before you sign make sure there are no unreasonable restrictions on your visiting the site. You’ll need to visit at least twice a week.

The builders and tradesmen that work on the development are usually extremely good at what they do. The problem is that they become detached. They always arrive at the same point in each build, do the same job in multiple units of the same basic design and then leave for the next development. The plumber who installs the toilet is extremely unlikely to see the tiles go on and will probably never set foot in a fully finished development. After a while, in the pursuit of a quiet life, the plumber will become detached.

We saw one flat that had two bathrooms. The toilet in one room was a full fifteen centimetres higher than the other (enough so that my feet dangled above the floor). The installing plumber must have noticed this, but decided by the time it was discovered it would be someone else’s problem. The tiler must have noticed this, but decided the plumber was to blame and it was nothing to do with him. The Quality Control Manager must have noticed it, but by this time it would require major demolition to put right. So it was left until the purchaser spotted it on his final walk round before signing off the works.

The only way to break this cycle of lethargy is to visit site on a regular basis. Ask questions, make check measurements, make suggestions, and make sure that your build is the one the Quality Manager pays particular attention to because he knows you won’t settle for second best.

 

 

As soon as it’s safe to do so test everything. Turn on all the taps and run them for ten or fifteen minutes. Check all exposed pipe work for leaks and if possible gain access to lower rooms to check the ceilings. Fill the bath to check the overflow works. Then drain the bath to make sure it’s fast and efficient. Run the shower and the heating for a decent period. Check for continuity of pressure and leaks, especially in the case of showers in upstairs rooms.

Regular site visits during the build will solve the major problems. The next thing to worry about will be the final snagging at handover. Most developers have a dedicated team of snaggers (this is why the person that installs the toilet knows he’ll never see it again). Draw up your own list with a detailed description of the fault and a detailed description of the remedial action that will make you happy.

When doing your final inspection it’s important not to rush it. Try to do it alone, without the developers’ representative breathing down your neck. Use your sense of touch as well as your eyes, especially for paintwork and ceramics. When doing visual inspection of large areas or high-up features it’s useful to shine a torch where you are looking (even in daylight). This forces you to slow down and pay more attention to details. Insist that you have access to snag in daylight and after dark. Paintwork is a lot easier to inspect under artificial light, especially gloss and eggshell finishes.

Mastic or Grip-fill guns are standard issue amongst all builders. When applied correctly mastic is a useful and attractive way to finish and define corners and edges, especially in tiled areas. Much too often it is applied heavily and untidily to the void between all poorly finished surfaces. We have seen this so often in new builds that we have coined a name for this special substance - “Botcho-Fix!”

If you visit site regularly you should have the opportunity to inspect all joints before the Botcho-Fix Cowboys ride in. You may consider banning Botcho-Fix entirely and employ an independent tradesman to apply final seals after you’ve signed off on the property.

The final problem you will face is one of condensation. Many years ago it was standard practise to allow a new building to stand for a year to allow all the plaster to dry thoroughly. Today’s high-profit marketplace disallows this particular nicety. The result for you will be windows dripping in condensation for many weeks after you’ve moved in. Leaving internal doors and windows open whenever possible helps, but to positively avoid potential for water damage a portable de-humidifier is essential.

Article by Melvyn Fickling
© Adrienne Chinn Directories