Obviously, the nature of the inspection will depend on whether it’s a ruin in need of complete restoration, a property that has been partly or totally modernised, or a modern home.
An old property may show signs of damage and decay, such as bulging or cracked walls,
rising damp, missing roof tiles and rotten woodwork. Some areas are susceptible to flooding, storms and subsidence, and it’s wise to check an old property after a heavy rainfall, when any leaks should come to light.
In the case of a property that has been restored, it’s important to ascertain how well the job has been done, particularly if the owner did it himself. Although a vendor must certify that a property is free from ‘hidden defects’, this provides little assurance as he can usually just plead ignorance and it’s usually difficult or expensive to prove otherwise.
The most important thing is to ensure that a property is structurally sound. Although building standards in South Africa are generally high, you should never assume that a building is sound, as even relatively new buildings can have serious faults (although rare). The cost of an inspection is a small price to pay for the peace of mind it affords.
Some lenders might ask for a ‘survey’ before approving a loan, although this usually consists of a perfunctory valuation to confirm that a property is worth the purchase price. (A master builder will be able to tell you whether the price is too high, given any work that needs to be done.) You can also have a full structural survey carried out. Although this is rare in South Africa, if you’d have a full survey carried out on a similar property in your home country, you should have one done in South Africa.
You may be able to make a satisfactory survey a condition of the preliminary contract, allowing you to withdraw from the purchase and have your deposit returned if serious faults are revealed, although this isn’t usual in South Africa and a vendor may refuse or insist that you carry out a survey before signing the contract. You may, however, be able to negotiate a satisfactory compromise with the vendor.
If a property needs work to make it habitable, don’t accept what you’re told regarding the likely cost of repair or restoration unless you have a binding quotation in writing from a local builder. One of the most common mistakes when buying old properties is to underestimate the cost of restoration and modernisation (it bears repeating over and over again!). You should obtain accurate estimates of renovation and modernisation costs before signing a contract.
Always discuss with a surveyor exactly what will be included in a survey and, most importantly, what will be excluded (you may need to pay extra to include certain checks and tests). A general inspection should include the structural condition of buildings (particularly the foundations, roofs, walls and woodwork), plumbing, electricity and heating systems, and (if applicable) a swimming pool and its equipment, e.g. filter system and heating. An electrical inspection is required by law, unless the vendor can supply a valid compliance certificate. You should receive a written report, including anything that could become a problem in the future. Some surveyors will allow you to accompany them and may even produce a video of their findings in addition to a written report.
On the other hand, a home inspection can be limited to a few items or even a single system only, such as the wiring or plumbing in an old house. You may also wish to have a property checked for termites and other pests, which are found in many areas.
Below is a list of items you may want to check or have checked by an expert when inspecting a property.
- Make sure that the property corresponds with the description in the title deeds.
- Check the number of rooms and the area of the property, terraces and the plot.
- In the case of a community property, check the exclusive use areas to which you’re entitled.
- If there are added rooms (e.g. an extension), terraces, a garage or a swimming pool that aren’t mentioned in the property description, ask the owner for proof that planning permission was obtained. Additions or alterations to a property may require new registration for the entire property; if so, enquire whether the current owner will register the change before you buy or pay the costs if they’re obtained on completion.
- Check for cracks and damp patches on walls.
- On older properties check that the walls are vertical and not bulging.
- Check that all the roof tiles are in place and that there’s no sagging. Plants growing on a roof are an indication that it isn’t well maintained.
Fittings & Furniture
- Check what’s included in the sale.
- Check that any appliances included in the sale are in good working order.
- Check for damp patches throughout a property, including inside cupboards and wardrobes.
- Check for cracks in walls.
- Check that the floor is level and that tiles are in good condition.
- Check the condition of doors and windows and whether they close properly.
- Check the woodwork for rot and signs of wood-boring insects, such as woodworm and termites (termites are difficult to detect unless damage is extensive).
Many older properties in rural areas aren’t connected to mains drainage but must have septic tanks to treat household waste. If a property already has a septic tank, check that it’s in good condition. An old-style septic tank takes bathroom waste only, while new all-purpose septic tanks on a soak-away system can cope with a wide range of waste products. The absence of a septic tank or other waste water system isn’t usually a problem, provided that the land size and elevation allows for its installation. However, if there’s a stream running through a property, it may mean that an expensive system needs to be installed to cope with the effluent, which costs three or four times that of a septic tank. Make sure that a septic tank is large enough for the property in question, e.g. 2,500 litres for two bedrooms and up to 4,000 litres for five bedrooms. Note that you mustn’t use cleaning agents such as ammonia in a septic tank, as it will destroy it, and products such as bleach can reduce its effectiveness. Specially formulated cleaners are available, including products that will extend the life of the tank.
- Look for cracks in the pool structure or lining and check the condition of paving around the pool.
- Check that the filtration and heating equipment (especially the pump) are in good working order.
- Enquire how much the pool costs to maintain and how much it will cost to refill it, e.g. if it’s emptied in winter.
- If a property doesn’t have a swimming pool and you want to install one, check that there’s sufficient space, that the terrain is suitable and that planning permission can be obtained if necessary.
You must obviously check that the vendor is entitled to sell the property and that there are no restrictions on the title you will be buying.
- Check the reliability of the electricity and water supplies. If the property’s water is provided by wells, make sure that there’s sufficient for your needs.
- If a property doesn’t have electricity or mains water, check the nearest connection point and the cost of extending the service to the property, as it can be very expensive in remote rural areas. If there’s no mains electricity supply, find out whether you can install alternative means (e.g. solar panels).
- Check that the water/electricity/gas installations are functional, particularly the hot water and central heating systems. Don’t take someone’s word that these are functional but check them yourself.
- Enquire about the annual cost of heating and air-conditioning systems.
- In the case of a waterside property, you should ensure that it has been designed with floods in mind, e.g. with electrical installations above flood level and tiled floors. Avoid a ground floor property unless you’re certain it isn’t affected by flooding – check for yourself or ask neighbours in the area.
- If a property has a well or septic tank, have it tested. If it doesn’t, check whether one can be installed and how much it will cost.