ITV.COM House of Horrors
In our fourth and final programme we discover some seriously dodgy damp-proofing
Damp is a fertile area for rip-off traders as the very word can set alarm bells ringing and panic householders into paying anything to have the problem dealt with. In reality, many older properties in Britain have some form of damp within the structure, but often this does not need serious remedial work to treat. As you can’t see what is really going on with damp you do rely on the damp-proofing company to be honest.
In our Derby house, our off-duty nurses have noticed a strange smell. Our structural expert John Topp has discovered a small area of damp in one of the interior kitchen walls; not serious, the wall simply needs treating and re-plastering. We had heard of a damp-proofing company that was using cold calling and high pressure selling to rip off their customers and wanted to see what they would make of our problem.
Without a proper inspection of our kitchen wall, the damp-proofer claimed that the damp-proof course along a large part of the property had failed and informed our nurse that she would need a new one; the original small damp patch in an internal wall seemingly been forgotten.
Falsely claiming to be backed by the local Trading Standards body, he quoted £790 to undertake the work.
Top Tip: Don’t take someone ’s word for being backed by Trading Standards or any other association. Ask for contact details and always check references.
Instead of drilling new holes into the walls for the damp-proofing chemicals, this company drilled out some old holes from a previous, ineffective installation. Where they attempted to treat a cavity wall, they only drilled into the outer brickwork and simply ‘squirted’ some silicone fluid into the holes, rather than the correct method where a carefully measured volume of fluid is pressure injected. Most of the silicone ran out of the holes and ended up on the garden path.
The work was the worst example of damp-proofing that John Topp had ever come across. The whole job, which would normally take a couple of days, took this team around an hour and a half to complete. Pointless, inappropriate and a very expensive waste of time, our nurse was offered a guarantee for 30 years that was not worth the paper it was printed on.
BBC Rogue Traders Series 7, 26th March 2009
In this hour-long special, Matt Allwright and sidekick Dan Penteado reveal how their investigation into a rogue damp proofing company led to the successful prosecution of a ruthless criminal gang who had been ripping off the elderly for millions of pounds.
They follow the money trail from Britain to where the criminal mastermind was hiding out in Portugal, and discover that behind the luxury lifestyle there was something far more sinister.
Extract from an article in the Sunday Times: 29th February 2004
Living: Is the damp really rising?
Clare McVey investigates damp diagnoses that leave consumers paying for unnecessary work
After viewing more than 20 properties, Denise Dawes felt she had finally found her dream Cotswolds cottage — until she was told she would need to spend more than £7,000 to fix a damp patch.
Dawes, 51, was buying a £120,000 Victorian cottage that had been completely renovated by the previous owners, so she had not been expecting large-scale works.
“The mortgage company asked me to get a damp survey done by a member of the British Wood Preserving and Damp-Proofing Association (BWPDA),” she says. “This chap showed me all the red lights flashing on his damp meter. I was horrified as we really wanted this cottage, so I decided to seek a second opinion.”
The vendors had had damp-proofing done, and a different surveyor confirmed that channels were already in place and that moisture being detected was caused by condensation and the recent plaster drying out.
Dawes’s house purchase is going through, but thousands of buyers each year are not so lucky. Damp — and the fear of it — plagues the housing market. Vendors are persuaded to drop their price, buyers back out, and homeowners fork out for expensive works. Despite the prevalence of the problem, however, consumers are still being ripped off.
Damp undeniably causes real damage. Chris Mahony, of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), says: “Damp can lead to rot in timbers, corrosion of metal fixings and mould growth. What is important is for the surveyor to correctly identify the cause. Rising dampness occurs much less frequently than one might think.”
Other common causes include condensation, plumbing leaks, the localised failure of the damp-proof course and water penetration caused by blocked gutters.
“Small localised areas are unlikely to affect the integrity of the building, but if dampness has started to cause timbers to rot, prompt remedial action will be needed,” says Mahony.
Even a full structural survey has its limits, however; Mahony warns that patches of damp may be lurking behind furniture or covered by paint.
So how do you know if you have a genuine damp problem? Surveyors often advise buyers to get specialist companies in to conduct damp surveys, but many firms offer “free” surveys and then recoup the cost by recommending extensive works.
Trevor Kent, a former president of the National Association of Estate Agents, says: “Surveyors are reducing their exposure by saying that houses must be checked by independent so-called specialists to absolve themselves of responsibility. But the surveyors are the trained experts. The woodworm and damp people often have no training at all.”
Kent cites one client advised by his surveyor to get a specialist damp report. The buyer asked three firms for their opinion; each one found damp in a different wall.
Another common problem is that guarantees offered for damp work “are not worth the paper they’re written on”, says Anthony Kerrigan, of Kerrigan’s Property Services in Doncaster. “I don’t think we have ever had a situation where a surveyor has found damp and we’ve been able to claim on a guarantee. They’ve either gone out of business or claim the problems are related to an area they didn’t treat.”
Although guarantees offered by members of the BWPDA, the leading trade body, are backed by insurance if the company goes out of business, only 10% of firms operating in this area are members. In any case, even BWPDA companies may employ their surveyors on a commission basis, meaning that they have an incentive to “find” work.
Chris Coggins, director of the BWPDA, says the body encourages members to charge for their professional services. “The so-called free survey was introduced as a marketing ploy and has not served the industry or the public well.
“We would take disciplinary action against a member found to be fraudulently recommending work, knowing it was unnecessary.” But, he says, “there may be more than one way to deal with the problem”.
“Much of this work is unnecessary as rising damp is often assumed to be the problem, when it may instead be condensation or penetrating damp, which can usually be remedied at a fraction of the cost of chemical works.”
Steve Playle, a Surrey trading standards officer, advises: “Don’t assume the companies with the biggest ads are necessarily the best. The bigger companies tend to subcontract which means they have less control over the work.
Use an independent damp surveyor.
Technical Q&A 20 : Rising Damp
According to Douglas Kent, SPAB Technical Secretary, the inappropriate installation of damp-proof courses to combat rising damp accounts for much unnecessary work on old buildings. True rising damp is rarer than commonly perceived but is regularly misdiagnosed.
Q. What is rising damp?
A. Rising damp is the upward movement of moisture through walls and sometimes floors by capillary action from below the ground. It can rise to 900mm or more in walls, depending on the masonry type, water-table level and evaporation rate. Salt deposits generally form a horizontal tide-mark, below which there is discoloration. Floors can display moist patches and staining. Rising damp is distinct from other forms of dampness, such as rain penetration and condensation, which require different solutions.
Q. Is rising damp common in old buildings?
A. Rising damp is commoner in old buildings than new ones but rarer than often supposed. Modern buildings keep water out with a system of barriers: damp-proof courses (DPCs) have been required in walls since 1875 and damp-proof membranes (DPMs) in floors from the 1960’s. Most old buildings lack these and therefore damp rises to some degree. This is usually not a problem where the construction can ‘breathe’, allowing evaporation, and may actually be advantageous in humidifying overly-dry centrally-heated buildings. Excessive dampness arises where the moisture equilibrium is disturbed, as with misguided attempts to seal surfaces.
Q. How is rising damp diagnosed?
A. Rising damp is widely misdiagnosed on the basis of high electrical moisture meter readings alone. Elevated readings occur not infrequently in old buildings that are virtually dry, due to salt deposition from evaporation, or can indicate another problem altogether, such as penetration from rainsplash. If rising damp exists, there will be visible indications too, such as an accompanying tide-mark, but not, for example, the external green staining symptomatic of rain penetration. High nitrate concentrations are likely. Tests to determine moisture levels within the wall thickness can help rule out surface condensation.
Q. What if I believe a damp diagnosis to be wrong?
A. In the SPAB’s experience, mortgage lenders can demand unnecessary damp-proofing work during house purchases. Although chartered surveyors have a duty to follow a trail of suspicion, some simply pass all responsibility onto remedial treatment contractors with a vested commercial interest encouraging over-specification. It is worth challenging any recommendation you believe is questionable and, if necessary, seeking a second opinion in writing from an independent chartered surveyor or consultant (note, not contractor). The SPAB may be able to advise you on suitable names.
Q. Is a retrofit damp-proof course really necessary?
A. There should be a presumption against retrospective DPC’s, which, inappropriately installed, can be damaging, ineffective and an unnecessary expense. They can have a role, though, perhaps where, say, irreversible alterations mean a building is effectively now functioning as a modern sealed structure. When selecting a DPC system and it is not feasible to insert a physical DPC, the SPAB suggests following BRE’s advice to consider only methods that have been awarded an Agreement or other third-party certificate. Chemical injection is the only method that currently satisfies this requirement. Physical and chemical DPC’s, however, should be avoided in earth buildings, where major structural damage can result, and treatment is difficult in flint and rubble-cored walls.