If ever a problem has followed me through life, it’s damp. Not sweaty armpits or monsoons but the unwanted capillary action in the home, type. The first house I ever owned, well co-owned with my last husband (L.H.), was only a few months old when disgusting slimy flowers started growing from underneath the kitchen door mat. This turned out to have been caused by a leaky toilet pipe and was soon sorted out but it was the start of a very moist trend.
As we became more affluent we decided to look for a more interesting house and fell for a Victorian cottage which had formerly been a barn. It was full of charm: low ceilings, sloping bedrooms, open fires and the garden was an English idyll with little footpaths and rock edged flower borders, lawns and two old chimney pots, formerly on the roof, but now attractively filled with flowers. There was also a septic tank which made the vegetable patch bounteous although we tried not to think about that too much, and there was a path across the garden to give access to our adjoining neighbours, who also shared the septic tank.
In our defence we were very young and so were quite happy to ignore the potential difficulties of this arrangement. We blithely made an offer and didn’t really notice how relieved the owners were to accept it.
After sealing the deal with a drink or two we took the advice of our mortgage advisor and commissioned a survey, not a full survey but a middle of the road sort of thing which would identify major defects but would not go into too much detail.
A major defect emerged and guess what it was. You.ve got it, damp. Rising and penetrating, if you’ll pardon the expression.
After two years of replacing floors, plaster, rendering and decor we hit hard times and found ourselves trying to sell the house during a very long and severe property slump. A further two years later we sold it having made no profit at all.
When Whiz and I decided to move away from Byron Cavendish we had a list of requirements for our new home which included a home office, four bedrooms and a family room. After much searching and a fortuitous increase in our price limit through the sale of my former marital home, we found the house, in the village of Pebbleditch, in need of some modernisation.
The vendors were, to say the least, twitchy. They seemed desperate to sell their house and although we were keen to buy it, their anxiety, and my previous experience, encouraged us to commission a full building survey. The house came through the experience with, if not flying colours, then gliding ones. Nothing serious, just a bit of damp at the back, probably due to the ground level being higher than the damp proof course.
I tried to put my reservations to one side. They were, after all, based on intuition and we had checked the facts. It would have been illogical to back out of the purchase (Whiz’s influence can be detected here). We moved in on the Thursday before Good Friday and the move did not go well. The vendors of our house, a fairly large one, had decided in their wisdom to ‘do it themselves’. When our removal van arrived on the scene there was a string of people stretched from the back of the house, through the lounge, across the road to the barn of a neighbour. Articles were being passed along the line and into the barn from the garage, a double width, double height affair which had been packed with stuff when they, reluctantly, allowed us to take a peek before purchase.
Our removal men were not amused. They all had homes to go to and were looking forward to Easter with their families. The Vendors, I won’t try to give them a nickname, suggested that the men might like to help as it would speed things up, but at the suggestion that money should change hands for the favour, The V’s declined.
By mid-afternoon our removal men decided that they would have to cut their losses and help anyway if they wanted to finish work that day. At five in the afternoon our furniture started to move in to a house which had not been cleaned, for months I think. Our tip to the removal men had to cover the work they did for the V’s as well as us.
O.K. so you’re ahead of me here aren’t you. You’re right, the house was riddled with damp. There was a corner of the dining room which wouldn’t take the weight of a toddler, let alone that of an over-curvaceous, middle-aged woman! On further investigation we discovered that the joists supporting the whole of the back end of the lounge floor were so wet that if you pressed them with your finger, they actually dripped. It was clear that a certain amount of Heath Robinson-esque repair work had been done, the extent of which we were yet to discover.
Apart from cleaning, unpacking, trying to cook without any utensils because they had been put in the garage by mistake, reassuring the kids that everything would be fine, reassuring each other of the same; our first task was to contact, in no uncertain terms, our surveyor and some builders and damp proofing companies. All were disbelieving. How could a self respecting professional have missed this soaking, rotting depressing problem? Surely, they all said, even the chief surveyor from the guilty company, surely it didn’t look this bad when he came to do the survey. But surely, it did, we replied.
We gained a small amount of enjoyment, jointly wondering with these professionals at such gross ineptitude. When we were told that the ground outside could not breach the damp proof course for the simple reason that a house this age would not have a damp proof course, our temperatures rose.
We had quotes for the work, which ranged from £30,000 to £50,000. Gulp! We decided we needed the services (£400 per hour) of a barrister. We were advised not to do any work on the property so that the evidence could be seen by all who needed to see it.
Thus we spent two years in our ,dream home, with a brown 1960s carpet on the floor of the lounge, a kitchen from the same period with ripped lino held down with parcel tape and the permanent smell of damp pervading the air, our clothes and, eventually, our asthmatic lungs.
Finally we were asked to send photographs to support our impending court case and lifted the 1960s carpet to see, what we had only felt before, the reason for a certain rockiness underfoot. There before us were large pieces of chip board and ply wood. These had been cut to fill in the holes in the floor boards where they had been sawn through and removed because they were rotten. Holding up these replacement floor sections were, not joists, but piles of breeze block. Once they had seen the photo’s, Council for the defense buckled and made us an acceptable offer
We moved upstairs and the Damp Proof Company, Rentokil, proceeded to gut the downstairs of our house and rebuild it to our specification.
I can’t praise this company enough. We had plasterers, brickies and damp proof experts. They actually talked to our plumber and electrician! They cleaned up after themselves and they finished when they said they would. Well, we did deserve something to go right after all we had been through.
I have only one complaint: Observing the Rentokil vans parked outside our house, the village was convinced that we had rats the size of elephants!