With property prices in Singapore feeling like they are still through the roof, renovating a landed house is an option for many whether it be an original condition Terrace, Semi-Detached or Detached / Bungalow with a nice garden for the kids to play.
There are extra costs that can be unforeseen and not accounted for when budget planning before you buy your ‘rare gem’! You can refer to another ‘Things to consider’ post we did back in 2019?? Which is still very relevant.
This post is a more technical piece dedicated to older houses. It focuses on real issues to look out for and consider before that big commitment. There is so much that goes into a house and your freehold property probably does not have lifelong specifications that could weather the elements comfortably. A question to ask is it still worth it after fixing the following below?
Yes, asbestos is still a thing in Singapore and very relevant for buyers of original condition houses looking to do a real ‘fixer upper’. Asbestos are fibers in ceiling boards used in construction of houses pre-1990. The fibers are cancerous to people who unfortunately breathe them in. The particles would stay in your body and come to haunt you years later. Essentially, having asbestos around in the house is no different from poisoning. Sounds serious right! If you go to view a house that was built pre 1990 in original condition and is very run down, but may have a reasonable price tag, then the ceiling and ventilation blocks may have asbestos. All old buildings before 1990 is required by law to undergo an asbestos survey before any major construction works can be done. This is mandatory for projects requiring submissions but not a requirement for renovation where there are no Authorities / agencies to report to.
You can ask the property agent, but from the authors personal experience, not all property agents know (maybe because it isn’t a very good selling point for the house?! :/)
An Asbestos surveyor would send the relevant samples to a lab test and if the cancer-causing material is found, it is mandatory by MOM’s (Ministry of Manpower) law that personnels handling Asbestos be in full hazmat suit and full PPE attire. Yes, that is how serious this is. At the end of the removal, an air quality test needs to be done to certify that the surrounding air is void of all substrates and is within the “safe” levels for human consumption.
It’s a common theme among landed dwellers to ‘maxmise GFA’- especially in land scarce Singapore where value is determined per sqft! I’m sure as a new landed owner the thought had crossed your mind. In Singapore, URA has stipulated building rules for the different types of landed houses and the template they must fit. Buyers take over the houses “as-is” and it is on you to do your due diligence before buying a house. Purchasing a house with illegal modification(s) comes under your responsibility to regularise it (should you decide to keep it). Also, these illegal modifications are not covered under the insurance of the house so should that illegal top attic catch fire – you may not get insurance payout because it was an illegal area to begin with!
Illegal works include extension of any sort that was previously not submitted to URA and BCA. The primary concern of these illegal modifications is their structural integrity. All buildings in Singapore are over catered for in terms of their structural load – ie. The Structural engineer is supposed to account for more load that the building would ordinarily take. Extending the front porch balcony in concrete without a proper structural engineer endorsement and calculation is a big no. That cantilever can add enormous load and over stress the existing structure. Fault lines are this serious when you see huge cracks in columns!!
As we become more technologically advanced, so does our electrical consumption with the latest cooking appliances, EV Charger and air-conditioning loads. Depending on the house you bought, not all landed homes are powered the same. Each house is connected to the grid with a certain power load. The loading could be single phase or three phase. An “up to date” home should have at least 3 phase 63 amp, but if your new requirements to that new home is to add a lift, EV charger, 32 amp oven and hob then you would have to consider increasing your electrical power to the grid.
The power load determines how much electricity can be consumed at any one time. So, a 3 phase 32 amp house will be hardly enough to keep all your compressors working, while the turkey is in the oven. That is why old houses experience a power outage at big occasions when everything is on. Electricals are like the blood vessels in our body, it powers our day to day yet we do not put too much thought into it. Never has a client checked on the current electrical loading and factored that as a dealbreaker but it is a hefty price to pay otherwise. Fortunately, this aspect can be changed – at quite a cost!
Increasing the power outage is expensive! Expensive because not only does it entails rewiring of the entire house and SP testing , it also involves cutting up the roads to make that new connection happen. Such processes increases the construction timeline and the builder / contractor needs to time the works such that the construction site always has power.
Structural cracks are always a major cause for concern! The average layman cannot tell what is structural and what isn’t in a house. Cracks are a natural part of wear and tear and can happen for a great number of reasons. Cracks in brick walls are usually caused by vibrational movements caused by tectonic movements of the soil. These cracks could be caused by vibrational activities from a neighboring construction site or natural occurring soil movements (especially after a major thunderstorm). Cracks in walls are more of an aesthetic concern than a safety one but cracks in a structural element (floor plate, columns, and beams) are dangerous. Such cracks signify a deficiency in the structural strength of the house. A crack running straight down on a column could signify too much loading on a particular member.
Usually, such cracks occur when an illegal modification has been done. In the olden days, the construction of houses was not as well regulated. In our years of experience, we have witnessed everything from flying beams to undersized column members. Also, the degradation of buildings, especially on its structural members is not something we think about when purchasing and old house. We are so primed to believe that everything built will last forever including the structural members. In Singapore, most of our structural members are built in reinforced concrete – ie metal rebars cladded in concrete for strength. Concrete is great in compression and tension, but it is prone to micro cracks and oxidation that would eventually “eat away” into the metal rebar inside. These metal rebar when exposed loses its structural strength – this is typical of floor plates with spalling concrete. (see image below)
With so much to consider when purchasing a house – everything from the finances, location, no. of bedrooms, electrical power, interior design – lightning protection is probably the last thing on most homeowner’s mind. Lightning protection involves much more than installing an “antenna” on the roof and hoping that the needle would divert the lightning elsewhere.
Quite the contrary – the needle is supposed to pick up the electrical conductivity from the lightning and carry it down to “earth”. Lightning protection involves either a copper or aluminium conductor that is exothermically welded to the building’s rebar structure underground. This system comes with an earth pit and a test link box for maintenance. For older houses, the lightning protection is usually shared between houses. Most houses would require at least 4 lightning protectors on each side of the house. The problem arises when 2 is removed from Neighbours when they start to rebuild. That leaves you in the precarious position of not having a lightning protection system that works. In such an event, the recommendation is to have your lightning protection checked by a licensed LPS personnel.
Waterproofing / Water Leaks
We saved the best for the last – water issues.
Waterproofing is made to last at best -10 years. Depending on the waterproofing substrate – the most common type of waterproofing material is essentially a paint like bitumen substance that is applied over to a dried floor and made to upturn at least 200 – 300mm (essentially a ruler width). Now, imagine painting a sticky substance across an L- shaped profile, the fault line would appear at the joint. This tar like substrate would with time give way and lose its efficacy in preventing water from a wet area like the shower from entering the surrounding crevices.
Waterproofing issues are the “easier problems” to be resolved.
The bathroom needs to be either (1) redone or (2) flooded in the latest nano waterproofing substrate that is supposed to enter the crevices and keep the floor watertight. The first is a more thorough way of resolving the issue while the latter is a more cost-efficient approach because bathrooms need not be demolished. Do note that the same nano – technology substrate needs to be maintained and reapplied every couple of years! Depending on your long run or short run horizon, both are plausible solutions.
Water leakages / Water damage
Almost all old houses we come across have a little water issues. Water coming in from a certain location and sometimes these issues are seasonal – only happens in the event of a very heavy rain but is watertight most days. The seasonal ones are usually harder to resolve because they are largely caused by backflow of water - A roof gutter may flow very efficiently but may not be able to deal with the heavy rain load and cause water level to rise in the gutter. That stagnant water then flows into its surrounding crevices causing water to enter the house
The bigger deal breaker for us with regards to water would probably be rising ground damp. Our houses essentially sit on earth. Rising ground damp occurs when water from the surrounding soil seeps into the house. This happens for a variety of reasons and largely because the house is not well built. While there are a series of waterproofing technology to help mitigate rising ground damp, the problem is exacerbated when there are fault lines in the concrete structure allowing water to enter. This list continues! Unfortunately, water issues are so localised and individualistic to the location, building methods and connections that it does take some time and trial and error to fully arrest the causation of the problem.
Amidst the negotiations, pressure, and emotion on buying your new landed house the above can be tapered over or missed completely. To reiterate you are buying the ‘as-is’ condition, so it’s important that you carry out your due diligence. Unfortunately, in the new home viewing situation, the buyer has to accept the terms of the agent and the existing owner on the number of viewings etc, but the older the house, the more potential issues it may have. In the current climate not, every homeowner is going to tear and rebuild, so you want to ‘limit the damage’ so to speak.
Carrying out your own due diligence may seem a bit of a hassle and strange to the other parties involved, but you need to try to get to a point of peace of mind from a safety perspective and from a budgetary perspective. We can safely say that about 8 out of 10 homeowners whether it be condo or landed under-budget their renovation or rebuild by 30-50% in some cases.