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John Ward: the ups & downs of buying a new build house

Colourful wooden houses

Which? Convo regular John Ward is here to share his experiences of buying a new-build house. It’s furnished him with some great tips if you’re looking to buy a new-build, so without further ado, here’s John.

Two years ago Jean and I moved into our new-build house. It’s in a small development on the edge of a market town in Norfolk adjacent to open country. It was built by a regional house-building company that has a good reputation for quality.

We moved so we could get a more up-to-date house and a smaller garden. The development is a mix of typical rural designs and town houses and we chose a country-style house which was the only one of its type. The layout and landscaping are good with open spaces, woodland, and trees fringing the development – although, as with so many ‘greenfield’ sites, there were no established trees or shrubs in the gardens.

New-build problems

We’re very pleased with our purchase and enjoy it very much. The build quality has been high and we think the NHBC 10-year warranty system, together with better building regulations, new technological developments, and modern construction techniques, have improved the quality of new houses. Nevertheless, there were some snagging issues to be dealt with and my ‘rectifications list’ had thirty-six items on it at one point, mostly minor.

A few serious things ought to have been spotted during any quality control inspection, but the company dealt with all faults satisfactorily and quickly. It’s only when you start to live in and use the facilities in a house that you become aware of problems, but we think that more could be done generally in the building trade to check and test the work of the various sub-contractors.

Top tips for buying a new build

Having visited many new housing schemes, at various stages of construction, I can suggest a few points to think about when buying a new house:

  • See if you can find out the true timescale for completing the development; the sixty-four houses on our estate have taken nearly three years to build which has prolonged the disturbance.
  • Check the different types of property on the development plan; most developers seem to be very coy about showing later phases and the categories of houses (including any social housing) yet to start.
  • Don’t get too carried away by the furnishing and decor in the Show Home – it’ll be all bright lights, reflective surfaces, and mirrors to make rooms look bigger.
  • Remember there will be no fixtures and fittings like bathroom cabinets, light fittings, wall mirrors, clothes pegs, and the other conveniences of life that you are used to in your present home.

The experience has prompted a few questions: why are there so few modern-style houses and why do they cost so much more? What do we like or dislike about en suite bathrooms? Are rooms in the roof space (and that extra staircase) a good idea?

Comments
Member

We bought a new-build house for my daughter on an estate with two developers – one national, one much smaller. The contrast between their quality was very apparent, but not reflected in price. One had interesting house styles, decent size rooms (particularly the 3rd bedroom which in others was about big enough for a cot), plenty of storage including built-in cupboards and good finishes from coving to door handles, taps and tiles. The other was just cut price. After nearly 2 years we have had no problems of any consequence. The only criticism is the use of low-end appliances – built-in fridge-freezer, cooker and dishwasher from brands I would not choose. For little more they could have been more reliable brands; this seems endemic amongst new-build. Had the house not been complete when we bought it we would have changed them.
So search out a good developer; they are out there. Don’t put up with the undersized cheaply built stuff that the big developers seem to churn out – it’s not as though you get them on the cheap!

Member

I was considering moving to a small town to save driving there a couple of times a week apart from during the winter months. There has been a lot of new houses built in the past two years and I was disappointed by what was offered for the price.

I may still be interested because most of what is on the market is older property and I’m interested in an energy efficient bungalow or house that does not need any significant work done on it. Most of my investigation so far has involved exploring the area, looking up property details on an iPad. My biggest problem is not finding a new home but committing the effort and time to the project.

I’m glad the new house has worked out well, John. It seems like a nice location.

Member

Wavechange, Our new home (built in 2000) has a study in a ground floor single story and the inability to hold on to heat compared with the remaining first floor of the two story part of the building is very obvious. Fortunately we don’t use it much. I’m not sure how much the 8 inches of loft insulation would need to be increased so the study matched the insulation of the rest of the first floor of the house. My Dad had a bungalow in rural Oxfordshire which was a fridge in the Winter. The economy 7 electric under floor heating did not help nor did the very large rear window to the lounge.Do bungalows need a metre of loft insulation to make them “energy Efficient” ?

Member

Thanks Dave. I’ve been living in a bungalow for over 30 years and appreciate that bungalows cost more to heat. I certainly want the rooms I use most on the ground floor because it would be a strain to go up and down stairs all day. I was injured by a driver many years ago. I would like to find somewhere with zoned heating or upgrade the system to make that possible, since I don’t believe in keeping rooms hot when I’m not using them. Somehow dormer bungalows don’t look right to me but I can see some benefits of having one.

Member

One useful tip is to verify that the central heating system is fit for purpose. If it is still being used in new builds ( or if you are looking for an older house) , be very wary of central heating with 8 mm pipes to the radiators. Even if done properly with no more than 3metres from the larger hidden (22mm) pipes you will not get more than 1.5 kw out of any radiator on such a system. It is wise not to complete the purchase before you are confident that the boiler is capable of heating every radiator hot from top to bottom with them all on at the same time and that the system is free from leaks. If you are completing in Summer ask the vendor to remove the TRVs for the test so the valves don’t obstruct the water flow.

Member

I haven’t seen a new house with larger than 8mm pipework to the radiators for some time. Houses built from about 1990 onwards have generally had the small-bore pipework. I doubt it would be possible to specify 12mm radiator pipework unless you were commisionning a bespoke property. Personally, I find the output from the radiators in our house more than sufficient even in the coldest weather and we usually have the room thermostat set at 17 degrees and the TRV’s at mid-point settings. I expect the higher insulation value of the house and the correct number and capacity of the radiators make up for any possible radiator output deficiency. It’s possible that over time, after the NHBC warranty has expired no doubt, it will be found that the small bore pipework is not up to the job if it is more prone to becoming clogged with sludge.

Member

My house has some small-bore plumbing in the heating system. Corrosion inhibitor was present when I moved in and I’ve changed it periodically. I know there is little sludge in the radiators because I’ve taken them off when decorating, and the 8 mm pipework is fine. Mine is an old open system with a header tank, which allows oxygen into the circulating water, hence the importance of corrosion inhibitor. A modern closed system should be less likely to be affected by corrosion because there is little opportunity for oxygen to enter after the system is filled.

Member

“Are rooms in the roof space (and that extra staircase) a good idea?”

What are the upsides and downsides? And are you talking of two storey house with an attic or a bungalow? I am interested for my next move.

If anyone is considering moving to a flat a central or central top floor flat can benefit hugely form the heating of neighbours below,possibly above, and to each side. And of course you probably only have two external walls and even they are shielded from excessive wind factors.

Nobody ever markets on this basis! : )

Member

A high proportion of houses on new developments these days are arranged over three storeys with the top floor in the roof space where traditionally a vacant loft or attic would be. Modern unvented mains-pressure water systems mean that it is no longer necessary to have the cold water tank and central heating header tank at the highest level in the house. This frees up space for bedrooms. Houses can therefore be narrower and have a smaller plot-size meaning a higher density. Sometimes the top floor is designated the ‘master bedroom’ with an en suite toilet & shower room [plus a dressing room in some designs] or alternatively as a children’s space with two small bedrooms and a toilet & shower. The drawbacks with three-storey houses are that there are twice as many stairs to climb [and clean], rooms with sloping ceilings making the disposition of furniture and the placement of mirrors, pictures, etc, dificult, and usually sloping windows in the roof which could be noisy when it rains and dark if covered in snow. It’s hard to say whether such designs are more economical in energy use; the extra habitable volume requires heating and lighting but the availability of heat rising from the lower floors might compensate for that [except that the ground floor master thermostat might then call for more output as heat escapes upstairs]. Zoned heating systems are often provided and they might be helpful depending on the occupants’ lifestyle: they seem to be predicated on the assumption that the bedrooms will be unoccupied during the daytimes but a good programmable control system can override that. Some new estates have three-storey terraced town house types [with integral garage] under a conventional pitched roof. This makes it effectively a four-storey building [with maintenance complications]; while they avoid the sloping ceiling problem on the top floor, they can look out-of-place in suburban and country areas and are not loved by the planning authorities.

Member

John, we avoided a three storey house primarily because with the main (parents) bedroom on the top floor you would not be as aware of what the kids were doing on the floor below! Such houses are like the Georgian and Victorian London houses making the most use of valuable land – those often had basements as well. Better in my view than multi-storey flats.

Member

That’s an interesting point John.

I have often wondered why in new homes the thermostat control is located in the hallway. I did query this last year when my house was EPC rated and was told the thermostat would need to be turned down to a lower temperature than if it was situated in the lounge and with most new homes being fitted with radiator thermostats in each room they would, in turn, control the temperature of each room separately. But as you rightly say heat always rises so most of it will be lost to the upper floors at the expense of the lower living areas where it is most needed culminating in higher energy bills if the thermostat control is located in the hall as opposed to the lounge for example.

Where bungalows are concerned this would not happen with the absence of stairs as the heat would stay at ground level – hence the need for higher density insulation in the roof space. I am still confused though as to the best economically efficient place to house the thermostatic control.

Please can someone enlighten?

Member

It is important that the room thermostat is not in conflict with thermostatic radiator valves [TRV’s] so placing it in the hall is recommended and the hall radiator is then not fitted with a TRV. If the room thermostat is fitted in the lounge then it would not be advisable to fit TRV’s to any radiator(s) in that room so there would be a lack of fine tuning of the heat output. A television can add one or two degrees to the temperature in a sitting room so turning down a room thermostat to compensate would lower the heat in the rest of the property. The one thing nearly all new houses do seem to have is quite sophisticated heating controls that allow for a completely customised comfort setting in every room. Heat loss is reduced in most new houses by having much smaller windows than became common in the second half of the twentieth century and today’s double glazing standards are superior to those of even ten years ago. Obviously, cavity wall insulation and loft insulation are standard but where the roof space is used for bedrooms the opportunity to put deep insulation under the roof covering is significantly reduced; in order to maintain compliance with building regulations on heat loss values such rooms generally have even smaller windows than rooms on the ground and middle floors.

Member

In my present home I have a gas boiler and one room has a gas fire, so I can still keep warm if the boiler fails. I have a hot water tank with an immersion heater, so there are two ways of heating water. The thought of having a central heating system fail is bad enough, but losing hot water as well as heating is not something I am keen on. After all, modern boilers are not noted for their reliability and boiler servicing attracts a few criticisms.

Perhaps we should Be Prepared, as every Boy Scout knows.

Member

The larger new houses tend to have condensing system-boilers installed supplying a large hot water tank also fitted with an immersion heater. The smaller properties might have a combination boiler which supplies hot water direct to the taps so no hot tank and therefore no immersion heater.

A few years ago it was not unusual for small and medium-sized new houses to have a mains pressure system with a thermal store/heat exchanger unit. They had an electric element for summertime use. I have not seen such a system installed in new houses for some time as I think advances in combination gas boiler technology and control systems have made them seem relatively bulky and complicated.

Something I have noticed with new houses generally is that where they have a hot water tank in a cupboard [usually on the landing] it is described in the diagrams as an ‘airing cupboard’ but it is never fitted with any racking and in many cases there is very little space in which to do so because there is a maze of complicated pipework, motorised valves and pressure vessels. At least the latest system boilers have an integral pump so that is one less piece of apparatus to go in the airing cupboard.

Member

Thanks John. I have seen some messy installations in airing cupboards when friends have asked for advice about might be wrong with their heating. No doubt it would cost more to do a neat job that would make the airing cupboard more usable. Spotting the drawbacks of heating and hot water systems is one of the tasks I feel confident about.

Member

Thanks for the information John which explains to some extent why my 1978 home has the thermostat control in the lounge with no TVR’s in any rooms.

In my search for a new home I have seen many suitable homes on the market but have been put off by the open plan living with stairs leading straight off the lounge area, which to my way of thinking means the heat in the living quarters is all escaping up the stairs and as I feel the cold this is not an option I would contemplate.

To feel even remotely comfortable I need a sitting temperature of 20C degrees (even with an extra jumper) so if the hall temperature was set at a lower temperature say 65F degrees the TVR in the lounge could not increase the temperature above this unless , as you say, the added rise in heat from the TV, smaller windows and sufficient insulation plus of course the heat emanated from the number of people and room size may contribute to increasing the temperature to a comfortable 70F degrees. I would hazard a guess that this is a requirement of all new builds to comply with EU green guidelines.

I have noticed the proliferation of new 3 storey homes which I would contribute to a shortage of land space and an ever increasing demand for home ownership. I would have thought that insulation in the upper 3rd floor would have to meet Building Regulation Approved Document Part LIB which stipulates the roof must achieve a U-value of 0.18 W/m2K (whatever that means!) Without this regulation ‘the room at the top’ could also become unbearably hot during the summer months as well as freezing cold during the winter, but I still the idea of utilising the space which would otherwise have the potential turn into just another ‘grannies attic.’

Developers have recently been in the news complaining about govt. requirement to incorporate a percentage of affordable homes on new sites. Apparently they are finding that prospective buyers of more expensive homes are not too keen on purchasing homes in close proximity to the hoi poloi which goes against the grain and is affecting sales.

Member

…….I think hoi polloi has two ll’s!!!

Member

Help I need an editor! Should have included 20C or 70F ……..same difference!

Member

I’m glad you clarified that, Beryl. 20°F would have had us shivering.

Member

The house builders get very uncomfortable with any mention of the location and types of homes that they are effectively forced to build by the planning authorities in order to secure planning consent for the overall development. It is a contentious issue among prospective purchasers, recent buyers, and the settled community in whose midst a new estate is being built.

Curious euphemisms are employed like “affordable homes” – whatever that might mean -and “social housing”. One upmarket developer describes them on their site layout plans as “homes for the community” as though the rest are for aliens from outer space. The reality is that they are houses built (a) generally to a lower specification in terms of room sizes and finishes, fixtures and fittings, but (b) sometimes to a higher specification in terms of energy efficiency and economy of operation. They are usually built in sets or terraces [but occasionally as blocks of flats], have quite small gardens, and don’t normally have garages but can use a shared parking area. The local authority’s intention is that they will contribute to the reduction of the housing waiting list so it is almost certain that they will be occupied by tenants of either the LA itself or of a social housing organisation like a housing association or trust to whom the LA nominates tenants. I believe that some might be acquired by private landlords for letting to nominated tenants where the LA guarantees the rent. A secondary objective in some areas of the country where ‘second home’ ownership has become popular – and driven up local housing prices – is to ensure the supply of a number of affordable properties for local people to enable them to remain in their own locality when they reach adulthood or have a growing family. The local planning authorities are free to set the target levels of provision and for some it is as high as 40% of a new development. The developers usually try to beat this down because they claim their scheme would be unprofitable at that level, and during the recent recession they have been quite succesful in getting a reduction. There is an element of “gun at their heads” diplomacy in this and the LA responds by seeking ever greater sweeteners in the form of a “Section 106 agreement” under the Town & Country Planning Acts in order to secure various amenities not just for the specific estate but for the entire district.

The local authorities usually require the “affordable” homes to be built first [so the developers are committed to doing it before getting on with the open-market houses and cannot resile from their obligations]. This upsets the develoers who would prefer to hide these properties away in some godforsaken corner of the site next to the railway line or the flood retention lagoon and the electricity sub-station.

Unfortunately, it is a distinctly British characteristic that property occupation is never far removed from status-symbolism, one-upmanship, snobbery, envy, condescension and outright despicion. I might write more on this a bit later if the Conversation develops in that direction but at the moment I feel it is too subjective to suit the purpose of this topic.

Member

Don’t worry, Beryl – I’ve updated the temperatures for you. Sorry for being a bit late!

Member

Thanks Alex – I must stop converting before hypothermia sets in!

Member
Sophie Gilbert says:
22 December 2014

“See if you can find out the true timescale for completing the development; the sixty-four houses on our estate have taken nearly three years to build which has prolonged the disturbance.”

Another thing to think about is local amenities including public transport, depending on what is important to you. I moved to a new house around 20 years ago in an suburban area that was very amenity-poor and I regretted it very quickly. I just had not given it enough thought. There were no restaurants or pubs within easy walking distance, no local shops, just one great big soulless shopping mall, an infrequent bus service and an unreliable train service. Now of course the area is much improved, especially regarding public transport, but too late for me. (But I’m back in town where it’s at, so happy.)

Member

I’ve recently purchased a new build (while I save for a self build).
Here were my main annoyances.
Not many options as I would expect, for kitchen style/ appliences etc. after all that was one of their main selling points.
No thought into the placement of wheely bins/recycle baskets etc.
Poor street lighting. Light the pavement not peoples gardens and bedrooms.
Poor parking (due to those dreadfull planners). Cars are forced to park on pavements and people with pushchairs are then forced into the road!!!!
No network cabling options or surround sound options ( luckily I was able to get them to put these in as a special.)
They don’t register the postcodes? For the first 6 months, in the age of internet shopping, no one can find you.

Why are there no modern properties being built. Why all this fake design?? I hate it just like I hate all the never ending period tv programming. We are stuck in the past!!! Boy would the Victorians be turning in their graves if they could be us now. Scared off by the mistakes of the 50’s (just look at the age of the people on most council planning boards). Do any of these council departments have any training in design or planning, probably not.

Why no basements? They are very easy to do, and can be pre-fabricated in a factory.
Before this house move I was a first time buyer. I initialy looked into several new build developments only to find that the reality of so called affordable housing does not exist. I had the money, but the houses where excluded from me. They are either sold directly to housing associations, buy to let scum or they are only available though some shared ownership scheme.

I cannot personally say I ever experienced a developer hiding or disguising parts of there schemes that where for social housing. In a lot of cases I found that the social housing occupied some of the prime locations on the sites, and these where from higher end developments.

I also think the whole buying process is a complete mess. 3 months of messing about (putting it politely). For searches, mortgages etc. in this day and age this is not acceptable.