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Hot Topic Highlight – Dampness in Buildings Part 1

Updated: Oct 29, 2023

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What is today's blog about?

In this week’s blog, Brian Robinson MRICS, Building Surveying consultant at Property Elite, discusses dampness in buildings. This is essential reading for any candidates with Building Pathology or Inspection as technical competencies. This is Part 1 of a three part blog series.

What is dampness in buildings?

Simply put, dampness in buildings is moisture that should not be there. This affects all types of property and is the most frequently reported problem that surveyors become involved with.

Why is dampness a problem?

Dampness is a problem because:

  • Moisture expands and contracts as temperatures fluctuate, causing cracks and the degradation of materials over time

  • It enables mould to grow and is, therefore, detrimental to health

  • Its presence is linked to attack from boring insects, more about this in a later blog

  • Damp timber can be subject to wet and dry rot attack leading to significant problems in the property

  • It results in visible wetting of walls, ceilings and floors, blistering paint, bulging plaster and sulphate attack

  • It can also lead to less obvious problems, e.g., thermal insulation being reduced in effectiveness or brickwork cracks because metal components embedded in it have corroded

What are the legal implications of dampness?

On 20 March 2020, the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 came into full effect, establishing in English law the right of a tenant to enjoy a fit demise, free of excessive damp or condensation.

Then, in May 2020, the High Court determined in Hart v Large [2020] EWHC 985 (TCC) that a residential surveyor who failed to identify a damp defect in a pre-purchase report was guilty of professional negligence.

Now that damp and condensation are defined against fitness for human habitation under the 2018 Act, the format of technical documents and standards such as BS 5250: 2011+A1: 2016 Code of Practice for Control of Condensation in Buildings and BRE DG 245 Rising damp in walls: diagnosis and treatment will come under much greater scrutiny. There is also the new RICS Joint Position Statement Investigation of Moisture and its Effects on Traditional Buildings that we will cover in a future blog article.

The risk assessment approach used by environmental health officers under the Housing Health And Safety Rating System (HHSRS), established under the Housing Act 2004, is of little help to surveyors, either in pre-purchase or landlord and tenant disrepair claims, as the lack of environmental health enforcement is of no defence under the legislation.

What are the types of dampness?

There are four major recognised forms of dampness:

  • Rising damp

  • Penetrating damp, with a subcategory called falling damp

  • Condensation

  • Flooding, which we will not deal with in this blog

Although for hundreds of years it has been known that most construction materials absorb moisture and that a small amount of moisture present in a material should not be of concern, damp is still widely misdiagnosed and misunderstood by surveyors.

What are the reasons for the misdiagnosis of dampness?

Level 2 surveys and technical due diligence surveys are not specific damp surveys. They are a snapshot of the building in time and normally do not include opening works.

The overreliance on damp meters and the lack of understanding of the limitations in their use often results in misdiagnosis.

Surveyors do not have permission to undertake even minor puncturing of wall finishes above skirting level, and are almost certainly not given permission to drill holes in the plaster to enable the use of deep probes on the damp meter, in the initial survey.

Commercial pressure on fees, time on site and to write reports, have resulted in damp problems being recommended for “specialist” investigation by commercial damp proofing companies, whose main interest is often in selling their products/services.

Lack of understanding of the construction seen and not being aware that chemically injected damp proof courses (DPCs) have a life of around 20 years, so any chemical DPC noted may simply be ineffective due to its age.

What will be in Part 2 of this three part blog series?

In next week’s blog, part 2 of this series, we will focus specifically on rising damp, misdiagnosis and how to diagnose types of dampness accurately and reliably.

How can we help?

Stay tuned for our next blog post to help build a better you.

N.b. Nothing in this article constitutes legal, professional or financial advice.


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