Guide to buying a Victorian house

Charm, character and good dimensions are just some of the attractive features of a Victorian house, ensuring that this architectural style is always in demand.

While Victorian architecture provides the backdrop to many of our towns and cities, the huge number of houses built during Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901), saw different styles evolving, making it hard to define a Victorian house.

However, they do share many characteristics, and in this article, we’ll describe these and explain the history of housing in the Victorian era. We also look at the pros and cons of a Victorian home and what to look out for if you’re in the market for one.

A beautifully ornate Victorian house.

The history of the Victorian house

The Industrial Revolution led to a time of prosperity for Great Britain and a massive increase in house building. Many Victorian houses were built to house workers during the migration from the countryside to cities where they found jobs in factories. The housing booms of the 1850s and 1870s saw rows of terraces built for all classes, including back-to-back houses for the workers, two-up, two-down houses, and larger homes and townhouses for the middle classes with accommodation for servants.

The early Victorian period was influenced by Regency Classicism up to the 1840s, but as Great Britain became more prosperous by the 1850s, Italianate styling became fashionable, often involving the use of stucco. This was followed by the Gothic Revival style from the 1850s, featuring details such as bay windows and porches. Later Victorian houses were influenced by Queen Anne architecture and the Arts and Crafts movement which led to architectural styles typically seen in Edwardian houses.

The 1840s railway boom resulted from the wealth generated in the Victorian era, and Victorian houses are often found in towns and cities with strong railway links. Millions of Victorian homes were built, and huge numbers are still standing today.

Typical Victorian period semi-detached houses.

Typical features of a Victorian house

  • The layout of smaller houses often comprises a small garden to the front and rear, two front reception rooms and a rear kitchen.
  • Steep, pointed, slate roofs, and building materials such as patterned brick, decorative barge boards on gable ends, terracotta plaques and tiles on facades, decorative finials, and ridge tiles.
  • Bay or sash windows: with the arrival of plate glass in 1832, windows became bigger, often comprising four panes rather than six.
  • Large ground floor rooms with decorative floor tiles.
  • Stained glass decorative leaded lights, often in doors and the tops of windows.
  • Fireplaces in many rooms.
  • High ceilings and decorative plasterwork.
  • Brick or local stone.
  • Cast ironwork railings or gates.
  • Cellars and porches.

Important Victorian architecture

The finest examples of Victorian Italianate country house architecture include Osborne House on the Isle of Wight and Witley Court in Worcestershire, both now managed by English Heritage. Other great examples of architecture from this time period include Manchester town hall and St. Pancras railway station in London.

The pros and cons of a Victorian house

Pros

  • Stylish design features with a high-quality build standard.
  • Generous proportions, sometimes offering grand hallways and landings.
  • Period features include cornicing, plaster mouldings, ceiling roses, ornamentation, and balustrades.
  • High ceilings and sash windows create light-filled rooms.
  • Thick walls.
  • Building materials included original floorboards; sometimes parquet flooring.
  • Characterful atmosphere.

Cons

  • Walls can be uneven, making decorating challenging.
  • Sash windows can be draughty and may need repair or replacement which may involve planning permission.  
  • High ceilings make rooms hard to heat.
  • The cost of ongoing maintenance jobs.
Victorian period terraced housing.

What to look out for if you want to buy a Victorian house

While modern technology and our knowledge of the structure of buildings can solve most problems, it’s important to think about the following when buying a Victorian property.

Examine the roof

If the original lightweight slates have been replaced with heavier concrete roof tiles, the rafters and joists may be sagging or broken.

Gutters and pipework

If parts are broken it will have led to water penetration, resulting in damp patches inside.

Damp

If you find damp, work out if it’s coming from the floor or from the ceiling. The source may be the roof, gutter, window, pipe, or groundwater that’s penetrated the damp proof course or membrane.

Pointing

This stops water from penetrating into the brick and freezing and expanding which damages the brick. Lime mortar was used on Victorian properties and is more flexible than cement, allowing moisture to evaporate freely.

External walls

 Are they straight or bowed? Uneven walls could indicate foundation issues.

Chimneys

Check to see if they are leaning or if there’s missing pointing or broken pots.

Ventilation grill

Suspended floors are common in Victorian era properties, with the ground floor built from timber joists topped with floorboards. The floor must be well-ventilated, otherwise, it can get damp. Look for grills or air vents on walls at low level, or under the doorstep, and check their condition.

External render

Sand cement render was used after World War II to keep water off the brick, but because it’s a rigid structure it can trap moisture. While it can be removed, the bricks beneath will likely need restoration. However, stucco render is made from hydraulic lime, sand, and hair, which is flexible and breathable.

Renovations

Check that any renovations have satisfied the local authority’s requirements and have obtained building regulations approval.

Cracks

External cracks can be caused by movement, but remedial action is not always needed.

The enduring appeal of Victorian houses

Marie Clements, communications manager for The Victorian Society which campaigns to promote Victorian architecture, commented:

Victorian properties are characterised by their distinctive architectural features and have been a popular choice among homeowners for decades. With high ceilings, ornate cornices, and elegant facades, Victorian housing is attractive. The classic design of Victorian property, combined with spacious interiors, with historical charm offering proximity to local amenities, make these homes a good choice for families and younger buyers alike.

The scarcity of Victorian homes in some areas may lead to an increase in their value over time, as they become increasingly sought-after by those seeking a distinctive and historic property. As a property is the most expensive purchase most people will make in their lives the very best course of action is have a full structural survey as part of the buying process. If the property is Victorian or Edwardian it is best to ensure that the surveyor is a specialist in these architectural periods, and not a generalist that may be offered by a mortgage company. 

A listed property is by definition a special building, and therefore higher maintenance costs can be anticipated as high standards must be kept up. Any building requires consistent maintenance, and our heritage buildings deserve to be renovated carefully, regularly and with period appropriate materials.

A typical approach to a Victorian house.

Attractive original features

Chartered architect Sarah Earney, founder and director of  Sarah Earney Architecture & Conservation, is a conservation architect who has owned and refurbished a Victorian house of her own, as well as working on the refurbishment and reconfiguration of many others. She said:

There are so many beautiful Victorian houses in the UK, in many different sizes, configurations and locations. They often have amazing original features, such as well- proportioned rooms, decorative features such as cornices, skirtings, doors and windows and there are beautiful examples of decorative brick or stonework. Victorian houses are usually pretty solidly built, though the quality of construction can be variable – they were after all the mass housing of the time

Common problems

Old buildings commonly suffer from a variety of issues. The ones often found in houses of this period include problems around damp, being draughty and cold, timberwork such as windows and doors starting to fail, and being arranged as many separate rooms with long corridors. Owning a house that is 150 years old is necessarily going to need more upkeep than a modern house. 

It is important to understand that building technology moved at a very fast rate through the 20th and 21st centuries, so modern products and methods will not necessarily be suitable for a house built before 1919.  These were built of a ‘breathable’ construction, where water vapour inherent in the atmosphere can move through external wall by way of the lime mortar that the bricks or stone are set in. Apply a modern cement pointing or, worse, render, and you will find moisture building up inside, potentially causing damp and condensation.

This means you need to be more careful about finding people to work on such houses, to make sure they have the right knowledge and experience. However, these houses can be refurbished and reconfigured to suit modern living. With some thought and careful implementation, rooms can be rearranged and opened to create larger, more open plan spaces. Internal floors and walls can be upgraded acoustically, external walls can be insulated, windows can be draught-proofed or have slimline secondary glazing installed, roofs are really easy to insulate, and this can have a big impact on the cost of heating. This can all be done carefully so that the character of the house is retained.

You can benefit from the beauty of the original houses but with a modern level of comfort. This endless ability to be adapted to suit the inhabitants means that Victorian houses are always popular and should remain so.

Do your research on Victorian house traits

According to Strutt & Parker’s  guide to buying a Victorian home, while Victorian houses are ever-popular as they offer a good layout with attractive period features, it’s important to be aware of several things before buying. These include getting a full building survey if you decide to buy, and if you’re looking at a terrace property, inspect the rest of the terrace to see if it’s intact or has been replaced by new properties. If original features are on your wish list, be aware that in the 60s and 70s, many were removed and may have been replaced with modern reproductions.

Check roof slates to assess their condition as replacements can be expensive and investigate ceilings to see if they’ve been updated. Many Victorian houses were fitted with a slate damp-proofing system which may well have disintegrated leading to damp issues; damp is fixable providing it hasn’t caused major structural damage. Check carefully for subsidence and get any large cracks investigated. Other signs of subsidence include doors not shutting properly, dropped windowsills or hard-to-open windows. It’s a good idea to check neighbouring properties for external cracks.

Check the heating, plumbing, and electrics – find out when they upgraded and get the certification as proof. Find out if the house has wall insulation and double glazing. If it’s been remodelled check the standard of work and that it has a fire certificate.

Victorian residential buildings at Holland Park in London.

Opportunities to renovate

Daniel Copley, Consumer Expert at Zoopla commented:

Period homes, particularly late Victorian properties which come with traditional features have character that is tough to replicate in a new-build, making them hugely popular with buyers. Properties that retain either original features or that have been lovingly restored with replicas are highly sought after, with people looking for features such as bay windows, traditional tiling and cornices, high ceilings, and fireplaces. Whilst some people look for Victorian homes ready to move into, there is so much opportunity for buyers with the inclination, time, and money to renovate, adding both their own stamp to the property and increasing the value.

Opportunities to adapt

Buyers are aware that older properties were built for a different time and people are willing to adapt homes for open plan and sociable living, knocking through walls of Victorian homes to adapt the layout to suit modern living. Older properties tend to be in more central locations within the heart of established communities – nearer to conveniences such as schools, shops and transport links – which proves popular with families.

Older homes also offer buyers the chance to track the price of their home over a long period of time helping them to see the value. Period properties demand more upkeep than their new-build counterparts and despite higher running costs for maintenance as well as higher energy costs, this isn’t a deterrent to buyers. Ultimately, Victorian homes have a track record of holding their value, despite incurring higher costs than modern builds. People see them as a safe investment and are willing to pay money for homes with heritage.

Final observations

Victorian houses can clearly be a good investment, especially if they’re in a historic and desirable area. Armed with the above information, you’ll be able to make an initial assessment of a property while appreciating the importance of getting a professional opinion via a survey if you decide to proceed with your aim of buying a Victorian home.

If you make an offer, get a RICS survey (a building survey or a full structural survey) which will identify problems and indicate the likely cost of repairs. If you’re looking for an architect, use RIBA Find an Architect to get matched with the right architect for your project from the Royal Institute of British Architect’s membership of over 4,100 accredited chartered practices.

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