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Expert Witness: Georgian homes and what to look for

As director of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), Matthew Slocombe knows a thing or two about historic homes. In the first of a new series of buyer’s guides, he turns his professional eye to late 17th- and early 18th-century buildings

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Matthew Slocombe MA, FSA
Expert Witness: Georgian homes and what to look for

Some people love old houses for their low ceilings, big fireplaces and wonky walls. If these are for you, look away now. Georgian buildings offer something quite different.

At its simplest, a Georgian house can be a modest worker’s cottage, but in most people’s minds it will be something grander: tall townhouse, handsome rectory, villa or sprawling country pile. The defining features will be symmetry and sash windows, porticos and pediments.

Inside, Georgian houses – particularly in towns – often follow a standard layout with basement kitchen then principal reception rooms on the first floor. In larger houses the attic will have been designed to accommodate staff – and there may be a secondary service stair to separate family from domestic help. Early Georgian houses commonly had timber-panelled interiors, timber box cornices between walls and ceiling, and turned balusters to their stairs. Floors tend to have wide boards, generally of imported softwood, but there may be stone flags to the ground floor and basement.

Throughout the Georgian period, the fireplace was the architectural focal point of the room. Simple ‘eared’ surrounds in the earlier years gave way to more delicately detailed neoclassical designs, inspired by architects including James Wyatt and Robert Adam. This change in taste was reflected in other interior details, including metal balustrades and hand-modelled plasterwork.

Houses from the end of the 18th century are often the most airy and elegant, with details drawn from ancient Greece and Rome, experienced on the Grand Tour.

Matthew’s tips to remember when considering a Georgian home

1. The majority of Georgian houses in a reasonable state of preservation will be listed buildings. Check with your local planning authority if uncertain.

2. Georgian roofs are often high maintenance, with leadwork, parapet gutters and concealed valleys to consider. Check carefully for leaks. Long-standing problems can cause dry rot in timbers beneath.

3. Love your sash windows. Any areas of timber decay can be repaired and old glass adds enormously to the character of a house. Improve your windows’ energy efficiency with well-designed secondary glazing, or bring timber shutters back into use if they’re painted shut.

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