Buying a house in Sydney can be challenging for many reasons. This guide will help you identify a good property quickly and give you the confidence to ignore the unsuitable ones.

Jellicoe Completed Home

Resort House - Sold $5.9M 2018


The guide is in 5 basic parts and includes a checklist that you can use for each property you assess. This is more of a beginners guide, so it does not use jargon or be too technical.

This guide is not intended to be exhaustive in its coverage of the topic, and it is written from an Architect's perspective, not a builder's, not an agent's, not a broker's or a solicitor's. You may well need advice from other professionals.


Initial planning

Settle on your priorities:

There is no point rushing in to buy a home and then finding out that you wanted a big backyard or space for two cars. You should also include some $ value or budget here, but purchase price / value is not a factor discussed in this guide.

As an architect, I often visit a home and find out that what my clients want is not feasible on their site - they bought the wrong property. If you are unsure about a property's renovation potential, ask an Architect before you buy.

Some everyday 'must-have' items include the number of bedrooms, bathrooms and car-parking, but should also include more obscure items such as a lap pool, space for a boat / trailer, proximity to the right schools, granny flat, views from a future upper-level addition. What are yours?

List of 'must have' items (priorities):


Initial planning

Your long term goals:

Despite what you might think right now, you may want more from your property in the future.

It is worth understanding that some homes are more natural and cheaper to renovate and add to than others while some are just impossible without a complete and costly rebuild.

These days the cost of stamp duty, advertising, agent's fees and legals could make you think twice about buying and selling a property for short term use.

Future goals are similar to 'must-have' items, except that you can live without them for now.

Possible long term goals (future planning):


Initial planning

Preferred suburb / location:

To start with, let's ask a few questions;

◦ Where do you want to live?
◦ Close to shops, park or beach?
◦ Future work or school travels?
◦ What locations or streets can I afford?
◦ Distance from friends and family?

List of suburbs and locations (preferred):


Property Research

Where's the sun?

What is the home's orientation? Does it get enough sun? The agent's photos always look bright, so what's the best orientation regardless?

Generally speaking, the best orientation is one that allows you to take the best advantage of the sun. This means sun to living areas and backyard (or private space). The best and most controllable sun comes from the North.

Proper orientation will also allow you to cast less shadow on your neighbour's home and block (if you add another level in the future) and protect you more from your neighbours possibly overshadowing you.

"Generally, the best orientation is south to the street, which gives you a 'north-facing' backyard."

You will have to work this out for yourself because properties vary in shape and orientation, and many agents will claim every backyard faces North. If you can't get north, then West is the next best orientation for the yard because it offers afternoon sun.

Another reason to have south at the front is privacy. If the north sun comes from the front, opening the blinds to let the sun in may affect your privacy.


Property Research

High side of the street:

Almost all sites have some slope, and it is generally much better to slope down to the road.

"Generally, high side of the street properties are the best."

There are quite a few reasons for this, but the most important one is a stormwater runoff.

These days many councils have controls that can force you into costly stormwater systems. If you can't drain your roof or surface water to the street quickly, you may need a pump-out pit, pumps, dispersion trenches, and the like, and possibly an 'on-site detention' system (OSD).

In some cases, it is almost impossible to get adequate drainage without an easement. Easements can be very expensive and take a long time to arrive.

Beware of battle-axe blocks on the low side of the street that doesn't have the use of a drainage easement or a water frontage, especially if they are smallish blocks with clay soil. Please don't risk it.

If you are unsure about a site's drainage, I suggest you get specific advice from a stormwater engineer who is familiar with the council's controls.


Check the contract

Check planning certificate:

Every contract for sale must come with a current section149 (s.149) document which lists the following information and more about the property for sale;

◦ Council locality & zoning
◦ List of applicable codes & legislation
◦ Complying Development Codes
◦ Local transport services & on-street parking
◦ Easements and facilities, i.e. sewer mains
◦ Heritage or conservation issues, incl. neighbours
◦ Bushfire danger levels (BAL)
◦ Geotechnical hazards or flood-prone land
◦ Acid sulphate soils
◦ Scenic protection or foreshore protection areas
◦ Environmentally sensitive areas, (critical habitat)
◦ Road widening and re-alignment
◦ Tree preservation orders
◦ s94 contributions
◦ Restrictive covenants (current planning codes may extinguish some old agreements)

Other possible issues may come up, depending upon the property in question.

"If you have any doubts or concerns after looking through the s.149, ask the agent, or you can talk to the duty planner at the local council or ring an architect / planner familiar with the area."

This guide does not give legal advice. For issues to do with forms of 'title' you should seek legal advice / talk with your conveyancer.


Check the contract

Check the sewer diagram:

Sewer diagrams usually come with the contract of sale - if not ask the agent.

It's important to check this diagram (A4 size plan) as many properties have a sewer main running through them, and while it is not usually impossible, it is undoubtedly more expensive and time-consuming to build over a sewer foremost.

This is especially true if the sewer main has an inspection chamber - and sometimes these chambers are underground (not visible on-site at all). It is also worth noting where the sewer line goes as it may need complete replacement during a renovation.


Check the contract

General Housing Code (Complying Development):

Complying Development is part of the State Environmental Planning Policy (NSW), which aims to simplify the design approval process. If the project meets this code's basic requirements, newly single or two-storey houses and alterations and additions can receive faster approval.

"It's a plus if the property can achieve approval under this code - because it gives you a quicker and less expensive alternative to the whole Council DA process. For more information about this code, visit the FAQ section of our website."

◦ Complying Development Code
◦ Council vs Complying Development Code

Just check the s.149 certificate for information about complying development and approval under each of the 'Exempt and Complying Development Codes 2008', and specifically the General Housing Code. Note, s .149 certificates issued before 25th Feb 2011 are not current concerning complying development.


Open for inspection

Good Access:

This is such an essential item and one that every builder understands - it is the first thing they look for.

It's not just access to the house or garage, but also to the driveway, entry and exit from the street, a space to park, space for turning, space for visitors, deliveries, heavy vehicles like moving vans, fire engines, cranes, and the like.

A driveway that you need a 4WD to use, or a busy road that you have to back your car onto blind, may be impossible to rectify.


Open for inspection


Properties are often bought and sold on potential, but what is potential really? In our opinion, it can be something positive or negative. You might buy for the positive and sell for the negative.

On the positive side, you might enjoy spectacular views from a new upper level, or fulfil the opportunity to transform an old house from a dark cellular cottage into a bright flowing period mansion.

Some other positive potentials:
◦ Subdivision
◦ Dual occupancy / strata
◦ Granny flat
◦ Additions, extensions, garages, pools
◦ Water, district or bush views
◦ Renovation potential, i.e., classic old home
◦ Large block, relatively underdeveloped

On the negative side, there may be the possibility of losing views, or sun or privacy because of neighbouring development.

Some other negative potentials:
◦ Demolition of unapproved building work
◦ Tree problems that keep happening
◦ Possible flooding, bushfire risk, landslip


Open for inspection

Sloping land:

I'm not against sloping land - some sites are fantastic because of the slope. However, it has to be said, on the whole, they have the potential for lots of problems and regularly cost a lot more to build or renovate on than flat sites.

A site with a significant slope can have serious problems now and in the future.

Problems like land slippage (geotechnical issues), surface and site water drainage, difficulties with access or increased bushfire risk.

Sloping sites are generally a lot more expensive to build on because of extra design complexity / different levels, high cost of retaining walls, difficult foundations, substantial drainage systems.

Many sloping sites also don't have access to the project home market, and project homes are the most cost-effective homes to build. The cost of building a 'one-off' custom home is often twice the cost of a similarly sized project home.

If you are considering a sloping site, make sure it is giving you back something worth the extra cost and potential for problems in the future.


About the house

How's the architecture:

his item is a mixture of many things, but you should first ask yourself how well the house is laid out? As some homes suffer from being designed 'back to front'.

What are the bones of the house like - will it be cheap to renovate and improve or will almost everything have to be changed or be replaced?

Many homes are of a particular style, from an era, have a history or heritage value? It's hard to weigh up the value of street appeal / charm / character / architectural features versus today's modern lifestyle, future maintenance and energy costs.

"Try asking yourself if it's a house you could fall in love with."


About the house

Pest and building inspection:

These reports are essential, but often their value is limited by what the inspector can get access to during their visit. Ideally, these reports should assist you with the following;

Is the house healthy to live in now?
Is the electrical wiring in a safe condition?
Could there be rising damp, toxic mould?
Are there condensation problems?
Are there structural or foundation problems?
How much repair or maintenance work needs to be done right now / very soon?
Does it show evidence of termites, are there current termite treatments in place?

"Pest and building inspection reports are important, but understand that they are often full of standard / general warnings and pessimistic disclaimers - best to focus on the specific and identified issues."


About the house


More than 60% of homes in Australia will contain some form of asbestos. Any home built before 1990 could provide asbestos products - talk to your building inspector or get a specific asbestos assessment report done.

If you are planning on doing some of your renovation work - be sure that you are not breaking, cutting, sanding, screwing or grinding any asbestos-containing building materials, as it can be very harmful.


About the house

Architect's approval:

That's right - before you buy, talk to an architect. When you have been through all the parts - get an architect involved and go over it again, you may have missed something.

"We can even give you some more specific advice on possible renovation costs."

This 'Pre-purchase Advice', is generally cheaper than the cost of a pest or building report, and just as essential.


That's right - before you buy, talk to an architect. When you have been through all the parts - get an architect involved and go over it again, you may have missed something.

"We can even give you some more specific advice on possible renovation costs."


See your home before you build it ...

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Email or call 0412 348 575 and speak to our principal Architect about your project.