/ Home & Energy

Structural surveys – what exactly am I paying for?

A structural survey is the most comprehensive survey you can get when buying a home. But is it thorough enough? Mine cost £700 but still left my most important questions unanswered.

Last year, my partner and I found a house we wanted to buy. It was over 100 years old, was in poor cosmetic repair, and bore evidence of roof leakage. So we decided it was essential we get a full structural survey before committing to the purchase.

We found a surveyor in the local area, and paid around £700 for the survey and associated report, which turned out to be really disappointing.

According to the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), the report that comes with a structural survey should describe each element of the property (roofs, walls etc) and note anything that gives cause for concern, and may need further investigation.

What do buyers want to know?

I reckon most potential homebuyers want to know the following four things as a priority:

  • Is the property subsiding, or otherwise structurally unsound?
  • Does it contain asbestos?
  • Is there rising damp, and if so, how bad is it?
  • Are the gas and electric systems safe and fit for purpose?

All the other information is nice to have, but it’s window dressing compared to the main event.

Unfortunately, these are just some of the questions a structural survey won’t definitively answer.

Are buildings surveys too vague?

Paradoxically, the report we received was both very long and very vague. For example, it told me that ‘no evidence of asbestos’ was found – which sounded great, until I spoke to the surveyor on the phone and realised that essentially, all he’d done was look up at the ceiling.

The report made a vague mention of damp ‘on the ground floor level’ – which of course got us both panicking about the possibility of rising damp and rotting joists.

Again, it was only when I pinned down the surveyor on the phone that he clarified things, admitting that he’d taken the damp reading right next to a leaking radiator, which ‘might’ have been the cause.

Many points were so heavily caveated that I felt it became more about covering the surveyor’s back than coming to helpful conclusions. For example, when it came to cracks in the plaster, the report essentially said (though not in so many words) ‘they’re probably nothing, but you might want to get them looked at’.

I felt like shouting: ‘Isn’t that what I’m paying you for?’

What isn’t covered

It turns out, it’s not. I hadn’t fully understood all the areas a structural surveyor isn’t obliged to investigate.

For example, I now know that a standard structural survey report won’t generally comment in detail on heating or electrical systems. Nor will it typically cover “deleterious materials” – for example asbestos – in any depth.

So, my surveyor wasn’t shirking his duties, but it makes me think that there’s a gap in the market: could a survey be created that does promise to investigate my four main areas of concern?

We’re currently investigating the subject, so we’d love to know about your experiences of structural surveys. Have you felt let down by a structural survey? Or perhaps yours proved invaluable?


my purchases pulled out after having a structural survey, it found the property was out of square?
we had the property piled 22 years ago ? I don’t understand there concerns

David says:
17 March 2016

I have recently exchanged and will complete shortly, there was no mention of possible asbestos in the report but it put our minds at rest as every ceiling in the house is textured. After the visit of our builder regarding some changes we want to make he said that we should check for asbestos. When I queried it with the bank, they put in a complaint to the surveyors. The surveyors are now paying for all the ceilings to be tested. My worry is that now, there is no chance of changing our minds about the purchase and a possibility that the whole house has asbestos coating on the ceilings. I have two children, my wife & myself all planning on moving in having given notice on our rental property. Added to this I was diagnosed with cancer last year so am doubly worried about the possibility of there being asbestos. If the ceilings contain asbestos, I have no idea what the next steps will be. Does anyone have experience of this & what it could mean for us?


Asbestos is only a danger if disturbed, for example if you wanted remove an Artex-coated ceiling or carry out structural changes to the house. My understanding is that later textured ceiling coatings are unlikely to contain asbestos, so you might have nothing to worry about.


Post 1999 I have seen quoted as the end of the asbestos products. I have a friend who is an asbestos surveyor and it has been interesting to hear his tales.

Asbestos as a scare tactic is often due to mis-identification of the particular type.

AFAIR Reading University around 20 years ago set up a house and had many surveyors come to do a brief survey for the benefit of the mortgage company – though paid for by the applicant. They were fairly dire almost universally.

Perhaps it is time for another sting!.

Full structural surveys are an interesting case as without getting involved with removing parts there is a limit as to how much can be seen. I do have a copy of the RICS manual so feel reasonably competent but anyone with some intelligence should be able to notice most things.

Blocks of flats …aah … they can be a whole different problem.

Incidentally in France they do not instruct surveyors! Perhaps a tribute to the quality of the original workmen. The vendor though is required to provide reports on the important matters such as drainage , gas , electric , asbestos , and woodworm.

ann says:
5 April 2016

Hi! Having the manual is a nifty trick – where can i buy it? can you please share the name of the book?


Belatedly I come back to this subject. The book I bought second-hand at a second-hand bookshop and it is for members of RICS, and possibly libraries.. Annoyingly I cannot find it currently.

There is a huge amount of advice available on the Web and in books and I believe given the money you can spend buying and doing up a property that people really ought to acquaint themselves with the subject.

It is not scary and most “signs of this or that” will probably be minor. Basically though do not rely totally on surveyors and give them a hard time on getting explanations that are satisfactory. The best instrument for you is the Mark 1 eyeball you possess and you really really need to use it on a second visit if you think you might offer.

Also check neighbouring properties to see if there are any curious points. Purchasing this property I noticed that drainage was sluggish by seeing overflow at the external drain for a sink.
Re-lining the main drain and the cost of re-wiring given none since construction 50 years ago saved £8500. I did fail to pick-up the recent flat-roof was shoddily done : (.

As for the surveyor – just a mortgage valuation agreeing the already low offer made by us. I am not a great fan.

Craig says:
21 June 2016

Really can’t emphasize this enough – Don’t use a Surveyor (for the best point about not using Surveyor just skip to the last few sentences). Have a quick look at the forums concerning the usefulness of Surveyors. You will find the reason why very few house buyers use them. The people on these forums are not the minority moaning about a few shoddy individual Surveyors. We made this mistake ourselves and used a Surveyor, and what a surprise, our experience ended up like those people telling us not to use them in the first place. In our case, the Surveyor missed everything to do with water damage to the property (and it was a full survey). Having talked to work colleagues, none of them have anything good to say about Surveyors. Please don’t waste your money. It just makes moving house even more stressful to use a Surveyor. I agree with the essential sentiment of the original article. House buyers need a system that actually works for them. Surveyors can’t provide that. You will see people defending their profession or saying you really need this to buy a house. Well they would, their livelihood depends on you handing over your cash for their limited efforts. Don’t be fooled. If these people were really concerned about your experience they would be pushing for proper reforms. As a profession they need a complete and utter overhaul (I am not even sure the profession is fixable). The best thing would be to start from scratch but if that isn’t possible at least take the Royal Charter (or whatever it is) away from their governing body (it provides them with some air of respectability). You will see the MOT analogy trotted out in many forums. Actually this is quite an accurate analogy for a Surveyor but for the wrong reasons. A car doesn’t necessarily function well just because it has an MOT. My advice having not used a Surveyor for my last property purchase and having used specialist firms – is go for those firms instead. The surveyor will tell you to do this anyway (so cut out the middleman and because even combined they are cheaper, you will save money).


An MoT will check the long list of safety features that could affect your car. Many people (well, some) would have no idea of the condition of their car, and its threat to other road users, if they were not forced to have an annual check – very good value for money. Just have to overlook the minority of rogue garages (try Which? Local).

Equally with surveyors; unless you know what to look for you cannot assess the problems that might lurk in a potential purchase – and at risk is a lot of your money. Surveyors should be insured if they miss something that you have paid for them to look at, and that gives you protection. If defects are found you can either negotiate the price or decide to reject the purchase. Most of us have very little experience of surveys so to draw a general conclusion is impossible. But I have respect for the professions – bad apples of course but I expect most will benefit from their services. Which Local lists those with personal recommendations that Which? have accepted.