/ 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?

Comments
Guest
D Gravell says:
27 October 2012

I’ve just ha a full structural survey and i agree that it doesn’t cover all the main issues. Electric and Gas supplies being the main ones.

Guest
SimBob says:
22 February 2017

A surveyor should describe the services in general terms and then go on to advise of any obvious defects, noting the age of the systems and need for upgrading to meet current standards or good practice, highlighting any safety issues etc. If a surveyor falls short of this then you have not chosen a good surveyor. However, homebuyers can honestly not expect a surveyor to provide in-depth advice in this regard, as by law, only Gas Safe registered engineers can test and work on gas / heating installations, EIC or comparable registered electricians for electricity and so on… Therefore, a surveyor cannot comment on services in-depth as clearly they will not be competent, trained or allowed to do so to these levels, or carry out testing of any kind which could reveal hidden defects. If they did offer this level of service, it would require them to carry out 3-4 years to be a heating engineer, 3-4 years to be an electrician and so on, which, unfortunately, there is not a surveyor in the land which will be able to do this for you. Services is therefore a tricky one in this respect.

I would add, buildings are complex structures with many areas concealed from view. It is not possible to open-up the structure, drill holes in walls, take samples or lift up floorboards etc., unless the owner allows it, which they usually don’t. Would you be happy to come home and find a hole in your house wall? For this reason, and the fact that homeowners will never hesitate to claim against a surveyor and sometimes for very minor things, caveats are added (these simply state what could not be seen which, in my view, is a reasonable statement to make). Further investigations are also recommended where there are legitimate concerns. For example, despite what you often hear from damp-proofing companies, it is not generally possible to confirm whether a wall is actually damp unless a sample of it is taken and tested with specialist equipment, which involves damage to the wall. This is easily done and well within the remit of a good Building Surveyor but unfortunately it cannot be done in a normal pre-purchase inspection / survey, so a surveyor may well recommend ‘further investigation’ and rightly so. This is not usually incompetence.

Movement to buildings is another complex and tricky case. A surveyor who states ‘the movement may not be historic’ is not automatically providing poor advice. Many Chartered Structural Engineers state the same thing. Why? Because again, buildings are complex and sometimes it is not possible to confirm the cause of movement without monitoring the building over a period of time. Insurance companies regularly monitor possible subsidence cracks for 6 – 18 months before confirming the cause and scope of necessary repairs! A pre-purchase surveyor has to make a judgement from one single inspection, without exposure work and usually within a few hours.

My point here, is that homeowners have a very unrealistic expectation of surveyors and what pre-purchase reports are designed to provide. They are not an inventory of every single defect nor are they a schedule of repair or specification.

So what benefit do survey reports have then? Well, a good survey report should still be able assess and advise upon the condition of most building elements and the site (such as – is the roof coming to the end of its life), most defects to the building including causation, prognosis and what repairs are necessary (including movement, asbestos, dampness and decay). It should provide general advice regarding the services, I.E. an indication of whether rewiring is clearly needed, or obvious safety issues. This should therefore provide enough information for purchasers to decide whether they wish to purchase, or what they need to do in order to decide.

Guest

I agree with SimBob. The purpose of a pre-purchase survey is to identify potential problems and get an assessment of their seriousness and the urgency or otherwise of any remedial action. When a prospective purchaser views a property, sometimes for a very brief period and usually in the company of the estate agent or owner, it is not easy to notice all the things that need to be checked or any tell-tale signs that might require examination. The surveyor goes round the property in a disciplined manner, usually on their own and uninterrupted [because it is in the seller’s interests to facilitate a thorough survey], and knows what to look for and where to find it. The surveyor’s report will therefore be either (a) a useful guide if the prospective buyer completes the purchase, or (b) a caution if the problems identified are very serious, or (c) a responsible and justifiable basis for negotiating a reduction in the price. Sometimes a property is described as requiring updating and that its condition is reflected in the price. A survey is a useful means of validating that proposition.

If people are worried whether every light switch and socket is correctly wired and that the circuits are correctly identified and protected then they do need to have a qualified electrician carry out an inspection and test which will result in an approved form of report indicating what action is necessary for legal compliance and what is recommended for safety and conformity with the latest standards, and will state the urgency in each case. This is worth it for peace of mind alone because many owners do not reliably know the state or condition of their own systems and because something works they assume it is safe.

A number of detailed concerns can be covered by asking the solicitor or conveyancing executive who is undertaking the legal work on the purchase to include specific questions to the owner in the pre-contract procedures and to request production of certificates and guarantees in respect of any work that has been carried out to the property during their period of ownership. Failure to produce such documents is a good indicator of something that might repay further investigation and the buyer can ask for certain things to be done before exchange of contracts. Where a vital certificate is absent [building regulations approval for an extension for example] the purchase can be made dependent on the owner purchasing an indemnity to cover any future claims or adverse consequences.

Guest
Mr R L Burtonshaw says:
7 May 2018

I’ve recently looked at a house that requires modernization, it requires re-wiring, the roof looks to be in good condition, the chimney could do with lead flashing around the edge to replace the mortar flashing, but at present it’s not leaking, there appears to be no asbestos in the building, structurally it is sound however the air bricks at the back of the house are below ground level and could / do let water in and requires rectification, this can be done by simply removing the patio. I know all this from just a 20 minutes viewing, although I’m not a specialist. What exactly am I paying a surveyor for? Or is surveys more for people who are ignorant to these things?

Guest

The more you understand, the less useful a survey is likely to be. In your position it might be worth asking the surveyor to skip those items you are confident about and focus on whatever you need a second opinion about.

Guest

A thorough inspection yourself is very sensible so you can get an idea of the state of the property and the sorts of jobs and expenditure needed.

Good surveyors will know what to look for that many of us may not. Whether a crack in a wall may be possible subsidence or just settlement perhaps. Is there damp in walls. Does a gap under the skirting indicate a suspended floor might be weakening. I’m guessing, but a decent professional can spot things we could easily overlook. And presumably if they give incorrect information they are covered by insurance.

However, it seems to me that when you are spending a large fortune on a house why risk missing a costly problem for the sake of an extra <0.5% for a survey?

Guest
Michael Pemberton says:
27 October 2012

I believe that a Building survey should comment on the services but you should be told up front that we are not qualified to carry out tests. Again, this is all about managing client’s expectations.

I normally say to clients that I will look at the services and ask whether regular inspections have been carried out. If there is evidence of a problem (ie no recent tests, displaced drain runs, old wiring or consumer units etc etc) I will recommend test and explain why and what, in all liklihood will need to be done.

If everything looks modern and free from defect I will say so but I will always say that if you want to be 100% sure you will need to instruct an electrician, drains specialist etc to test.

Whilst this may seem like a get out, imagine this scenario:

There is one manhole on site. I lift this and see 1m of clay drain in good condition. I make the assumption that because this bit is ok, the remaining 15m is also ok. Is this the best advice to my client? or should I be saying ‘the bit I can see is fine but this is no guarantee the the remaining 15m is in good condition and you would be sensible to get checks done’. Cost of lining 15m of drain if there is a problem £1500. Cost of digging up and replacing the drain (c.) £3500.

Hope this helps you to see the issue from the surveyors side. I am not condoning lazy surveying but there are limits and you should be made aware of these before you commissioned your survey.