/ 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

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.

Craig says:
22 June 2016

Again have a look at what most people think of Surveyors – most do not benefit. An MOT on a car checks it safety, yes. But does not check it functionality. And yes an MOT is a good idea but having a Surveyor isn’t. In the case of a house – a Surveyor it would seem, in most cases, do neither the job of ensuring your safety or make sure of the buildings functionality and take money for nothing. Therefore, they are not value for money. I would also suspect if a garage were found to be giving out dodgy MOTs their ability to supply the certificates would be taken away. And I suspect issuing of such an MOT is a criminal offence.

Surveyors should have a CHP, yes. However, to follow this and get redress costs money. Surveyors appear to know that house buyers have just made the most expensive purchase of their life and hence have little money left over for the extra outlay of taking on the Surveyor and RICS. And due to their ineptitude and/or laziness the house buyer has even less money because they have brought something that requires so much work to rectify they have even less money to deal with the Surveyor and RICS. Also from what I have read sellers can also be hit by the inabilities of Surveyors, as people get margins slashed on their house prices only to find that the initial Surveyor report is wrong. My belief is that most people want to deal honestly with issues. Surveyors are diminishing that interaction between people.

Surveyors should either get on board with an overhaul of their ‘profession’ – or go do a job that actually benefits society. A chartered profession should not require you to have to look up whether they can do the basics of their job title. A Surveyor should know what to look for but in my experience, my work colleagues experience and apparently most of the people who have dealt with a Surveyor (most common experience from posts) – Surveyors don’t know what to look for. This type of experience should not be that common. Hence – get rid of the Royal Charter and because it is so hit and miss (more likely to be miss) you might as well use a registered specialist company (and yes get those from recommendations on Which? and you will save money too!). Or we should have a Danish system where the Surveyor’s work is insured from the start – hence bad Surveyors cannot continue to practice because they cannot get insurance! Doubt any (in this country) would be left though.

SimBob says:
22 February 2017

What a load of rubbish.

SimBob says:
22 February 2017

I will add, does anyone who is a satisfied customer ever respond internet forums? Statistically no. The only people who moan are those with a bad experience so how you can draw conclusions of how many people use or are satisfied with their survey based upon reviewing websites? It is not even possible to establish the true circumstances of a problem from what someone states on an internet forum so even those who are dissatisfied may be wrong or exaggerating the issue.

Honestly, do not listen to people like this. Find a good quality Chartered Building Surveyor (they are different to valuation surveyors, damp surveyors etc.) who has a good reputation. Ask to see their reports. You want one which does not make mountains out of molehills but gives you the facts. If you are purchasing a traditional building, IE anything pre-World War II and particularly those with solid walls or historic timber frames, you need a surveyor who has experience of historic buildings as they function differently.

Craig says:
10 April 2017

SimBob quote: “What a load of rubbish”.

That kind of response is really indicative.

Everything else really goes along with it.

Hold your fingers in your ears and whistle and tell everyone else to do the same.

It doesn’t engage with the main points or concerns – just wants business as normal – i.e. People getting ripped off.

Ann connor says:
6 July 2016

I feel totally cheated today!
Buying an old house and saw saw cracks and a bit of damp. We decided a full survey was our best option and paid £750 to be told exactly what we knew.
Possibly we were naive but we thought this was the right option…. Now we have to get specialists out for the structure and damp. It eels like we could have just paid for a cheaper survey and the specialists.

At least a professional has confirmed your findings and, together with specialist reports may help you decide whether you buy or not or enable you to bargain with the seller. The latter should aim to more than cover the report costs and remedial work necessary.

Whilst you spotted damp and cracks the surveyor might well have found other problems you would not have spotted, or otherwise given reassurance.

I am not sure you would have been in a happier position if your surveyor had also discovered more serious defects – thus justifying the scope of the survey – leading you to withdraw from the purchase and be out-of-pocket for the survey. As Malcolm says, at least you now have a professional condition survey that (a) confirms that the property is in no worse a state than you thought, (b) can be used to negotiate on price for the purchase [to the extent that the condition is not already priced in], and, importantly, (c) can be used to ensure that the specialist repair and treatment contractors that you employ will do what needs doing, will leave nothing undone, and won’t invent work that isn’t necessary, You might find that a friendly word with your surveyor might elicit some useful advice or suggestions for no additional fee.

You would have been entitled to feel cheated if the surveyor had not produced a comprehensive report on the full extent of any defects in the house you wish to buy but since the firm has done what they were paid to do I can’t see how you have been “totally cheated”. As US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said : “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” A good surveyor’s report should cover all bases.

Jane says:
10 April 2017

Yes Ann,

I feel you are not really being listened to here. You have paid £750 for a report that in all likelihood has taken about 3-4 hours to complete. Work out the hourly rate on that?

This is then compounded by someone saying … ‘oh I don’t really know if that is what I am looking at, you had better go and get a professional to tell you actually what it is’ – lol

S Barron says:
17 July 2016

I notice that some contributors have mentioned that surveyors are insured. However, my experience indicates that even though they are covered the consumer doesn’t get much of an opportunity to benefit from it. We used a surveyor last year when purchasing a house (approximately 150 miles away), albeit a “RICS Home Buyer Report”, i.e. NOT a Full Survey, but still at a cost of £840 (not cheap). There were a number of issues that he didn’t pick up, one of which was a leaking roof, which cost over £3000 to fix and a large double glazed unit at a cost of £984. However I do reluctantly accept that the Home Buyer Survey is not perhaps detailed enough to include the leaking roof.
There were two other issues that had to be corrected once we moved in which should have been picked up and mentioned in the report. I took this up with the Surveyors who did an in-house enquiry. Unsurprisingly they felt there was not any concern of neglect by their surveyor and therefore I decided to take this up with the Ombudsman. There were a number of issues that they felt we should have picked up on that were not directly mentioned in the survey and got separate reports on, which reinforces some of your contributors comments not to bother with a survey and just get professional companies in that know what they are doing.
The Ombudsman finally suggested a goodwill payment of £100 in full and final settlement of the “shortfall in reporting”. It does beg the question what if there was a more serious problem with the property that they failed to pick up? I will therefore, in future, do a more thorough inspection myself and get in specialist firms if necessary.

A friend of ours bought a house at the end of last year. She asked me to have a look at it. I am not competent to examine and report on structural and fundamental problems so I said my observations would have to be superficial and that although I could not advise her not to have a professional survey I could certainly recommend one if I thought it would be advisable to do so. We were not certain of the date of the house, either just prior to the Second World War or just afterwards. Outwardly it looked in good condition and appeared to have been reasonably well-maintained, but inside there had been many minor alterations and installations that suggested a lot of odd jobs had been done over the years and the electric circuits had certainly been ‘stretched’ several times with spurs and surface cabling. I thought she should have a survey which she did. The surveyor noted the obvious things and numerous unsatisfactory aspects which might be expected in such a house but also reported that there were signs of woodworm in the flooring and under the staircase. This would not otherwise have been known. Although it means she will now be having extensive timber treatment carried out, by knowing about it at the outset at least it can be dealt with before she embarks on complete bathroom and kitchen refits and other internal alterations. I don’t know how much she paid for the survey but it was probably less than a quarter of one per cent of the price she paid for the house. The remedial work will also cost a small fraction of the purchase price and she will get the electrical work done while the floors are up to minimise the expense and disruption. As well as confirming that other invisible conditions [like chimneys, drains, and rainwater disposal] were satisfactory, the surveyor’s report contained plenty of advice on what should be done and how to go about it.

Considering the high cost of houses and of possible repairs, and the lack of ability of most purchasers to detect actual and potential problems, it seems surprising that they should quibble at the cost of a full survey. Any expensive problems uncovered can often be partially negotiated off the purchase price, thus saving money (as in the example above perhaps). As John points out, a proper survey will be a minute proportion of the value of what you are buying. Perhaps the trouble is we are so focused on buying to the limit of our finances that we neglect to factor in other items.

As far as I am aware professional surveyors will be insured and if they are clearly negligent you should be able to recoup costs.