/ 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

We purchased our home from our council. Years earlier, a pre report was carried out (as should be the case with all council housing purchses) on all aspects of the house, which John Prescott, then deputy PM, spent millions of taxpayer’s money on setting up.
This report was to identify risk within each house, based on planning information.
It showed where “suspected” harmful substances maybe.
In our home, asbestos was in the artex in all the ceilings, behind the chimney breast over the back boiler, and the more dangerous brown (if memory serves me right) was installed above the electricity meter under the stairs.

When we came to do much needed work on our home, I asked for the plans at the council offices prior to starting work. I was informed there wasn’t one. Then I dug deeper and was told there was a plan, but our home was clear of harmful substances.
Weeks later, houses in our street had professional teams coming in like scenes from ET, and removing asbestos from under stairs etc, as it was high risk and required legally to be removed in this way.
This was removed from locations exactly the same as we suspected the asbestos was in our home, which had been built and renovated in the 1970s, using the same plans for our estate.

I asked the professional asbestos removal firm how much for them to remove our asbestos, £800 was the quote given (this is 6 years ago) and after checking the plans the council had provided them with, legal requirement before work can commence, they revealed it was present in various areas of our home.
As we had bought it and been told no plan existed, then that we were clear of harmful substances, I was livid.

We could have had one of three surveys done prior to buying it, a basic survey costing around £200 was advised, as the council would have plans in place highlighting anything dangerous.
A top of the range survey would have cost around £500 and this would involve taking samples from walls etc, for testing.

I tracked down the actual site manager and planning officer from the 1972 estate renovation work, he remembered his firm doing the estate luckily enough, stating that asbestos was definately fitted in our home.
The council refused point blank to have ours, and every other privately owned house on the estate, removed, stating that a neighbouring council had been in a long running court battle with a similar situation for 3 years, until that was ruled upon, they wouldn’t be doing anything. Not heard a word from them since.

The basis for reports and surveys etc, are to safeguard home owners and the professionals that go into these properties every day and do repair work, which is a good thing.
In reality, they do very little if the survey is requested by a buyer, as you say, it is more to cover their backs whilst making a profit.
Successive governments and councils don’t worry about it though, it’s only the health of millions of people at home and work, what’s a legal obligation to people like them!

When we sold our flat I happened to be in when the surveyor came to do the survey. I don’t know which survey the buyer paid for, but I really hope for her sake that it was the basic one. I was amazed at the lack of attention the surveyor applied. He didn’t even walk into the lounge – just glance at it from the doorway in the hall. The whole thing took no more than 5 minutes. I was in shock – is that really worth a few hundred pounds? He’d have to be extremely expert to spot things that quickly and from afar! It’s terrible that buyers have to pay for this service when, often, it seems they’re getting very little in return.

John Lewis says:
14 March 2012

This sounds like a mortgage valuation, not a survey

Do you have any of the councils lies on paper, or recorded, or witnessed?

I had the same frustrations when I bought my flat – the survey came back with so many caveats that I had no idea what the surveyor had actually found. There was ‘evidence of possible damp’ for which I might need to get a second survey, and he advised that I get someone in to check the timber for possible problems, but didn’t really say why. I got it done in the end, but at a cost of £150 (that’s on top of the £600 I’d paid for the original survey).

There were also a lot of points where he said he couldn’t check x,y,z because ‘furniture was in the way’ or because he ‘couldn’t see’. Well, OK, if there’s a huge heavy wardrobe I wouldn’t expect someone to look behind it, but surely surveyors should be equipped to deal with homes that have furniture in?

I’d certainly pay more money if I knew I was going to get something thorough – if a company stated up front exactly the questions they’d ask and exactly the process they’d go into (e.g. we’ll use a damp meter in each room, and let you know if we find any evidence of rising damp) then I think they’d have a really strong offering in a market where so many are confused!

Andrew D Thompson says:
29 February 2012

The basic problem from the various postings appears that the public on the whole never speak to the surveyor before the inspection and just ask for a template report. In the commercial property market a client would have a detailed discussion with the sureyor before the inspection and sometimes a meeting is held on site. This is known as the brief with the client getting a bespoke report dealing with the issues they have concern over.

Nothing stops a member of the public following this route. If you are considering any form of extension or building project a bespoke report could save time and money helping you obtain the right property for your project. Remember this is what a commercial developer does to make money!

All you need do is Google Chartered Building Surveyor for your local area. The problem is the public are lazy and instruct a surveyor via a middle person such as the bank or estate agent.

Whilst you can instructed a surveyor to write a standard format report from a template this does mean you get a template answer. This will deal with many standard general questions. If you have specific questions or issues of concern then you are better off asking for a bespoke report direct from a Chartered Building Surveyor.

If you just want a detailed report on potential damp and subsidence issues then you can speak to the surveyor who can produce a report dealing only with those two issues.

The second advantage of speaking direct to the surveyor is you cut out the “middle people”. Most the the price paid by the public goes to these “middle people” therefore a £600 price may in surveyor terms be only a £100 report. Speak to the surveyor direct and for £500 you may get much more report for less money with the only people unhappy being those cut out from the “middle”.

40 years ago a survey was required for the mortgage on my house – It stated it was stable and worth the mortgage- Signed the agreement – no problems really – I repaired the roof of the house extensively when a slate fell off a couple of years later – Had double glazing added which reduced noise level enormously and laid a new floor in the “basement” which is huge (and the reason I bought the house) to reduce potential problem of an earth floor. It is the same size as the entire ground floor and gave three more full height full size rooms raising the number of rooms to nine. It is exactly as I want it.

No asbestos – traditional well built 1780 house.

Gerard Phelan says:
29 February 2012

I too found the best part of a full survey was the hour long discussion on the phone after I had read the report. My surveyor was very helpful especially in explaining what he could not confirm. For example I have a through lounge with flush side walls, where the original supporting wall would have been. The RSJ should have been inserted a good half bricks depth into the party wall? Is it? There is no way that the surveyor could check. The immediate section of party wall below it, would have had the projecting bricks hacked off or removed and replaced by half bricks. Was that done in a manner that left it as strong as the original? There is no way the surveyor could check. Speaking of that RSJ, is it as thick as it should be and made of the right type of steel? There is no way the surveyor could check? All he could say is that the whole lot had been standing for over 10 years with no signs of movement, so it was probably OK. That was 20 years ago and still true.
Thus I agree with the above comment that it is best to talk with the surveyor beforehand and determine what he or she can do for you, and be clear what they cannot!

As a sensible person when buying in the past my main questions have been is the roof ok, are the walls going to stay upright and are there any problems with the heating system.
If your going to spend hundreds of thousands buying a home for your family then you need to be realistic about the fees and costs.
Most people would not hesitate to spend £100 insuring a car worth £10,000 so why wouldnt you not spend £1,000 making sure the house you live in is sound?
Others have said it but it I’ll repeat them because its good sound logic. Speak to the professionals before you spend your money. The sayong goes only fools rush in!

David Strettle says:
2 March 2012

As an independent chartered building surveyor with over 25 years experience it never fails to surprise me that some consumers have concerns over the quality of survey reports they obtain. Having been involved in the preparation of what i would call proper full building surveys (The gold service) and been involved with other surveyors negligence cases I have seen very poor examples of reporting mainly by corporate firms and national organisations. Building surveys are not all the same unfortunately and you normally get what you pay for with a proper tailored report for a decent fee the consumer should be fully informed and have no concerns about the purchase. I suspect the internet is to blame for the ease in which potential customers can get so called cheap ‘blind quotes’ with many surveying firms shedding staff and an increase in one man band firms not necessarily having the experience to prepare a proper and full report based on established technical guidance set down by RICS. Most people don’t have a full and proper building (structural) survey done and rely on cheaper condition reports or home buyer surveys that are by their nature simple with a price to reflect the limitations of these inspections. I can only suggest any one that is looking to seek the services of a chartered surveyor must speak to them first and ensure they are local and experienced in domestic surveys. Ask for samples and testimonials but don’t expect a full and professional survey to be cheap or less than the cost of an average car service because it wont be a proper survey.

Matthew Brown says:
2 March 2012

I read your email with great interest as I have recently set up a business dealing with these exact issues.

I have worked in the building industry since leaving school and in the last 10 years dealing with building surveying for major insurers. In this time I have surveyed over 9000 properties and seen a wide range or defects. I also have prepared specifications and costs for all of the defects I have identified. During this time I came across many properties which had been recently purchased and were suffering from roof issues, rising damp and generally poor maintenance. Whenever I have asked to see a copy of the building survey it has always amazed me just how little the reports would mention about what I found to be glaringly obvious.

I decided to set up a business to offer a service which provide building surveys to include photographs of identified defects, description of the defect also with a idea of what is need to rectify that defect and the most important part, I provide costs estimates for the repairs. I don’t carry out the repairs or recommend contractors I just provide clients with good sound advice and the relevant information for them to move forward with confidence. The service if fully insured and I also carry ladders and long reach camera equipment to be able to inspect all parts of the roof without binoculars!!

[Hi Matthew, we’ve removed the link as we don’t allow commenters to advertise their own services. Thanks, mods.]

John Lewis says:
14 March 2012

‘Rising’ damp?

Sharon Bainbridge says:
20 September 2012

It is a shame you removed Matthews link as he sound like a good guy who could help a lot of people. Especially as he guarantees his work.

When buying a property not everyone can afford a survey. And the mortgage company are meant to pick up on any big problems as otherwise they will not lend. My Mother in law brought a house with damp and that had to be rectified by owners before they brought it. My friend sold her house and the first thing they checked was the roof and any damp problems. We got totally ripped off by the ex owners. The house was immaculate no signs of damp. But near enough as soon as we moved in we had problems. Just found a letter from the solicitors who claim that my mortgage company told me their were damp problems but they did not and it is not on the valuation (less than 2 years owning the property.) It amazes me how the Insurance company refuse to pay out on damage to the house because their is no felt under the roof and the mortgage company did not force the lenders to sort this out before buying. The buyers should not have forced us to pay full money for a property with no felt under the slate tiles. Even bathroom sealant on the tiles and they did not pick up on that? It bugs the hell out of me as this house has made my little girl and I ill with asthma and their seems to be no justice or answers anywhere. They even ripped us off with the boiler lying and saying the gas man said it was ok and refused to let me pay for a survey on it. I know you will take this link off but I would like people to hear my little girl crying because of the damp making her ill “Struggling mothers are you one” video on you tube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUonR1Ul1Ok I hope the people that sold us the house see this video and feel guilty as hell as they live up to their Fiddler name.

Michael Pemberton says:
2 March 2012

The simple answer is that there are good surveyors and there are bad/lazy surveyors. Just because surveyors have the same letters after their names does not mean that they all have the same level of experience or knowledge. Shop around and be prepared to pay a premium to get a proper job done. It is disappointing that the individual in this instance felt (probably rightly so) let down. I try to meet my clients on site. This means that these issues can be discussed and included in the report. The end result is that the surveyor knows what the client is looking for and the client receives the information they need.

Just wanted to chip in again and say thanks to everyone who’s contributed – this is all really helpful advice! Although I won’t be moving from my flat any time soon, I’ll remember this when I do and make sure to have a proper chat with the surveyor before I commit to anything. I think I was mainly flummoxed because I was a first time buyer, and had no experience in doing this. It’s good to know that it is possible to get a really good survey done, and I’d be happy to shell out a bit more cash to know that the report I’m getting is thorough.

Stewart Pearl says:
8 March 2012

Just noticed this discussion and have to say, as a professional, I fully understand the problem.

However, the professionals also have a problem, not least of which is the fee. My practice stopped offering house surveys not only for reasons that winning fees could not justify the time involved in carrying out full investigations, but also I found it frustrating having to include all the disclaimers. If a property has no access to loft, to under floors, has fitted carpets, or recently been decorated, then basically your looking at the icing on the cake without being able to see the cake. There may be tell tale signs, but this can only be stated as indicative. Electrics and gas need testing by qualified people in those areas who have the test equipment, but not many clients allow this to be organised let alone if the existing occupier will let this happen.

And of course the Client has the problem, how much do they want to spend on a property survey that they may ultimately not purchase out of choice or from factors beyond their control – mainly stemming from the system used in England (dare I say of dog eat dog) to sell and buy property.

All I would suggest is to talk directly with your proposed surveyor before engaging him and possibly lobby the RICS to look at changing the system.

Michael Pemberton says:
29 March 2012

I am pleased that the initial post has sparked debate from both public and professionals alike. I do think that there can be a mismatch between what the public expect and what a surveyor can provide (hence the reason why I encourage clients to meet me at the property). This is the fault of both the public and all the property professionals involved in the house buying process. Specifically:-
1. The public is often quite ‘lazy’ in their approach to a house purchase preferring, often, to simply tick a box on a bank or building society form asking for a survey. Furthermore, many purchasers mistakingly believe (still!!! AAAAAHHH) that a valuation for mortgage purposes is a survey. IT IS NOT. DO NOT BUY A HOUSE ON THE BACK OF A VALUATION REPORT.
2. Don’t ask a solicitor, mortgage broker or lender for guidance on surveys. ASK A SURVEYOR. Most will be only too pleased to talk to you and explain what can be done. Asking a lender what sort of survey to have is like asking me whether your cat has a fur ball. I don’t know – I am not a vet!
3. Many lenders will charge you an arm and a leg for a valuation. The surveyor (in house or external) generally gets a fraction. The lender keeps the rest. If you want to embarrass the lender ask them how much of your money goes to the surveyor and how much the lender pockets – bet most won’t say.
4. Part of the reason that the mortgage valuation fee is so high is so that the cost uplift to a Homebuyers report is marginal. This keeps the survey fee in house and generates more money for the lender.
5. If anyone says you can have a Homebuyers report on a pre-victorian house or any house which has been significantly altered, extended or is in poor condition tell them they don’t know what they are talking about. The Practice Note from the RICS is quite clear on this matter.
6. It is appropriate in the context of a Homebuyers report to recommend further tests and investigations. The point of the Homebuyers report is to highlight (only) the risks.
7. If a Building survey recommends a damp or timber specialist to advise on what needs doing (as oppossed to quoting for work the surveyor specifically recommends), go back to the surveyor and question why they do not have the knowledge and experience to comment. YOU ARE PAYING FOR THIS ADVICE. You are not paying for someone to tell you that they don’t know what they are talking about!
8. Instruct an independent surveyor to undertake a Building survey. Ask for recommendations from the estate agent, your solicitor and friends/family. Don’t accept a recommendation from the estate agent you are buying from, alone. Some estate agents and surveyors have undisclosed financial arrangements (ILLEGAL AND AGAINST RICS RULES but there we are and don’t get me started on this) and others are subsiduary firms. Where is the independence? Is the surveyor under pressure to ‘go easy’? You’d like to think not….but check and double check. Ask for confirmation in writing from the surveyor. If you find that there is an undisclosed arrangement report them to the police, HMRC, the RICS.
9. Above all else, once you have spoken to the surveyor, chose the one who you feel has the most experience, best local knowledge and who is willing to talk to you. Ignore the price. You do get what you pay for. You may have to find an extra £200 or so but the average house price is c£163,000 (!) and the additional outlay represents a tiny fraction (in any event, the cost of a survey will, typically, represent less than 0.25% of the purchase price). Trust me, if the surveyor gets it wrong, you will be paying vastly more than £200 to either sue the surveyor or to repair the damage.
Sorry to rant but I feel quite passionate about this issue – sad I know but there we have it.

Sally says:
3 April 2012

We paid £600 for a HomeBuyers Report which failed to identify a massive rat infestaton which it transpired had affected our new house for years.

The pest control firm said it was one of the worst they’d ever seen and we were unable to live in our new home for months. They visited the house one month and one day after the survey had been conducted and were able to tell us there was a rodent problem from the front door step.

We were going to commission the full Building Survey but were disuaded from doing so by RICs paperwork and the reassurance that if your surveyor arrived and felt you had selected an inadequate product, they would cease the survey and contact you to advise an upgrade.

I was heavily pregnant with our second child and we were unable to move into our new home. When our daughter was born, we were living in a garage while we desperately tried to rid the house of the rats, which took months. Not being able to live in our new home and the direct costs of treating the infestation cost us thousands of pounds.

At present, whilst vendors are legally bound to disclose flooding and problem neighbours, The Law Society’s Property Information Questionnaire does not ask questions about any kind of infestation, be it rats, mice, cockroaches, fleas etc. So you have to say if you’ve fallen out with your neighbour at number 81, but you can remain silent about the rats which are running down your stairs in broad daylight.

Furthermore, RICS Guidance Notes are vague on the subject – despite there being many references to wood worm and wood boring beetle, in a 90 page document just one very small reference is made to the issue of vermin. I remain totally unconvinced that surveyors are properly prepared to detect this growing problem.

Above all, I hope The Law Society and RICs can decide between them where reporting of this problem should sit; hopefully then, they will be able to make the necessary changes to their paperwork and Guidance Notes to prevent this from happening again in future.

PS On an aside, there seems to be a significant difference in the amounts paid for identical surveys. It is interesting to see that you paid just £100 more than us for your Building Survey – we were quoted over £1000 for a Building Survey on this house. A friend just one mile away paid £500 (£100 less) for a Building Survey on a near identical house.

Michael Pemberton says:
3 April 2012

As a Chartered Surveyor, I have every sympathy for the contributer above. I do think we (surveyors) should be able to identify where there are problems of rats or mice. The droppings are usually visible in roof areas without having to lift insulation and should, therefore, be spotted. If there is no evidence other than under insulation/floorboards etc, then this is not a problem which would necessarily come to light in a Homebuyers report.

I have in the past speculated on there being a problem in a property when despite lack of physical evidence (ie droppings) I have found poison containers in cupboards. The surveyor owes a duty of care but the Homebuyers report does have limitations. This is why it is so important that you take time to speak to an independent surveyor so that you know what you are getting for your money.

On the issue of survey costs, until people ignore cost and opt for quality, poor surveys will always happen. Example: Purchaser rang for a survey quote but went to another firm quoting approx £150 less (c£650 compared to £500). The purchaser rang us 6 months later because having bought the property she discovered a number of issues. We very happily went to the property to advise. I think we charged her about £400. Result: More cost (ours+cost of works and/or cost of trying to sue a surveyor), more stress. The purchaser said that she wished that she had spent a bit more money in the first instance. IGNORE THE COST. CHEAPER IS NOT BETTER. Why does anyone think that saving a hundred pounds or so is a good idea when spending hundreds of thousands???

Sally says:
3 April 2012

Thank you Michael.

I agree with very much of your most recent and previous posts, including your statement that cheaper is not always best; however, we sincerely believed we had selected the ‘right’ survey for our home. And at £600 for this intermediate level survey, we were confident that we weren’t going for the bargain basement option. I’m sure we could have found someone cheaper! As you say, you get what you pay for and the fact that ours was expensive for a HomeBuyers Report was in some ways reassuring.

As I said, frustratingly it was RICs paperwork which left us utterly convinced that we were selecting the correct level survey for this age and type of property. This may or may not have been the best decision, but if the intermediate survey is worthless then it should be withdrawn as a product. Is it the consumer’s fault for buying a product unfit for purpose? Or is it the fault of RICs for offering that product as a suitable remedy in the first place?

There was evidence in this house – as you say, the loft was one of the worst places. When the pest control firm went in to decontaminate, they found live nests and thousands of droppings. We later trapped a number of rats up there and, even after the massive clean up operation, there is still the odd rat poo up there now. Despite the pungent and distinctive smell, the droppings and the churned up insulation our surveyor failed to report it. Why? “There were some stored items in the loft so a full inspection was not possible”. Aside from the loft, there were many other tail-tale signs immediately apparent to someone with the relevant knowledge – not to mention the rat repellers plugged in all over the house! We just cannot fathom how he missed it. In fact, we are excruciatingly embarrassed that WE missed it when we viewed the house… But you just don’t think of it when you’re looking as a potential purchaser, especially not when there’s a family living there already.

Many, many things were missed and misreported in our survey, but we almost expected that. All we wanted to know was that the house wasn’t falling down, that there was no rampaging rot or woodworm, that the roof was sound and that was about it. We loved the house and were prepared to buy it pretty much warts and all – just not RATS and all!

We’ve had surveys before for previous homes and it almost goes with the territory that after you move in, you’ll notice the things your surveyor missed… Sometimes I wonder if it’s not actually feasible to expect someone to detect every crack, every bouncy floorboard, every patch of damp in the relatively short amount of time they visit. Perhaps we have unrealistic expectations of what should be covered.

But a rat infestation… that was bad.

Michael Pemberton says:
3 April 2012

Hi Sally

I think you raise some very interesting and valid points. It is, of course, difficult to comment on specifics without seeing the property and issue in question but from what you say, I think there is little excuse for having missed the problem. One would hope that on being informed of the issue the surveyor held his hands up, admitted liability and paid up; but I suspect that insurers became involved?

On the cost of the Homebuyers, it is difficult to comment without knowing the size and value of the property you bought.

I have to confess, I haven’t read the RICS publicity for Homebuyers for some time but I think that everyone thinking of having a survey should speak to one or two surveyors to understand just what can and can’t be done. I don’t think a Homebuyers is pointless but I do think it is only suitable for a relatively narrow spectrum of house types.

You are also correct in your comments about just what a surveyor can tell you. Most Homebuyers reports take around 60-90minutes. A building survey anything from 2hours to a whole day (and I suspect longer where estates are being inspected). It is not possible to detect everything (and indeed, most clients faced with a report addressing everything would probably run a mile) but you would hope that the important issues (in terms of cost and complexity) are brought to the client’s attention.

I trust that you are now rat free and I hope that your faith in surveyors has not been diminished too much.

Sally says:
4 April 2012

Alas, no. As soon as we complained, the shutters went down. It was a case of corporate denial from the outset. Our surveyor refused to accept any liability and to date we have had to bear the costs of the ordeal ourselves in full.

Despite numerous invitations to reinspect, our surveyor refused to return to the house and our complaint was passed to the in house dispute team. They were unable to resolve our complaint, relying on defences such as if we’d had the house checked for lead pipework as they’d suggested that would have uncovered the problem. So we passed our complaint to the industry Ombudsman (Ombudsman Services: Property). They’ve had it for 15 months now and we’re still waiting for their Final Decision. It’s six months since our latest evidence was submitted, but still no answer.

Financially, it has been incredibly difficult – we run a small busines from home, which we almost lost as a result of our domestic upheaval, our families are 200 miles away and with a new baby and a toddler to care for it has been extremely difficult to compile the large amount of written evidence required by the Ombudsman, not to mention the knock on effects of having a home in chaos. There was no help practically nor financially when it came to dealing with the rats and it took almost a year to rid the house of them – we heard them for months after we had to move in (we ran out of money for alternative accommodation) and even now, I regularly listen out for them, just in case… With two very small children, it was particularly hideous and I lived in fear of them becoming ill or the house catching fire in the middle of the night.

When my second daughter was born, our family was living in a garage where my husband and I were sleeping on a mattress on the floor. We moved three times before she was 6 weeks old. Still, we were catching rats at the house. It was horrific. Despite this, our claim to the firm was only ever for the rent of our alternative accommodation and the direct costs of treating the rat infestation. I am deeply uncomfortable with the grabbing ‘where there’s blame, there’s a claim’ ethos so never asked for loss of earnings, nor for emotional distress… nothing like that. Just the rent for the time we couldn’t live in our new home and the direct and unexpected costs of dealing with the rats. We just wanted it to be resolved so we could get on with life.

Above all, one of the most important things that I hope comes of our terrible experience is change. As I said earlier, I would like The Law Society and RICS to decide between them where this problem should sit and make necessary changes to the homebuying process to prevent this from ever happening again to anyone else. It is quite scandalous that vendors don’t have to disclose this sort of thing and that surveyors aren’t properly prepared to identify clear signs.

It’s nothing personal, but my faith in the surveying profession has been completely destroyed. If something’s detected, it’s a bonus: if something is missed, something so serious your home is completely unhibitable, you’re stuffed.

PS It’s a very ordinary house, certainly no mansion, c1900 three bed, redbrick mid terrace. We paid £290k.

Michael Pemberton says:
4 April 2012

Personally Sally I would have refused to do a Homebuyers report on this age of property but that is by the by.

If what you tell me about he approach of the surveying firm is true, it is very disappointing. Trying to suggest that the defect would have been detectable if other inspections had been carried out seems rather ridiculous. Surely it is up to the surveyor to spot the problem in the first place.

I fully understand your comments re surveyors and it is very sad that your experience has effectively diminished your view of all surveyors. All I can say is that we are not all the same and for future reference instruct an independent surveyor from a local, smaller, firm. You will usually find that you get a better service.

Sally says:
4 April 2012

Hi Michael

Taken from RICs current ‘guide to surveys’, downloaded from their website today, similar advice to that we followed back in 2010: “A Homebuyer Survey and Valuation (HSV), also known as a Homebuyer’s Report, is a survey completed to a standard format set out by RICS – it’s most suitable for conventional properties built within the last 150 years, which are in reasonable condition.” Our mid terrace late Victorian property is like millions of others in the UK, just over 100 years, bog standard construction and was in reasonable condition.

It advises that the Building Survey is more suited to “Listed buildings older properties, buildings constructed in an unusual way, however old they are, properties that have had extensive
alterations.”

So you can see why we went for the Homebuyers Report.

Sorry no axe to grind personally, but I’m sure you can understand how very let down we feel. We only wanted to move house; ironically, to make life simpler.

I’m signing off now, as I’ve hogged this thread for long enough and I’m sure there are others with valid points to add on other topics. But thank you for your support.

Sally

PS If you aren’t already familiar with the signs of rats, take a moment to look it up. When someone points it out to you, you’ll start seeing the signs everywhere. I would love for all surveyors to receive some CPD on this.

Michael Pemberton says:
12 July 2012

I am a Chartered Surveyor and I spend my working day undertaking Building surveys and Homebuyers reports on residential property.

The clear issue for me is that a surveyor needs to speak to their client before instruction and tell them what we can do and what we can’t. Specifically that we are going to someones elses home and, with the best will in the world, we are going to be limited in what we can see. That having been said, I am continually disappointed by surveyors hiding behind damp and timber contractors and caveats. There are times when we have to say ‘We can’t see this and because of x, y or z there could be the following problems…’ but we have a legal duty to ‘follow the trail’. It is not sufficient to say there is damp without trying to find out why (is it condensation, penetrating damp, a plumbing leak, continuous or incorrect plaster specifications etc) or there is evidence of woodworm without coming to a firm conclusion as to whether it is active or not.

The issue of asbestos is problematic as most houses built before 2000 will have asbestos in them. What the consumer needs to know is where it can be found, where it is and what the implications are.

Again services are problematic. A surveyor is not qualified to test these but should be able to identify likely issues and advise accordingly.

My view is that the problem does not lie with the survey but with the surveyor. There are good and bad as in all walks of life. Mistakes can and are made. Cheap surveys are cheap for a reason. My advice be willing to pay for a local independent surveyor (ie who doesn’t pay referral fees – this is rife and you won’t be told but there is often a reason why an estate agent tries to get you to use a specific surveyor). You might pay a little more but it will be money well spent.

Serena’s comments are very profound. Exactly what am I paying for? Most people think every “type” of survey: a) Covers everything (i.e. will it fall down and does the boiler and electrics work), b) tells you what is wrong c) what it will cost to repair and d) is carried out by an impartial chartered building surveyor. On this belief people either don’t see the need for any other survey apart from the banks survey or simply shop on price because this is all they think is different.

If, however, you assume that huge city based firms of valuation surveyors compete to pay huge city based lenders to do their valuation surveys a more interesting national picture emerges. Then assume the same valuation firms have to find ways to get more of the money you pay. What better way than to offer a “better” survey. The same residential valuation surveyor then fills in a standard template report (A RICS Homebuyers) which tells you “what to check” but stops short of giving building surveying advice and the picture starts to fit Serena’s dilemma because telling people “what to check” is not most peoples idea of a survey. Now assume that most residential valuation surveyors, if asked to do Serena’s “Structural Survey”, simply tell you “what to check” but in a long winded way then Serena’s misfortune seems complete. Oh dear what a mess!

Now assume you think Local – Independent – Building Surveyor and you search the internet using the town name and “Building surveyor” and go to the second page of results, or you ask at several independent estate agents or independent solicitors to get names and you will find a wealth of local expertise. Check the Building Surveyor is actually based in the area and give them a call. Ask these 3 questions.
1 Are you a chartered Building Surveyor? (not just a chartered surveyor)
2. Do you pay agents or solicitors for a referral?
3. Can you tailor my report to give me exactly what I want?
If the answer is yes, no, yes then ask for a sample survey and go from there.

Then you know you are getting value for money because YOU decide what you want to pay for and you have the right person for the job. The survey should pay for itself as you can often renegotiate the price on robust authoritative information and can help you argue against the all too often occurring valuation survey which is limiting the amount to be leant until a specialist survey is done!

For clarity I am an Independent Chartered Building Surveyor. You should expect to pay from £750 – £1500 for a good tailored survey depending on what you ask to be tested.

Michael Pemberton says:
16 July 2012

Very much agree with Geoff’s comments, although, I believe that there are general practice Chartered Surveyors out there who do have the experience and knowledge to provide a comparable level of service to Chartered Building Surveyors. There is good and bad in all professions. The secret is to do your research, don’t rely on just one recommendation and ask the surveyor questions about their experience and what the survey they may do for you will tell you. Make sure they will be giving you detailed advice on damp and timber issues and not just deferring to ‘specialists’ (ie often but not always contractors who have an interest in selling you a product). Make sure you are given costs in the report and issues are detailed as to how urgent they are. I am also a big believer that a valuation is also critical in the context of what it right and wrong with a property and this valuation can vary from what a valuer (for mortgage purposes) considers the property to be worth. You may well find that the valuation element is something a Chartered Building Surveyor can’t offer you.

Rhodie says:
19 July 2012

I have just had a survey done on a house I am considering to buy. I should receive the report tomorrow. My problem is that I don’t know what questions to ask or what to expect. My partner went to the property when he was doing the survey, so we already have some expectations of what will be done in the report. He identified a number of things that we didn’t know about such as asbestos blocks in the roof. My next question of course, is what is involved with removing them, could there be more asbestos somewhere, what is the risk? I read in one of the comments above of a reference to costs, I didn’t think that a surveyor could provide those. I am just a bit lost as to what a surveyor does supply, doesn’t supply and what questions to ask.

Michael Pemberton says:
19 July 2012

My advice would be not to panic. Wait for the report and read it through. Make notes on anything you don’t understand or which you need clarification on. Don’t worry if the report seems very negative. You are paying for a report on the defects. Balance this with what you love about the property. Once you have a list of questions email them to the surveyor or call him and ask for clarification. Ask for an indication of costs, there is no reason why a ‘ball-park figure (at worst) can’t be provided.

I hope this helps and good luck!

Rhodie says:
29 July 2012

Thanks Michael. The report was comprehensive, full of useful advice and easy to understand. The surveyor was happy to answer all my questions. Yes, it was very negative, but I was expecting that anyway.