/ 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
Michael Pemberton says:
29 July 2012

I am pleased the report met your expectations. I think this is often where surveyors fall down; they don’t properly manage their clients expectations and tell them from the start what we can and can’t do and what you are getting for your money. I hope your purchase goes well. Out of interest, did you employ an independent surveyor or a corporate (ie working for a national firm of bank)?

Rhodie says:
29 July 2012

I employed an independant surveyor. The bank did their own basic survey for morgage purposes, but it actually had one of the utility connection details incorrect. I liked the layout of the Home Report and the rating of the items identified, far better than reports I obtained for previous purchases over 10 years ago. I will be getting alot of work done to the property before moving in, so have been getting endless numbers of quotes and talking to the relevant trades about what needs to be done (taking up alot of the estate agents time in the process). Whenever I thought of something else that I wanted to obtain confirmation on, I have telephoned the surveyor and he has been very happy to answer my questions. I am pleased that I have been able to continue to check items with him, even after the report has been issued.

Michael Pemberton says:
29 July 2012

Music to my ears. I wonder whether you would have had this kind of access to a bank surveyor??

As a chartered building surveyor (FRICS) with over 45 years experience within the building industry together with being an expert witness for the Courts now for over 20 years, I can only recommend people to get an ‘independent’ surveyor or ‘independent’ practice and where the surveyor is in his or her forties. The reason why I advise this is because professional negligence cases usually involve young qualified surveyors or professional people in my experience still learning their trade, as we all have to do. Therefore it is not the size of the chartered consultancy/practice that you employ but down to who undertakes the professional works for you and to whether you get an excellent service or not. Indeed, when an estate agent or financial institution specifies a chartered surveyor or engineer there is usually a commercial tie somewhere between the two. With this you do not get an independent assessment in the true sense of the words (through possibly being economically with the truth) as estate agents in particular are basically just looking for a sale. With that, compromise may occur down the line.

My recommendation is therefore always to get someone yourself and where then you will know 100% that there are no ties at all and no possible vested-interests lurking in the background. The surveys and chartered reports will also be much cheaper as the possibility of commission is also eliminated totally. Common-sense really.

Dr David Hill
Huddersfield, West Yorkshire

Binky says:
6 August 2012

Our choice to pick our own surveyor was taken from us – we were told we had to use the mortgage lender’s surveyor. We had to pay £400 for the most basic valuation, with optional upgrades of £600 for the Homebuyers report and £1000 for a Building Survey. All rather more expensive than if we’d gone to a local firm direct, which we’ve always done in the past for all of the reasons mentioned above, but we weren’t allowed to. We had to use Santander’s approved supplier.

Our surveyor was a fully qualified member of RICs, following guidelines everyone of his colleagues would have followed, regardless of age and experience. He had the stamp of approval from his professional body – this offered some reassurance.

However, what you’re essentially saying here is that it’s not enough to rely on your surveyor simply being a member of RICS, you should find one who is also older, independent and local…. But RICS tell the consumer that ALL of their members are professionals. What precisely is the value of RICS?

Frankly, I can’t even believe this discussion is taking place. A professional membership scheme should mean that all members are reliable, uncompromised, impartial and professional. And yet this thread indicates otherwise.

Can you imagine a imagine a similar thread for the Gas Safe Register??! “Ahhh, yes, I know he was accredited and a member, but you should have chosen an older plumber with more experience… So it’s your fault that your boiler has blown through your neighbour’s kitchen” or NICEIC “Oh dear, he worked for a big firm and not a local, small, independent firm – make sure you wear wellies when you touch any of the sockets, just in case”

If such negligence and incompetence was allowed in other spheres, there would be a scandal.

It must be deeply infuriating for the good surveyors out there to be associated with the poor surveying practices and sloppy reporting offered by some firms, all of whom happily bandy about the RICS logo.

So. What next?

There are many highly skilled and experienced independent Chartered building surveyors striving to market top quality building surveys in a price conscious market and they are in the RICS (now a globally focused organization). They are in the minority with the vast majority of home surveys apparently undertaken by valuation (general) surveyors linked to national lenders (banks).

Andrew D Thompson says:
8 August 2012

The point raised by the “Binky” posting is quite valid and does highlight the weakness in the “Independent” label that some some firms of surveyors are wrongly placing in front of the RICS designation. No wonder the public are confused!

What the general public are reading in these posts is a “turf war” between differing sections of the same profession who in hard times are fighting for the little work that is available. This argument really should be limited to private RICS forums not those open to the public as non RICS people must read these turf war postings in total confusion.

The problem is RICS has a series of designations that are all “Chartered Surveyors” however differing pathways to RICS membership exist and these have changed over time.

The Homebuyer Report comes under the RICS Professional Group known as “Residential”. Members who qualified via this route can call themselves a Chartered Residential Surveyor.

The professional group for Valuation has the designation Chartered Valuation Surveyor. This was the home of all residential surveyors when RICS had a General Practice Division. Therefore many older surveyors undertaking residential work may still use this title or because of the skills overlap could have qualified via this route.

In 1974 the designation Chartered Building Surveyor was created out of the General Practice Division, so you see we all have a common RICS background hence the skills overlap that has created this conflict for the same workload. The Chartered Building Surveyor is expert in advanced building pathology and you will find them surveying all property types, not just residential.

All are Chartered Surveyors, All are equal in RICS Status and All can undertake a Homebuyers Report on a residential property to the same required standard set by the RICS.

Oh and before anyone asks I am a Chartered Building Surveyor and a Chartered Environmental Surveyor,Yes it gets more confusing as one person can hold more than one designation!.

Now to undertake the valuation element of the report you must be an “RICS Registered Valuer” and this is separate from the designation. Therefore a Chartered Valuation Surveyor might not be a RICS Registered Valuer.

Michael Pemberton says:
11 August 2012

In response to Binky’s post, I don’t see why anyone should be surprised that surveyors have differing levels of experience and knowledge. You can’t expect a newly qualified surveyor to have the same level of expertise as a surveyor with 20years+. This is true of all professions – I don’t see any scandal in this.

The key point is to instruct a surveyor with appropriate expertise for the job in hand. If the property is 10 years old and on an estate, a relatively newly qualified surveyor should be able to provide a good report. If the property is 200 yeras old, you might want to think carefully about appointing that same surveyor. You may have to pay a little more for experience.

If a lender has told you that their panel surveyor has to provide the private survey advice to you, go back to the bank and demand your money back. No-one has the right to force you to use a particular surveyor for a private survey. They do have the right to insist that the valuation is done by their panel valuer, however. This issue drives me to distraction because too many lenders are either deliberately misleading people or are badly informed. Make a fuss…

Binky says:
13 August 2012

Insanity.

“hello, I’d like a building survey on the house I’d like to buy.”
“yes, certainly. That will be £799”
“Marvellous, how old is he or she?”
“40”
“Now I’m stuck”

Come on guys, stop kidding yourselves. This is about professionalism. End of. You’ve got the letters, do the job. And do it properly. Stop hiding behind your ifs, buts and maybes. This whole argument is completely ludicrous. Either someone is qualified to do the task or they’re not. RICS, sort it out.

Surveyors, YOU make a fuss. I buy a house once every 7 years, this is about YOUR reputation day to day.

Michael Pemberton says:
15 August 2012

Binky

I have to agree and disagree with you.

This is not about lack of professionalism. It is about experience. What job do you do? Were you as good at it on day one as 5 years down the line? Is everyone doing the same job as you working at exactly the same level? Is every job you do identical? – it certainly isn’t where houses are concerned.

I agree that the RICS needs to do more and believe me there are a lot of surveyors (me included) who constantly badger the RICS to do more but nothing much seems to happen and yes this is incredibly frustrating for us and for the public who are being badly advised on a daily basis.

I think the central point is that you need to do your research before employing anyone, whether that be a builder, solicitor, architect,etc etc. Everyone is different and has different ability levels. Unfortunately, people assume that letters after a name mean that they can do all aspects of the job. This is just not true in any profession or trade.

When I said that you should make a fuss, I was talking, specifically, about going back to your lender and telling them that the did not advise to correctly. I have taken this matter up with the president of the RICS and they are looking into it (don’t hold your breath) but I can’t go and see your lender and complain on your behalf. I can tell you that you have been badly advised so that you can tell them and you never know you might get a refund!

Davo says:
23 August 2012

My son has just bought a house, in which most of the rooms are artexed. The pre-purchase survey made no reference to this, or nor did it flag up the possible risk of asbestos. My son bought the house, unaware of the risk, subsequently became concerned, and commissioned an asbestos survey, which identified asbestos The artex is flaking in places – not much, but quite clearly – and so cannot be ignored.

I would have expected that the surveyor would have made reference to this potential hazard in his report – it would certainly have affected the decision on purchase and price. Attempts to elicit compensation or even a meaningful response from the surveyor have been predictably fruitless. Although correspondence is ongoing, they are claiming that it is outside their remit, and that they are protected by caveats in the report. There were other issues missed – for example a large crack in the loft. The claim here is that it was hidden by stuff, which is clearly untrue – but that’s another battle.

Whilst accepting the points you make about getting what you pay for (this was a 300 pound survey on a 1930s mid terrace) it is surprising that important and easy-to-spot issues like this are overlooked and deeply frustrating when the professionals hide their errors behind a wall of legal cop-outs.

Michael Pemberton says:
23 August 2012

Agreed.

I suspect your son had a Homebuyers report done. This states that an asbestos survey is not carried out. I suggest you read the paragraph titled ‘Dangerous materials, contamination and environmental issues’ in ‘Description of the RICS Homebuyers Service’ which you should have received from the surveyor originally. This is a little vague and personally, I do include a comment when I suspect asbestos may be present warning the client to be careful. Nevertheless, this is what it says and this is a caveat inserted not by the surveyor but by the RICS.

Have you had the artex sampled to be certain it contains asbestos? Removal may not be the best policy but encapsulation may be.

As for a crack in the roof, is this a matter which affects it’s present value or future resaleability. If not, the surveyor did not need to mention it.

Personally, whilst Homebuyers are deemed suitable for all properties built during the Victorian period to present day, I wouldn’t have done a Homebuyers because as the Practice Notes say ‘This service is specifically designed for lay clients who are seeking a professional opinion at an economic price – and which is necessarily less comprehensive than a Building Survey’ and because of it’s age.

Older formulations of Artex did contain some asbestos, but not the most harmful type. As long as it is undisturbed it will do no more than contribute to fire resistance. If the ceilings are demolished, this should be done by a contractor approved to work with asbestos and dispose of it as hazardous waste. It would obviously be worth checking whether asbestos is present if such work is planned.

Those who worked in the mining of asbestos and the manufacture of products made from it were exposed to considerable risk but those who occupy buildings are quite safe as long as it is not disturbed and creates dust.

Homes and garden sheds contain many things that could be harmful or even fatal if consumed, but that does not mean that any action is needed, except to protect children. Don’t worry about asbestos unless you are proposing to make structural changes that would create dust.

Davo says:
23 August 2012

Thanks for the observations. Whilst appreciating the need for excludiing commentary on issues beyond the scope of the survey, I would have thought that it would have been good practice to at least draw the client’s attention to the existence of a potential problem, as Michael Pemberton obviously does. There are as I understand it government safety guidelines regarding e.g. drilling holes in asbestos-based artex for bathroom vents. I think it should be should be a fundamental responsibility of the surveyor to at least point the client in the general direction .

With regard to the crack in the loft, it is a stairstep crack several feet long and up to a couple of inches wide in the party wall , easy visible from the landing below. Again, you would thought it was at least worth mentioning, and the omission does reduce confidence in the validity of the whole report..

Matthew Brown says:
23 August 2012

I have to say that the advice in regard to the contractor needing to be approved to work with hazardous waste is not accurate.

Levels of asbestos found in textured coatings are below the licencing requirement. HSE conducted dry disturbance surveys and levels were never close to the licencing requirement.

The HSE website has all the relevant information in regards to best practice. Don’t be tricked into spending a fortune on removing it as there are many ways of dealing with this type of issue.

You are right Matthew and the HSE website has useful information, but I don’t believe that the average builder would necessarily follow the recommended procedures.

I did say ‘should’ and not ‘must’ be done by an approved contractor. You don’t have to have your car serviced by your neighbour but it would be safer to employ someone with experience.

Thanks for clarifying this issue and for warning us that there are people who exploit people’s fears.

Sorry, that should read: You could have your car serviced by your neighbour but it would be safer to employ someone with experience.

In my experience the cheaper the survey the greater the caveat. In my opinion a client should be able to procure a full and detailed survey of every aspect of the property. £300 in the example above is about the fee for a car survey by the AA or a boiler service. The homebuyers survey product is a clever template with pre written paragraphs to make them quick to produce with pre written caveats because the perception is clients want cheap products. and maybe they do. I am not sure people know what they will get. Any chartered surveyor (there are 12 designations) can undertake them and charge what they like. They pay the RICS for a licensed copy to fill in.
In my opinion I believe the public should expect that a chartered surveyor should know artex may have asbestos in it and know how to explain the risk and give an idea of cost. I also believe surveys at this level cannot be provided professionally for £300. We have much to do.

Michael Pemberton says:
23 August 2012

I agree Geoff but this is a matter of managing peoples expectations. People in all areas of their lives, me included, do not read the small print and feel let down when their expectations of what they feel should be provided are not met. This is made worse when they complain and the surveyor, solicitor or whoever it might be says, effectively “have you read the small print….” The perception is that the professional is then hiding behind the caveats because he missed something. The reality is that the issue may not have been missed but simply not brought to the client’s attention because it is outside the scope of that report. Is this the fault of the professional, the professional body or the client? I suspect, some one degree or another, it is all three.

The type of report you are suggesting is not a Homebuyers as it currently exists (certainly with regard to providing costs) – that is the fault of the RICS. It is a Building survey. I am not sure I want to offer a Building survey for £300. I am, however, of the opinion that the Homebuyers should talk about the potential risk of asbestos being present because it is an important concern for people and there is an argument, therefore that its presence in a property might affect future saleability even if that affect is based on misguided/misinformed public perception.

Michael Pemberton says:
23 August 2012

I am continually asked about the risks of asbestos by clients. There is general surprise when I tell them that most houses built between 1905 and 2000 contain asbestos and many houses built before 1905 have had it put in during 1905-2000. The important thing is to be aware of where it can be (eg underfelt, artex, insulation/insulation boards, electrical components, heating appliances, registry plates, flue/liners, door liners, cupboard walls (particularly in Wimpey No-fines and Laing Easi-form houses), water tanks, rainwater goods, floor tiles, older toilet cisterns, door handles not to mention shed, garage roofs etc etc etc).

Removal is not necessarily required but being aware is key. Of course, if loose fibrous asbestos is found (usually blue or brown asbestos) there is a significant health risk as fibres can be released easily and the area needs to be sealed and specialist advice obtained immediately. This type of asbestos is rare in domestic dwellings, however.

My experience is not dissimilar to many of those of have already posted.
We bought a house which is riddled with damp secondary to a leaky roof, a neighbours tree that is causing havoc on the foundations of the outbuilding etc. Thr buildings survey failed to identify these problems. In fact it was a really rather vague survey that covered the surveyors back. We are now taking legal action against the previous owner and the surveyor.
For those buying a house, my advice would be to simply not bother with a buildings survey. Ask the vendor if you can spend a couple of hours looking at the property with a good builder, electrician, roofer and plumber. If this is any suggestion of Asbestos, bring a specialist with you. The survey will say things like ‘there could be a problem with the flashings, the electrics, the this and the that. In which case you will need to organise those professionals to have a look. So why bother. Just get the professionals in in the first place. At least they can give you an idea of how much it will cost.

Michael Pemberton says:
10 September 2012

This is all very depressing. Whilst there will be occassions when a surveyor has to say “I’ve looked at this as closely as I can but….” but with a Building Survey this should be the exception rather than the rule. Put simply, it sounds as if you have had a duff survey/surveyor and I can fully understand your comments but this does go back to getting the right person for the job. Just because surveyors have the same designation DOES NOT mean they are all the same. Don’t ask the bank to organise the survey for you, get a local, experienced and independent person to work for you. Get recommendations from solicitors and ask for a sample report so you can see what you are getting for your money. Make sure the surveyor advises on likely costs.

Regretably, I see too many template reports where surveyors do little more than fill in the address and a bit of vague detail about needing a damp specialist or there could be this, that and the other. In the scope of a Building Survey, this is totally unacceptable. I would be interested to know whether you appointed your own surveyor, why you chose that surveyor and whether they were a local independent or a corporate.

I am afraidone of the other main issues is one of the public not being properly advised/guided and too many ill-informed people speaking to the public before the surveyor gets a chance to advise.

I absolutely agree with Lorns advice to get all things tested and priced before you buy. I assume the price he /she paid for their survey reflected the level of advise received. This is the problem. People want a “full” survey with “all” the answers and professional chartered surveyors have produced types of surveys that just highlight problems without providing answers. This is because the perception is that people will only pay about £200- £300 for a survey. There are chartered building surveyors that can arrange extremely detailed surveys but not at that price. I would like people to consider the cost of employing a builder, electrician, plumber, gas engineer, roofer, structural engineer, damp consultant and asbestos specialist for a few hours and then asking them all to write a report for you which, if they were wrong, you could use to sue them. I suspect you would be in the £1500 – £2000 bracket. When investing in a £250,000 house is that too high a price?
It is possible that a banks valuation surveyor has paid the bank for the referal so where is their loyalty and expertise to do a more detailed building survey for you? Independence is the key.

Michael Pemberton says:
11 September 2012

Geoff is absolutely correct. I am afraid you generally get what you ask for and what you pay for. Employ a recommended professional, independent of the banks and estate agents and be prepared to pay the princely sum of c0.25% of the value of the property to be given a comprehensive report which doesn’t pass the buck and does tell you what you need to know and what things will cost.

It seems to me that there is a fundamental issue of people not being willing to pay for the right advice. After all, we are all prepared to pay 1+% for an estate agent to sell our homes. Seems to me that this is a huge difference for the service which good surveyors provide.

Matthew Brown says:
11 September 2012

It’s strange that some surveyors in this discussion agree that the service some people are receiving is poor yet still imply that the responsibility rests with the customer. It is all well and good stating that you get what you pay for but with large numbers of surveyors offering cut price surveys and very few advising clients correctly how are people supposed to differentiate between the good and the bad? Is it not also the case that some people have received poor service even when they have paid top dollar for a survey?

This is where the RICS are letting people down including their own members. How can it be that an accredited member is able to provide a substandard service time and time again and not be bought to task by the ethical codes set out by the RICS?

The RICS is supposed to be a standard. A credible organisation built on ethical and professional standards which ALL its members agree to adhere to.

Michael Pemberton says:
11 September 2012

Matthew, I think your comments are spot on. Many surveyors feel that the RICS is not doing enough and many also feel let down by the service provided by fellow surveyors. If I knew of a way to indicate the good from the bad/indifferent/lazy, I would have done it by now. All I can do as a partner in a firm of 3 partners is to keep telling people that they do have a responsibility to do their research just as you would with any purchase you make and, as I do, to keep badgering the RICS about the way in which some surveyors practice (paying referral fees without disclosure, deferring to damp and timber ‘specialists’ without a second thought, hiding behind unnecessary caveats and so on).

There are very good surveyors out there. In fact, I suspect that there are more good than bad but inevitably, people only write on forums such as this when they have experienced the bad.

Michelle says:
9 October 2012

This has been fantastic to read. Thank you to everyone for all your information. We’ve just bought our ‘forever home’ and I will now pay out for the best survey I can get (but not from the Estate Agent’s contact!), to ensure we have everything covered.

hi there. i am selling my commercial property in Scotland that is an old stone cottage over 180 years old. Do I have to have a survey done on it or is that the responsibility of the buyer? The reason I ask is that the prospective buyer has had a survey done on my building and now he is asking to see a copy of my survey.
would appreciate any advice.

Michael Pemberton says:
22 October 2012

Hi Mia
I think I am correct in saying that in Scotland you (the vendor) have to have a survey undertaken as part of the selling process. This I think is akin to the condition report in the HIP pack in England that never was. I am not a surveyor in Scotland, however, and I would advise you to speak to one who knows more about this than I do!

hi thanks for that. I was under the impression it was up to the buyer. I will try and find out.
thanks for your help

I’ve found a house over 100 years old and the ground floors of house has rising damp problems all over the walls. I’ve asked a company who does timber treatment, damp proofing works, etc. to give me a quote and the estimate cost is around £8,000 . The vendor is willing to reduce the price for me to sort out the dampness. But I know there are potential problems that I won’t know until open up the walls and floor boads . However, I think the vendor shall bear the cost of further treatment if there is any.

– Is it a high risk to purchase an old house has dampness problem?
– Is it normal that an old property has historical movement? If so, shall I avoid buying a house has historical movement?

I’ve found 4-5 RICS building surveyors and compare with their professional charges. The price range is £350-£700 in Devon county (South West) and normally a company will charge around £700, a self-employed surveyor without VAT will charge £350.

– What kind of surveyor I shall choose? They are all RICS members and I can’t tell where the difference between them except VAT.

Michael Pemberton says:
26 October 2012

Mae, don’t rely on a damp contractors report. Get an independent perspective from a surveyor. Ask a local solicitor for a recommendation. Dampness is seldom due to a single cause and what is often identified as rising dampness is in fact due to a combination of factors which can be addressed sympathetically and at sensible cost.

Movement in old properties is not uncommon but needs looking at properly.

You need to instruct a surveyor to undertake a Building survey. The fee will be in excess of £500+vat (depending on property size and age). If it is much less be very suspicious.