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Property Surveys – A Layman’s Guide

Firstly, let me be honest and say up front that I am NOT a surveyor or a member of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), so much of what follows is simply my opinion – BUT, as an Estate Agent with over 30 years industry experience, I have read many thousands of surveys on every type of property that you can imagine – so I will have a certain perspective!

Whilst it is quite common for people to ask their estate agent what sort of survey they should have, just occasionally people do ask whether they should have a survey done at all on a property they’re buying. In that, in my experience, the person asking me such a question is invariably buying from my Company, this query puts any agent in an awkward position – where, even if you think that a survey would be a total waste of money, as an “interested party” (after all we’re earning a fee from the sale) it would be incredibly dangerous to suggest that a client shouldn’t have a survey done, even for example, if the property in question was only 1 year old! Just imagine the headlines if someone accepted an estate agent’s word that the property was “sound”, and subsequently found out that this wasn’t the case! It simply doesn’t bear thinking about!

So, the first “rule of thumb” when buying a property is simply: Always have a Survey! An independent, professional pair of eyes looking over your purchase with the sole intention of protecting you from making a mistake can hardly be regarded as a “bad thing”, regardless of the cost.

In addition, almost all surveys will also incorporate a “valuation” on the property – again giving an independent perspective on the “real value” of your purchase. Especially is market places such as the current one, where property is effectively being auctioned to the highest bidder, it is easy to get carried away and over-bid for a property that’s taken your eye – having a survey will  at least confirm the real market value, and allow you to make an informed decision about proceeding!

Largely though, buyers ask about what sort of survey that we recommend – so it might be helpful to have at least a basic understanding of what “surveys” are available, and what they will actually give you.

First though, you have to always remember that ANY sort of survey is a “critical” document. The surveyors job is NOT to comment on the neighbourhood or local schools, or tell you how lovely the property is – he/she is attending the property to pick up and report EVERY defect, issue or blemish to ensure that you are fully briefed on what you are purchasing. The question of how much depth the surveyor goes into depends on the type of survey that you commission – but know this – survey reports can be quite frightening, especially if you’re not experienced in reading such documents!

So – what are the basic types of survey?

  1. A Mortgage Valuation is the most basic types of survey – and I’m sure that some surveyors would argue that this isn’t actually a survey! Although the mortgage valuation is paid for by the purchaser, the mortgage valuation is done more on behalf of the Building Society that the buyer is borrowing money from. The surveyor’s primary concern during the visit is simply to ensure that the property is “adequate security” for the loan being requested – so, as the name suggests, establishing a sensible market value for the property is the main objective of this visit. It stands to reason that the surveyor attending will be “on the lookout” for major issues, such as structural movement or subsidence, as this would adversely affect the Building Society’s desire to lend on the property – but it’s a fairly cursory survey, often taking between 10 minutes and 45 minutes depending on the size of property being inspected. The cost of a mortgage valuation is generally between £200 - £400.
  2. A Homebuyers/Flat Buyers Report is the mid-range survey that most buyers seem to favour because of cost but this can be a “false economy”. At around £400 - £750, this is considerably cheaper than a Full Survey, but this is largely due to the fact that the surveyor will be at the property between 2 – 4 hours. Whilst this type of report will give you both a valuation and a fairly “in depth” picture of your purchase, the Estate Agent’s general concern about the Home Buyers reports is simply that, because the Surveyor is only on site for around 3 hours, he/she will refrain from commenting on specifics in several areas. For example, many Homebuyers Reports seem to end up recommending a specialist Timber & Damp survey, an Electrical Survey, a Gas/Central Heating Check and/or a Roofing Report. This does not necessarily mean that that any of these ARE issues – in recommending that you have a specialists look into them, the Surveyor has covered himself against any future claims – but the report can be extremely worrying for the inexperienced buyer. Generally, it would be advisable to get your estate agent, solicitor or a more experienced buyer to “interpret” what the Surveyor is saying. Although though overall Homebuyers reports are good value for money - unless you end up paying around £120 each for individual specialist reports – in which case, you might just as well have paid for a full survey instead!
  3. Full “Structural” Survey – this is the “Rolls Royce” of surveys, with the surveyor spending 4 - 6 hours at the property, giving you a full and detailed view of any problems. Unlike the Homebuyers report, the full structural report is often more “defined” with more  finite information about likely problems. Often providing a “valuation” of the property, the only real issue with the full survey is cost. Often costing £600 - £1000+, it’s obvious why buyers will be attracted to the homebuyers reports  - but for older style properties (Victorian or older), properties needing refurbishment or properties “in distress”, a full structural survey really is highly recommended.

There are, of course, other types of survey, but these three are the main choices for most buyers. If in doubt, speak to your estate agent, solicitor or to a RICS surveyor for further information and advice.

01/04/15 By Simon Walsh
Tags: Buying Advice
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