Surveys for Old Homes

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Assessing the condition of a renovation project is key to ensuring it is viable. In the first of a jargon-busting new series – which will arm you with the solutions to issues thrown up by old homes

Getting an accurate assessment of a building’s condition before you buy is pretty fundamental, as initial appearances can be deceptive. Some developers devote as little of the budget as possible to repairing hidden parts of the building. Instead, they lavish money on stylish interiors, boosting profitability with visible benefits.

Instructing a survey should provide peace of mind by pre-empting any nasty hidden surprises that could scupper your project, or scare buyers away when you come to sell your newly renovated property.

The Fine Art of Surveying Homes

Surveys have come a long way in recent years, particularly with the introduction of user-friendly ‘traffic light’ condition ratings, and the cutting of excessive jargon. But careless deployment of killer words such as asbestos, beetle infestation, rising damp, radon, fungal decay and subsidence can still unwittingly frighten buyers.

An experienced surveyor should know how to moderate their vocab and terminology. As well as highlighting any significant problems, a good survey should provide reassurance, explaining where apparently worrying defects are actually quite normal for the type of property.

In fact, there are many issues that commonly arise in surveys that need not deter prospective renovators, and may not actually cost that much to rectify. What’s more, presenting the vendor with a list of reported defects is useful in helping justify the renegotiation of the purchase price if needs be.

Choosing the Right Survey for Your Project

Mortgage ‘Surveys’
Before delving into the different types of survey, there is one myth that needs to be nailed straight away. Mortgage lenders have a habit of referring to their valuation inspections as ‘surveys’. This can sometimes lure unsuspecting applicants into a false sense of security — believing their report (typically only a single page) is a de facto warranty that the property has a clean bill of health.

The point of a mortgage valuation is to provide the lender with the confidence that, should default or repossession occur, they should be able to get their money back. As far as describing the building’s condition goes, mortgage valuation reports often resort to broad, encompassing phrases.

Your Options
When it comes to commissioning a ‘proper’ survey, there are two main options:

Both can only be carried out by qualified members of RICS (Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors) who are either MRICS or FRICS (‘Members’ or ‘Fellows’ — there’s little practical difference). In cases where a property is clearly suffering from pronounced cracking or structural movement, it’s a really good idea to directly commission astructural engineer’s report in the first instance.

Regardless of the type of survey, there are four main risks which the surveyor will need to consider:

  • inherent defects (poor original build quality)
  • lack of maintenance
  • extensions and alterations (which may have required planning or Building Regulations consent)
  • threats from the immediate environment, which could include invasive trees.

Remember: As a client instructing a survey you are entitled to raise any matters in advance that you’d like the surveyor to pay special attention to, such as whether – in their professional opinion – the loft would be suitable for conversion. But where there are a number of specific concerns that you want to raise, particularly design matters, it would be better to opt for a building survey. It’s also worth noting that some chartered surveyors can also provide design services.

The HomeBuyer Report
This is the most popular type of survey — suitable for the vast majority of homes built after the late Victorian period. Prices vary according to the house’s age, location and market value, but for an average three-bed semi, expect to pay around $600.

The inspection covers the whole property inside and out, from the loft down to the drains (where accessible), and is written on a specially designed RICS report — typically 10 to 12 pages in length. Each part of the building is described and any significant defects explained, with a simple ‘traffic light’ summary and an easy-to-understand condition rating based on a scale of 1 to 3.

A HomeBuyer Report should:

  • highlight all significant defects — anything that could materially affect the value
  • explain causes and suggest solutions, and also alert you to future maintenance problems
  • It also includes a valuation and insurance calculation too.

The Building Survey
Formerly known as ‘full structural surveys’, these provide a detailed description of a building’s construction and condition. They really are essential for:

  • houses older than around 1880
  • thatched cottages
  • properties in need of extensive renovation or conversion
  • buildings of non-standard construction

The building survey, which is at least 20 pages long, gives scope for the surveyor to express extensive advice. As such (as well as covering all urgent and significant defects) a building survey will report on less serious issues, but a valuation is not normally included unless requested. The cost is typically twice that of the HomeBuyer Report — generally upwards of $1100.

Budget Surveys
The RICS Home Condition Report is a more recent arrival on the scene. They’re primarily aimed at prospective vendors looking for an independent assessment of their property prior to putting it on the market — similar to the Scottish Home Report. Pitched at the budget end, they assess the general condition of the main components of the property and should identify significant defects. But unlike the HomeBuyer Report and the building survey, they do not contain repair advice; they also exclude market valuations and insurance reinstatement costs.

Getting the Most From Your Survey

Regardless of the type you opt for, there are some key steps to ensuring you get the best out of your survey:

  • Appoint an experienced, independent local surveyor or small firm. With some larger ‘points-driven’ corporate firms, employees may be under pressure to turn around relatively high volumes of work in a short timescale.
  • Mindful of their legal liability, surveyors can sometimes be guilty of describing relatively minor blemishes in faintly alarming terms. If this is the case, contact your surveyor soon after the event to talk it through. This will put any perplexing defects into perspective in terms of what is actually fairly ‘normal’ in old houses, compared with new builds.
  • Be prepared for a survey to recommend follow-up diagnostic reports. A structural engineer’s report may be advised in cases where there is evidence of significant movement. Specialist reports are common for testing services such as electrics and drains too, which are not usually included in the survey. Be wary of free specialist ‘surveys’ from sales-driven firms (especially timber and damp contractors) who have a vested interest in finding ‘problems’.

Beware the Lender
Mortgage lenders sometimes impose ‘essential repairs’ and retentions. But this may come about because lenders require their appointed firms of valuers to use prescribed ‘standard phrases’ in their valuation reports.

These can sometimes trigger follow-up inspections and inappropriate treatments, which may be damaging for historic buildings. Obtaining a second opinion from a qualified professional can help get unnecessary conditions revoked.

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