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Solicitor’s Guide to Reading Survey Reports

Saturday, 5th March 2016 | by: Justin Burns

As I was coming to the end of a Homebuyer inspection of a terraced property last autumn I decided to take a wander down the shared access path at the ends of the gardens and found that the owner of the next but one house had taken the rear fence down and effectively annexed the piece of land behind it. I knew that the buyers were planning a rear extension so this would have meant all the materials having to come in through the front door – a major inconvenience and probably not something that would have been detailed on the seller’s questionnaire. For the still ridiculously small percentage of buyers that commission a detailed survey report the surveyor is the solicitor’s man (or woman) in the field.

Filling out questionnaires, typically 10 to 15 pages long, is boring for sellers and there’s an inclination to respond with “don’t know’ or “not as far as I’m aware” to the more complicated queries and, as I understand it, statements that could be confirmed by independent verification should not be relied upon.

So what should you be looking for when reading a survey report? In the examples set out below i’ve referenced the relevant section of the RICS Homebuyer Report in brackets but Building Surveys, although generally bespoke to the surveying practice, are likely to be drafted along similar lines.

A key area is any ambiguity in respect of the physical boundaries, such as fences built inside fences (more common than you’d think!) or any sub-division of the rear garden (Section H – Grounds). I did a survey on a property in Fulham a couple of years ago and a section of the back garden had been fenced off with no way of accessing it, either from the garden or anywhere else. It must have been done in the hope that other portions of gardens would become available later and therefore open up the possibility of an adjacent development.

I’m sure a few buyers have been caught out thinking that they had off-street parking (Section H – Grounds) when all they actually had was a paved over front garden; years of illegal use can force the kerbstones down and make it look as though it has been deliberately dropped. Some local authorities are more pro-active than others with enforcing breaches such as this.

Extensions can be a bit of a minefield, particularly if they have been built prior to the seller’s period if ownership (Section D – About the property). In the first instance you need to be made aware of their existence (not always obvious with more modern properties) but the approximate age and construction might also important when assembling documentation. Describing the construction of an extension in detail would be beyond the scope of a Homebuyer Report but that might be necessary (as far as can be seen without opening up) to confirm that it complies with Building Regulations in the absence of a certificate.

Extensions to adjoining properties are also a consideration, they will more often than not be notifiable to your client under the Party Wall etc. Act 1996 and will not show up on a planning search if they fall within the neighbour’s Permitted Development rights. Although not specifically stated in the Act it is generally accepted that an incoming adjoining owner is bound by the decisions made by their predecessor, be that a consent or the appointment of a surveyor. It is important that all the relevant documents are obtained in case of later disputes over damage caused by the works. I recently spoke to a couple who lived next door to an ongoing full footprint basement extension who had no idea who their appointed surveyor was (I was able to tell them as I acted for the other neighbour and knew the surveyor).

Illegal extensions to adjoining properties are another area of concern. It’s not a question that I see on most seller’s questionnaires but if that extension has been built with windows overlooking your client’s garden and is more than 20 years old a right to light may have been established which could prevent them building their own extension. I recently surveyed a house where it transpired that the neighbour had illegally extended over the only access chamber to a drain run that served a terrace of 4 properties.

Sometimes what the surveyor can’t see is as important as what they can. If a pitched roof is in poor condition it can be covered in the report and your client can obtain estimates prior to exchange of contracts (Section E – Outside the property). If a flat roof, even a relatively small one such as over a dormer, cannot be seen enquiries need to be made as to when the covering was last renewed and whether it is the subject of a guarantee. Unless the surveyor flags this in their report it might go unnoticed until it starts leaking 6 months later. Similar issues arise with flats albeit the level of future contributions is what is at stake.

Finally, a few other issues where the surveyor should be able to help give you a steer:

  • Was the property tenanted at the time of inspection (Section B – About the inspection)? This may have implications for vacant possession but would confirm that a Gas Safety Certificate should be available.
  • Is the property of non-standard construction (Section D – About the property) – may have a bearing on how mortgagable it is.
  • How old are the windows, roof coverings etc. (Section E – Outside the property)?  – this will help in establishing whether they are likely to be under guarantee (and the availability of FENSA certificates).
  • Have there been internal alterations, such as the removal of a structural wall or chimney breast, which would require Building Regulation approval?
  • Have there been recent changes to the electrical installation which would require approval under part P of the Building Regulations?
  • Is there evidence that the property has been underpinned or that a damp-proof course has been injected? – again, this will assist in gather together all the relevant documentation.

There is a section towards the end of the Homebuyer Report called ‘Issues for your legal advisors’ where, in an ideal world, all of the points above would be summarised but not all surveyors are as thorough with cross referencing as they should be.

I know from reading leases how boring it is to review documents outside of your discipline but with surveys it really is necessary as there could be an important nugget of information buried within.