What is a property survey?

Why getting a survey done gives you peace of mind.

Will @ Nested
Property market insight

When we talk about surveys, we don’t mean setting up a Doodle poll.

Your property survey is an on-site inspection carried out by a qualified surveyor, who will record any defects with the building and surrounding land before you decide whether to proceed as a buyer. These can be minor problems, such as misting to double-glazed windows, to serious causes for concern such as structural movement, timber rot and Japanese knotweed.

While the last thing you want is to shovel more money into a stranger’s hands, here’s our take on why getting a survey done is worth every penny.

Do I need a property survey?

A survey is not mandatory, but we strongly recommend you don’t skip this process when buying a property. Sure, moving house can be costly, and you’ll understandably want to reduce your expenditure wherever you can. But if you’re hit by a sudden snag with a huge repair bill, you’ll soon realise that failing to get a survey done was a false economy.

Even if there’s nothing wrong with the property, a survey provides welcome reassurance.

Also, remember that your solicitor won’t be visiting the property, so a surveyor is essentially their eyes on the ground. Any potential legal issues arising from unauthorised building works or restricted access, for example, will be noted in your surveyor’s written report and can be shared with your legal adviser.

What does a surveyor do?

When they inspect your property, here are some of the problems that a surveyor can identify:

  • Structural movement — The untrained eye may not be able to spot early signs of subsidence (sinking or collapsed ground beneath a property), ‘heave’ (the upward movement of ground), or ‘bowing’ (the leaning or bulging of external walls). While cracks in the doorframe or brickwork are obvious telltale signs, a good surveyor can highlight hidden causes for concern, such as willow trees or poplars whose roots could cause structural problems in the future.
  • Timber defects — From the outside, a historic timber building might look postcard-perfect, but beneath the facade, how do you know if the wood itself is in good nick? Untreated timber is susceptible to rot, woodworm and creepy crawlies such as the House Longhorn beetle, which can munch wood for England. A smart surveyor will have a sixth sense for potential issues with wooden floors, panels and cladding.
  • Japanese knotweed — This invasive, non-native plant species was introduced to Britain in the 1800s to help protect railway embankments and cuttings. There are many types of plant that can do damage to a property; bamboo, for example, can rise through the cracks of a patio, but Japanese knotweed is by far the most notorious. Any damage caused by the spread of Japanese knotweed can run into the tens of thousands, but your surveyor can help nip any problems in the bud.
  • Asbestos — Any building built before 2000 could contain asbestos, a group of fibrous minerals which pose a significant health risk when released into the air. It’s perhaps most associated with buildings from the 1950s and 1960s. Asbestos can be found in all sorts of spaces: gutters and downpipes, insulation, flues, water tanks and old heating units. Once disturbed, there is a risk of inhaling the fibres, which sadly have been linked to various cancers. At the very least, your surveyor should be able to identify common signs of asbestos, and may recommend further investigation by an asbestos removal specialist.
  • Damp — Let’s face it, dealing with damp is less exciting than spending money on a loft conversion or fancy new flooring. But unfortunately, early signs of damaged plaster, mould from condensation and rising damp are likely to lead to costly repair works. Your surveyor can alert you to the warning signs in case you miss anything, and explain the difference between the various types of damp, from penetrating damp to rising damp and condensation.

Beyond these well-known problems, there are numerous flaws that can show-up during a survey, from blocked drains to roof damage. No one likes to hear bad news, but spotting that crack in the wall sooner rather than later can ultimately save you thousands.

What type of survey should I get?

So, you’ve decided you need to get a survey, but did you know there’s more than one type? The plot thickens...

A HomeBuyers Report is the most common type of survey for buyers. It offers a detailed analysis of the property, with attention paid to structural issues like subsidence, and you can add a valuation for an extra cost. A HomeBuyers Report, often referred to as a RICS Level 2 building survey, is typically used for traditionally built, modern homes (think Victorian at the earliest) that have not been substantially extended or altered. It will generally cost between £500 and £700.

The most basic survey is called a Condition Report, which provides a general overview of the property’s condition, but doesn’t go into intricate detail. These Level 1 surveys are used for mortgage valuations, and often, homeowners who simply want to know the condition of their existing property. This may may cost you in the region of £300.

For a more comprehensive report, a RICS Building Survey offers an extensive break-down of a property’s condition, and a diagnosis of what might be wrong. If you’re buying an older or unusual property, such as a thatched cottage, you’ll definitely need a Building Survey. How much does a structural survey cost? While every surveyor will charge different fees, a full Building Survey can range from £500 to £2,000.

You’ll know which type of survey feels right in relation to your needs and budget, but ultimately, getting the best possible survey is better value for money than trying to save costs, only to realise later there’s something wrong.

How to arrange a survey on a house

The first obvious port of call is the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, which lists thousands of qualified professionals across the UK. You can search using your postcode to find a surveyor in your area. Prices can vary, so remember to get a few quotes rather than accepting the first offer.

Alternatively, your lender or estate agent may recommend a surveyor if you don’t have the time or inclination to search yourself.

Nested can also recommend a surveyor from our panel of independent professionals.

How long does a house survey take?

Once you’ve arranged a suitable date and time, your surveyor should be able to visit the property within about a week, depending on their workload and access to the property. You can use this opportunity to share any concerns with the surveyor before they visit. You could be living in this home for years to come, so there’s no such thing as a stupid question!

Depending on the size of your home and any access issues, the survey itself should take a couple of hours, or longer if you’ve booked a more detailed Building Survey.

Once your surveyor has been to the property, they should be able to deliver their report within 5 working days. If this takes longer — for example, due to unforeseen complications with the building — your solicitor should let you know. While no one likes a delay, it’s better to take the time to get things right; you only get one shot at getting a survey done properly.

What to do if a survey is ‘bad news’

When you first set eyes on your property, was it love at first sight?

First impressions can be deceiving. Sometimes, a house will have kerb appeal from the outside, but contain numerous faults within. Equally, a property can look tired from the pavement, but be structurally sound in reality. Never judge a book by its cover!

Unfortunately, if your survey raises numerous red flags, things can quickly turn sour.

But while no one wants to receive a ‘bad’ report, if you’ve still got your heart set on a property, all is not lost. The first thing you should do is read the report, which will contain recommendations on your next steps. The report’s executive summary will give you a realistic picture of the potential costs and risks; it may also reference accredited trade bodies, such as GasSafe, who can remedy a problem.

Once you’re informed with the facts, you can then make a decision on whether to proceed or pull out. It might be hard to walk away, but it’s preferable to moving into a property that you soon discover is riddled with 99 problems (and the fridge ain’t one).

And if you do decide to go ahead, remember that even the most dedicated surveyor might not spot everything; all you can do is reduce the level of risk so that you can sleep easy. Your surveyor is undertaking a visual inspection; it’s not supposed to be completely foolproof, remember you don’t own the house at this stage, and if you really wanted to inspect inside the cavity walls and look at the foundations, you’d probably need a JCB and a wrecking ball!

How to negotiate a house price down after a survey

On the plus side, one consequence of a bad survey is that it gives you scope to revise your offer down. You’re only legally bound to purchase the property on the exchange date, so before then, you can plausibly return to the estate agent and justify a price reduction based on the cost of the works. If the seller says they can fix the problem themselves, be careful. While broken door handles are one thing, you should aim to keep maximum control over significant works; for example, you don’t want the seller getting an electrical safety certificate in their name if you’re ultimately the one who’ll be liable for any problems. A better solution is to negotiate a decrease in the purchase price and retain control of any works yourself.

In the end, it’s a negotiation between you and the seller, and ultimately, the property is worth whatever you’re willing to pay.

Our survey says… get it done

It’s true that getting a survey completed isn’t the most exciting part of buying a home (that would be cooing at other people’s bi-fold doors). But a survey is better than a surprise, and it’s definitely one of the most important steps you can take.

The earlier you get a survey booked in, the less potential there is for disruption later down the line. This is one part of the home buying process you really don’t want to be doing last minute. Plus, getting a survey done early shows a level of seriousness as a buyer, which is a powerful tool in the market. So choose your surveyor wisely, leave nothing to chance, and godspeed!

Want some further reading? Read the RICS guide to home surveys.

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If you’re interested in selling smarter, get in touch today. Nested.com - The modern way to move.