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First-time Buyer

The good, the bad, and the ugly: What your home survey really reveals

Paloma Kubiak
Written By:
Paloma Kubiak

Buying a property is a big expense, and for many it will be the largest single transaction they ever make. As such, the last thing buyers need is unexpected repair costs. Here’s what your home survey really reveals.

As the cost-of-living crisis continues to bite, everyone at every stage of the homeowning journey is feeling the pressure. This is especially true for the huge numbers of first-time buyers still looking to climb the ladder.

With people increasingly looking for ways to carefully manage their finances, home surveys are essential. They can save buyers from making a very costly mistake further down the line.

First-time buyers, second-steppers and downsizers may not know what a property survey entails or what it investigates. For starters, it is very different from a lender’s property valuation, which assesses the monetary worth of a property according to its location and overall condition.

A survey is different. They are designed to help borrowers assess the state of a property, and whether their potential future home warrants their investment and the liability. The process is straightforward: a RICS-qualified surveyor checks the property from top to bottom before sending the customer a detailed and accessible report, in 48 hours from the inspection.

But what are the important things to know about a home survey and what it actually reveals?

What a home survey actually does

So what does a survey actually do? It’s important to understand that while the report might gesture towards specialist advice, it won’t prescribe anything. It’s more of a check-up. A modern survey will evaluate different aspects of a property with a traffic light system:

  • A red issue is a severe problem that either poses a high risk to customers or requires further investigation by a specialist.
  • An amber issue only presents a moderate risk.
  • A green light indicates there is no issue over and above what would constitute normal maintenance.

A report will flag a range of possible risks. For example, a survey will consider if a light switch is particularly close to a sink or tap, as this could present a risk of electrocution. Boundary walls might be flagged – frost-damaged brickwork and loose plaster could be costly issues but are unlikely to be considered as a high priority dependent on location and severity.

Movement is looked upon as a low-priority issue in cases where the surveyor deems it to be historic and non-progressive based on their inspection. It is true that movement can cause brickwork and plaster to crack. A surveyor will check where these cracks sit within certain parameters, such as severity, location, and any associated factors.

These cosmetic issues may look significant but are in fact very minor. Fillers, such as caulk, and lateral restraints may look off-putting too, but it’s not a crisis. These are both very commonplace fixes, and even then, movement is very common, and does not necessarily present an existential danger to property.

Of course, some movement may pose a significant risk and require specialist repair. This would be reported accordingly.

High priority property problems

Extensive dampness is an issue surveyors would treat as an urgent problem. Householders should take immediate action when dampness is flagged in some circumstances. It can cause health problems and diminish the property’s value – which could present a big hurdle for borrowers looking to remortgage or purchase property, as lenders may be reluctant to underwrite a new mortgage on a property suffering with extensive dampness related issues.

Faulty boilers and electrical wiring issues are also treated with severity due to the associated risks to any occupier, and if spotted ahead of time, will protect the borrower from financial liability and as well as their health and safety. These areas are commonly referred to specialist advice where recent inspection certificates are not forthcoming.

Roofing issues and gutter problems can also become very serious very quickly if left unaddressed. If water seeps into a crack in a wall, it can freeze and expand, creating a freeze-thaw effect that can break the brickwork apart. Furthermore, a damaged roof can make a property dangerous, and really should be addressed with speed.

Asbestos will be considered by surveyors, since it can present a particular threat to homeowners. Some older textured wall coatings can contain asbestos fibres, and so if a DIY enthusiast homeowner uses a sander to smooth these surfaces, this activity can release harmful asbestos materials into the home. Asbestos materials can also sometimes be found in panelling for interior walls and ceilings, so it’s vital that homeowners are vigilant. A survey will notify the buyer of either potential or known areas of concern, however some further testing or advice may be required depending on what is found.

Large trees may be an unexpected potential problem that a home survey considers. Complex root systems can affect drainage, and if a particularly large tree is looming over a property, the homeowners should be mindful that the tree will require semi-regular pruning to mitigate the risk of any damage caused by falling branches or storms. A survey will also comment on the possibility of a tree being protected by a preservation order.

The financial advantages of getting a solid home survey

Many borrowers think they can get by just on the valuation that’s carried out on behalf of the lender, but this isn’t really a viable alternative to a professional home survey. Valuations are often carried out remotely and won’t necessarily pick up these important problems.

Home surveys are not only here to mitigate against any future costs and protect customers from potential health risks, but they can help buyers renegotiate the price of the property if costly works are deemed necessary. In comparison, a valuation is very limited in its offering and doesn’t offer the level of detail and a thorough assessment of the condition of a property that comes with a home survey.

In essence, it’s not a question of whether a borrower can afford a professional survey. It’s whether they can afford to go without one.

Yes, a survey won’t necessarily offer a ‘silver bullet’ solution for problems that arise in the future, but it will provide the borrower with the strongest possible foundation for making the single biggest financial decision of their lives.

Steve Rayers is surveying director at Legal & General Surveying Services