Confessions of a surveyor

What a surveyor does and looks for in a house survey

Thinking of booking a property survey? We asked a professional what questions you should be asking – read our expert guide.

Buying or selling a property is something that most of us only do a few times in our lives and it can be a daunting experience, particularly when it comes to making a decision about a survey. We asked Joe Arnold, managing director at Arnold & Baldwin Chartered Surveyors1 , to give us straight answers to 10 frequently asked questions about choosing a property survey, so you have all the essential information at your fingertips.

I’ve already had a mortgage valuation – isn’t that the same thing as a survey?

“No. A mortgage valuation is undertaken on behalf of a mortgage lender to help it decide whether it’s happy to lend money against the property you are buying. It isn’t designed to identify any required repairs or maintenance issues at the property. You may be able to spot some more basic issues yourself, but a survey goes deeper, identifying problems that may not be obvious, such as subsidence or roof damage. A good surveyor will look in drains, go into the loft and look for asbestos or lead pipes. These are things that homebuyers rarely do during their viewings!”

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Do I have to get a property survey carried out before I buy a house?

“Surveys are optional, but always recommended. A survey result can help you feel confident about your purchase; or it may flag problems that may otherwise surprise you later down the line. Structural issues or underlying problems, such as damp, may even make you rethink your purchase, or give you cause to renegotiate your offer price.

Before you appoint a surveyor, go through the terms of engagement with them so that you’re clear on what’s covered by the survey and what’s not included. This way, you’ll get the level of service you need.”

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Is it worth me getting a survey if I’m selling? Can’t I just leave it to the buyer?

“Forewarned is forearmed. If you know you have a defect with your home, a report up front can de-risk the issue for the buyer, giving them additional confidence rather than cold feet. It can help you decide at what price to put your property on the market. It can also highlight if it’s worth investing extra time and money renovating parts of your property to boost its selling price.”

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How much does a survey cost?

“Surveys can cost anything from £350 to £2,000, but you shouldn’t be driven by the fee. Instead, consider exactly what you want to find out, and also the age and size of your property, and its location. There are different levels of survey available, from a basic Condition Report, which will pick up major issues such as rot or subsidence, to a comprehensive Building Survey, that highlights all visible issues, provides solutions to the problems and maintenance tips. It can also provide you with an indication of the costs to repair damaged items. Often, items flagged up in surveys run into thousands of pounds, so the price of a survey should be seen as an investment rather than a cost.”

Before you settle on a survey, ask your surveyor to explain the basis of the fee, so you know what you’re getting for your money.

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My estate agent has recommended a surveyor to me. Should I use them?

“When choosing a surveyor, check they are accredited by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) as this means they meet professional standards. It’s also worth checking whether the surveyor is affiliated with the estate agent to ensure there’s no conflict of interest. Ask, too, whether there are any referral fees being paid so you can understand the true independence of the surveyor. You can find recommended surveyors in your area through RICS or the HomeOwners Alliance.

Choosing a local surveyor can be an advantage as they should be familiar with the cost and condition of similar properties in that area, but make sure the surveyor actually is local. Ask for their name and confirm they are employed by the company you are talking to. Often a survey might be sub-contracted and the company you think you are working with isn’t actually undertaking the survey.”

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What can I do to make sure the surveyor does a good job?

“The first thing is to choose a surveyor based on quality and recommendations rather than price. Ask whether they are genuinely local and how many surveys they have undertaken in the area within the last 12 months. Check on the RICS website how long the surveyor has been qualified.

Your surveyor needs full access to the property on the day of the survey, including lofts, cellars and garages. This could include making sure the surveyor has access to the correct keys, for example, or ensuring the property is tidy so they can do a thorough job.

If you have spotted issues which caused you concern during your viewings, make sure you tell the surveyor in advance. A surveyor might not judge the issue worthy of explanation within their report but that doesn’t mean to say it isn’t an issue for you. Communication is the key. Transparency provides confidence, so choose your surveyor in the same way you would choose your doctor or solicitor.”

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Infographic about what does a surveyor do and look for in a house survey

I’m buying a new build. Do I need a survey?

“It’s not uncommon to hear horror stories in the media of problems related to new builds, especially if you are a leaseholder – so yes, a survey is a good idea. Instead of a traditional survey you could ask for a ‘snagging survey’, which will highlight cosmetic defects like missing cupboard handles, paint splashes or misaligned doors.

As an example, I undertook a snagging survey on a 5-bedroom house built by a national house builder and found more than 80 issues. The investment in the survey certainly paid dividends.”

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I want to buy a ‘listed’ house. Will this make a difference?

“Although most home surveyors are knowledgeable about all types of property, it’s a good idea to get specialist advice if you’re buying a period or listed property, so ask whether the inspecting surveyor has experience of surveying listed buildings.

More generally, if a surveyor identifies a problem they believe a specialist should look at, they will flag this up in their report. For example, there might be restrictions on the kind of renovations that can be carried out.”

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I don’t understand my survey results. What can I do?

"Once a surveyor has completed their survey, they’ll usually call you to explain the findings before putting their report together. If there is anything that’s unclear in the report, ask for clarification and check what the cost implications may be. You could also choose to inspect the property with the surveyor. This should help to clarify the report as the surveyor will have the opportunity to show you the issues on site."

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The survey results were terrible. Is there anything I can do?

“The surveyor should be able to guide you through the process, whether they feel the property is suitable, and whether they consider any defects to be severe. If you’re not happy to take on the work, you should ask the vendor to put the issues right; the property is still theirs, so the problem is theirs. If they don't want to undertake the work or reduce the price, that could prompt you to reconsider the purchase. When you’re spending hundreds of thousands of pounds, it’s important to make sure you are confident and happy. Your surveyor is there to help you protect your investment.”

Read our article Confessions of a Builder for tips on commissioning building work.

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Other considerations

If you’re buying your first home or moving house, make sure you have the right cover in place. You can protect your home and what’s in it with building and contents insurance.

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