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Surveys and Searches – what's the difference?

When you’re buying a house for the first time you come across a couple of words that you’ve probably never heard before –  ’Searches’ and ‘Survey’. I don’t know if it’s because both words start with an ‘S’ or both sound like some sort of investigation is involved but we find it’s quite common for people to get the two things confused. I thought I’d just do a short blog that explain what each of these things are.
Here’s a quick answer in a few words:-
Searches are a list of questions that are sent to other organisations, asking them questions about the property – they check their records and let us have a response. That response is known as a search (yes I know technically it should be an ‘answer’ but this is legal stuff here – the terms used are seldom logical)
A Survey is a report on the physical state of the property that will be carried out by a surveyor – he/she visits the property and writes a report on it.
Now for a bit more detail….
It used to be that the searches would be carried out (i.e. sent off) by the buyers solicitors on the property you are buying. Then HIPs came along in 2007, and changed things – so that now (at the time of writing) the seller has to do some searches on the property as part of the Home Information Pack (or HIP), and make them available free of charge to the buyer. However the seller is only legally obliged to carry out Local Authority and water board searches – there may be other searches that need to be done on this property and chances are the seller won’t have done them (because they’d have to pay for them). So this means it’s a bit of a mix – the buyers solicitor will get some of the searches from teh HIP and any that are also needed will have to be ordered afresh.
There are actually quite a number of fairly exotic (yes I should probably get out more) searches available for specific problems in specific areas. However here is a list of the main ones that we come across:-
“Local” or “Local Authority” Search – we send this request to the Local Authority. It will confirm a number of things including the planning history for the property, whether the roads fronting the property are adopted (i.e. down to the council to look after or are they private), if it is a listed building, whether there are any proposals for a motorway at the bottom of your garden, etc. If any entries are revealed on the search your solicitor will need to ask more questions – either getting the sellers solicitor to sort it out or by going direct to the council. This should be included in any HIP.
Water” or “Drainage” Search – this is sent to the local water authority. It answers a number of standard questions about water flowing to and from the property, covering things like whether the property is connected to the main drains, whether the water supply is direct from the water or via someone else’s land, and whether the property is on a water meter or not. This should be included in any HIP.
Environmental Search – These started to appear about 10 years ago, and suddenly gave people a whole new load of things to worry about! The search reveals the history of the site on which the property has been built, letting you know any material factors such as whether it has been built on a waste or landfill site, or if the property is within a flood plain. This search doesn’t have to be in the HIP, and so it almost never is.
Mining Search – If the property is within a mining area we will also carry out a coal authority search, which will check when the last workings were in the area, whether there has been been a claim for compensation for subsidence damage on the property, and if so how the claim was settled. If a claim is revealed we may request the sellers Solicitors to provide a Schedule of Repairs from the Coal Authority so that we can provide you details of whether the claim was settled by repairs or compensation, and if compensation, how much was received. This search doesn’t have to be in the HIP, and so it almost never is, even if the property is in a mining area.
How much do they cost? the problem here is that there are actually 400 Local Authorities,  20 water authorities, and probably about the same number of private organisations providing the same information. The cost for a Local and Water search together can be anything from £120 to £300, depending on the council, and where you order them from.
One last point on searches… As the Local and Water search will have been done by the seller, there can often be a gap between carrying out the search and a buyer being found. It then becomes relevant to ask how long the search will last. Technically (i.e. with a lawyer hat on) a search is out of date the day after it is produced – for example in the case of a Local search the council could decide to put a motorway through your house the day after the search is produced. In reality you have to use a rule of thumb for  deciding whether a search can still be relied upon. Searches are generally considered to be good for about 6 months – if they are near or over that age then it is sensible to carry out new searches (which will cost more money and also delay things slightly while you wait for them to come back) – at the point at which you exchange contracts you should have a reliable set of searches available.
You can actually keep Local and Water searches alive by paying for an insurance policy (costs about £30 – £40 which is considerably cheaper than the cost of new searches) – to do this your mortgage company has to be OK with this (almost all of them are though).
That’s enough about searches to last you a lifetime. Now let’s move onto surveys….
As I said above, a survey is a report on the physical state of the property you are buying, so to prepare a survey someone (usually a surveyor) will need to visit the property and have a look around.
There are basically 3 different types of survey available – a basic valuation, a house buyers report and inspection, and a full structural survey.
A Basic valuation
This is really what it says on the tin – a report that sets out what the valuer thinks the house is worth. It will usually also make some comment about the physical state of the property and should cover any obvious defects. The Valuer/Surveyor will probably be in the house for 20 minutes to half an hour.
A House Buyers report and inspection
This is quite a bit more involved – the surveyor will spend several hours in the house, and the report that is produced will run to many pages and make the house sound like it is about to  fall down. The report can be useful as a guide to what maintenance you’ll need to carry out over the next few years.  This costs quite a bit more than a valuation.
A full structural survey
This moves things on again – it’s even more involved than the house buyers report. Normally this will be for examining a specific issue relating to the property such as a sagging roof. This will normally cost quite a bit more than a house buyers report.
If you’re buying with a mortgage then your mortgage company will insist that you have at least a valuation report carried out (You have to pay for this). Although you are paying for the valuation it is being carried out on behalf of the mortgage company – not you! the result of this is that you can’t generally sue the valuer for comments/statements made in a valuation report unless he has missed something totally obvious (such as a chimney breast removed but the chimney stack still in place above with no strengthening). You can still move up to one of the more in-depth reports and they surveyor will normally fill out the mortgage company’s valuation form as part of the fee.
If you are not having a Mortgage you can still arrange any of the surveys mentioned above independently with a valuer.
Hope this helps – if you have any questions arising from this then please don’t hesitate to ask in the form below

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