Home: Didn't you get a survey?


Over the last 16 months, if I had a pound for every time someone saw our house, or heard about what we've been doing and went 'oh, didn't you get a survey done?' I would have been rich enough to pay for someone else to take over absolutely every part of the work on our house. I don't know why people think this is a helpful thing to say. Here is a pictureless, wordy post where I attempt to explain surveys and what happened with our. So, hopefully, nobody will ask me this ridiculous question ever again. (Short answer is yes, of course we got a survey. The most expensive kind. But the surveyor wasn't a clairvoyant.)

When I left university, I took a lovely job as an administrator at a Chartered Surveyors office in my hometown in Scotland. These surveyors went out to properties and completed surveys and mortgage valuations for purchasers and lenders. The system is/was very slightly different in Scotland, or at least, what the surveys were called was different (I think it has all changed now in Scotland, and a vendor needs to provide a report when the house goes on the market, should I ever move back to Scotland, I'll have to investigate what its like not). Anyway, in my day, there was a Scheme 1 Survey, which was a straightforward mortgage valuation, quick look around, 3-4 page report, lots of standard phrases and paragraphs, valuation for mortgage purposes and rebuild purposes at the end. Boom. A Scheme 2 was a lengthier report, lots of info, plenty of pictures (which were never fun to insert into the template survey without ruining the layout of the report, as an aside!) 10-12 page report which we would staple into a fancy cover. It included the valuations as well. You can also get specialist and structural surveys, but the office I worked in didn't do those surveys. Im so glad I worked there, I learned a lot about how surveyors work and what phrases to worry about in surveys and what to stay calm about.

In England, the survey structures are loosely the same, mortgage valuation, Home Buyer's Report and then a Building Survey are available, along with specialist damp and structual surveys. We went for a building survey as the house was old and shabby looking. We also had to pay our lender to get a mortgage valuation done, which was a stinger, but the lender wanted their own surveyor out, so we sucked it up.

The thing about surveys, however, is this. No matter how much money you spend, no matter how great and experienced your surveyor is, he or she will never find everything. They don't lift carpets, they definitely dont lift up laminate flooring, they don't shift a whacking great welsh dresser to see what the vendor might be hiding behind it, they dont drill into walls, they can't see through plasterboard to see what's underneath, they don't get up a ladder to check out your chimney. There will be caveats about this in each and every survey they complete. They will miss things because there is no choice but to miss things. Unless you are sending them into a vacant property with no carpets, no wallpaper, no furniture, no anything, they will miss things because there is simply no possible way to see everything in a house.

Could we have complained to our surveyor about missing some of the major issues in our house? Perhaps, but its not likely to have gotten us anywhere. Our surveyor found damp in various parts of the house, but was not a damp expert so could only tell us where it was, not why or whether the treatment would cost loads of money - totally standard. Where the surveyor found damp, there was damp. The surveyor would never have found the dry rot we subsequently had 'diagnosed' in the floor timbers and joists, nor would he ever have known the issue is caused by us having no space between the joists and the sub-floor, so damp was drawn up through all the wood till the wood couldn't take any more and the boards fell apart. The surveyor did miss a large crack in the kitchen which, it turned out, was caused by a highly insufficient lintel in the kitchen which probably would have come crashing down in the end (don't worry! We've fixed it now). But to be honest, I missed the crack on my two viewings of the house had I paid attention to it, I would have asked the surveyor his opinion of it. All the surveyor would have said, upon reflection, was that it was worth getting a specialist to check it. A survey will tell you what, if any, problems there are that can be seen. Beyond that, its down to you to get more surveys or more experts in to tell you more about the issues and what can be done about them.

I'm not put off by our experience, we've just been unlucky. Pretty much every hidden problem a house could have, we've had it. It didnt occur to me that the pitfalls of buying a shabby house in need of work might be that people had neglected it so deeply that it carried major problems. Next time around, I'll be more prepared for that, I'll know what I want to look at closely at a viewing and I'll know what I want my surveyor to look at specifically.

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