By Clare Matheson
BBC News business reporter
With 30% more property on the market now than at the same time last year, sellers get just 93% of their asking price.
Some nasty surprises only crop up after a buyer moves in
In such a buyer's market, a survey can be the clincher for any deal.
Most experts insist extensive surveys offer peace of mind, yet just one in five buyers choose one that goes beyond the basic mortgage valuation survey.
Many buyers distrust surveys which they say are too expensive and offer little useful advice, and some within the building trade agree.
Mortgage Survey - costs about £200, really just a valuation survey for the mortgage company's purposes to make sure it's worth lending you the money.
Homebuyer Survey - average cost £450, advises only on areas of the property that are visible, which means surveyors cannot lift floorboards or knock holes in the wall to check for damp and other problems.
Structural Survey - costs upward of £700, gives a true 'warts and all' picture of a property.
"Some surveys aren't worth the paper they're written on," says Midlands builder Gary Hall. "You don't get what you pay for."
Stories abound of hidden defects not detected by surveyors, such as untraced damp, electrical faults or roofing problems.
Horror stories abound too - such as the one about the wall that fell away from the side of a building after a boiler that was holding the house together was removed.
"Surveyors come along wearing suits, so they don't check everything properly - get in the loft or look under the floorboards," says Mr Hall.
"They use damp meters which go off if there's moisture on their hands, so its a waste of money."
For buyers, who have often already stretched their finances, major unforeseen problems can be disastrous.
Could that paint job be covering something more suspicious?
While for sellers, there is the problem of surveyors who point to potential problems as a matter of course without giving any indication of its likelihood.
"Some reports do say 'there could be rising damp, get it checked', but I'm of the view that the surveyor should be making these decisions," Peter Bolton King of the National Association of Estate Agents says.
Critics insist such reports are written by surveyors keen to cover their backs, only to be used by buyers to force down prices even when the seller knows that there is no problem to be found.
Nevertheless, surveyors insist that being able to recommend further investigation is vital.
"We are jacks of all trades," says chartered surveyor Miles Shipside, property expert at Rightmove.
"I'm not saying we're masters of none, but there are specialists and so we do recommend further investigation by a specialist when needed.
"It's the biggest investment of a person's life so its worth being a detective and not being sorry in the future."
Few people complain about duff surveys, according to the trade body, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS).
There are two formal routes for complaints; either via RICS or via the National Association of Estate Agents.
IF IT ALL GOES WRONG
Complain to the surveyor.
If you're still not happy complain to the trade body your surveyor belongs to - either the NAEA or RICS. A RICS complaint procedure costs £235. If you win more than £3,000, you may be liable for fees up to £1,125. Not available for claims worth more than £50,000
Go to the small claims court for claims up to £5,000 - a lower cost legal option
For claims above £5,000, consult your solicitor about legal action, but this could be costly
Yet, just 22 cases went to arbitration in 2001. By 2003, the number had dropped to 20.
"Mostly people have to go to court," says Emma Harrison of consumer watchdog Which.
But the cost can put people off. For example, if a survey didn't pick up on the fact you needed a new roof, which will cost £8,000, would you want to fork out another £8,000 on legal action to get your money back?
"The biggest difficulty is that a survey provides a 'snapshot in time', so if something goes wrong, like a crack appears that wasn't there when the survey was carried out, it's the surveyors' word against yours," Ms Harrison adds.
The consumer watchdog is calling for RICS to extend its Scottish Ombudsman service south of the border.
Surveys should pick up many prospective problems with a house
In Scotland, the service is free and covers complaints of maladministration, negligence, incompetence and claims for loss of up to £25,000.
This is unlikely to happen as there is already another plan in train to change the system.
By late 2006, with the introduction of the Home Information Pack, the onus would be on sellers to get their home checked by surveyors and make any information available to prospective buyers.
The government also intends to bring in an independent redress scheme, though critics are not convinced that this will do much to rebuild house buyers' trust in surveys.
Have you had a survey nightmare, or are you a despairing surveyor who feels people should have faith in your work?
The debate is now closed. The following comments reflect the balance of opinion we received:
My sister's mortgage lender demanded a full survey be carried out by its own recommended surveyor. The report claimed "floorboards weren't accessible due to covering" - the house had stripped, varnished floors. There was no evidence that the surveyor ever actually entered the property.
When I bought my first property I was led to believe all I needed was a homebuyers survey. After the sale and getting to know my new home uncovered numerous problems that did not show up on the survey. Homebuyers surveys are frankly a complete waste of money. Next time I will get the full structural survey.
Craig G, UK
In my experience, the survey is used by the buyer's solicitor and mortgage lender to kick up a fuss, despite the buyer wanting to go ahead. My advice: get the basic valuation survey required by the lender, then commission your own in depth survey direct from the surveyors. You'll avoid paying the huge mark-up levied by the mortgage company and you get to make your own decision about whether you want to take on the risk of any problems found.
Antony King, England
Are we surprised that in such a litigious society that we now live in that surveyors add as many disclaimers as possible - "it MAY have rising damp". To get an 'honest' opinion I request a verbal report only. It saved me from buying a house where one wall was collapsing.
Surveyors have by the nature of the job to cover themselves and the end result is almost meaningless - a black and meaningless picture which will often put you off a property. My advise is to employ a GOOD builder to go round the property with you. Make it clear that you will pay him for his time and do not dangle the promise of work under his nose as incentive. What is the cost of an expensive builder for a couple of hours compared to a full structural survey? - very little.
John Denson, UK
As a Chartered Surveyor who has specialised in residential surveys for around 30 years, I can say that any surveyor, doing a Homebuyer or Building Survey, who does not enter a loft when there is a big enough access trap, may indeed be negligent unless there is a good reason for not doing so, in which case the surveyor should explain it. The Terms of Engagement surveyors work within are clearly set out & there are common sense limitations. Obviously surveyors will not indiscriminately rip up fitted carpets to look under floors, but they should certainly be able to report on suspicions of problems if there is good reason so to do; this inevitably sometimes then necessitates further inspection when the carpets & floorboards may have to be taken up. Moisture meters are extremely effective tools when used correctly, but are far from the only means of assessing damp problems. The forthcoming Home Condition Report will become the standard and will be undertaken by specialised inspectors who have very focused training for the task: they will know how to do it properly & there will be no reason to lack confidence in them. In particular, first time buyers are often the most vulnerable in the housing market and they will benefit tremendously from the Home Condition Report. And incidentally, I never wear a suit!
Richard, Devon, England
We paid £500 for a full structural survey on our house which we bought last August, thinking that this would highlight any problems. The surveyor missed a huge hole in the roof (he admitted fault and footed the bill), rampant woodworm, a boiler that was so dead it needed replacing, and the fact the house needed rewiring. Apparently the latter two weren't in his 'remit', and the woodworm wasn't obvious. I feel cheated out of our money, and wonder what was the point in having the survey done in the first place.
Helen , UK
It is money for old rope. When I sold my parents rambling old house, 8 different surveyors inspected it for different prospective purchasers, all said the same thing, "yes it is worth the asking price". Nothing was said about the condition of the building. Money for nothing!
M Thomas, UK
My one and only experience with a survey resulted in the surveyor telling my mortgage company that there was a toilet next to the kitchen (there wasn't). The imaginary toilet resulted in a delay to my mortgage, whilst the surveyors refused to admit they had made a mistake. At one point I had to consider building a dividing wall between the kitchen and the toilet that wasn't there. It eventually took a solicitor's letter and a report from the local council to fix the situation. The surveyor never admitted their mistake, and you have to wonder just how thorough their 'survey' was!
Dave Lister, UK
I write to you as a practising Chartered surveyor who undertakes all forms of survey on a daily basis. I disagree most strongly with the remarks made by your builder spokesman, Mr G Hall. Regrettably the standard of the average builders work is far from satisfactory, and many of their ilk would struggle to write a coherent report on the general structure and condition of a property, let a lone repair it. Very regrettably, in this increasingly compensation orientated society, you cannot blame a surveyor for "defensive" report writing . It is patently obvious that Mr Hall has never witnessed the preparation of a survey, nor, (from his comments) does he know how a moisture meter works. I have always been trained to be the eyes and ears of an intending purchaser, and it is a duty which I take very seriously, and with some pride in my ability. Over the years I have saved my many clients thousands of pounds, and given many more peace of mind and confidence to proceed with their purchase.
C Ennis FRICS (Chartered Surveyor), UK
When our house was under offer our buyers had a survey done without our knowledge. The surveyor turned up without having access to the property and made a report saying that a bay window was coming away from the wall. We had a builder round who dismissed the claim. However, the buyers refused to proceed with the sale. How could the surveyor produce a full report without having access to the property and how many other people are losing buyers because of over cautious and poor surveying?
If you take a look at the surveys they are full of caveats, get-out clauses, disclaimers and the like so not really telling you anything useful. And talk about stating the obvious. Gems such as "The house is constructed of bricks, with a tiled roof, ...the house has central heating, but it was not possible to check its operation, ...Windows appear to be double glazed and function properly." Perhaps they are taught by the same tutors that tell garage mechanics to take a sharp intake of breath before saying "that's going to cost you." I guess surveyors use a tick box system and then a computer spits out the gobble-de-gook. Thank you very much that will be £500 please sir.
Nice way to make a living.
David, Bristol UK
We paid £800 for a full structural survey on the house we had offered £90,000. It flagged up mostly things we had noticed anyway such as a new kitchen/bathroom was required and the garage was of no use. However it recommended £5,000 was required to update the property, the bank then reduced their mortgage offer to £85K, and the seller was forced to drop the price. To us it was the best £800 spent since we got £5K off the price of the house we bought. I would definitely get a full structural survey.
Jo, Manchester, UK
I have paid for several house surveys in the UK and I am convinced they are a rip-off. I have recently purchased a house in Oz (4 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms) and paid for a pre-purchase Home Inspection. The guy started under the house and finished on the roof. Before he left he gave me an 18 page report not only listing the defects but giving the urgency and estimated costs of repair (but not touting for the work himself). The cost of this? Just 300 Aussie dollars - less than the cost of a UK Mortgage Survey!
Alan Lee, Australia
I used to work as an estate agent a few years ago and had to arrange surveys for buyers on properties. In many cases whenever the surveyor used to find anything wrong with the property such as damp or suspected wall-tie failure they used to recommend a specialist look at it, which ended up costing the buyers even more money. This was the case even in full structural surveys which personally I felt defeated the point. I always recommended buyers go for a homebuyers report which is pretty thorough as a specialist report would be recommended if anything major came to light and at lest the survey was a few hundred pounds cheaper.
pier pistocchi, England
The Home Information Pack sounds like a good idea until you realise that the mortgage lenders say that they will still insist on their own surveys. If the lenders do not trust the Home Information Pack why should buyers?
Richard Read, London, UK
When I sold my house in the UK last year a surveyor sent by the Halifax Building Society told the prospective buyer that there was evidence of woodworm. I knew there was no woodworm and refused to drop the price. The buyer called in a specialist firm who confirmed there was no woodworm and the sale went ahead but I felt sorry for the buyer who had to pay for the unnecessary inspection. If the surveyor had done his job properly the buyer would have been spared this expense.
Ignacio McIntyre, Spain
I think that surveys are amongst the biggest cons within the con that is the housing sector. Not only do you have to pay for a survey to cover a Bank's interests, but it seems that the surveyor is not professionally liable for the survey, irrespective of whichever survey the house buyer commissions.
RICS states that few people dispute the surveys its members carry out which I'm not surprised about because they are so non-committal about much of their recommendations that legally you don't have a case. The report comes with various disclaimers which make you wonder what it is worth if the surveyor is not prepared to stand by his recommendations. Surveyors recommend getting different 'experts' to check timbers, roofs, electrics etc. At a cost of £400 for 40 minutes work how much is en expert going to cost?
We had a survey for a new home - When we moved in, found that a rug hung on a wall contained a 4 foot by 5 foot damp patch - I complained to the survey company who basically covered their backs and there wasn't anyone I could turn to
In my experience of moving house several times surveys are poor value for money. If you are a DIY-er then read a few books and inspect the property yourself. In all cases I have found several faults that surveyors missed - in one case woodworm around the loft hatch when the surveyor said the loft was woodworm free, and another that the rainwater drainage could not be checked due to the dry weather when it was clearly visible that several gullies had large cracks. You have been warned.
I've paid for 4 surveys - 3 basic valuations and one full surveyors structural report. The latter was 5 times the price of the others and was full of caveats and clauses that it was a complete waste of money. I have found surveyors are terrified of being sued - and even when they miss key problem areas; if you go back to them for recourse, they whine and deny their negligence- but still want paying. All in all I agree- they are not worth the paper they are printed on.
Max R., England
When I bought my first house I was so scared of losing money I got an extended survey that was meant to tell me about the condition of the house. It was the one thing I bought that was a complete, unambiguous, rip off. For my 350 pounds (in 1999) I got 8 pages of platitudes, most of which were obviously part of a standard form. It included recommending I get the woodwork checked, despite the written evidence the wood had been treated and no evidence of a recurrence. He also told me the pink flocked wall paper was 'old fashioned decoration' (and there was me thinking...) The real proof the surveyor was clueless was his recommendation I get additional loft insulation and mentioned how cheaply it could be bought rolled out between wooden beams. But the loft had been converted so it was physically impossible to lay unless nailed to the roof tiles. Of the four professions whose comfortable livings depend on fleecing house buyer, surveyors are easily the most corrupt. Since they are competing with lawyers, bankers and estate agents that is some achievement!
Surveys are a waste of well earned cash. Surveyors don't get their hands dirty and only look for the obvious. I forked out $500 for a survey and it came out clear although 2 months later I had a damp problem. It's time the government put in legislation and helped us hard working citizens for a change.
paul brownn, England
Having had several full surveys on different properties I believe them to be of little real practical value. Much of the reports are written from a template and contain standard comments, and protecting the surveyor against claims is foremost in the mind of the authors.
Then, saying that, in some circumstances they can make a good last minute bargaining tool (they always highlight the worst points).
There are so many get clauses and caveats put into Surveyors Reports that they are not worth the paper they are printed on. In my opinion it is another example of "rip off" Britain, people paying for services that prove to be useless and of no value. The Buyers Pack will not help the seller or buyer because no surveyor will put anything in a report that they could later be held to later. Get out phrases and caveats will become an art form.
Graham Brown, England
A few years ago, we had problems with a survey when selling a property. An over-cautious buyers survey called for a specialist report to check the foundations, which WE agreed to pay for, to get the sale moving. The report produced was riddled with inaccuracies, and would have been a problem for us selling, but fortunately, as we had paid for it, we were able to complain loudly to the company who organised it. In the end, it was re-done by a competent surveyor, and all was well, but we had to put up with an abusive phone call from the original bad surveyor, telling us that we didn't have the right to complain about him, and threatening to sue us! So, although we didn't like paying a few hundred pounds for the survey in the first place, in the end it proved useful that WE were the client.
Dave Harvey, UK
I am a residential chartered surveyor working for a major lender. In respect to the article's dissatisfaction with surveyors calling for specialist reports, for defects identified which include dampness and electrical problems etc. I consider an analogy would be that a surveyor / valuer is similar to a GP. We need to have knowledge of a wide range of defects and the different guises they may manifest themselves in a surface inspection. It would be impossible for the average surveyor / valuer to have the detailed specialist knowledge to diagnose the exact cause and remedy for every defect in a building. As an industry I consider that we take a great deal of pride and care in our work and are fully aware that people on a tight budget and taking out a 95% mortgage are going to be most affected by any hidden defects, but these are the precise people who should be having a detailed report to ensure they can budget for any repairs. Surveys and valuations are just the same as everything else in life: 'You get what you pay for'.
Surveyors put lots of catch all statements about getting things checked further to cover their backs. And as said in the report it is a snapshot in time. Perhaps what is needed is for past surveys on a property to be made available to the buyer as well - which can help pinpoint any potential loner term problems
richard beaumont, UK
When I sold my last house, the buyer's surveyor never got any further than the front hall; He asked, "Central heating work OK?" I told him it did. "Ever had any structural work done?" I told him I hadn't (which wasn't strictly true). "Good, well, thanks a lot, cheerio." Total time the survey took: less than a minute. DON'T rely on the Mortgage companies survey. Pay the extra and get a full survey!
Lawrence Whitmore, UK