Property: Good riddance to surveyors; now for the solicitors

DOCTOR ON THE HOUSE; Jeff Howell welcomes plans to scrap the mortgage valuation survey - and he's not stopping there
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The Independent Online
THE PROPOSED scrapping of mortgage valuation surveys sounds like bad news for surveyors but good news for home buyers. The need for an independent valuation when lending against property was enshrined by the Building Societies Act 1986. But this was when building societies were mutual societies, owned by their lenders and borrowers. Now most have become banks or been taken over by banks and are no longer bound by the Act; they can lend to whoever they like, whenever they like.

So if you want to buy a home, fine - it doesn't really matter what the place is worth; as long as you are in work, and with no black marks on your credit record, most mortgage lenders will advance you two or three times your annual salary. The more they lend, the more they get back in interest.

The idea that the property had to be redeemable in case you defaulted was always a bit of a red herring, because even in the depths of recession and negative equity most people kept paying the mortgage - on average, less than 5 per cent of mortgaged homes ever get repossessed. So the ranks of newly privatised mortgage lenders have calculated that they can risk losing out on a few dodgy mortgages and still make a profit. And of course if they can lend money over the phone, without the pesky business of getting a surveyor to look at the property first, it will give them a distinct marketing advantage over those building societies still hanging on to mutual status. And that, children, is what capitalism is all about.

As a horny-handed son of toil, I suppose I should be wary of all this free-market manoeuvring, but, in truth, I find it hard to lament the passing of the mortgage valuation survey. The whole exercise is an expensive bit of ritual where a bloke in a suit glances over the property, makes a few banal observations and then gives you a shopping list of other specialists - to take a closer look at your drains, electrics, damp-proof course, woodworm holes and wall ties. These "specialists", who know that your mortgage hinges on them giving a realistic-sounding estimate for some sort of work, are only too happy to oblige. Result? A thousand quid's worth of estimates, a thousand quid retained by the lender, and a noose tightening around your neck to persuade you to agree to everything.

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors says it was never keen on mortgage valuations anyway; it always recommends shelling out for the more expensive "homebuyer's survey and valuation". This might sound tempting advice, but apart from getting 10 pages of banalities instead of one, the end result is almost identical: the guy still turns up dressed in his best suit; he won't look under carpets, behind wardrobes or anywhere spiders might be hiding; and he still recommends that everything is checked by "specialists" in case any of his opinions might get him into trouble later.

It's high time surveyors were taken out of the home-buying equation altogether, closely followed by solicitors and their equally absurd conveyancing ritual. Even Adam Smith, that free-market favourite, said that whenever people of the same trade get together, the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public.

q You can contact Jeff Howell at the Independent on Sunday or by e-mail: