Property: Let the buyer beware ... their surveyor and solicitor

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First-time buyers and veteran home-owners alike are sitting ducks. Shoddy surveys shoot us down. So do solicitors who swan off, and vendors with two faces and forked tongues. Overwhelmed by detail and legalese, we are ripe for plucking and gazumping. Robert Liebman visits the shooting range and discovers ways to avoid the quacks

Standing in what was soon to be her master bedroom, Pippa saw a sag in the ceiling. In fact, when she reached up, she actually touched the ceiling. She couldn't deal with this alarming situation, but she knew a man who could.

A communications manager, she had been living with her parents in Sussex, commuting to London, and property hunting in another part of Sussex. Good properties were scarce, and she was relieved to find a decent two-bedroom house.

Pippa had revisited the house only to measure up for furniture, not to look for flaws or structural defects. The lender's surveyor had found nothing amiss and approved the mortgage. Little stood in the way of a routine exchange and completion. Little, that is, except a ceiling seeking a cuddle with the floor.

Pippa consulted her father, and a few days later he examined the loft. "On a dull day, daylight streamed through a sizeable gap in the roof between the party wall and the roof. If it had been a sunny day, I could have read a book up there," he says.

This was no mere missing or slipped tile. And it wasn't new either. "There were many stained bricks beneath the gap, and you could see where pitch had trickled down along the brickwork. Someone had tried to fix it before."

The sellers had recently vacated and, his curiosity aroused, Pippa's father scoured the empty premises, which readily revealed its secrets. "I found large cracks in the cupboards, and damp under the stairs. Near the fireplace on the other side of the house, the carpet was so damp that it was squidgy to walk on."

He doubts that the surveyor really inspected the loft, and Pippa wonders how the buckling ceiling escaped her notice on her first viewing. She withdrew from the sale, promptly exchanged on another property, and completed. Not, alas, without new surprises in the form of three successive erroneous mortgage offers before the lender finally got the details right - the day before completion.

Hillary and Andy Morgan needed to correct their mortgage offer only once, but faced other, more troubling surprises when they sold their Old Amersham flat to buy a larger flat in High Wycombe. Because the new property contained neither a garden nor a lift, they anticipated a service charge approximately pounds 1,000 less than the actual amount.

Worrisome, too, was a clause in their lease, which had been scoured by Andy, who has a law degree. "We didn't realise that we would need the freeholder's permission to make internal changes," says Hillary, a marketing manager with publisher HarperCollins in west London. A twosome soon to be a threesome, they intended to convert a huge bathroom into a bedroom. "We had to show the architect's plans to the managing agent, and also pay a fee," she says.

At least their lease was comprehensible. Another recent buyer, Caren, had a lease which, taken literally, seemed to require permission for all internal changes, even down to modernising baths and showers. She intended to let the flat to foreigners, and an upgrading of many interior features was on the cards. Caren insisted on clarification, and it was forthcoming only after she threatened to take her custom elsewhere.

Even her own solicitor was stumped by the lease terminology. Indeed, when it comes to surprises, some solicitors are more problem than solution. For verification, ask anyone who, on exchange or completion or other crucial day, discovered that their solicitor was on the aptly-named Costa del Sol.

Caren received reassurances and quickly found a tenant after sprucing up the flat. The Morgans were safely delivered of a bouncing new flat. "No one was bolshie, and we got the permissions, but it delayed things," says Hillary. Completion was much nearer the baby's arrival than we'd anticipated."

Pippa prospered. She soon found a house far superior to the damp and crumbly premises that she probably would have been stuck with had she not gone to measure up.

Each enjoyed a satisfactory outcome. But each had also been deeply distressed by the unexpected and potentially costly hitches.

Hillary Morgan knows what to do next time. "Start sooner. Everything takes longer than you plan for." Pippa will never buy another property without commissioning her own survey. She might also take a lesson out of her father's book: conduct your own thorough survey, and borrow a ladder to look into the loft. Had she done so on her initial visit, she might have spared herself considerable anxiety.

Pippa also believes that "we worry too much about making pests of ourselves. It is up to us to ensure that our solicitors and others involved in the process provide the service they are supposed to provide."

Jane Tait allows you to pester her as much as you want or need to, for only a tenner. Her Home Buyers' Advisory Service, which she founded in 1985, primarily arranges mortgages. However, the pounds 10 entitles you to a 45-minute consultation, you don't have to arrange a mortgage with HBAS, and the fee includes unlimited phone calls during the conveyance, for advice or simply to whinge.

After Pippa completed, her parents sold their house to move nearer to her. Convinced about the necessity of nagging, they rang their estate agent and solicitor so often that BT recommended that they specify these phone numbers in their Friends and Family list.

Chance favours those who are prepared. Delve into the various documents. Most of us don't want to deal with large print, let alone small, but the deeds and leases contain vital details. You might be in for a beneficial, if not pleasant surprise.

Home Buyers' Advisory Service, 18 Seymour Place, London W1H 5WH; 0171 723 6001

Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, 12 Great George Street, Parliament Square, London SW1P 3AD; 0171 222 7000

The Law Society, 50 Chancery Lane, London WC2A 1SX; 0171 242 1222