Property: `Requires investigation': the dreaded words that can make a survey valueless

Eighty per cent of people, through either naivety or stupidity, do not have a full survey carried out when buying a house. They rely on valuation reports, a much less complete picture of the property. Ginetta Vedrickas, who was one of them, offers her personal excuses, but wonders whether a full survey would have helped anyway.

I admit it. I relied solely on the valuation report for what is, yes, I know, the most important purchase I'm ever likely to make.

My feeble excuse is that I loved the house so much that I didn't want to know about its faults. I'm feeble but I'm not alone. Are the smug 20 per cent better off than me when things go wrong?

Karl Poll and Caroline Scott rejected two houses after surveys revealed major problems. They believed a building survey, often called a full structural survey, was worthwhile for the third house they saw.

Mr Poll chose a surveyor from the phone book: "We wanted the reassurance of an expert opinion. We talked a lot, and he seemed passionate about houses, which inspired confidence." Mr Poll and Ms Scott received a "huge report which the surveyor went through in exhaustive detail." It mentioned dry rot and suggested "further investigation". But the surveyor reassured Mr Poll and Ms Scott that it looked like a localised attack, so they need not worry.

On completion day Mr Poll walked upstairs and immediately spotted dry rot in a different place to the "localised spot".

"I spent a nightmare Saturday ripping plaster off walls. It was horrible finding more and more, and realising how much it would cost."

The three-storey home was riddled from basement to rafters, and cost pounds 13,000 to put right. But should they have sought specialist advice on the dry rot?

"I trusted the surveyor's judgement," says Mr Poll. He believes the surveyor should have spotted the extent of the problem or advised them to investigate: "The report was full of trivia, and more significant things were lost. It was impossible to judge, because it was peppered with stock phrases such as `requires further investigation'."

Mr Poll and Ms Scott spent three months in temporary accommodation while their house was being repaired. Were they tempted to sue?

"There was probably nothing we could have done, considering the number of caveats in the report, and after the trauma the last thing we wanted was a legal battle."

Would they have a survey next time round?

"I'd trust my own judgement, rather than rely on a so-called expert," says Mr Poll.

A surveyor who wishes to remain nameless insists that he and his colleagues are put in an impossible position. "Vendors jump up and down if we try to have a good look, and buyers leap on us because they haven't understood the more significant aspects. Fear of litigation makes us stick in caveats left, right and centre, and reports become worthless."

David Parkin, a chartered surveyor, believes that trivia does creep into reports, and that much hinges on the definition of "significant": "For one punter a leaky tap staining the bath is significant; to another it's irrelevant."

But he believes that talking to clients can lead to misunderstandings, and is unnecessary if the surveyor has written a good report: "What I think I've said is not what you think I've said." He advises buyers to read reports while walking around the property, rather than rely on a telephone conversation with their surveyor.

Thalia Thomas, principal researcher at Which? magazine, believes buyers can minimise the problems by choosing the right survey for their property, and by making sure they find a good surveyor: "Speak to a few, and find one you feel comfortable with. A good surveyor should go through the report with you word for word."

Ms Thomas is also concerned about jargon: "Language should be clear and easy to understand," she insists.

Terence Denman, consultant to the Plain English Campaign, uses surveyors' reports as examples of how not to write: "They're absolutely addicted to writing in a dull, tedious way. Perhaps they think people are impressed by long reports, but they're soporific, and you switch off."

What are your legal rights, if it can be proved that the surveyor made a serious mistake when assessing your property? Well, the cards are stacked against home-buyers. Even if you are able to prove in court that the surveyor missed major faults that later prove expensive to rectify, you will still have to show that the property would have been worth a minimum of 10 per cent less than other, comparable homes in the area, if you are to win compensation.

In some cases, this 10 per cent limit may in fact be higher, if the house is of unusual design or there are few comparable properties in the neighbourhood.

Harriet Johns is a rare case of someone who won such a legal battle, albeit out of court. One of the 20 per cent who had a survey done, she didn't "switch off". A survey of her Victorian property had shown no major problems. All was well until cracks appeared: "They were everywhere, and went all the way through the walls."

An independent engineer found no subsidence, as Ms Johns had feared, but the roof had been replaced and not adequately strengthened. Ms Johns started a legal battle for compensation: "It was lengthy and stressful, and by the end I dreaded opening letters." Ms Johns found the costs enormous both financially and emotionally. Three years later the surveyor settled out of court and paid her pounds 8,000 towards the cost of repairs and legal bills.

For those unable to face a legal battle there's always arbitration, a process which, until last week, could safely be described as farcical. Surveyors had to agree to attend and, unsurprisingly, only 68 cases were heard in 10 years.

But the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors voted, at their extraordinary general meeting on Thursday, to make arbitration compulsory from next year. This move gives the chance of redress to buyers who are dissatisfied with a survey if they feel they have been misadvised.

Perhaps the 20 per cent are right to be smug, after all.

l Valuation report, around pounds 170, is for the building society's security. It is not a survey.

l Home buyers' survey and valuation, around pounds 330, not for older or unusual properties.

l Building survey, around pounds 450. A detailed but not exhaustive report. Make sure you understand the more significant findings, and be prepared to pay for specialist investigation for problem areas.

l Any problems? Arbitration is compulsory from next year, and will cost pounds 200. A quick, inexpensive way to get an independent decision on your case without going to court.