House-buyers `get a raw deal over defective surveys'

House-buyers are getting a raw deal from surveyors, it is claimed today. Too many defects are missed in surveys, avenues of redress are "totally inadequate" and the courts are adopting a blinkered and illogical interpretation of the law "which denies proper compensation to innocent consumers''. Keith Richards, a senior lawyer at the Consumers' Association, says the financial consequences for householders are enormous. The two main professional bodies regulate admission and advertise the merits of using qualified surveyors "but effectively turn their back on consumers who have lost out at the hands of an incompetent professional".

Writing in Consumer Policy Review, published by the association, Mr Richards says the profession, which is regulated by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the Incorporated Society of Valuers and Auctioneers, has lagged behind others in adopting schemes for dealing with grievances.

Consumers with allegations of negligence soon hit a "complaints brick wall". In other businesses, these walls have crumbled. "The surveying industry is one of the few areas left unchanged by the move towards more positive and fairer complaints handling systems."

The type and extent of defects which go unnoticed by surveyors is "astonishing" - dry rot, substantial damp and woodworm, subsidence and many other structural faults, according to Mr Richards.

Standard surveyors' reports are also "models of litigation avoidance, peppered with attempts to take away the customers' right to claim if they happen to miss anything during their inspection". These include terms such as "couldn't inspect", "can't comment on", and "recommend you get a specialist report on". Such phrases "infest the forms like an attack of dry rot in an old house. Fortunately many terms are thrown out by the courts as unreasonable".

However, the Court of Appeal and "commercially minded" judges are interpreting the law on negligence claims in a way that benefits surveyors and "adds insult to the injury" already suffered by consumers.

The proper way to treat cases where negligence against a surveyor has been proved would be to award the householder the cost of the repairs needed to bring a house to the condition claimed for it in the initial report.

Instead, the Court of Appeal has awarded complainants the difference between the amount the buyers paid for the house and what the market value would have been if the defects had been correctly diagnosed - usually a much smaller sum.

In one landmark decision a couple paid £177,500 for a house which the surveyor's report said was sound, stable, and in good condition. When they asked for a quotation from a builder for minor defects mentioned in the report, more serious faults were discovered: the roof had to be renewed, chimneys and main walls repointed and areas extensively treated for woodworm.

The repairs cost £33,691, but the court reduced this to £15,000. The complainants' costs were also reduced from £8,000 to £1,500.

A spokesman for the RICS said the vast majority of people who commissioned surveys were "highly satisfied".

He denied that reports were designed to avoid litigation, adding: "Surveyors cannot see behind walls and without the current owner's permission they cannot lift fitted carpets or shift wardrobes. The wording is designed to make clear what has been lookedat."