Check for faults before you buy

Find out if a home has had problems with fire, flood or break-in - even before the survey
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The Independent Online

Estate agents will, naturally enough, champion the selling points of a property: its location, its period features, its flexible internal layout.

Sellers - and their agents - are far less likely to point out the drawbacks. It is down to the buyer to work out what these are. But if you ask a direct question about a property, the seller or the estate agent is obliged to give a truthful answer. This is especially important when it comes to the condition of a property, and whether it has suffered in the past from problems such as subsidence or flooding. A survey should pick up these problems, but buyers can take steps to discover some of this information early on, and before they go to the expense of a professional survey.

Buyers concerned about the risks facing a property should take a cue from the insurance industry. Over the years, insurers have compiled vast databases analysing risks ranging from flood and storm damage to burglaries or domestic fires.

Insurance underwriters use these data-bases - based on claims information as well as external data such as flood analyses and metrological reports - to calculate the right premiums for buildings and contents insurance. But insurance underwriters' own experience is also a good guide to the warning signs.

Some buyers would shy away from a property with a history of break ins or one that is vulnerable to fire or flood. Other buyers might be more sanguine, but will want to factor in the cost of preventative measures when it comes to making an offer. And the chance of a property being at risk is higher than you might think.

A survey by Privilege Insurance found that five per cent of households had suffered a break in in the last four years. One per cent had suffered a fire.

Privilege found that five per cent of properties had been flooded, three per cent had suffered vandalism and 12 per cent had suffered other damage or breakages.

Despite this, home owners seem blasé about precautions. Only a quarter of homes have a burglar alarm; a quarter of home owners also leave keys to the property under a doormat or in another, obvious place.

The Environment Agency website (SEPA in Scotland) provides flood information free of charge, so buyers looking at coastal homes or properties near rivers can check for flood risks before they start to search for properties.

A home that has flooded before can be more expensive to insure. James Gore, spokesman for Privilege, suggests looking for tell-tale signs such as rotten floorboards or damp patches on walls. Would-be buyers can then ask the seller directly if the property has been damaged by floods in the past. Fire risk is more difficult to assess, but Gore says that looking at the electrical fittings, heating and hot water will give some clues. Older installations are more likely to be at risk. "Are there ample modern sockets in the property, does the cooker meet modern safety regulations, and is the heating system modern and efficient?" he asks.

Buyers should also check whether there is a good escape route in case of fire; this is especially important in flats. A new-build or recently built property should also have a mains-powered smoke detector system. For older properties, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are cheap and are on sale in DIY stores.

Finding out whether a property is likely to be at risk of crime is rather harder. Police crime statistics - available on websites such as UpMyStreet - will give a general idea of which areas are vulnerable, but they do not take into account either the security measures on an individual house or the behaviour of the owner.

For a general view of security in an area, the local police beat or crime prevention officer can help. Mr Gore also suggests talking to neighbours, and looking at the physical protection of the house itself. "Examine the doors and locks: these are tell tale signs of how well the property is protected," he says. This costs nothing, and will reduce insurance premiums too.

Useful websites:

Environment Agency: www.environmentagency.gov.uk/floodline

Scottish Environment Protection Agency: www.sepa.org.uk/flooding

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