Doctor on the house

Jeff Howell on why experts who examine the house you are buying or selling may not be the masters of all they survey
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The Independent Online
The announcement of a multi-million pound deficit in the education budget will have come as no surprise to construction lecturers. Training and education in construction is at an all-time low. On-the-job training of bricklayers, carpenters and other trades has all but gone, replaced by six-week compulsory courses for the unemployed.

The education of construction professionals such as architects and building surveyors has also declined. The seven-year architecture diploma used to include hands-on experience in plastering, painting and bricklaying, but today's three-year degree is theory only; the nearest students get to building experience is making models of chicken wire and toilet rolls. Newly qualified construction professionals go into the real world handicapped not just by deficiencies of literacy and numeracy, but also without much knowledge of buildings.

Most people are still under the impression that when they get a chartered surveyor to give their new house the once-over, they will be getting some kind of definitive expert opinion of the building from an experienced professional. Not so - what you usually get is someone who got an A-level in Geography, spent three years at a `New University' and then got a job in a surveying practice.

There, they will have been taken under the wing of a slightly older surveyor, who probably advised them to "forget everything they learned (sic) at college" and took them out to do mortgage valuation surveys. These entail filling in the blank spaces on a printed form. "State whether main water, drainage, electricity and gas are connected" is a typical query, to which: "All mains services appear to be connected but have not been tested" might be the reply. You could do better yourself.

A clue to the limited nature of surveyors' investigations can be had from the clothes they wear to work. Most turn up in their best suits, hardly appropriate for climbing into the loft or poking around in the gutters. They won't get down on one knee for fear of dirtying their trousers, which rules out looking at the drains or even lifting the edge of a carpet. In fact, the standard home-buyers' report includes the stock phrase: "Furniture, wall hangings, floor coverings, insulation material and stored goods have not been moved." So if you are selling a house and you don't want the surveyor to notice some particularly dodgy detail, just hide it with a few tea chests or a bit of carpet.

Even when they do try to `investigate' a bit deeper, surveyors can appear totally ignorant. In a study by South Bank University, 93 per cent of surveyors questioned did not know how to use a moisture meter correctly. The result is that, rather than risk compensation claims, surveyors recommend "further investigation" by others of tricky subjects like damp. Their reports offer carte blanche to cowboy builders to quote for thousands of pounds' worth of unnecessary work, all sanctioned by the surveyors and, therefore, by the mortgage lenders.

Why bother to get a survey done at all if it is so inadequate? The answer is that the Building Societies Act of 1968 requires a written valuation report to be obtained on the occasion of each advance. Maybe the new government should look at this important consumer issue. After all, as Mark Twain said: "All professions are a conspiracy against the public".