Home hunter beware! Don't believe what you see

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Home buyers all too often rely on surveyors to spot any costly defects and most have a touching faith in the honesty of sellers.

But buyers should beware of the tricks of the would-be sellers and be warned that the law is not always an effective remedy. Surveyors, as Ginetta Vedrickas discovers, are getting wise to the tricks as these cautionary tales prove:

Your prospective buyers are due. You throw everything under the bed, put some coffee on and plump up the cushions. This is perfectly acceptable behaviour when trying to sell your home. But some vendors go a lot further.

Robin Scott describes his attempts to sell his home in Brighton: "A gaping crack ran from the cellar to the roof. In the 24 hours before the survey I filled, painted and rubbed dirt on the downstairs crack to age it. I even made curry for breakfast to mask the smell of paint.

"The surveyor missed it and said that had I filled and painted upstairs as well nobody would have noticed."

When his first sale collapsed, Mr Scott took the surveyor's advice and, after an unproblematic survey, his house is again under offer.

Buyers may believe that all problems show up in the surveyor's report, especially if they commission an independent survey rather than relying on the bank or building society's surveyor, who carries out a survey for the lender's eyes only to establish that the loan is justified. David Parkin, a chartered surveyor for more than 10 years, is more cynical. "If you went to your doctor for a check-up they'd ask you to take your clothes off. Our job is like examining someone who is wearing an overcoat."

They are learning to spot the obvious stunts such as the paint-disguising curry or indeed the spot the chicanery perpetrated by Michael Atkinson. His "patient" was on the critical list. Trying to sell his two-up two- down in Peckham forced him to take desperate measures after his first buyers pulled out when the surveyor's report showed problems: "A wooden addition to the back of the house was about to collapse. The estate agent said someone else was coming to view and I panicked. I didn't have any wood so I chopped the for-sale sign down and used it to replace one of the rotten posts. The buyer loved the house and knew nothing of the miracle cure."

Most house vendors admit to impromptu, yet minor, deceptions. "We played a lot of darts. On moving day we took the dartboard down and found hundreds of holes in the wall. We filled them with toothpaste, it looked great and the room smelled lovely," Simon Matthews says.

Estate agents are not obliged to look for defects in the properties they are asked to sell. They prefer to believe the best of vendors. Stephen Smith, manager of Bushells in Dulwich, says: "If you're selling a car you clean it up and make it look its best. It is the same with a house." He explains his role: "We act for the vendor and don't ask questions. It sounds awful but we don't want to know - 99.9 per cent of our clients are honourable and, after all, buying property is very much caveat emptor [let the buyer beware]."

Even a wary buyer can be misled. Vendors are nowadays legally obliged to complete preliminary enquiries where they give information on all aspects of their house, including questions about neighbour disputes.

Caroline Sherry, senior conveyancing solicitor at the London firm of Glazer Delmar, believes most people are honest but recalls a client who hated his noisy flat so decided to buy a peaceful-looking bungalow. "The seller stated that there had been no trouble with neighbours. My client moved in and found they were notorious in the area. They tipped rubbish everywhere, graffitied on adjoining walls and had parties until 3am."

He could have sued the vendor, although case law is rare in this area, but has chosen instead to try to sell. "Most people can't be bothered to sue as the process is so long-winded. You may get compensation but you would still be stuck with the problem," Ms Sherry says.

Her client's future responses to preliminary enquiries will be between him and his conscience and admitting to a problem could scare off buyers. "You are legally obliged to be truthful. If you take a calculated risk, you may be sued," Ms Sherry warns.

One vendor who took that risk dashed buyer Luisa Pazienti's hopes of a beautiful family home for herself, partner Julian and baby Martha.

"We liked the house mainly because of the garden. When we asked the vendors about the adjoining building, they said it was an electrical warehouse so we thought no more of it. We'd seen an old sign there so it seemed to fit. The day after we moved in we woke to the most disgusting smell of fumes."

Ms Pazienti did not know they could sue but battled instead to get something done about what turned out to be a motorcycle helmet spraying factory behind their home. "It ruined two years of our time here.

"Every time we smelt fumes we had to ring up the council and there was this pathetic traipsing through our house so that they could witness it. I found it very traumatic."

The family suffered from sore throats and headaches and were angry about the deceit. "Neighbours told me that the previous owners knew, so basically they told us a lie. This upset me as they knew we had a baby. I'd go into Martha's bedroom, smell fumes and get completely hysterical."

Two years on, the factory no longer sprays paint, Martha plays with her sister, Georgia, in the garden and sleeps undisturbed by fumes. "We're happy now but we've learned a lesson and will be more careful next time," Ms Pazienti says.

Think you smell a rat when viewing that perfect property? If it turns out to be curry, paint or even toothpaste, then beware. Before buying, make impromptu visits at different times of day, don't just rely on the survey and talk to neighbours.

Caroline Sherry, Glazer Delmar, 0171-639 8801; Bushells, 0181-299 1722.