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Will my house sink?

I have found a house I would like to buy. However, a friend has warned me that the area suffers badly from subsidence. What causes this and will a survey be able to tell me whether my property is likely to suffer in the future?

AR Hatton

London SE4

Subsidence happens when a property drops as a result of movement of the land underneath and should not be confused with landslip, which occurs when a large mass of soil slides down a mountain or cliff. Subsidence happens most frequently in clay soil but can occur where underground collapse is likely to take place, such as mining or chalk soil areas. The collapse of a main drain or railway tunnel can also cause subsidence.

Your survey will advise you if subsidence is prevalent in the area and the cause of it. If it is a mining area, you will be told to get a mining report which can be obtained through your solicitor as part of the search process.

Clay and chalk sub-soils present greater difficulty and the surveyor will only know if subsidence is taking place if cracks have started to appear. If there is no evidence, he or she will only be able to warn you of it in general terms.

If the property was built recently and has a NHBC warranty, the ground conditions should have been taken into account at the time of building, though the surveyor will be unable to confirm this.

If the surface is clay, the survey should point out the proximity of any trees. This is because subsidence happens when clay shrinks - you are more likely to see it after a long hot summer. If there are trees near the property they will take moisture out of the ground and exaggerate the problem. Don't assume that the best course of action is to cut trees down. That may disturb the equilibrium of the soil and you could end up with ground heave which happens when clay expands because there is too much moisture in it.

Although your survey will only detect subsidence if it has already started, you should not necessarily be put off purchasing a property because of this. Subsidence is an insurable defect, though in areas where there is a higher likelihood of of it happening you will pay a higher premium.

NO LONGER FOR SALE

I made an offer on a house and paid for a survey and then the vendors changed their minds. How do you know whether someone is serious about a sale and is there anything I can do to prevent this happening again?

Robert Cramner

Bedlington, Northumberland

You cannot do anything to recover your money as all sales in England take place subject to contract, making it easy for the vendor to legally withdraw at any stage before contracts are exchanged. There is also precious little you can do to prevent it happening again.

It is possible, however, to assess the likelihood of someone proceeding - you are likely to be better off buying from someone who has found a property, is keen to move and has already incurred some expense. The estate agent should also have done some homework about the vendor and will know what sort of property they are moving to and whether their mortgage is sorted out. There are additional circumstances, such as relocation or the sale of an empty property, where a withdrawal is less likely.

TWO DIFFERENT VALUES

I am a first time buyer looking to buy a flat and I only have a small deposit. My concern is that with surveyors valuations nearly always below asking prices, I am likely to lose out. What can I do?

Lucy Rupert

London N1

You may be taking an unnecessarily pessimistic view of the market. The current evidence indicates that in many areas prices are rising but gradually as opposed to the rapid rises of the 1980s. The majority of valuations should be able to take account of such a gradual rise.

If you are still concerned, you could get a basic valuation, which will confirm a property's value, before you obtain a full valuation report. This is an unusual way of proceeding and will end up costing you more, but you will know where you stand with your mortgage.

If you do suffer a down-valuation, there are options. There may be information contained in the surveyor's report which materially affects the price, so you can bargain with the vendor. However, if prices are rising in your area you may receive short shrift.

You could request that your lender takes another look at their valuation, which some will do. You could also switch lenders but you may find yourself with the same result after additional expense.

Answers were supplied by a panel of experts at Woolwich Property Services and Ekins, the group's surveying services subsidiary. The panel is headed by Alan Oliver, managing director of Woolwich Property Services, and will answer queries on buying and selling, valuations, surveys, and market factors such as price trends.

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