Is a survey worth the paper it's on?

There's no guarantee a surveyor will find every last flaw, which is why most buyers don't bother with them
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The Independent Online

Buying property is expensive and hardly ever straightforward. Perhaps that's why two-thirds of the buying public don't commission surveys, preferring instead to rely on building society valuation reports which assess current value rather than pinpoint problems. Sounds like a rash choice, but a closer look reveals a muddled picture which may explain why many of us simply don't bother.

Buying property is expensive and hardly ever straightforward. Perhaps that's why two-thirds of the buying public don't commission surveys, preferring instead to rely on building society valuation reports which assess current value rather than pinpoint problems. Sounds like a rash choice, but a closer look reveals a muddled picture which may explain why many of us simply don't bother.

Last year the Consumers' Association conducted a special investigation into surveyor reports for Which? magazine, with disturbing results. It anonymously commissioned eight surveys on two homes and found that while some were good value, others were flawed. "We found that some surveyors don't do a proper job. Even the best ones didn't find all the defects our experts expected them to report, and some missed significant problems," said a spokesperson.

Do more detailed reports afford greater protection? In addition to mortgage valuations, which cost around £200, you could choose from a Homebuyer survey, which is suitable for most conventional properties and costs around £300, or a more detailed building survey at a cost of around £500. Which? found that costs varied considerably, with the highest quote from Ekins of Rotherham at £815; the lowest, at £235, came from Nashmead in Sheffield.

Some buyers may prefer the security of full building surveys, but of its most expensive survey by Ekins, a subsidiary of Woolwich Building Society, Which? said: "At first sight what we received, a sturdy plastic folder with 38 pages, was impressive - but the survey was only nine pages long and no more detailed than the much cheaper homebuyers' reports we'd had for this property."

Overall Which? found several of the surveyors it hired "missed defects that could turn out to be significant. And too many surveys were hedged with get-out clauses that try to limit the surveyor's liability or recommended unnecessary specialist reports". So what redress do customers have? A Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) spokesperson says: "Most complaints are dealt with between a client and a surveyor, so we don't hear about them. But we pride ourselves on high standards and are constantly trying to improve professional standards."

RICS has introduced a website which provides detailed information on its industry and offers a directory of surveyors. It requires all members to operate their own complaints procedures and to tell clients about them. In 1998 it "overhauled procedures" and from last year, in an effort to make them "more transparent", introduced compulsory arbitration. Customers can opt for this documents-only system, for which each party pays £200, if problems are not resolved via internal complaints procedures.

A spokesperson for the Chartered Institute of Arbitration says: "It is extreme and is a last resort but it is an alternative to legal proceedings and a judge may refer the case back to us. All customers somewhere along the line should be advised about arbitration." But transparency isn't always obvious. In the first year the Institute received just one complaint, but so far this year has received 19.

Which? reported its findings to the Office of Fair Trading and to RICS, and says: "To generate confidence we'd like the industry to introduce an ombudsman scheme for all surveyors. In the meantime, RICS should drop its fees for consumers who go to arbitration."

Earlier this year I reported on the experiences of first-time buyer Clare Limpus who, after a survey on her flat revealed no major problems, discovered severe and costly structural defects. Clare pursued the firm for compensation via a series of letters and phone calls, and eventually received around half of her claim. But she questions whether the process was worthwhile: "When I look back at the trauma I wonder if it was worth it. It was half of what I was asking for, but at least I got something." Clare says that at no time was she advised of her surveyor's complaints procedure, and she has never been told about compulsory arbitration: "I only got something from banging on doors."

But some surveyors say they are in an impossible position. One I spoke to, who prefers to remain anonymous, says: "Vendors jump up and down if we try to have a good look. Buyers leap on us because they haven't understood the more significant aspects. Fear of litigation makes us stick in caveats left, right and centre, and reports become worthless."

The Government has professed its intention to reduce the stress involved in housebuying, and its pilot scheme findings - where sellers provide their own surveys - will soon be announced. Estate agent Maria Coleman has been taking part in the pilot scheme but has been operating a system of sellers' packs for the last three years: "The DETR wanted to learn what the consumer wanted and in the beginning there were flaws, but in the last two months they have listened to professionals, such as agents and surveyors, and more importantly to consumers, which is what it's all about."

Ms Coleman says the DETR has now "tweaked" the system so that sellers don't have to wait until the pack is complete but must show their intention to commission them. Originally, surveyors' reports rested upon a series of boxes where they rated properties from poor to good condition, but this has now been expanded.

Surveyors have complained that the law needs to change if they are to be liable to both seller and buyer and they have expressed concerns about public liability, but Ms Coleman disagrees: "They can only be sued once. If I get flak from a seller then I'll sue. If a buyer finds that the survey got it wrong, then they will sue."

Her firm has commissioned many surveys - "the industry is absorbing costs" - and she makes stringent demands upon surveyors. "We ask them to be extremely thorough so that buyers trust them and rarely commission further reports. We don't want nasty surprises further down the line."

Ms Coleman's agency has launched a training pack for agents, and an online service, www.openbookit.org, for agents and buyers to see who's operating an "open book" policy. These agents commission surveys on all properties for sale, saving buyers from any wasted survey fees as they pay only on completion when a property is finally secured.

'Which? Way to Buy, Sell and Move House' is published on 28 September, £10.99, Freephone 0800 252 100; www.openbookit.org; Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, www.rics.org

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