for People with a Passion for Period Property

What to expect from your Surveyor's
Pre-Purchase Building Survey-Report

Ian McCall TD, FRICS
Tel/Fax 01488 686 986

I am a Chartered Surveyor in the General Practice Division of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, whose principal fields of practice involve Building Surveys and related work with Period, Character and Individual buildings, including those which have timber-framed and/or cob (earth and chalk) walls, and/or thatched roofs.

The title of this information-sheet is, itself, something of a conundrum, because, at the date of preparing this article, there is no set way of inspecting and reporting on any building, and every surveyor has his or her method of producing Reports, although it is reasonable to say that there are two main methods (1) room-by-room, and (2) element-by-element, which are explained below.

To these variations, one must add the personal expectations of the buyers commissioning these Reports, whose requirements and/or existing knowledge of what they are proposing to buy can vary widely.

Avoiding Misunderstandings

It is, therefore, easy to see how misunderstandings can occur, but they can be substantially reduced by careful discussion prior to the surveyor's inspection, so that buyers and their surveyors known what is expected, after which the surveyor must be confirm every instruction in writing (Terms of Engagement). The surveyor should ask the buyer to return a signed copy of the Terms of Engagement, which then provides the contract between the buyer and the surveyor for the Building Survey Report, and is, in effect, the buyer's Legal Liability protection.

Practical Limitations of Inspections

The majority of inspections for Building Surveys are made in privately-owned buildings which are usually in a reasonable state of repair, some better than others, and usually decorated to a sufficient standard that anything more than a visual inspection will cause traceable, surface-damage. This means that disruptive and/or intrusive inspection is rarely practicable at an initial visit, and assessments have to be made, based on experience and the type of building being inspected.

To better explain the practical limitations of inspection, I use the analogy of a car's engine. Whilst blue smoke from its exhaust usually means a problem with the pistons and burning oil, one cannot correctly assess what has happened without stripping the engine in a workshop. It is the same with a building. There might be surface signs of a defect but detailed checking/confirmation are sometimes needed by intrusive opening of the structure.

Twin purposes of Building Survey Reports

In this sense, Building Survey Reports should generally serve the twin roles of (1) confirming what is there to be seen on accessible surfaces, and/or under the surfaces, if identifiable, and (2) serving to alert buyers to potential for hidden defects which hindsight might show to have a cost-implication.

Thus far, without yet covering specifics, I suggest that an overall expectation should be to receive a Building Survey Report which (1) sets the level of expectation of state of repair having regard to age, type, location, quality of the building being inspected, (2) states which features and findings are better than that level of expectation, (3) states which features are worse than the level of expectation, and (4) clearly states what are the 'grey areas' and potential for essential or other work to be found necessary with hindsight.

So, subject to the agreed Terms of Engagement for the Building Survey Report, buyers are given an all-round picture with which to assess the purchase.

Methods of Reporting

The room-by-room method of reporting usually involves a repetitive list of Ceiling : Walls : Joinery : Floor : Decoration, with personal additions by the surveyor to cover Services and other matters.

The elemental-by-element method is felt to be more flexible, because the surveyor can record a general description of the component being inspected, and merely highlight the particular points of interest for the buyer. There is no standard order of components, but after an introduction, my sequence is usually :-

Outside: chimneys, main roof-claddings, main roof-framework, subsidiary roof-structures, rainwater goods and other external piping and gullies, external walls, external joinery, and external decoration.

Inside: ceilings, wall-finishes, chimney-flues and chimney-breasts, upstairs flooring, downstairs flooring, rising-dampness, water-penetration, penetrating-dampness, plumbing-leaks, condensation. Joinery, cellar (if any), woodworm, Dry Rot/Wet Rot, Thermal insulation, Services inside and outside. Other matters at the end include outbuildings, Planning and other public matters, and the site.

Finally there is a summary to draw together the overall assessment, and highlight particular matters of interest, which might, or might not, have a cost-implication.

Why are Building Survey Reports so long?

Buyers who commission Building Survey Reports often comment with dismay on their length. With Period buildings, for example, the length is normally related directly to the age and type of building, and to the number of different features which need inspection and assessment.

A buyer's perception might be that the subject-building has a roof and four walls and some floors. Experience of Period buildings shows that many have two or more roof-structures, a valley-gutter, two or more types of external wall, two or more types of external joinery, and one or more extensions with flat roofing or inaccessible, pitched roofing.

It is not always realised by buyers that when something of interest is found by a surveyor, he or she must (1) identify it, (2) describe it, (3) say why it has happened, (4) say what should be done about it, and (5) say what could happen if it should be neglected.

It is fair to say that virtually-every Period building will have several matters of interest, even if normal for age and type of building, but every matter adjudged as relevant by the surveyor must be given the reporting sequence. This why many Reports are commonly 20-30 pages long, but, hopefully, written in plain English for the benefit of the person commissioning the Report, and not in jargon for the benefit of other surveyors.

All about Caveats in Building Survey Reports...

Many buyers, jokingly or otherwise, refer to the caveats included in Building Survey Reports, and that they are not worth the paper on which they are printed. There are undoubtedly some Reports which have little positive comment, and they reflect badly on the surveyor and the surveyors, in general. The background is that, in the last 10-15 years, the public has become litigious, following the trend from America, where someone is always to blame for everything, and should, therefore, be sued. This has lead to over-defensiveness by some surveyors.

However, the correct way to view so-called caveats is to realise that the surveyor is, or should be, fairly telling the buyer what could not reasonably be seen, in someone else's building, without damaging it for investigation. In my opinion, however, lack of access should not prevent a surveyor from saying making an educated guess at what could be hidden, because experience of similar buildings shows such-and-such to normally be the case.

A possible approach for your Building Survey Report

My approach with Period buildings is to take a balanced view, having regard to age, type and location, but also to make sure that a buyer knows what he or she is taking on, in terms of any immediate works, works needed in 3-5 years' time, and, sometimes, 7-10 years hence, subject always to what hindsight actually shows to the case !

It is important that intending buyers of Period houses and cottages use a surveyor who has reasonable experience of the type of building being inspected, so that the eventual Building Survey Report will be useful for the buyer, and not another document with the main intention of protecting the surveyor.

Intending buyers should ask their surveyors whether they are familiar with such-and-such type of building, so that they don't receive a Report by a surveyor who has to keep recommending 'further investigation' or specialist reports by Third Parties.

I try to make my Reports a document for assessing today's purchase, but also an aide-memoire for the future by fully explaining how or why I have reached a particular opinion, and explaining what is usually found under the surface by any further investigation.

Finally, all buyers should also strongly resist attempts by surveyors in the mass-market who offer other forms of Report on Period buildings, for which they were not designed. 'Horses for courses' applies to surveyors as well !

I am always happy to have an informal conversation about a possible instruction. My rules are simple : without obligation on your part, without cost to you, and without any legal liability for oral comments.

You can visit my web-site at and/or call Tel/Fax 01488 686 986 to get in touch.

Happy house-hunting !!



Tel/Fax 01488 686 986


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