When you buy a property in the UK, the principle of caveat emptor (‘buyer beware’) applies. This puts the onus squarely on the buyer to carry out due diligence, making sure you know exactly what you are letting yourself in for before you sign on the dotted line.
Of course, you will need to view the property several times, not only to decide whether it fits your needs in principle but also to check for anything that might send alarm bells ringing such as peeling paint, or a musty smell. If the seller is present at the viewing, it is also a great opportunity to ask questions. But can you trust the seller, or the estate agent for that matter, to be completely honest and transparent? Even assuming that you can, in order to make a six-figure decision on what could well be the biggest financial transaction of your life, you need more than a good first impression.
Since the typical home buyer isn’t a building expert, it is highly recommended that you have a professional property survey carried out to get all the facts you need to make an informed decision on your purchase. Whether or not your lender approves the mortgage, the importance of your own independent building survey cannot be overstated.
After all, if you were buying a second-hand car, you would insist on having it thoroughly checked over before parting with any money. Compare this with the huge financial commitment that a property purchase constitutes, and you can see how vital it is to protect your investment.
Proceeding with the transaction without a survey carries a substantial degree of risk. Serious building defects including structural problems, roof issues, damp or timber decay can cost thousands to remedy. But if these issues come to light in the survey findings, you have the opportunity to renegotiate the purchase price or withdraw from the transaction.
The law was changed in 2014 in an effort to redraw the balance in favour of the buyer. Selling a property now falls under the Consumer Protection Against Unfair Trading Regulations (CPRs). In practice, this means that the seller has to complete a Property Information Form as part of the conveyancing process, where anything that could impact the buyer’s decision to proceed with the purchase must be disclosed.
Crucially, for the buyers’ protection, Form TA6 forms part of the pre-contract documents, which makes the content legally binding. If the seller fails to divulge anything of importance that they were (or should have been) aware of, they can be taken to court.
The form is a lengthy document that covers a multitude of categories including boundaries and shared areas with neighbours, planning permissions, environmental matters such as flooding or Japanese knotweed, any changes made to the property, history of disputes and complaints, guarantees or warranties affecting the property and much more besides.
Armed with a completed Property Information Form and a professional survey report, you would think that it was safe to proceed – sadly, that’s not always the case. Some sellers will do almost anything to get their property sold, even if it means being economical with the truth. The trouble is that while issues such as subsidence and visible dampness will be detected by a surveyor, there are still many other things that an unscrupulous seller can do to cover up a problem.
Sneaky selling tricks include home staging to disguise problems in the property. A strategically positioned rug can conceal water damage on a parquet floor that won’t be discovered until the new owner moves in. Freshly painted walls may hide cracks or damp patches for just long enough to get the property sold. Delicious smells – coffee, freshly baked bread, scented candles – can easily cover up pet pongs or ventilation issues. Some sellers restrict property viewings to certain times of day when traffic noise, neighbour’s dogs or parking problems are least evident.
Finally, watch out for sellers who provide vague answers or plead ignorance. Ticking ‘not known’ on the Property Information Form is a popular strategy to avoid giving away potentially off-putting information about the property without incriminating themselves. No planning permission for new windows in a building the seller claims he didn’t know is in a Conservation Area? No documentation available for a 1-year-old roof replacement? If the seller comes across as shifty, there may be cause for concern. Pay attention to your sixth sense and follow it up with your solicitor.