Should i get a structural survey done?
Probably pretty much every forum you have been to, every person you have asked and every video you have watched has told you - if you are buying a house you would be mad not to get a structural survey done.
I'm going to tell you that you should choose the mad option because there is a much better alternative.
OK, if you are buying a house you want to know what issues might be lurking within. So everyone says get a structural surveyor. It will cost you hundreds of pounds but you'll know everything, warts and all.
The trouble is you won't.
A structural surveyor is not a structural engineer. He or she can't tell you if the property has subsidence, they can only tell you if they think it has. A surveyor doing a cheap valuation survey will also tell you if he thinks subsidence might be an issue because it affects the value so it affects his valuation.
A structural surveyor is not a qualified electrician or plumber of gas engineer so they can only point out issues they believe should be investigated.
A structural surveyor is not a damp specialist so they can only state where they think damp could be.
A structural surveyor is not a roofer so they can only say they 'think' some roofing issues need to be looked into.
If a surveyor tells you the cost of an issue ignore it
Now a professional surveyor should never tell you how much it is going to cost to repair a particular issue, if they identify one, because they aren't qualified to do that. Doesn't stop some of them doing it though.
I was helping a friend purchase a lower ground floor flat and the surveyor claimed that there was "£5,000 worth of damp work required". We asked a damp proofing company to go to the property and give us a quote for any damp proofing work they found. So this was a company sniffing for business.
They came back with a quote for £700 and even they noted it wasn't urgent or essential.
So quoting costs should be an absolute no-no for surveyors. Should be but try stopping some of them. The only people who can tell you how much an issue is going to cost are the people qualified to fix them.
A retention is not an estimate of works
A surveyor might say "I agree this property is worth £150,000 but until the electrics are checked I value it at £130,000. The £20,000 is the retention which gets released once a qualified electrician has been to see the property and given it the all clear.
The surveyor is not saying there is £20,000 worth of electrical work that needs to be carried out. A good surveyor knows he doesn't know this and so often just puts a very large number as a cover all.
The structural survey alternative
So here's what I do if I'm buying a house. I'll wait until the valuation survey is done because that will flag up anything really big like possible subsidence.
Whatever the outcome if it is a period property, say more than 100 years old, I'll pay a structural engineer to give it the once over. That covers more than just subsidence and will let me know the property is rock solid. Its also a great document to have when you come to sell because you can show it the surveyor of your buyer and he can feel more confident that everything structurally is likely to be in order so keep it somewhere safe.
I'll pay a qualified roofer to check the roof, a qualified electrician to check the electrics, a qualified plumber to check the plumbing and have a gas safety check carried out if one hasn't been done in the last 12 months.
I'll pay a reputable damp proofing company to check for damp.
Depending on the age of the property I might also pay for someone to send a camera down the drains. On period properties the drainage can be old ceramic pipes and camera analysis will show if there is any cracking that could be leading up to a collapse which will be expensive to repair.
So far I've paid twice as much as the cost of a structural survey, perhaps a bit more if I do the whole drains thing but I now know the property exactly rather than getting vague opinions from a structural surveyor.
I'll also have way more information on what costs might be coming up. They may or may not help me renegotiate the purchase price but they help me budget.
Expect lots of bad news
I don't expect any of the specialists who do their checks to walk away giving the property a 100% thumbs up. They're trades people looking for business after all. So I have to put that into perspective.
I also have to bear in mind that things change. Take electrics for example. Regulations on domestic electrics are always evolving for better safety or better accessibility like lower light switches for wheelchair users. Most period properties fail miserably when they are inspected because regulations have changed so much in the last century.
OK - so the plug sockets are too close to the floor in some rooms. No big deal. I just need to read through the report and identify if there are any real big deals like no earth wire in kitchen sockets or something outright dangerous like that which will have to be fixed.
Structural Surveyors aren't specialists
I'm not knocking structural surveyors. They are highly qualified people with a wide breadth of knowledge but when it comes to property buying, especially house buying, they are jacks of all trades and masters of none so you might just as well get the masters of each trade in.
It will cost you more but it will be the best investment you have made - not just in identifying future costs but also as great paperwork you can provide about the property's quality when you come to sell.
For way more detail see Chapter 20 of How to Really Buy a Property: What A Property Survey Really Means.