How homebuyer surveys work

Survey says: how homebuyer surveys work and what to do if there’s a problem

Last updated: 25/05/2022

Having a survey done on a house you want to buy can be nerve-wracking. Will it reveal any hidden surprises, and if so, what should you do about them? 

But before you even reach this point, you may wonder what a survey is and whether you need one.

An introduction to homebuyer surveys

You might fall in love with a property, and then have your offer accepted. But however thorough your viewings may have been, do you really know enough about the building to commit so much money and take the plunge? 

This is where a survey comes in. It involves you paying for a qualified expert to go and inspect the property for any concerns or problems. They’ll produce a report for you highlighting any problems or concerns that could be unsafe or cost you money to remedy.

Although it can feel like just another expense, and you aren’t under any legal obligation to get a survey, they’re a good way to avoid unexpected repair costs further down the line. They can also help you estimate how much you might need to invest into a property after you buy it.

Arranging a survey

The time to arrange a survey is once you’ve had an offer accepted on a property. 

Find a local surveyor who is a member of one of the two main accrediting bodies, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) or the Residential Property Surveyors Association (RPSA). You can use the RPSA or RICS websites to do so.

You could also try asking for recommendations from friends and family, and by looking at online ratings and reviews.

Once you have found a surveyor and contacted them, the process is likely to only take a few days or weeks, depending on their availability. You can ask to go with the surveyor so you can ask any questions. Or, if you have any worries about the property you’d like them to pay extra attention to, you could let them know beforehand.

Choosing the right type of survey

There are a few different levels of property survey you can choose to have before you buy. The type of house survey you'll require depends on the age and condition of the property you're buying. If you’re buying an older property, it’s usually worth paying for more than just a basic survey, as it could uncover problems you might not expect.

RICS Home Survey Level 1

The most basic survey, the RICS level 1 home survey, is intended for standard, modern houses, flats or bungalows that are in good condition. 

The survey provides a ‘traffic light’ rating of the condition of different parts of the property, showing the relative importance of any problems. Its features also include a summary of any risks.

RICS Home Survey Level 2

The RICS Level 2 Home Survey is a mid-level survey that is a popular choice for standard houses built after 1890 and that remain in good condition. It includes the same features as the level 1 survey, but goes a step further with checks of roof spaces and cellars. You’ll also get recommendations for further investigations, where the surveyor is unable to confidently reach a conclusion, and advice on the budget needed for any repairs, as well as how much ongoing maintenance you can expect in the future. 

Level 2 reports are available with or without valuations.

RPSA Home Condition Survey

An RPSA Home Condition Survey is equivalent to the RICS Home Survey Level 2. It includes colour coded condition ratings, and the RPSA says its an easy-to use, jargon-free report. You also get a debrief from the surveyor who will answer any questions you may have.

RICS Home Survey Level 3

If you’re buying an older or unconventional house, especially if it is in bad condition (or you suspect it might be) or you’re planning big renovations, then you might choose the more thorough RICS Home Survey Level 3, also known as a full structural survey. 

The Level 3 survey will include everything you would get in a RICS Home Survey Level 2,  but also provides greater detail about the structure and fabric of the property. It will outline the likely scope of any remedial work and explain the likely consequences of not having repairs done.

RPSA Building Survey

The RPSA also has a more thorough survey, the Building Survey, which is likewise intended for larger, more complex, older, extended or higher value homes.

It provides the same service as the RPSA’s Home Condition survey, but with more comprehensive descriptions of construction and defects, explanations of how to go about rectifying defects and the consequences of not carrying out repairs.

Survey costs

There is no set cost for a home survey. It will depend on the size and location of the property you want to buy, as well as the type of survey you decide on.

For the most basic level 1 survey, prices are likely to start at £300-400, rising to as much as £1,500 for a RICS Home Survey Level 3 on a larger property .

Dealing with problems identified in the survey

No home is perfect, so don’t be taken aback if your survey identifies some small issues or potential future problems. This could be, for example, damp, electrical issues or problems with the roof.

However, if the problem is significant, it can be stressful and you may not be sure what to do. 

The first step is to try and get as much information from the surveyor as possible; ask them to give you an idea of how costly it will be to sort out any problems. 

You may then need a tradesperson, such as a builder or electrician, to give you a quote. This isn’t always easy, as it may be hard to secure someone to go out and see the property if you haven’t actually bought it yet. But it’s worth persisting and ensuring you find out how much any work could cost.

You can use any estimates you can obtain to try to renegotiate the price or ask the seller to fix the issues before you complete the sale.

The seller isn’t obligated to drop the price, but may choose to do so - or compromise - to ensure the sale goes through.

If you are happy with any agreement and continue with the sale, then typically you’d arrange any necessary repairs after you’ve moved in.

But remember, if it all gets too expensive - or you don’t feel confident about the property after problems have been identified - you can still walk away. 

Click on the sections below to explore what you need to know at each stage of your home buying journey:

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