Conveyancing .. the legal process for buying, selling, and remortgaging properties

Buying or selling a house with subsidence

Few things strike as much fear into buyers and sellers alike as subsidence. Who would buy a property that was at risk of structural collapse? And if you are a seller, the nagging question that keeps you awake at night: should you buy a house if the tell-tale signs of subsidence are going to be revealed when the property is surveyed? The good news is that, although subsidence can certainly be a serious problem, it need not be an out-and-out deal-breaker. Most cases of subsidence are perfectly manageable and there are homeowners across the land who have happily lived for years in properties with a history of subsidence.

“Thirty years ago, subsidence was widely seen as the kiss of death, says Theresa O’Hara of James C Penny in Oxford. But now, thanks to modern remedies for subsidence such as underpinning, it is less of a crisis. Properties with a history of subsidence are probably more likely to go to cash buyers than buyers with a mortgage as some lenders can get twitchy, but they do change hands on a regular basis. This new mini guide contains top tips on buying and selling a house with subsidence.

Selling a property with subsidence - If your property has a history of subsidence you will not be able to conceal the fact from prospective buyers, so don’t even think along those lines. Full disclosure is the best policy and, as you would do if your property had had problems with damp in the past, you will need to satisfy prospective buyers that you have dealt with the problem satisfactorily.

Causes of subsidence - subsidence occurs when the ground on which a property is built shifts for some reason. Perhaps a long dry spell has caused the water table to drop. Perhaps the soil has been disturbed by the roots of trees. Or perhaps a broken drainpipe has caused the soil to be washed away from the foundations.

How to spot subsidence - the first effects of subsidence will start to become physically visible in the form of new and expanding cracks in plasterwork or exterior brickwork. Other tell-tale signs may include wallpaper ripping or doors or windows sticking.

What can you do? - If you suspect subsidence, particularly if you are planning to put your property on the market, you need to take remedial action. The first step is to get a chartered surveyor to assess the situation. Be warned that this can sometimes be a laborious process involving measuring and monitoring small cracks over a period of months, if not years. Then, if subsidence is confirmed, the cause of the subsidence – often a tree close to the property – may need to be removed or dealt with.

How about underpinning? In extreme cases, it can sometimes prove necessary to underpin the foundations of an entire property, which can be a lengthy and expensive process costing anything up to £50,000. Most insurance policies offer protection against works needed to deal with subsidence, but there is usually a policy excess which you will be required to meet yourself.

What next? - it is obviously essential to keep documentary proof of any works that have been carried out, along with any relevant guarantees. That way, you will be able to put your property on the market with the confidence that past episodes of subsidence will not count against you.

Much of the advice pertinent to homeowners who have had to deal with subsidence in their property also applies to buyers:

Surveys and mortgages - it is always sensible, particularly in the case of older properties, to have a homebuyers survey report carried out before putting in an offer. This is in preference to the basic survey which is the minimum requirement for mortgage lenders. If the property is really old, or of an unusual construction, or there is some suspicion of problems (cracks, trees too close, as two examples), then a full structural survey should be considered.

If a survey suggests that there may be a subsidence problem then you need to take action. Firstly, obtain a structural engineers report. Then get any necessary remedial works costed and be prepared to reduce your offer to take account of them. Sensible sellers will fully understand.

Is there a history of subsidence? - The other thing of which buyers need to be aware of, in the case of properties with a known history of subsidence, is that they can be hard to insure. A lot of insurers will not insure a property which has had to be underpinned in the past. Those that do are likely to charge higher than average premiums, and expect you to pay a higher excess in the case of any future claims. It may also be a condition of your insurance policy – and a sensible thing to do anyway – that you take advice from a specialist tree surgeon on the management of any trees in the vicinity of the property that may be a potential cause of subsidence.

Any other tips? - Last but not least, you may be happy to buy a property where there have been subsidence issues in the past, but when you come to move onwards, you may find that other buyers are more cautious, and the property is that much harder to sell. With these caveats, it is important to keep the threat of subsidence in proportion.

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