Pre-contract searches – Information for buyers

For various technical and largely historical reasons, it is up to a buyer to find out as much as possible about a property before buying it. “Caveat emptor” or “let the buyer beware” is the basic position.

In addition to having a survey, all buyers are encouraged to do their own research. This is particularly the case if you are buying a property in a part of the country you are not familiar with. There is no real substitute for spending time in a locality: read local newspapers, visit the local library, speak to the locals.

Birchall Blackburn Law can help you in two ways.
  1. We will raise enquiries and we will carry out and/or review searches.
  2. In most instances, raising enquiries means making sure the seller’s conveyancer provides standardised forms (Property Information Forms and a Fittings and Contents Form).

Searches fall into two categories: those that are generally carried out for all properties and those that are only carried out for particular properties or buyers.

The searches normally carried out for all properties are:
• a local search (sometimes called a local authority search but technically a combination of a search of the local land charges registry and enquiries made of the local authority)
• standard drainage and water enquiries of the water service company

The optional or property-specific searches include:
• commons registration
• coal mining & brine subsidence
• environmental data
• chancel repair liability
• waterways, railways, tin mining, clay mining, limestone
• planning data
• flood risk search

If we have not quoted for these searches we will not be carrying them out. However, you may have asked a third party to carry out some of these searches for you and to provide the results to us. In such circumstances, we will generally report to you on the search results.

If you ask us to obtain a local search we will either get this directly from the local authority or via a third-party search agency. In deciding which, we will take into account cost, ease of ordering, delivery times and any specific requirements of a lender – as well as your preference if you express one. Importantly, although all search agencies we use have adequate insurance cover, searches that are not provided by the local authority may not contain all the information that could be obtained by making an ‘official’ search. Agency searches are sometimes less comprehensive than official searches so you may not find out about something that you could have found out about: your remedy in this case would be a financial claim on the agency’s insurance policy.

If we are getting the local search for you (as opposed to a third party chosen by you) and you require an official local search rather than an agency local search please check what kind of search we have quoted you for and give us clear written instructions to carry out the official search: we will let you know if this results in an increase is our estimate.

The local search will provide information about:
• some financial charges affecting the property
• planning and building regulation approvals, infringements and notices
• roads
• land for public purposes or road works
• drainage agreements and consents
• railway schemes and traffic schemes
• conservation areas and compulsory purchase
• contaminated land and radon gas
but only in relation to the property not any neighbouring property.

If you want to know more about the area surrounding the property reports can be obtained from data providers but this will cost more than a local search and will have to be ordered separately.

In relation to contaminated land, we will make further enquiries with the Seller if the land is, according to the local search result, designated as ‘contaminated land’. This would also need to be reported to your mortgage lender (if applicable) and may affect their decision to proceed. However, if the local search does not reveal any record of contaminated land, this does not necessarily mean the land is not contaminated. We recommend that you make your own enquiries and also read what we say below about an environmental search.

The standard drainage and water enquiries will tell us about:
• the location of public sewers within the boundaries of the property or its vicinity
• whether foul and surface drainage from the property enters a public sewer
• whether any sewers are adopted and maintained at the water service company’s expense
• the location of public water mains and whether the property is connected
• the basis of charging for sewerage and water supply to the property

It is often difficult to decide whether to carry out any of the ‘optional’ searches we have listed above. Sometimes, a lender will insist and sometimes we will make a strong recommendation. For example, if we know the property is in area that has been affected by coal mining, brine extraction or tin mining in the past we will include the cost of carry out the relevant search in our estimate of charges.

Sometimes, we will suggest a search is carried out: depending on what we know about you and the property we may suggest an environmental data report be obtained. Of course, if you ask and pay for such a report we will obtain one for you whether or not we think it is necessary.

Indeed, sometimes it is up to you to ask for a search to be carried out. We do not, for example, always carry out chancel repair liability checks.

The risk of flooding is an increasing issue. The Environment Agency estimates that one in six homes in England (approximately 5.2m properties) are at risk from flooding – from the sea, rivers, surface water, sewers and the like. If your property is at risk of flooding it might be difficult to obtain a mortgage, obtain suitable insurance cover, or sell the property in the future. This is likely to affect the value of the property.

To help you decide whether to request either of those three ‘optional’ searches, please consider the following:

Environmental Data – if the land on which the property is built is contaminated the cost of remedial work to clear up that contamination can fall on the owner for the time being if the contaminator cannot be found or cannot pay (and, of course, it may be unhealthy, dangerous and unpleasant as well making the property unsaleable in the meantime). An environmental data report contains a review of the available records and concludes with a view as to the likelihood or not of the land being contaminated – there is no physical inspection or survey. Once a satisfactory data report has been obtained it is possible to obtain insurance against the risk of the cost of any environmental clean-up falling on you.

Chancel Repair Liability – there have been some high-profile cases of unsuspecting property owners being required to contribute to the cost of repairing the local parish church. This liability cannot generally be established from the title deeds. It is possible to obtain insurance against this risk after carrying out a basic data check (ChancelCheck or similar) to see whether the property is in an area where some parishes are known to have levied contributions in the past.

Flood Risk – although a seller will normally be asked about historical flooding and you will view the property it may not always be obvious that a property is at risk of flooding. Properties at risk do not need to be close to a river or the sea or on low lying ground to be exposed to flood risk. Surface water, groundwater and overflowing sewers are increasingly common causes of flooding. We encourage you to make some initial enquiries as part of your own investigations to establish any potential risk of flooding at the outset. The Environment Agency website allows you to view information on flooding from rivers, sea, surface water and reservoirs but does not give information about risk of flooding from groundwater. The combination of each lender’s specific requirements, potential difficulties with getting a suitable insurance cover and your own commercial preferences may result in a need to obtain a specialist Flood Risk search for the property, although some environmental reports (see above) do include sufficient flooding data. We also recommend you establish that insurance is available on acceptable terms, which should be done as early as possible and certainly prior to exchange of contracts. The British Insurers Brokers Association may be able to assist in locating specialist brokers if you encounter difficulties.

Of course, each search costs money but please do not hesitate to discuss any concerns you have with your conveyancer: we are always happy to talk about the pros and cons to help you make an informed decision.

Finally, please note that none of these pre-contract property searches has any ‘priority period’ or ‘best before date’: they contain information that may be out of date by the time you complete your purchase and there is no way round this.