It is important to be selective when choosing a surveyor. More often than not, the cheapest option may not be the best one for you – especially when it comes to historic or unusual properties. Chartered Surveyor Stephen Boniface gives his advice on how to choose the right surveyor, and discusses a recent experience handling a client fee query.

Best practice for commissioning surveys

It is Friday and this morning I went from annoyance to anger, then to dismay and concern. I eventually ended being happier, but I shall return to explain later.

Back in 1992 I had recently completed a Post-Graduate Diploma in Historic Building Conservation (it is now a MSc course) and I had become concerned about how historic buildings were dealt with when it came to residential surveys and mortgage valuations. This brought about my involvement on various RICS committees, working groups, etc., that lasted just over two decades. As a result, I (with others) was involved in developing the RICS Guidance Note on Residential Building Surveys. During this time, I had also help co-found the annual RICS Conservation School that last year celebrated 15 years. During 2018 I spoke at a number of RICS Roadshows on the topic of Building Surveys and in recent times have become disappointed in the wide disparity of what is on offer to the public and how surveyors deliver ‘building surveys’. This came to a head this morning when a potential client queried my fee (for a building survey on a timber framed Grade II listed house) and told me of three others who had quoted substantially less than me for what he thought was essentially the same job.

One of the ‘competitors’ was a company I knew of and had come across. If I say that I undertake ‘expert witness’ work and deal with professional negligence matters, you can perhaps guess the context. I am aware that this company routinely expect their surveyors to undertake at least two building surveys per day. Furthermore, on their website they proudly announce that the reports will be with the client the next day. Such an approach is not unusual and during the RICS Roadshows I was concerned to find out how many surveyors regard this as normal.

To those reading this who are not involved in the world of surveys you may wonder what the problem is. I shall attempt to explain and in so doing hopefully put forward my views on best practice. This comes about through experience, but also brings together some of what we have been putting across in the recent BlueBox Training Roadshows.

A ‘full’ building survey is the most detailed inspection possible that a purchaser of a property might wish to commission. It should involve looking at as much of the building as is safe and physically possible to do so but is a ‘snap-shot’ on a single day. Having completed the inspection a competent surveyor should consider his/her findings and give some reflection on what has been seen and discovered both through the inspection and other enquiries (whether pre- or post- inspection). It may be that something stands out as amiss with regards planning consents and what the surveyor saw on site, or perhaps a particular defect that needs careful consideration as to cause and how best to advise the client. In any event, it is important to prepare the first draft of the report soon after inspection but following careful reflection. Once that draft is returned it will need a final edit before it is sent to the client.

My personal view is that the surveyor’s diary should contain no more than one survey per day. One never knows what you are really going to face on site and the property may be more complex than at first seems; over the years I have been caught out several times. One example I use in talks is a 3-bedroomed cottage that turned out to be: a cob walled thatched house (with two bedrooms) with a modern cavity wall plain tile roof link to a Victorian brick built slate covered forge (the main living room) leading to a 1930’s timber framed pantile covered extension (the third bedroom). There were in effect four structures that needed survey and assessment.

Thatched cob cottage

The point is that if you have other later appointments that day you will be tempted to rush and perhaps miss something and you will not undertake as thorough an inspection as the client might have hoped.

The other thing I have done for 30 years, and find invaluable, is to invite my clients to meet me on site towards the end of the inspection. This assumes the vendor doesn’t mind; in reality most vendors welcome this, although sometimes agents are not so keen to have vendor and purchaser meet without them being present! It means you can properly assess what concerns the client has and ensure that the report is truly bespoke to the property as well as addressing their needs and concerns. This does, of course, add to the time on site – another reason not to be rushing off on to another inspection.

As for the report writing, it may be possible to dictate the report that day, but more frequently it must wait until the next. It then has to be typed and when it gets back a couple of days later it will have to fit in with other on-going work and wait its turn to be edited. In fact, I usually advise clients that the turnaround between inspection and the report reaching them is about two weeks. Because we have met on site and they have the verbal ‘highlights’ there and then it does help them get over the delay. In some situations, I might prepare an email highlights for them within a day or two, if they are really anxious for something in writing before the full report arrives with them.

So, then they get the report, bespoke for them and with a booklet that we entitle ‘Supplementary Technical Guidance’ including a lot of advice that is perhaps generic and need not be in the report, but is nonetheless important reading for them. The feedback is nearly always good or very good. Although some do comment that we were more expensive than other surveyor quotes, the feedback is that the report represents good value for money.

Thinking about the report itself, the other thing that annoys me (and clients) is the number of surveyors who do not reach a conclusion, do not provide a full assessment or opinion and/or who ‘pass the buck’ and advise seeking further specialist reports. Of course, my other bug-bear is the number of reports that say ‘I could not inspect’ and then offer no further comment at all. Is it any surprise that a common complaint about surveys from the public is that they are a ‘useless waste of paper’? It is my view that a full building survey should provide full advice to the client.

There may be situations where the cause is not clear and the solution to a problem not immediately apparent. But rather than simply offering no guidance a good report should offer the client advice on how best to investigate and take things forward; I think the best approach is for the surveyor to consider “what (in practical terms) would I do if I were buying this property?” Sometimes the answer might be to do nothing now, but to keep an eye on something. Provided the client understands the advice and implications they can make an informed decision. Of course, if you have met them on site and discussed it whilst in front of the property it is far easier for them to understand. A surveyor does not have x-ray vision and does not have a crystal ball, but it is the job of a surveyor to provide full advice on what can be assessed and guidance on likely issues where necessary. A good surveyor should be able to provide some advice on what cannot be seen based on the evidence of what can be seen.

So, back to the survey quote this morning. The other surveyors had made a big thing of being ‘registered’ with RICS and being ‘regulated’ by RICS. However, all ‘Chartered’ Surveyors are members of RICS and must comply with codes of conduct, etc. The ‘regulation’ refers to how we conduct our business and how we deal with matters such as complaints. Many (perhaps most) surveyors can claim to be ‘registered’ and ‘regulated’ and neither term is necessarily indicative of being any different or better.

In this instance the other surveyors claimed to be specialists in historic buildings. However, to my knowledge none of them had any specific qualifications in building conservation and none were ‘accredited’ in building conservation, which is an indication of those who have demonstrated expertise to their peers. In fact, I believe that the best they could say is that they had been on one or two of my lectures at conferences at some time over the years! Quite simply the client was not comparing like-with-like.

So what are my tips for choosing a building surveyor, especially if the house is historic, unusual, complex, etc?

  • Do not leave commissioning the building survey so late that you are in a rush and require the surveyor to do a rush job.
  • Check the individual surveyor’s experience/qualifications for doing this particular survey. Do not be afraid to ‘interview’ them and ask for examples of their reports on similar properties.
  • Ask how many surveys they undertake per day? Where the surveyor undertakes more than one a day this should raise concerns.
  • Ask whether you can meet them on site. However, do not expect to follow any surveyor for the whole survey – it is boring for you and slows down the surveyor. Nonetheless, to meet at the end is important for you and for them. Personally, I usually allow an hour for this meeting, on top of the time for the survey itself. As far as the vendors are concerned, I usually advise them I will be at their house most of the day.
  • Ask when you will get the report. If they say the following day be concerned as to whether they have undertaken all the desk-based checks necessary and properly considered the report contents and reflected on their findings.

And so, back to where we started. As I have written and edited this piece, I have been told that the client in question has decided to instruct me after all. A good end to the week and to a day that did not start so promisingly.

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About the author

Surveyor Stephen Boniface joins BlueBox Partners

Stephen Boniface is a Chartered Surveyor at whitworth. Stephen has extensive experience in historic buildings and conservation work, and on a daily basis carries out a variety of work from surveys to expert witness.