When buying a property, you expect to pay stamp duty, Land Registry fees and legal fees, but when applying for an estimate from a lawyer at the commencement of a transaction there are another set of costs that often come as a surprise. These are the search fees, which can total between £200 and £300. You may wonder what they are and why they are necessary. Sean Sanders from Thackray Williams Solictors explains >>
What a property buyer must remember is that in a purchase transaction the principle of ‘buyer beware’ applies. It is, therefore, very important that before a buyer commits to a binding contract to purchase a property, they find out as much information as possible about that property. A survey will tell the buyer about the condition of the property, but there is other essential information needed. There are over 30 possible pre-exchange searches that can be carried out.
There are a number of standard or usual searches that are undertaken on virtually all conveyancing transactions. These are the local authority, drainage and environmental searches.
A local authority search is carried out by the local authority within which a property lies, and it asks a number of important questions. These include whether the road in which a property lies is maintained by the local authority. If it is not, and is either a private road or an unadopted highway, there is a chance that a buyer would be required to contribute towards maintenance or making it up to local authority standards in the future.
A local authority search also confirms whether a property is within a conservation area or is a listed building (which has consequences in respect of previous work carried out and any future work) and also checks the planning history of a property. Buying a property with a big extension or nice new loft might seem like a good idea, but someone needs to check that all the relevant planning permissions were obtained – otherwise you might be required to remove the new works and reinstate the property to its original configuration.
A drainage search is a search carried out by the local water authority. It will confirm whether the property drains into a public sewer, has a mains water supply and whether it is billed on a metered or non-metered basis. It is an important search because recently water companies have taken over all private drains, which means that if you are going to build an extension in the future and it lies near a drain, you would need to contact the water company to obtain a building over sewer agreement. If you do not, then if any work is required to that drain in the future, the water company could come in and dig up your extension to repair the drain, but there would be no obligation to repair the conservatory or replace the floor once the work is done.
Local authority and drainage searches are mandatory if you are buying with the aid of a mortgage because the mortgage company will require these to be carried out. An environmental search is not currently mandatory but is normally carried out. It will give general information about the property and any possible environmental issues (such as contaminated land or the existence of radon gas in the area).
These can include a flood risk search, which is useful if a property is situated near a river or is low lying, to check insurability. Planning searches will give information about planning applications for nearby properties. A chancel repair liability search is carried out if you live within a short distance of a medieval church. Parish councils and medieval churches have until 2013 to register potential chancel liability, and there is a possibility that you might be required to contribute towards maintenance of the chancel of that church. This could be a real problem if you live in ‘The Old Rectory, Church Close’ in a medieval village with a rundown church.
So, when you get your quote for the cost of your purchase, do not regard the amount charged for the searches as another unnecessary cost. While stamp duty and Land Registry fees are effectively both ‘taxes’ on your purchase transaction, the search fees are being spent to fully inform you about your new property and ensure there are no shocks or surprises later on.