What are property searches?

11JAN

What are property searches?

Thu 11 Jan 2018 by Lorraine Imhoff

Property searches are one of the key parts of the conveyancing process. Yet, for most buyers, these essential enquiries can seem confusing and clouded by the sort of legalese that makes your eyes glaze over when reading a letter from your solicitor. 

Property searches are hugely important because they help your solicitor put together all the pieces of a transaction much like a giant jigsaw. Each search provides information about a certain element of the property and when all the details are put together, your solicitor has a complete picture of what the property looks like and, crucially, what the area around it also looks like. 

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The essential guide to property searches for buyers

The property searches that are usually made are listed below. While some of these are carried out in virtually all purchases, some will only be needed for homes in certain areas. Some searches are advisable but not essential – see our detailed explanations for when you might need them.

When you run a fixed fee conveyancing quote here, your legal fees, search fees and disbursements will be clearly shown.

These are the property searches that are normally carried out:

  • Local search – to obtain a variety of information from the local council, such as whether the property is affected by plans for a new bypass or a planning enforcement notice.
  • Drainage and water search – does the property have mains water and drainage? The local water company will also provide other useful information, such as the position of pipes.
  • Environmental search – is the property affected by contamination that could involve costly removal?
  • Planning search – find out whether the neighbours have got planning consent for a large extension, or a planning application has just been lodged for a new superstore down the road.
  • Flood risk report – check whether the property is at risk from flooding
  • Coal Mining, brine pumping, and other mining searches – to find out if the property could be affected by old mine workings, or a new opencast mine nearby
  • High Speed Rail 2 (HS2) – make sure that your new home will not be affected by this planned new rail line
  • Chancel repair liability search – check that you won’t be liable to pay for the maintenance of your local church
  • Land registry pre-completion search – make sure that the seller still owns the property on completion

Query that could save you making a bad buy

Sellers are under no obligation to give you any information on the property. And even if they are forthcoming with some details, the only way to check for accuracy is through those essential searches.

Here's one little example that could make a world of difference to whether you go through with a purchase or not: The place you've fallen in love with has a cracking extension at the back. Unknown to you, the current owner put that extension up without planning permission and has been served with a notice to pull it down. Not a word of this has been breathed to you. But a query to the council, known as a local search, will tell all. 

If you don't find out about an issue with a property until the sale has gone through, you have no comeback – caveat emptor indeed. However, property searches carried out by your conveyancing solicitor through official agencies come with a guarantee.

Are searches really necessary?

Anyone buying with a mortgage will have to have property searches carried out. You can also ask for discretionary searches to be carried out in addition to the usual searches, which you will have to pay for. These will depend on the location of the property you want to buy. For example, in former mining or heavy industrial areas, coal mining and environmental searches would be advisable, but that might not be necessary somewhere there are no coal deposits. 

Cash buyers who are not beholden to a lender could ask their conveyancing solicitor not to bother with searches. However, that is a risky route because, as we discussed, those searches can reveal if there are any problems that could affect the property.

If you don't want to have a local search carried out, talk to your solicitor about taking out search indemnity insurance. This will give you some protection if it later turns out that there is an issue affecting the property. See our separate page on indemnity insurance.

Whether you should have some of these searches made may depend partly on the location of the property you want to buy. For instance you would not need a coal mining search in an area where there are no coal deposits, whereas for a house in an old industrial area both a coal mining search and an environmental search will often be advisable.

Talk to your conveyancing solicitor about the searches you need. He or she will be able to advise you on what's required and the fees payable. 

What each search does

Local authority search (LAS): This search is requested by your mortgage lender and applied for by a solicitor once you have made an offer on a property. It consists of several smaller search and requests information on any nearby contaminations, road schemes or planning works along with a number of other searches.

Drainage and water search: This search will reveal exactly where all drainage systems are around a property and show if these are at risk of affecting the property in the future. The search will reveal if any planning restrictions are in place relating to drains.

Environmental search: This search will cover you for any environmental issues within 500 metres of the property. An environmental search looks at everything from flood risk to subsidence and is carried out by a company that maintains detailed information about previous land uses within the vicinity of a property.

Planning search: A detailed planning search will reveal all details of any existing planning consents of applications within a 250-metre radius of a property.

Flood risk report: If the property you want to buy is near a river, coastline or reservoir, the flood risk report will reveal how high the risk of flooding in the area is.

Coal Mining, brine pumping and other mining searches: These searches are essential in areas where mining work used to be carried out; for example, Wales (coal) and Cheshire (brine/salt). Excavated tunnels may run beneath a property, putting it at risk of subsidence, and it’s essential to know exactly what lies beneath before buying.

High-speed rail (HS2): HS2 is the planned high-speed railway from London to Birmingham and the north-west, so a search that outlines if the property you’re interested in is affected by the planned and extensive works (the entire project, from phase one to six, is expected to take 20 years to complete) is crucial.

Chancel repair liability search: A standard part of any conveyancing package in England and Wales, this search will explore the historic standing of your property to ascertain if it is liable for any local church repairs. If so, your solicitor can recommend an insurance package to cover you for any large bills due to the local parish church.

Land Registry pre-completion search: This search will reveal if the seller is the legitimate owner of the property and if any bankruptcy has taken place, confirming that the property is legally safe to buy.

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