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Building Surveys: Types, Cost and What is Included

A surveyor taking a photo of damp in a property during a building survey
(Image credit: getty images)

Commissioning a building survey when purchasing any home will offer extra peace of mind during the buying process, but it’s an essential step when searching for a property to renovate. 

When renovating a house, the potential success or failure of the project can lie in issues behind the property’s façade, some of which may only be identifiable by a suitable building survey. 

The ideal renovation property looks worse than it really is, ensuring your budget isn’t spent sorting things that buyers take for granted, such as functioning drainage systems and structural stability. 

For impartial guidance and an expert assessment of a potential renovation property, it’s crucial to instruct an independent survey.

What is a Building Survey?

The aim of a building survey is to provide an overall picture of the property’s condition, flagging up areas where there are concerns, but effectively giving an ‘all clear’ where no problems are noted. 

After a survey has taken place, you should normally receive a report within a couple of working days of the inspection, at which point it’s a good idea to talk it through on a one-to-one basis with your surveyor. 

(MORE: Get a quote for your building survey)

What Types of Building Survey Are Available?

Probably the best known type of private survey is a Building Survey — previously known as a Full Structural Survey. 

Building Surveys are detailed reports and can take a surveyor half a day or more on site. These are recommended for period properties such as thatched cottages, larger homes with five bedrooms or more, and properties in obviously poor condition.

HomeBuyer Reports are appropriate for most properties built from the late Victorian period onwards, with the inspection taking around 90 minutes on site and covering the whole house, including the loft. You can also request that a valuation and insurance rebuild cost calculation is included.

Although there is a cheaper and more basic type of survey called a Condition Report, these are much briefer and are aimed at buyers of conventional houses or flats built from common building materials and in reasonable condition. 

The new Homescore budget survey is similarly geared towards buyers of conventional properties that are considered to be in a reasonable condition. 

To assess the viability of a potential renovation project it’s normally advisable to opt for the more extensive Building Survey. However, it’s worth noting that a good surveyor carrying out a HomeBuyer Report should give you enough information to judge whether or not to proceed.

What Does a Building Survey Include?

To help you decide whether or not to proceed with the purchase, your surveyor will flag up risks such as any apparent legal rights of way, concerns about planning permission and Building Regulation compliance such as extensions, conversions and listed buildings, as well as things like flooding, radon, knotweed or potential sources of noise or nuisance. 

They will also alert you to any problems with non-standard construction that could make a property unmortgageable, significantly detracting from the market value. 

A surveyor inspecting the outside of a home during a building survey

(Image credit: getty images)

Both a HomeBuyer Report and a Building Survey utilise a traffic light system for grading defects so at a glance you can see how many reds and oranges there are in each part of the building, indicating the need for attention. 

  • A red condition rating applies to defects which are serious and need to be repaired, replaced or checked urgently.
  • An orange condition rating indicates defects that will need repairing or replacing but are not considered serious or urgent.

While a visual once-over with an experienced eye can reveal a lot, it obviously won’t detect any defects in hidden gas pipes or electric cables which could potentially be life-threatening. 

Auditors are increasingly requiring surveyors to post red condition ratings in the sections of the report devoted to the building’s services, even in cases where no significant defects are evident. The rationale behind this is that surveyors are not qualified electricians or plumbers and don’t actually test the services. 

When flagging potential issues, a good surveyor will take the trouble to give examples of any defects they’ve noted.

This sort of broader information that surveyors pick up on site can be invaluable and should be passed to your conveyancers to pursue in their searches. Another upside to this over-cautious approach is that it can add weight to re-negotiating a lower purchase price. 

(MORE: How to Assess a Home for Renovation)

How Much Does a Building Survey Cost?

Paying for a building survey

Payment for surveys is always made in advance and you will be asked to sign standard RICS-approved terms of engagement.

How much you pay for a survey will depend largely on the purchase price, but also on the size of the property (the number of bedrooms) and its geographical location (London normally being the most expensive).

Prices can also depend on how busy the surveyor is and whether they need to charge VAT. As a rough guide, for a £300k house you might be looking at paying from around £375 for a HomeBuyer Report and between 50% to 80% more for a Building Survey. 

How to Find a Building Surveyor

Look for a chartered surveyor with Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) qualifications. This will appear as MRICS or FRICS after their name, while related qualifications such as AssocRICS indicate surveyors at early career stages. 

Not all surveyors specialise in surveys of residential property, so ideally you want an experienced, local 'building surveyor' operating independently or with a small firm.  

Less experienced surveyors are more likely to ‘play it safe’ with a blanket condemnation of minor defects such as localised damp or the odd slipped roof tile.

Ian Rock

Surveyors working for national target-driven corporate firms are generally more familiar with mortgage valuation work and are often under greater pressure to cram more jobs into the day with less time to discuss reports with clients.

Once you’ve found a suitable candidate be sure to mention that you’re buying the property as a renovation project and flag up any particular concerns or questions, such as whether there’s potential for a loft conversion.

Where your chief concern is serious cracking or structural movement, it can make sense in the first instance to appoint a structural engineer to focus solely on these issues. Look for ‘chartered engineers’ who have the letters ‘CEng’ after their name, and will also normally be members of either the Institution of Structural Engineers (MIStructE) or the Institution of Civil Engineers (MICE).

Specialist Building Surveys

Your surveyor should briefly explain the likely causes of any significant defects they’ve noted and also suggest possible solutions, along with likely future maintenance requirements. The survey report should, in effect, distil the property down to a handful of concerns, which may then need further investigation.

To explore specific issues in more detail and to obtain costings may require specialist reports to be commissioned, notably within areas such as electrical systems and drainage testing.

Where your renovation mortgage lender also requires specialist reports before confirming the valuation, you may be able to combine exploratory surveys for added convenience. 

If evidence of damp, beetle or rot has been identified by the surveyor, it is particularly important that they explain the likely causes and solutions rather than referring you to sales-driven timber and damp contractors prescribing ‘precautionary treatments’.

(MORE: How to Treat Damp

Once you’ve secured the property, your surveyor should be able to assist in drafting a schedule of works to get the renovation project underway.