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23 SEP 2019

A case of mistaken identity

Nobody likes paying for the same service twice, do they? Let’s imagine that you are looking for a new home, and you have found a really nice place in a great location. The family is super-excited. You approach a lender for a mortgage and complete the application, and all is looking positive. Before the lender can make you an offer, however, it must have the property valued – standard practice to protect itself.

While undertaking the valuation survey some small cracks are noticed in the house, and the valuer’s report recommends that a structural survey is undertaken. The lender now informs you that arranging and paying for this survey is down to you as the customer, and so you approach a chartered surveyor to carry out the work. Your surveyor then visits the property and provides a nice, professional-looking building survey report, which is handed to the lender. Job done, right?

Wrong. The lender writes back to you informing you that this is the wrong report and does not provide them with the information
it requires. You are then directed to have the same structural survey carried out by an engineer, and end up having to pay for the same thing twice over.

This would be highly frustrating – and unfortunately, the scenario is one that many prospective homebuyers have actually faced of late. In fact, due to a multitude of customer complaints, the lender in question no longer accepts such reports from chartered building surveyors. The issue was reported to me by one such surveyor at the start of the year, and I set out to investigate. Something has gone terribly wrong; but what?

house falling off building
Potential homebuyers are facing issues regarding structural surveys - but what is the root cause?

Terminology confusion

My first impression was that this problem is a result of confusion caused by the term 'structural survey'. The more seasoned among us may remember when 'condition surveys' were typically called 'structural surveys', as I sometimes still find they are, especially when working overseas. You may also recall the fine 1980s journal Structural Survey - now the International Journal of Building Pathology and Adaptation - which was a publication that discussed condition surveys and building defects.

Interrogation of the client's brief often reveals that what in fact is required is a condition survey, but they do sometimes mean that they want a report on a specific structural defect. These cases require a good understanding of both the problem – probably gleaned on a site visit – and exactly what is expected of the report, so you can gauge whether it is within your capabilities or whether further specialist advice is required from a structural engineer.

However, as I discovered after making further enquiries, some general practice surveyors who were not appropriately experienced have in this instance been asked to provide the structural survey or structural report, as identified in the valuation. They have then gone on to accept the instruction, but provided a HomeBuyer Report or a building survey, either making no comment on the structural stability of the property at all or advising that they could not conclude whether the cracking was a problem based on one inspection. This despite the wording in the valuation specifically requiring a report on potential structural issues identified.

Inexperienced surveyors have been tasked with providing reports they do not have the skills to produce - resulting in unhappy prospective homebuyers and disengaged lenders

We must always talk to our clients to establish the reasons for their requests, avoid the temptation to assume we know what is required, and do our due diligence to make sure that our objectives correspond with the clients’ requirements.

This has resulted in so many unhappy clients that it caused the particular lender to suddenly remove chartered building surveyors from those it considers qualified to carry out structural surveys, and instead instruct chartered engineers. Given that the lender has subsequently avoided the problem completely, it is unlikely to rescind its decision.

Not a comfortable read, is it? I am a chartered building surveyor myself, and frankly found this information embarrassing: this is a qualification I share and was proud to attain. On analysis of the problem and some reflection, we can reduce this issue to three fundamental factors: client care, competence and ethics.

Client care

At the most basic level of client care – which is the name of a mandatory competency for all chartered surveyors, starting from the APC process and continuing throughout our careers – RICS guidance clearly stipulates the need to 'collect data, analyse and define the needs of clients'.

That has unfortunately not happened in any of these cases, with the surveyors making assumptions that have cost their clients time and money. This is unacceptable. We must always talk to our clients to establish the reasons for their requests, avoid the temptation to assume we know what is required, and do our due diligence to make sure that our objectives correspond with the clients' requirements.


Second is the issue of competence. Following the Grenfell Tower fire two years ago, RICS has been heavily involved in the industry response group, significantly in this case including the competence steering group. We have been working with fellow professionals to understand how any shortcomings in competence have manifested themselves, what levels of competence the various roles should have, and how we will now manage the competence of the construction and property professionals.

Competence is therefore rightly at the forefront of our minds: what has happened here is a prime example of surveyors acting beyond their skill set and taking on a type of report that they are not competent to complete. After the Grenfell Tower fire, we must constantly reflect on our skills and ask ourselves whether we are competent to take on a particular task.


Last and most important is the issue of ethics, which is the bedrock of our professionalism. We must always act with proper regard for the technical standards expected of us, and only provide services for which we are competent and qualified. We must also act with integrity and be accountable for our actions. Paying due heed to our principles will promote trust in our profession, something that has been called into question in this case. Having strict ethical standards is one of the characteristics that defines us as professionals, and we cannot let this slip.

People silhouettes in an office
Surveyors must stringently adhere to three principles: client care, competence and ethics

Addressing the issue

To summarise, there is work to be done to address this situation. Since this issue came to light, I have received further queries from chartered building surveyors wondering why their structural defect reports are no longer being accepted by the lender in question and asking what RICS is doing about this. I reply that we must first appreciate that we cannot force the lender to change its mind, and need once again to gain its trust as a profession. We will continue in our endeavours to do so, but we are on the back foot.

The second step, communicating and drawing awareness to the issue to help contain it, is a work in progress, although this is partly addressed by what you are reading. The third step is the forthcoming home survey standard: this professional statement will contain some mandatory requirements on understanding competence, on clients' needs and on making sure the report satisfies them. These points have been deliberately isolated and clarified to allow RICS Regulation to take action against surveyors who do not pay sufficient heed to these fundamental factors.

As a final point, bearing in mind that moving into a new property can be one of the most stressful events in someone's life, surveyors should act with due consideration of the public interest and ensure that we are part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

Craig Ross MRICS is RICS associate director of the built environment: