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Conveyancing Searches: Explained

Conveyancing searches

One of the most important steps in the purchase of any property is carrying out conveyancing searches.

In our latest article we explore the world of conveyancing searches, touching on what they are, when you need to order them, and how they can help protect you when buying a property.

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1.What are conveyancing searches?

Conveyancing searches are enquiries made by a solicitor or licensed conveyancer to third parties who hold information relevant to a property being purchased.

Property searches are essential to uncover hidden issues or factors that could affect a property or the land surrounding it. These could include potential flood risks or even the risk of subsidence or historic mine collapses.

Typically, a conveyancer will only order property searches once their client’s offer has been accepted and the property is marked as sold subject to contract. This is because conveyancing searches, particularly local authority searches, mean buyers have to pay a reasonable sum for these upfront. They can also take a while to return and can cause delays in property transactions.

All third-party organisations your legal representative contact about your planned purchase make charges for providing this information. These fees can vary substantially.

Your conveyancer will bill you for these as disbursements or may use your initial balance payment to cover these costs. While some conveyancers offer a “standard package” of searches, additional searches may be required depending on the property.

2. Why do you need conveyancing searches?

Having conveyancing searches conducted is not only advisable but often a legal necessity when buying a property. This is especially true if you are buying with a mortgage as your lender will insist on a basic package of conveyancing searches being carried out.

These searches will need to be returned and checked before mortgage funds can be released. This is to ensure the lender can recover their loan in case of circumstances where they need to repossess the property. They need to ensure the property does not have any legal issues such as faults with the title or boundary disputes.

Conveyancing searches are also important for protecting buyers. Searches can warn buyers if the property they are looking at suffers from problems such as regular flooding, title issues, environmental contamination or even debts secured against it.

3. Essential conveyancing searches

There are four conveyancing searches which are typically required for buying property. These are important no matter where your property is located and are often the searches that a mortgage lender will insist upon too.

These searches include:

Title Searches (£6 – £12)

The title search is vitally important as it checks if the person selling you the property actually owns it.

You can carry out a title search by ordering a copy of the property’s title register and title plan from HM Land Registry. Copies of these documents cost just £3 each.

The title register provides information about the previous owner of the property. This will include the amount they paid for it, details about any covenants or easements affecting the property, and any registered debts against the property. It is crucial to check the title register to ensure that there are no outstanding debts or legal disputes associated with the property. This is because in some cases, unresolved debts or legal disputes can be passed on to the new owner.

The title plan, on the other hand, provides a map of the property, including its general boundaries. This is useful for determining what is included in the sale, such as parking, and detached plots of land. It is important to note that the boundaries shown on the title plan are not precise. And so, it may be necessary to obtain the full title deed for exact details of the property.

When buying a leasehold property, you will also need to see a copy of the lease. This is also recorded with HM Land Registry.

Local Authority Searches (£45 – £350)

In the UK, local authorities maintain records of properties within their boundaries. These contain crucial information that buyers need to know about any potential issues and legal restrictions that could affect a property. To access this information, buyers can request a local authority search which is comprised of two parts: the LLC1 and the CON29.

A local authority search remains valid for just six months from the date of purchase. If your transaction doesn’t complete within six months, another search will be needed.

The LLC1

The LLC1 search is the first part of a local authority search. This involves checking the local land charges registry to uncover any charges or restrictions affecting the property. The LLC1 covers many factors related to conservation. These include listed status of a building, smoke control or conservation areas, protection orders for trees around the property and eligibility for renovation or improvement grants. The LLC1 also covers planning agreements, conditional planning consents and enforcement notices.

All restrictions and planning agreements on the LLC1 remain binding when a property is sold and will impact the new owner.

The CON29

The second element, the CON29, is a questionnaire which is filled in by the local authority covering a variety of different topics related to a property and its local area.

This search is made up of 18 standard questions which cover areas including planning applications which are relevant to the property, information on any nearby road schemes, the property’s building control history and any enforcement action taken, any restrictions on permitted development and information on land contamination. In addition, if a compulsory purchase order is in place for the property, this will be made clear in the CON29.

On top of the standard questions, some buyers opt for an extended section featuring additional queries. These are aimed at noise abatement orders, common land, village greens, proposed private roads, public footpaths and pollution notices. This is known as the ‘CON29 O’ and is required by some mortgage lenders.

How to get a local authority search

You have two options for ordering local authority searches: council searches and regulated searches.

Council searches are carried out by council employees and are available directly from the local authority relevant to the property in question. They vary widely in price, from less than £50 to more than £350, depending on the local authority’s method of producing them. The speed of council searches arriving also varies significantly. This can be from as little as a few hours to months. The average time for delivery is around 2 – 3 weeks.

Regulated searches, on the other hand, are carried out by private search companies affiliated with the Council of Property Search Organisations (CoPSO). These offer consistent pricing across the country, usually around £100, and a quicker, more consistent return speed of around ten days. Regulated search companies often offer other searches integrated into their package, reducing your conveyancer’s paperwork. Although some mortgage lenders historically preferred official searches, most of the major mortgage lenders now accept regulated searches.

Conveyancers may have a preference between council searches and regulated searches, depending on where the property is situated. It’s advisable to ask your conveyancer to explain their reasoning behind the type of local authority search they choose to order.

Environmental Searches (£50)

In the UK, it is considered a necessity by the Law Society to get an Environmental Search, even though the local authority search provides some information on issues such as contaminated land. The environmental search, which can be purchased from a specialist search company or a water company, varies from provider to provider. The search ensures that the property is not on or near contaminated land, waste, or a landfill site. It also performs a basic check for flooding and subsidence, which will indicate if further searches on these issues are necessary.

Environmental searches are fairly cheap usually costing about £50 and can provide peace of mind. Skipping this search may save you some money in the short term but can lead to serious consequences in the long run. If a property fails an environmental search, it may be wise to avoid purchasing it, as pollution, which can include hazardous chemicals and toxic metals, is extremely expensive to clean up. More importantly, these could cause serious harm to you and your family.

The turnaround time for an environmental search can be as little as 48 hours. Although the local authority search may provide some information on environmental issues, it is still worthwhile to get a separate environmental search, which can be more comprehensive and specialized. By doing so, you can rest assured that you have done everything you can to safeguard yourself against potential problems.

Water and Drainage Searches (£50-£100)

The Law Society recommends conducting a water and drainage search, also known as a ‘CON29DW’ search. This search can be carried out by either a registered search company or a local water company.

A water and drainage search provides vital information about a property’s connections to the mains water and sewerage systems. This information is particularly important if you plan to build on the property. In essence, you must obtain a water company’s permission before constructing anything on top of drainage systems.

Additionally, the search reveals whether the property has a private water supply, such as a borehole, or a private sewage system, like septic tanks or cesspools. It’s crucial to know whether you are responsible for the sewer system, which can help you determine the cost of insuring any parts of the system you’re responsible for in case of collapsed drains, which can be extremely expensive.

A water and drainage search is a small price to pay for peace of mind.

Other common conveyancing searches

While all of the above searches are typically required for any property purchase, certain homes may require additional searches before they can be safely bought.

The need for these searches often varies depending on the property’s location. For example, properties in coastal and riverine areas will usually require a flood risk report. And properties in areas with significant historical mining activity will more than likely require a mining search.

Your conveyancer will assist you in determining which additional searches to order when buying a property.

Flood risk reports (£30 – £60)

While the local authority search usually includes a basic flood risk report, this may not provide sufficient information to assess the actual flood risk for a property. In such cases, a comprehensive flood risk report conducted by a water company or specialized search provider can more accurately evaluate the flood danger to a property. To determine whether a full flood risk report is necessary, consulting with a conveyancer, surveyor, and long-time residents on the property’s street can be helpful.

Moreover, the flood risk report can help determine if a property is insurable. Some properties have a high flood risk and may not be eligible for flood damage insurance. In such cases, the property’s sale value could significantly reduce. This could also make obtaining a mortgage to purchase a property more challenging or in some cases even impossible.

Coal mining and ground stability searches (£50 – £150)

If you are considering buying a property in an area with a history of mining, such as Cornwall, Wales, or Yorkshire, it’s advisable to obtain a mining and ground stability search. This search helps determine if the property you plan to purchase is situated above any historic mines and if it could be affected by mine-related hazards. It also checks if any nearby properties have been affected by problems such as subsidence and looks for potential hazards associated with mining.

The report provides a summary of past and current mining activities in the local area, as well as any environmental risks or planning conditions associated with this activity. Although the UK has a long history of mining, these mines are well mapped, making it relatively easy to identify and insure against risks associated with them.

The cost of a mining and ground stability search typically ranges from £50 to £150, depending on the extent of mining activities in the local area.

Chancel repair liability searches (£40)

In England, a significant number of properties are liable to pay chancel repair due to laws dating back to the Middle Ages. This is particularly common in rural areas and is based on an old English tradition where the church collected money from its parishioners to maintain the chancel, the area around the altar. Even if property owners do not attend the church or practice Christianity, they are still legally obliged to pay for these repairs if their property is within a defined area.

Although it may seem unfair and archaic, many churches still enforce chancel repair, and it can be difficult to determine whether a property is liable. This information is not recorded in the title deeds, so a chancel repair liability search is necessary to find out if the property is liable. If it is, indemnity insurance is typically purchased by the seller before the completion of the sale to provide financial protection.

A chancel repair liability search typically costs around £40.

Canal and river searches (£200 plus VAT)

The Canal and River Search, also known as the Rivers Authority search, operates a lot like a chancel repair search.

If a property is situated on a waterway such as a canal, river, or stream, it may come with certain rights and responsibilities related to the water. The purpose of the canal and river search is to identify these rights and responsibilities, as well as the ownership of the waterway.

The rights tend to include things like the right to drain into or abstract from the river, moor vessels, or to fish from the bank. The responsibilities usually involve financing the upkeep of the section of bank which passes your property. This is hugely important, as regular maintenance ensures the river does not breach and the surrounding properties are kept safe.

A canal and river search can be costly, with the Canal and Rivers Trust charging as much as £200 plus VAT to carry them out.

Commons registration searches (£90)

In England, 3% of private property is designated as common land. This means that the public at large may have one or many rights to use it.

These rights can include simple things like access, or more extensive permissions such as the right to pasture animals, hunt and fish, or gather wood and soil. Sometimes, a local village or church may have the right to use a particular piece of land for a fete, or a village event.

All common land in the UK is registered and the rights associated with it are searchable. If you are buying property situated near a village common or green, this search is important as your new house may still be affected by these historic rights.

Typically, when dealing with residential property a commons registration search will cost you as much as £90.

5. What to do if your property searches find problems

Your conveyancer will usually inform you if your property searches uncover any problems.

These issues can be diverse and include potential environmental problems like flooding or subsidence. They could also include unapproved construction work, restrictions on future plans for extensions, disputes with neighbours and issues with the property title. Other examples include planned developments that can prove detrimental to a property’s value such as an infestation of Japanese knotweed.

If your property searches reveal issues like these, you have a couple of options. Firstly, if the issue is a dealbreaker for you or your mortgage lender, you can pull out of the transaction. This will mean accepting the money spent on searches as a sunk cost, but it will allow you to quickly move on and find a more suitable property.

Alternatively, you could use the issue as an opportunity to re-negotiate the purchase price. You should listen carefully to your conveyancer’s advice as some properties may still be highly desirable despite serious faults.

Lastly, some issues, like problems with planning permission, can be addressed using indemnity insurance. Indemnity insurance is a one-off premium insurance policy that protects you from potential costs associated with specific legal occurrences. For instance, you can purchase indemnity insurance against a longstanding planning defect. If the local authority issues an enforcement notice covering this, the insurance will help cover any costs you may need to pay as a result.

Indemnity insurance policies can be specific to an issue, or general, and can cost around £100 for individual policies, or more like £300 for a general policy. If an issue is the seller’s fault, they will typically pay for the indemnity insurance policy, but if it’s not their fault, the buyer usually pays.

Note that all of these solutions rely on you finding out about the issue before you buy the property and would be completely unworkable had you decided to skip the searches.

6. What are the limitations of property searches?

While conveyancing searches can provide valuable information, there are limitations to what they can reveal.

For example, if planning permission for a major project is applied for the day after your local authority search comes back, you will not be informed of this. Local papers or regular online searches can be very good for seeing what is being planned for an area.

Additionally, searches can’t reveal information about softer factors that may affect your property, such as noise and traffic. To assess the impact of these factors, it’s important to visit the property during peak hours, such as the school run and at the local pubs’ kick-out time, to get a sense of what the noise levels and traffic are like.

It is also important to note that searches can’t provide information about a property’s construction or structural integrity. To assess these factors and get an estimate of the property’s value, you should consider hiring a chartered surveyor. These professionals are registered with the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), and offer a wide variety of services. These range from quick valuations to in-depth structural examinations and can provide important insights into the condition of a property.

When buying a property, it is almost always worth hiring a RICS registered surveyor to investigate the its construction.

7. Are conveyancing searches essential?

While conveyancing searches are not always legally required, skipping them can be risky.

If you are buying a property without a mortgage, you are not obligated to conduct any searches, but it is still wise to do so. The information you gain from searches can help you avoid potential problems that could cost you a lot of money down the line or limit your options for using the property.

While it is true that some cash buyers choose to skip searches to reduce the time it takes to buy a property, most opt to conduct them. Searches can uncover issues that might not be immediately apparent, such as boundary disputes, planning restrictions, or environmental hazards. By conducting searches, you can make an informed decision about whether to proceed with a transaction, negotiate a lower price, or pull out altogether.

Some companies now offer a product called no search indemnity insurance. This type of insurance policy can provide protection against problems that would have been discovered in a search, even if no searches were conducted. However, this type of insurance has limitations, and it is still generally advisable to conduct conveyancing searches to gain a full understanding of a property’s background.

In summary

Conveyancing searches can be incredibly valuable tools for investigating a property and its surroundings. Each type of search can uncover different issues and provide protection against legal faults, such as problems with the property’s title, planning permission, or building control, as well as environmental hazards like flooding, subsidence, and pollution.

Several searches are so important that they’re essentially mandatory for any property purchase. The title search confirms that the seller is the rightful owner of the property, while the local authority search provides information on conservation, planning, building control history, and potential grants. The environmental search examines contamination and pollution, and the water and drainage search contains details about the property’s water supply and sewer system.

Beyond these four essential property searches, there are many others that can be situationally useful. For example, in areas with a history of underground excavations a mining search is critical, while if a property is located near an ancient pre-reformation church, it may be responsible for paying a chancel repair levy for the church’s upkeep.

While it is sometimes possible to buy a property without conducting property searches, it’s not recommended. The information you gain from searches can help you avoid potential pitfalls and make a more informed decision about your purchase.

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