What Are Solicitor Searches?

You have found your dream home, been approved by your mortgage broker and everything was going swimmingly – that is until you got to the conveyancing stage.

Solicitors undertake a lot of work to help you exchange and complete on your property, but many homeowners find the wait during conveyancing unbearable.

Sometimes it can take many months for the conveyancing process to go through and you might be wondering what they’re doing and why it is taking so long.

Don’t worry, this guide explains how solicitors deal with conveyancing, what they do and some helpful tips at the end to keep the experience stress free.

Let’s jump straight in.

Why Do Solicitors Conduct Searches During the Home Buying Process?

When you buy a property in the UK there is a legal aspect that needs to be completed alongside the purchase. In the same way that you would need to update the DVLA in the event you buy a car, buying a house has legal paperwork.

Houses aren’t like cars in many respects though and the legal documentation and searches that need to be completed when buying a house are far more complex than submitting your V5 to the DVLA.

There are two main reasons that your solicitors will conduct searches:

To satisfy the lender – as you may know, a lender has strict criteria when providing a mortgage on a property. Many insist the property must be in a good state of repair and they will send a surveyor to establish this.

There are other things that a lender is concerned about other than property condition. Remember in the event that you’re unable to repay your mortgage, the lender needs to know they can sell the property with relative ease. 

Solicitors will check all manner of things to make sure there is nothing unusual or untoward with the property you’re intending to buy. 

To protect you, the property buyer – there are many things that can go wrong after you have bought a property. For example, you may find that you have issues with a neighbour and weren’t aware at the time of sale that this was an ongoing issue.

Solicitors will check for anti-social behaviour from neighbours alongside a broad range of other checks. If you do encounter problems down the line, you will have all the solicitor searches documented to back up your legal position.

When you factor in the overall cost of legal action in the property area, it can be invaluable to homeowners to have a good solicitor conducting the relevant searches during the conveyancing process.

The protection extends beyond the courts as well. Problems discovered in property searches can prevent you from buying a property that is overpriced when those issues are considered. 

Searches also give you information up front to ensure that you can enjoy your property or opt out of buying if problems arise that could prevent your future enjoyment (such as unruly neighbours).

It is not uncommon for buyers to renegotiate with sellers after problems come to light during the conveyancing process. These include:

  • Seeking a reduced price to reflect the true property value.
  • Asking the seller to remedy a problem before contracts are exchanged such as putting a treatment plan in for Japanese Knotweed.
  • Asking a seller to compensate the buyer for work they’re unwilling to conduct themselves but will need doing in the future.

Do I Need to Have Searches Conducted?

The answer is no, you don’t NEED to have searches conducted.

Buying with a Mortgage

If you’re using a lender to buy a property, they will instruct the conveyancer to conduct searches on their behalf for the reasons mentioned above. You may wish to discuss with the conveyancer what searches are being conducted and decide if you want them to conduct additional searches.

Buying with Cash

If you’re buying a property with 100% of the value paid in cash, you’re free to instruct the conveyancers to do searches if you want to. This isn’t mandatory though and if you’re not interested in property searches you can forgo them.

Risks of Not Conducting Searches

Property searches offer you protection, if you opt to not conduct them then you could find yourself liable later on for all manner of things. Searches don’t cost a fortune and they can save you a fortune in the long run.

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What Types of Searches do Solicitors Conduct?

You may be wondering what searches a conveyancer carries out? 

Below we have outlined the searches that solicitors conduct, why they are conducted and what you can expect from them.

Local Authority Searches

A solicitor will check with the local authority for a number of things.

  • Planning Issues – unfortunately it is not uncommon for property owners to build or extend their properties without the relevant planning permission. Planning issues also extend further than work all already carried out and can highlight areas of a property where planning has been denied in the past or forbidden altogether.
  • Building Control Issues – Some properties have strict restrictions put on them by local authorities especially if they are location sensitive. For example, properties built on reclaimed land might have restrictive controls preventing them being modified.
  • Highways Issues – Some properties sit on private roads or unclaimed roads. These can be problematic to say the least as maintenance and upkeep of the roads could fall on you as the property owner. 
  • Pollution Issues – Every local authority has an environmental health department, and your property may be subject to regulations or agreements with regard to environmental safety. Your property might also be located in a low emission area or have other charges applicable because of pollution.

Unfortunately, local authority searches are notoriously slow and local authorities aren’t really suited to responding to searches in a timely fashion. 

The reason for this is that local authority searches will often have to go through different departments before they are concluded.

That means your property search may go to several people in a local authority, each checking the relevant information in their department before passing it on.

Conveyancers normally bear the frustration of homebuyers waiting to complete because of the often slow search processes from local authorities. Searches through a local authority can take months to complete.

What’s more, of all the searches, local authority searches are one of the most important property searches, making them a necessary evil that you have to wait for.

Environmental Searches

Environmental issues are sometimes handled within the local authority searches by the environmental health department. But this isn’t always the case.

Sometimes, properties are built on reclaimed land such as landfill or near a waste management site that might not be included or highlighted on a local authority search. 

Environmental searches also look at other land aspects such as if there have been landslips, flooding or subsidence in the area. These specific land issues would not be found on a local authority search.

Environmental searches can go through extremely quickly if there are no issues highlighted but in circumstances where issues are found they can take a number of weeks.

Do I Need an Environmental Search?

Quite simply, you would be a little mad not to get an environmental search. Compared to other searches they’re cheap and they can highlight extremely serious problems about your property.

They can also be the difference between you enjoying your property and having a nightmare scenario as an environmental search will show existing and proposed sewage treatment facilities nearby. Let’s face it, waking up, opening the window and getting a waft of raw sewage is no one’s idea of domestic bliss.

Flood Risk Reports

These are sometimes included within the environmental search and sometimes not. You will need to check with your solicitor whether you need to conduct an additional search for flood risks.

A flood risk report will look at three factors:

  • Risk of flooding from sea or bodies of water such as lakes.
  • Risk of flooding from nearby rivers or watercourses.
  • Risk of flooding due to poor land drainage or rainfall.

Unfortunately, if your report has a positive finding it might be worth considering withdrawing your offer from a property. This is because many insurers refuse to cover flood risks where a report has highlighted potential flooding issues.

Where a property becomes uninsurable you will need to carefully consider whether the asking price is fair as you will have a significant financial risk if the property floods.

If the property is going to be subject to a mortgage you may find the lender withdraws the offer as the property isn’t suitable for their risk criteria and even if you’re willing to incur flood costs, you may be forced to back out of a sale by your lender.

Your report will provide an insurance rating and even if the property is insurable, you will need to disclose the rating to your insurer and your home insurance premium will reflect the rating.

In rare cases, you might be told you can’t get traditional home insurance policies and will need specialised insurance policies to cover risk.

These policies are normally underwritten by Lloyds of London and carry larger premiums.

Because home insurance is a requirement of mortgage lenders, you may find yourself in a position of having to pay for specialist insurance if you want to proceed with a property purchase.

Do I Need a Flood Risk Report?

These reports are a catch-22 in most cases. You will be warned of any potential flood risks, but this could mean you need to back out of a property purchase or pay for costly insurance policies.

Once the report is processed you will be obligated to tell your insurer of the insurance rating, and this means that you might pay a lot more for insurance than you ordinarily would.

On the flipside, having information about flood risks can help you understand your risks when buying a property and also negotiate a better price if something adverse is found. Having a report to show a seller is a great bargaining tool and it might be the case that you can ask for remedial work to protect the property before you commit to buying it.

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Land Registry

The Land Registry is a computerised database that holds information about who owns land and property in the UK. They typically store title deeds in electronic form and a conveyancer will be able to access your property deeds if they’re registered on the Land Registry.

Property deeds will tell you a lot about the property you’re buying including if there are any covenants on the property or land. 

In rare cases, the Land Registry will not have your property deeds. The mandatory requirement for electronic deeds to be registered with them only came into effect in 2002 with the Land Registration Act 2002.

When this legislation was passed, all property sales that went through had to be registered electronically with the Land Registry as well as if leases were transferred or mortgage charges were put onto properties.

But – 2002 is only twenty years of compulsory record keeping and if the property you’re intending to buy hasn’t been sold in the last twenty years and no mortgage charges have been applied to it, then it may not be registered with HM Land Registry.

If this is the case, your conveyancing process may take additional time as the searches will involve tracking down the original property deeds and checking those physically.

Then your conveyancer will need to scan these onto the Land Registry database in the event you exchange on the property.

Land Registry searches typically don’t take long at all. If your property isn’t registered with Land Registry, then the search may take a number of weeks. 

Bear in mind some property deeds for older/listed properties are archaic and some even written in older versions of English, making them hard to decipher.

Land Registry and Ongoing Boundary Disputes

It is also very important to mention that sometimes a Land Registry search won’t satisfy a solicitor and they may wish to locate and track down the original property deeds anyway. This is rare but normally occurs if there is an ongoing boundary dispute on the property.

Unfortunately, the Land Registry doesn’t clearly define or register land boundaries from property deeds, and this has caused numerous problems for property owners since the Land Registry Act 2002 came into effect.

Water Authority Searches

Surprisingly this encompasses a number of things that you might not have considered. Some properties don’t have a dedicated water or sewage supply and a water authority search will show if the property is fully or partially connected.

Alongside this, the search can show if there is debt on the property for water services and you will want to ensure any existing debt is cleared by the current owners before completing as water companies tend to chase the property owner in the first instance.

While you may end up being able to demonstrate you’re not liable for outstanding water company debt, it is a stressful experience you will likely want to avoid.

These searches are normally completed quickly. Additional searches and checks may be needed afterwards, especially if there is a communal septic tank that services the property.

Chancel Repair

If the property you’re intending to buy is situated within a civil parish, there is a chance that you have a positive covenant on your property deeds for the upkeep of the community parish.

This positive covenant compels property owners in the community to contribute money to help maintain and repair the local church and grounds.

This might seem a bit outdated but around 500,000 UK properties have this liability in England and Wales. Even new build properties within civil parish communities can be subject to chancel repair charges so don’t be fooled into thinking that your property won’t be because it isn’t old enough.

Because our villages and towns are expanding to cope with a growing population, it is not uncommon for properties in towns to fall under a chancel repair liability.

Purpose of a Chancel Repair Search

This search is a little unusual compared to most searches because it is designed to search the area and then provide homeowners a certificate that they will not be responsible for any chancel repair.

The reason this is an unusual search is that when your property deeds are processed, any positive covenants in relation to chancel repair will be flagged up regardless. But the certificate does mean that you have a bit of legal protection in the future if a civil parish body applies to put a positive covenant on your property.

This certificate that is issued excludes any current chancel repair liability, but whilst it is certainly good for pushing back on any legal move to put a positive covenant on your deeds, it is not watertight and won’t prevent you potentially being liable in the future.

This is because of the complicated system used to register land that is subject to chancel repair. In some cases, land that is subject to chancel repair isn’t documented at all and you could still be liable in the future.

Is Chancel Repair an Important Search?

The answer here is that it depends. Your deeds will show any current and enforced chancel repair liability through positive covenants. 

A search CAN show if you have a liability that isn’t currently enforced, and the certificate can offer limited legal protection against that becoming enforceable.

The real issue with such searches is that some chancel repair liabilities aren’t documented at all and land that is subject to chancel repair can be used by civil parishes at any time to levy charges.

In summary, it is a decent search to gain a little peace of mind but don’t mistake it for a comprehensive search as databases aren’t complete and you could be liable regardless of any search.

Limitations of Churches with Chancel Repair Liabilities

A common misconception is that churches have lost the ability to charge chancel repair costs to homeowners – this isn’t the case.

In 2014 a Chancel Repair Bill was put before parliament with a view to remove these liabilities, but it was widely disregarded, and the bill is now registered as not being before parliament. 

The Land Registry Act of 2002 made a provision that churches should register interest in any land with the Land Registry by 2013.

Although most parishes have done so, there is a loophole that means parishes still have the ability to register interest in land for chancel repair even if they haven’t complied with the Land Registry Act.

This is because chancel repair is protected by other acts that the Land Registry Act doesn’t override.

To protect yourself there are insurance policies that you can take out to cover potential chancel repair liability.

What Happens When a Church Applies a Charge Under Chancel Repair?

This is where it becomes an absolute nightmare for property owners. A parish doesn’t need to apply charges across all properties within the civil parish and although in most cases they do – in some cases they target affluent houses only or properties close to the church itself.

In short, if you have a chancel repair liability, a church can levy you for the repair fee and not your neighbour. It is entirely up to the church how they charge the levy.

This has resulted in a number of high-profile cases where people have received letters charging in excess of £100,000. A famous case is the ‘Wallbank Case’ where Andrew and Gail Wallbank received a demand for just under £100,000 and appealed to the courts to prevent the levy.

Their legal challenge failed and after a lengthy legal dispute the couple were left to foot a £350,000 bill for the chancel repair and legal fees.

If you live in a chancel repair liability area you should take out insurance to cover this and if insurance is unavailable, you should ensure you have the ability to pay any chancel repair charges that may arise while you’re the property owner. 

Canal and River Searches

Don’t be fooled by the title, these have nothing to do with the flood risk searches mentioned earlier and are more akin to the chancel repair liability we mentioned above.

Canal and river searches highlight your rights as a property owner if you’re near a river or canal for things like fishing, using the canal or river for boating or mooring vessels. For those who like life on the water these rights can be amazing and discovering them through a search will undoubtedly be a happy occasion.

In rare cases (mostly rural properties) the search may even give property owners the right to additional drainage or the ability to secure water for your land (widely used in the agricultural sector).

But – like all good things, there is a downside and in this case it is financial. You may be financially responsible for the upkeep and repair of your local river or canal.

Aside from the financial liability, you may also find a river or canal actually falls on the land you intend to buy and that you are subject to strict Environment Agency controls. These controls mean that property owners have a legal liability on top of any financial burden.

Do I Need It?

The location of your property in relation to a river or canal will be your deciding factor when getting this search. If you live nowhere near a watercourse, river or canal then the likelihood of needing a river and canal search is slim to none.

Be careful though, the UK has so many rivers, watercourses and canals that you might be surprised by how many are situated near your intended property.

The general advice here is to quickly consult an Ordinance Survey map of the area and ascertain whether a river, watercourse or canal passes close to your property. Your solicitor can also advise whether it is needed too.

There is no set rule when it comes to how close you should be to a watercourse before deciding to search the records. Some properties have liabilities when they’re many miles from the watercourse whereas others have watercourses bordering their land and have no liability.

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Location/Situation Specific Searches

Depending on where your intended property is in the UK you may also need additional searches. These location or situation specific searches shouldn’t be overlooked as once again, without conducting them, you could be opening yourself up to substantial legal and financial liabilities.

Here are a couple of common location or situation specific searches:

Commons Registration Search – Some land in the UK is registered as ‘Common Land’. Normally reserved for rural or agricultural areas, common land gives other locals rights and access to your land.

These rights vary depending on the use the common land is registered as, and the most frequent use is for public rights of way or footpaths. But they can also cover some pretty radical things like farmers being allowed to move livestock through your land or even allow them to use your land for grazing.

Crazier still, some common land is reserved for community fetes and events so you may be obligated to allow the public to have a fete or event each year on your land.

Coal Mining and Brine Search – Before the 1980s, the mining industry in the UK was prevalent but today many mines have been abandoned.

Searches for mines are normally quite straightforward as most mines are clearly marked on maps but occasionally small mines or mine shafts may be on (or under) your land.

If mines haven’t been secured and reenforced properly they can lead to problems with subsidence and drainage. If you’re buying a property that has ties to the mining or brine industries this search is worthwhile for that added peace of mind that your property isn’t going to collapse into a disused mine.

Your solicitor should be able to tell you whether or not this search is required.

How Long do Solicitor Searches Take?

Typically, property searches take between 2 weeks to a month to complete. But it is not unusual for searches to take much longer.

You should remember though that most property searches are external to your solicitor’s office and require different organisations to send back information.

Many databases are online now, but it would be amiss to suggest that any online UK database is complete. In fact, most online databases are far from complete, and your solicitor may need to visit records offices and trawl through documents.

Local authorities aren’t structured to expedite property searches and they normally cause considerable delays to the solicitor search process.

If searches flag problems that need rectifying before contracts can be exchanged, this process can be delayed even further. In rare circumstances the conveyancing process can take up to a year to complete, especially if a seller is required to conduct remedial work and provide additional documentation from any regulatory body to say that work completed meets a certain standard.

What to Do if Searches Delay Conveyancing?

If you’re getting concerned about delays with conveyancing you should ask your mortgage broker to chase the solicitors on your behalf.

Waiting for searches can be a frustrating experience for property buyers as solicitors are highly unlikely to update you of progress during this stage.

If you aren’t using a mortgage broker a good tip is to call and ask for an update. When given that update, ask the solicitor for a timeframe that they expect the work to be completed and then follow up when that date passes.

This is very effective because you’re allowing the solicitor to manage expectations and provide a date themselves to chase up rather than you feel anxious or as though you’re pestering them.

Do Search Costs Vary Depending on Location?

Most searches have a blanket fee. Solicitors are required to provide you with a complete breakdown of all fees and costs so that you can see exactly what has been charged during conveyancing.

 For example, a simple online Land Registry search is currently £3. But other searches vary in price depending on the type of search and level of work your solicitor will need to complete the search properly.

Some lenders pay for property searches themselves or levy a fixed fee to borrowers for conveyancing costs. In these circumstances you don’t need to worry about costs unless there are additional searches you wish to undertake.

Costs of searches are subject to change in most cases. Depending on your location you may also find search fees are higher as you may be expected to conduct location specific searches to satisfy your mortgage lender.

Conclusion

While property searches can be a pain, you can make the process smoother by using a mortgage broker. At Boon Brokers we have built up good relationships with conveyancers and solicitors and offer free no obligation advice. Contact us today for your mortgage needs or to discuss your specific concerns around searches.

Gerard BoonB.A. (Hons), CeMAP, CeRER

Gerard is a co-founder and partner of Boon Brokers. Having studied many areas of financial services at the University of Leeds, and following completion of his CeMAP and CeRER qualifications, Gerard has acquired a vast knowledge of the mortgage, insurance and equity release industry.