How to pick a Building Surveyor for an old building

On a daily basis, we see building survey reports written by people who clearly have no understanding of the building they are looking at. They inevitably recommend numerous follow-up reports. Electric and gas I can understand – fair enough, we can't all be experts in highly technical things. Even drainage - I often recommend drain surveys – you can't dig the things out to inspect them.

The building survey industry is a minefield of incompetence, misinformation and even corruption.

What really makes my blood boil is a consistent lack of competence by supposedly highly qualified RICS Chartered surveyors.  A failure to understand historic fabric is commonplace. Almost all surveys fail to observe that a building is breathable – made from lime mortar, hand made brick, or porous stone. They fail to understand the ramifications of using modern materials on such buildings – whether a Victorian terrace, or a country manor. The new BS:7913 – Guide to the Conservation of Historic Buildings is critical in this regard. It clearly states that these things are an essential part of the survey toolkit – and yet few, if any surveyors know or understand them.

A direct result of this incompetence – and that is what it most assuredly is – is the rapid growth of the 'remedial survey' industry. Under the guise of the Property Care Association, unqualified chemical salesmen are actually encouraged by our incompetent surveyor to undertake 'Timber and Damp Surveys'. They've even got the banks and building societies in on the act. The supposedly highly qualified 'chartered surveyor' has now passed on responsibility for understanding what might be wrong with the building to an unqualified chemical salesman.

It is astonishing that surveyors are passing responsibility for the major part of the building structure to unqualified yobbos. These people depend on sales of totally unwarranted damp proofing treatments for their income. Companies like Kenwood PLC, Peter Cox, Rentokil, Timberwise.  They have no understanding of historic building fabric. Building Conservation – the theory of breathability, lime mortar, timber framing – these are all subjects beyond their limited intelligence or comprehension. These people don't do a three year honours degree to become a surveyor. Most don't even have an NVQ Level 1. They attend an in-house chemical sales presentation and are given their “qualifications” - meaningless letters to put after their names – CSRT, CSSW – which have zero academic status – Not Even NVQ Level 1 !

How did we manage to get into such a shambolic state with our building survey industry? How is a 'timber and damp' industry able to flog millions of pounds worth of chemical 'solutions' for problems that don't even exist – rising damp never has, and never will happen.

The answer lies with regulation, or more precisely, lack of it. Unlike the financial industry, which is so tightly regulated the bankers can still get away with billion pound fraud, the survey and real estate industry has no regulation at all. The RICS says it's the 'mark of property professionalism' and yet it encourages the PCA. Other survey organisations have sprung up, like the ISSE, to compete with the RICS – but they are much the de-facto organisation.

The bottom line is that by using a highly qualified chartered surveyor, you have little or no guarantee of getting a decent survey – you will almost certainly end up being palmed off onto a totally unqualified yobbo who will attempt to flog you many thousands of pounds worth of useless work.

How do you make sure you get a decent survey?

Don't rely just on 'qualification'. Many in the industry are meaningless. You can be FRICS and know absolutely zero about old houses. We know FRICS who are IHBC members who still use just damp meters and have never used a thermo hygrometer, imaging camera, or carbide test.

  1. Do your research – look at the surveyors website – look at background, experience, client base - can he demonstrate real life experience with old property – building, restoring, caring for.

  2. ASK how the surveyor measures damp.  Many are so scared now that they won't tell you.  If you are on the receiving end of anything along the lines of 'damp meter' or conductance meter in search mode - run for the hills - this person has not got a clue. 
  3. Understand old buildings – be aware of the different materials involved and the vastly different skill sets that are needed to understand the fabric.

  4. Make sure your surveyor can demonstrate clearly his own in-depth knowledge of the historic environment. All too often we see the statement 'Yes – I know all about old houses' followed in the report by a demand that a PCA registered 'timber and damp' surveyor do a report on damp or timber. They recommend damp proofing in Listed Buildings – this is a criminal offence. This is sheer incompetence on behalf of the surveyor.

To demonstrate his or her experience of old property – and not just Listed Buildings – these are some pointers:

  • Does the surveyor have the Building Conservation module of RICS (unlikely – there are only about 7 that do)
  • Is the surveyor a member of IHBC (The Institute of Historic Building Conservation) – it doesn't really matter if they aren't a full member – the fact that they are an active member of the Conservation industry is the most important factor. Recently, unfortunately we've seen senior IHBC members with PhD's, actually putting videos on their website talking about how they measure damp with a damp meter.  Moron comes to mind.
  • Has the surveyor an active working knowledge of traditional materials – can he or she demonstrate this? Do they know about lime, timber framing, traditional plasters, linseed paints, how to age a building?
  • What equipment do they have? If they simply have a 'damp meter' – don't let them near the place. These days you need to demonstrate working knowledge of thermal imaging, moisture control, and how to accurately measure dampness in building materials. He'll need about £10,000 worth of equipment to do this – and a large car.
  • … and does he wear a suit to do his survey? If he does, he ain't dressed for the job!

 Or you could just call us – we are all of these things and more (except the yobbo damp surveyor bit!)

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