Buying a House > Conveyancing > Property Searches

When buying a house, you’re faced with endless hoops to jump through that you never knew existed. The conveyancing process can seem far too complicated, daunting and expensive. And you wouldn’t be human if the thought hadn’t crossed your mind: is it all really necessary?

Conveyancing refers to the end-to-end process of sealing the deal on your new house, from putting in your offer to exchanging contracts. But perhaps the most important – and little understood – aspect of the conveyancing process are the property searches.

This quick overview outlines some of the commoner conveyancing searches and should help you understand their importance. After all, your home purchase could be the biggest investment you ever make, so it pays to play it safe.

What are conveyancing searches?

Unless you’ve worked in the property world, it’s unlikely you’ve come across conveyancing searches before (also called property searches). The good news though is that they are a lot less complex than they sound.

In layman’s terms, conveyancing searches are inquiries made by your solicitor or conveyancer to find out more information about the property you’re about to purchase. These inquiries are made with local authorities and other third parties depending on the circumstances.

The conveyancing process covers all legal aspects of buying a home. However, conveyancing searches are distinct from surveys on the physical state of the property like the Homebuyer’s Report and Building Survey. Setting these up is your responsibility alone, not your conveyancer’s.

Are conveyancing searches compulsory?

Conveyancing searches are generally required by mortgage lenders. So, unless you’re a cash buyer, they are a necessary part of the conveyancing process. It is unlikely that your mortgage application will be accepted without evidence of a conveyancing search having taken place. And without a mortgage offer in place, you cannot proceed to purchase.

If you’re a cash buyer, you are not beholden to a lender and therefore can request that your solicitor not bother with the searches. But be warned: this is risky given that these searches could uncover legal issues that affect the property.

Remember that, whether you’re a cash buyer or not, buying a property is a huge investment. You must be confident that there’s nothing that will prevent you living as you plan at the property. It’s tempting to save as much as possible during the buying process, but there can be repercussions down the line. Conveyancing searches are a small price to pay to avoid this.

What are conveyancers looking for?

Conveyancers look for a number of issues that might impact the suitability of the property you’re looking to purchase, or otherwise affect its value.

As the buyer, you will want to know about planning permission for future developments that would impact your property, about the quality of the ground on which it is built, about any issues affecting drainage and about possible access rights (like Public Right of Way). The relevant property searches, with the relevant authorities, will reveal all!

Unfortunately, there’s no set time for how long these searches can take. There are over 340 local authorities in the UK and turnaround times vary significantly, from 48 hours to several weeks. In particular, the Land Charges Department is likely to be a small team, meaning that during busy periods of the year it may take longer for them to return your results.

The methods used for searches can differ greatly too, with some authorities issuing results via an online portal, while others send them out via post.

The “Big Four” Conveyancing Searches

The typical conveyancing process features four main property searches. These are: Local Authority Search (LAS), Water and Drainage Search, Environmental Search and Chancel Repair Search.

1. Local Authority Search (LAS)

The Local Authority Search (LAS) provides you with information regarding your property and the surrounding neighbourhood. This search gives you peace of mind regarding the property and stops any nasty surprises emerging once you’ve moved in.

The LAS is divided into two key parts: LLC1 result and CON29 result. The LLC1 result tells you whether your property is:

  • a listed building
  • situated in a conservation area, a tree-preservation area or a smoke-controlled area
  • in need of an improvement or renovation grant.

The CON29 results reveal:

  • proposals for new roads
  • contaminated land
  • planning decisions that will affect your property
  • building regulations
  • whether your property is in a radon-affected area.
  • further, optional inquiries may be undertaken as well and submitted independently (as a CON29O form)

There are two different types of LAS, Personal and Official. The personal search is carried out by highly skilled agents that visit the local authority to examine their records. The official search is conducted by local authority staff and doesn’t involve private agents.  Most of the time, mortgage lenders will require a personal search – which tends to be cheaper and quicker to complete than an official search.

Any planning permissions that might affect your property and are submitted after the date of your LAS will not be covered by the search. If you have any additional questions on public rights of way, areas of outstanding beauty, pipeline & pollution notices or village greens, please ask your solicitor to make further inquiries on your behalf.

2. Water and Drainage Searches

The second search to be carried out will be the Water and Drainage searches, CON29DW and Regulated:

  • CON29DW Search: this confirms whether the property is connected to a public water supply and sewer. It will also look at whether the property is affected by water mains, how far it is from wastewater treatment works and how the property is currently being charged for its water usage.
  • Regulated Search: this looks at similar issues to the CON29DW search. However it doesn’t include the current basis for water charges or the water meter location. But, if time is of the essence, this search can be completed more quickly than the CON29DW.

These searches – which can be both residential and commercial – ensure that the property is safe from flooding, leaking and damp caused by public waterways and drains.

Much like the LAS, you can have both a personal and an official Water and Drainage search. The personal search, conducted by a local specialist for a fixed fee, is more cost-effective. However, it should be noted that, with an official search, the homebuyer is fully guaranteed by the issuing water authority should something go wrong.

3. Environmental Search

As the name suggests, the Environmental Search examines the environment surrounding the property. Specifically, it examines whether the property is susceptible to flooding, landslides or contamination.

Contaminated land refers to presence of harmful substances about, or near, the property. If, for example, it was built on ex-industrial ground, there may be toxic chemicals such as lead, arsenic, mercury and other metals still in the earth. These metals can be a potential hazard to the occupiers of the property, especially young children, as well as wildlife.

If you’re buying a new build, it’s likely your developer has carried out investigations into the soil before building. If any contamination had been revealed at this stage, remedial works would have been carried out. However, this has not always been the case. There have been many instances of homes being built on land found to be contaminated. When this happens, homeowners face a long period of uncertainty, and the question of who pays for the remedial works becomes a major point of contention.

While environmental searches are detailed – and a time-honoured part of the conveyancing process – conveyancers cannot comment on the information it turns up. All they will do is provide a copy of the environmental report and advise whether the land is currently contaminated and therefore unsuitable for lending purposes.

If the land has been flagged as potentially contaminated, this needn’t be an insurmountable obstacle to purchase, however. It is possible to obtain Contaminated Land Indemnity Insurance to protect you against the cost of remediation should the land indeed prove to be contaminated.

4. Chancel Repair Search

The standard conveyancing process wouldn’t be complete without the mysteriously entitled Chancel Repair Search.

The origins of this search are shrouded in the mists of time, back in the the 4th century. Unsurprisingly, this one can leave buyers a bit confused… In short, it checks whether you’re liable to pay for the maintenance of your local church. As you can imagine, the repair bills for buildings of this nature and age can be extremely high, as this unfortunate couple found out.

Despite appearing an anachronism, courts have recently upheld churches’ right to enforce payment of chancel repair from affected homes. Even if your property is situated some distance from the church, you have no connection to the church and you are not even religious, if your property is subject to this liability, then you may be forced to pay up.

You wouldn’t want to overlook any ancient liabilities tied to the property you’re planning to buy – hence the Chancel Repair Search. This search is also the only way to ascertain reliably whether a liability exists. This is because they are not based on property titles – so someone could buy a home and be faced with a bill that they’ve never seen referenced before.

If it turns out that your property is liable to chancel repair, you can take out insurance to cover the cost, should The Church come knocking. While the instances of The Church demanding money are increasingly rare, this isn’t a risk you really want to take. However, having the relevant insurance in place means it becomes a matter for your insurer to deal with instead.

Other Conveyancing Searches

The “big 4” searches should be enough for most mortgage lenders. However, additional specialist searches may be required as part of your conveyancing process, in accordance with the Council for Mortgage Lenders’ instructions. This depends largely on the location of the property. Here are three other searches your solicitor may be recommending:

  1. A British Waterways Search should be carried out if your property is situated by a nearby canal or river.
  2. If the area is prone to flooding, a Flood Report should be considered. This will show whether the property has been flooded in the last 75 years.
  3. If mining has taken place or is likely to take place, you should carry out a Coal Mining and Brine Search to see how this may affect the property.

Dealing with potential issues

For most house purchases, the conveyancing process is an extended act of rubber-stamping, akin to your annual medical check-up at the GP. Generally speaking, there are no issues. However, if potential problems are uncovered, then it’s important you know how to act.

If your searches return issues your solicitor isn’t qualified to advise on, it’ is recommended to obtain a further opinion from a qualified surveyor or environmental expert.

Also, if the search does bring up some slightly concerning results, you may be able to re-negotiate the property price.

You obviously want to be happy yourself with the outcome of your conveyancing searches – anything that might affect its livability should be taken very seriously. However, this is only part of the story. You may be OK with a given issue, but if your lender isn’t, this can scupper the purchase. This is where mortgage indemnity insurance comes in.

Mortgage Indemnity Insurance

Mortgage Indemnity Insurance, sometimes called a Mortgage Indemnity Guarantee (MIG), can be an appropriate solution in those cases where lenders are not happy with the outcome of your conveyancing searches.

To understand how this works, let’s briefly step back. Fundamentally, your mortgage is secured on the property you’re buying. So, if you cannot pay the loan back, your lender still recoups their money – by selling the property. To enter this agreement, the lender must be confident that the property will keep its value, something that is unlikely if the conveyancing searches highlights potential major issues down the line.

Mortgage Indemnity Insurance, paid by buyers on top of their mortgage repayments, protects lenders against the risk that the property they’ve lent on suffers a drop in value. This way, they’re happy to release the funds, even if there are unresolved issues stemming from the conveyancing searches.

A Mortgage Indemnity Guarantee can be a useful way to push the move through and in the vast majority of cases isn’t needed. However, buyers must remember that, should issues emerge, it won’t pay to fix them. So it pays to be aware of the potential hazards associated with your property.

It can be hard not to stick your head in the sand during the conveyancing process but it’s important to stay in the loop. Property searches are a vitally important part of the home-buying journey, revealing whether the property is fit for you to live in and for your lender to lend on. Buying a home is a huge investment, so make sure you’re not overlooking anything!