Conveyancing searches: what are they, and why are they important?

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As part of the process of buying a property, a lawyer will obtain, and report to the buyer, on a number of searches provided by third-parties. Those searches are separate from the lawyer’s review of the sale contract, and their investigation of the property title and the seller’s replies to standard forms and enquiries, but they are an equally important step in avoiding potentially serious issues with the property later on.

But what are the searches, why are they necessary, and what adverse information could they reveal?

The usual suspects

There is a wide variety of different searches that are available to a buyer during the property purchase process, depending on the location of the property and the buyer’s requirements. These can include searches relating to mining and subsidence, energy and infrastructure, planning and development, and utilities and services. However, the most common searches, which will be obtained in the majority of residential purchase transactions, are the following:

  • Local Authority Search
  • Drainage and Water Search
  • Environmental Search
  • Chancel Repair Liability Search

Most third-party search providers will also ‘flag’ to the buyer’s lawyer whether they consider that any specific additional searches (such as flood or ground stability searches) are advised, based on the nature of the particular property that is being searched against.

Local Authority Search

One of the most important searches carried out by a buyer’s lawyer is the Local Authority Search.

This search provides information from the local authority including outstanding enforcement notices (such as for breaches of planning law or building regulations), financial charges (for example, if the Local Authority has spent money to make a dangerous structure safe), and historic planning permissions granted for the construction and use of the property (which may themselves contain prohibitive restrictions to be complied with). All of these matters will bind the property, meaning that they will continue to apply after completion of the buyer’s purchase of the property.

Additionally, the Local Authority Search will confirm whether the property:

  • is a listed building
  • is situated within a conservation area
  • is subject to a Tree Preservation Order or Smoke Control Order
  • is liable for payment of a contribution towards a Community Infrastructure Levy (a payment towards the development of the local area which can be applied to certain newly constructed properties)

The local authority will also comment on the status of nearby highways, in order to determine whether the road that abuts the property has been adopted and is therefore maintained at the expense of the public (or otherwise, if it must be maintained privately).

Drainage and Water Search

When investigating a property, it is important to establish that the property is connected to the mains water supply, along with the public sewer for both foul and surface water drainage. This confirmation will be provided by the Drainage and Water Search, which will also provide details of existing water meters, surface water drainage charges, and water classification (most properties in the South and East of England have a ‘hard’ water classification).

Crucially, the search will provide details of any services (such as public sewers, disposal mains or lateral drains) which run within the boundaries of the property, such as through the garden. A water authority has a statutory right to access their assets, and therefore the existence of these can mean that any future development of the land (such as an extension or outbuilding) cannot be completed without entering into a Build Over Agreement with the water authority. Such agreements are expensive and time-consuming, and usually allow the water authority to demolish buildings (at the owner’s cost) in order gain access to their assets in the future.

Environmental Search

According to Part IIA of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, the owner of land that is contaminated by harmful materials can be ordered by the Environment Agency or local authority to ‘clean up’ the land, at their own expense. This process can be costly, and any neighbouring owners who have been harmed by hazardous materials from your land may also sue for damages.

An Environmental Search will confirm whether the land is likely to be contaminated, based on the historic use of the land. Various historical factors can increase the risk of land being contaminated, such as the land previously being used as a petrol station.

Aside from the contamination risk, an Environmental Search will also comment on flood risks (such as proximity to rivers or streams), ground instability risks (such as subsidence caused by historic uses of the land), impacts from nearby infrastructure and energy (such as wind and solar farms), and the possible effect that climate change might have on the future environmental risks to the property.

Chancel Repair Liability Search

According to medieval law, it is possible that the owners of properties in certain parishes across the country may still be liable to contribute towards the costs of repairing and maintaining the Chancel of their local Church (the space around the altar, including the choir and the sanctuary). This is known as a Chancel Repair Liability.

Whether or not the land (and therefore the owners of properties) in a certain parish will be subject to a Chancel Repair Liability was fixed at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in the 16th century, when the liability of repairing the chancel passed from monks to the new owner of the land.

Following the Land Registration Act 2002 and Rule 2 of the Land Registration Rules 2002 (Transitional Provisions) (No 2) Order 2003, since 12 October 2013 a Chancel Repair Liability must be registered against the title to the property in order to apply. This means that the liability will, eventually, be phased out. However, in some circumstances the liability will continue to ‘override’ registration (and therefore doesn’t need to be noted on the title to the property) – as such, it still remains crucial to obtain a Chancel Repair Liability Search in order to determine whether or not it remains applicable. If it does, a buyer will need to consider obtaining insurance cover against the potential costs involved.

At Boyletts Law, we understand that your decision to buy or sell your home, or an investment property, can be an overwhelming and stressful experience. Our aim is to ensure that the process remains as exciting and stress-free as possible, from start to finish. If you are looking for a conveyancing solicitor, please give us a call on 01279 295047 or complete our enquiry form and we will be in touch.

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