House Purchase

Buying a home is likely one of the largest financial decisions you’ll ever make. Beyond considering amenities, schools, transport links and kerb appeal, it pays to thoroughly research potential structural issues to avoid expensive repairs down the line. Subsidence is one such hazard that could ultimately torpedo an otherwise ideal property purchase if you fail to spot the warning signs.

What is Subsidence?

Put simply, subsidence refers to the sinking or downward movement of the ground underneath a building. It occurs when the stability of the soil supporting the property’s foundations becomes compromised. This movement causes cracks and structural damage.

Subsidence is reasonably common in the UK, given high clay content soils that shrink and swell depending on weather conditions. Other typical causes include nearby construction work, vegetation removal and leaking drainage. However, the good news is that if it is identified and managed early, steps can usually be taken to arrest further movement.

Why is Subsidence Such a Big Deal?

While subsidence damage may start small, left unchecked, it can rapidly escalate and require very expensive underpinning works. Unfortunately, many insurance companies will not cover repairs, classing movement damage as ‘pre-existing’ if evident before you exchange contracts.

The potential costs to stabilise an affected property combined with hassles from months of complex repair work are sobering prospects for buyers. In the worst case scenario, the local authority could deem the property unsafe, requiring complete demolition.

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How to Spot Signs of Subsidence When Viewing

The most obvious visual clues signalling subsidence include large cracks in walls both internally and externally. Cracks tend to be wider near the tops of walls if movement is ongoing. Fresh plaster around cracks may indicate quick repairs to mask damage.

Also, examine the outside perimeter carefully for slight tilts or failing pointing between brickwork. Outbuildings like garages tend to display signs before main properties. Doors and windows sticking for no reason can also raise alarm bells.

Subtle clues like damp patches, ripples in window panes and curling wallpaper could likewise indicate issues. Be vigilant for sloping floors or cracks across floors, stairs and ceilings in addition to walls. Visible undulations in concrete floors are a bad sign. Even small cracks warrant further expert investigation, as most movement problems steadily worsen over time if left untreated.

Getting a Professional Assessment Before Completing Your Purchase 

In light of the scale of expense subsidence can potentially trigger, instructing a surveyor is sensible. Having an RICS home survey level 2—also called a home buyers survey, or building survey, now known as a RICS home survey level 3—done before exchanging contracts is extremely prudent. A chartered RICS property surveyor will undertake a thorough site examination to determine if any signs of subsidence are evident.

A detailed report from a house surveyor in Norwich should either give you peace of mind that the property does not currently show evidence of harmful movement issues or highlight detected problems and likely remedies if present. It’s not unusual for sales to fall through at this point if unanticipated substantial repairs come to light. Paying a few hundred pounds upfront could end up saving you many thousands down the line.

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If the survey highlights any suspected subsidence, you may wish to pay for a structural survey to determine the extent of the problem. Or you may decide to cut your losses and look for a different property.

Being vigilant around subsidence is pivotal when evaluating our biggest financial asset. While they are easily overlooked by untrained eyes, the warning signs are often there if you know what to look out for. If you are in any doubt, consulting an expert for a second opinion can prove extremely worthwhile for confirming you are not buying yourself a massive future headache.


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