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Buying and Selling a House With a History of Subsidence

Buying and Selling a House With a History of Subsidence

Buying and selling a house with a history of subsidence

Would you buy a house that has (or had) a known problem with structural movement? Mention ‘subsidence’ and most homebuyers will run a mile, but is there any need to panic? Does it have to be a dealbreaker? On the flip side, if your home has a history of subsidence, how difficult is it to sell on? Let’s take a closer look.


What is subsidence?

The term ‘subsidence’ describes a specific type of structural movement that occurs when the ground on which the building stands starts to sink. This physical shift on unstable soil can affect the property’s foundations, and as one side sinks the stability of the building is compromised. Cracks start to appear, structural damage may occur and, ultimately, the building is at risk of collapse. Subsidence is different from other types of structural movement such as heave, which can occur when the ground moves upwards, and landslip or landslide where land (and the property on it) moves down a slope.

Whether or not a particular property is at risk from subsidence depends on a raft of factors, the most common ones being:

  • Clay soil

Soil with a high clay content is susceptible to shrinking during hot, dry summers and swelling during the wetter winter months, which makes the ground more unstable and can affect foundations. Subsidence in clay soils tends to be cyclical through the seasons.

  • Nearby trees

Trees and shrubs are another factors, since their roots absorb water from the soil, making it drier. Unsurprisingly, clay soils are worst affected, particularly with ‘thirsty’ species such as willow, poplar, oak and ash.

  • Leaking drains

Defective drains and water mains can soften soil and wash away foundations. Underground drainage problems often go unnoticed for years, and it is only when signs of subsidence are detected that an investigation is triggered. 

  • History of local mining

If there is a history of local mining activity or an old quarry pit, this is another risk factor. Unstable foundations can be the result of infill material decomposing and compacting. Check the Coal Authority website to see if your area is affected.


What are the tell-tale signs of subsidence?

As a homeowner, the first indication that there may be structural movement is likely to be a crack in the wall that has appeared suddenly. Not all cracks are caused by subsidence, of course. A crack can be the result of natural shrinkage or settlement and be perfectly harmless. Subsidence cracks are usually

  • Thicker than 3mm
  • Wider at the top than at the bottom
  • Following a diagonal pattern
  • Visible both from inside and outside
  • Found near doors and windows
  • Causing doors and windows to stick

If you are in the process of buying a property, your building survey should flag up if there are any signs of subsidence. An experienced property surveyor will be able to spot the telltale signs that the untrained eye may not be able to recognise. If subsidence is suspected in the report, your surveyor will recommend further investigation to correctly identify the extent and urgency of the problem. It is then up to you, the buyer, to decide whether you wish to proceed with the purchase, and at what price.


Should you buy a property with subsidence?

Subsidence doesn’t have to spell the end of the road for your dream property, especially if it is historic rather than ongoing. You could take a pragmatic approach and take further steps to understand the nature and extent of the problem and how to address it before you come to a final decision.

If there is ongoing subsidence, a subsidence investigation survey or structural engineer’s report will establish the severity of the problem and advise on remedial action. Importantly, the report should also give details of cost estimates for monitoring, underpinning and redecorating work, which can serve as a powerful tool to help you renegotiate the purchase price.

If there is a history of subsidence, but no current movement, the seller should be able to provide evidence of any past insurance claims and specification of works to show how structural movement was dealt with at the time. Also as for a Certificate of Structural Adequacy (CSA), which is typically issued following completion of repairs and a period of monitoring, as per guidance from the Institution of Structural Engineers. 


How difficult is it to get a mortgage?

Homebuyers with a mortgage can expect additional checks on their property if there is any chance of subsidence, past or present. In fact, you won’t be able to get a mortgage at all for a building with ongoing structural movement. If you are determined to press ahead with the purchase, you’ll have to proceed as a cash buyer.

Properties with a history of subsidence but no ongoing issues are not impossible to get finance for. In addition to niche mortgage lenders who specialise in hard-to-mortgage properties, these days there are also many mainstream mortgage companies who will accept properties with past issues that have been fully resolved and further movement has been detected for at least 10 years.

What about home insurance?

In addition to less market choice when it comes to getting a mortgage, you also have to work harder to get buildings insurance for a property with a known history of structural movement.  Whether you like it or not, many regular home insurance companies will not cover properties that have ever been underpinned or have any sort of subsidence history. If they do, premiums are likely to be much higher than average, with an additional higher excess for subsidence claims. 

Check out comparison websites such as GoCompare for best deals and look into specialist insurance providers such as Home Protect and Adrian Flux.


Can you sell a property with subsidence?

Selling a property with a history of subsidence may take a little extra homework and determination, but there’s no reason why it can’t be done. Be prepared to lose the more cautious buyers who will back off as soon as the dreaded word is mentioned – there’s nothing you can do for them.

For the rest of your target market, put yourself in the shoes of a prospective buyer and see how well your property presents, maximising every opportunity to sing its praises. Make sure you have all the necessary documentation to reassure potential buyers that their investment would be safe. And finally, be extra diligent with your home and garden maintenance to minimise any further risk of structural movement going forward.


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