Buying a House with Subsidence: Your 2022 Guide

buying a house with subsidence

Buying a property is one of the biggest financial commitments most of us will ever make. In the UK, the seller is required to provide a swathe of documentation to help the buyer make an informed purchasing decision. They must not deliberately conceal anything about their property.

However, ultimately, “caveat emptor” applies. This Latin phrase means “let the buyer beware”. Provided the seller shares all the required information with the buyer, it is the buyer’s responsibility to review this and raise any concerns before completion of the sale. 

Most buyers choose to have a survey conducted before exchanging contracts on a property to ensure it is in good condition. Subsidence, even if it is historic and has been rectified, will show up on a survey. If this happens to you, should you proceed with buying a house with subsidence?

What is Subsidence?

Subsidence is when the ground beneath a property gradually sinks, which can be caused by either natural processes or human activity. A common cause is the removal or dissolution of groundwater from rocks. The water is required to support the ground, so when it is diminished, the land begins to collapse.

Other causes, as outlined by the Financial Ombudsman Service, include:

  • Clay shrinkage — due to nearby vegetation removing moisture from soils with a high clay content 
  • Decomposing organic fill as the volume reduces, the land will begin to sink, and any buildings on top of it will shift.
  • Tree roots — if these enter clay soil, they absorb moisture causing the soil to dry out and shrink.
  • The collapse of a mine if an underground mine collapses, it can jeopardise any building above it.
  • Water escaping — a burst or leaking underground pipe can damage the soil and reduce its volume.
  • Solution feature — if the soil underneath a property erodes significantly, it can create an underground cavern making the land above unstable.
  • Soil compaction — if the ground is poor quality or it has been prepared incorrectly by the builders, the soil can compact and shift downwards.

If the soil underneath a property dries out and reduces in volume for any reason, this can cause subsidence of any buildings constructed on top of it.

The Different Types of Subsidence

There are two main types of subsidence. A survey will pick up on both:

  • Historic subsidence

This is subsidence that previously affected a property, potentially many years ago, and is no longer a problem because it was treated and has not recurred.

  • Current or active subsidence

This is the more concerning type of subsidence. This is when there are current signs of subsidence and it is developing. 

How Can I Tell If a House Has Subsidence?

It is often not immediately apparent to either the homeowner or a potential buyer that a property has subsidence. This is why getting a survey is so important, as this will pick up on both types of subsidence. 

Signs of subsidence that may be visible to the naked eye if it has progressed enough include:

  • Interior and exterior cracks of more than 3mm in width
  • Ill-fitting windows and doors
  • Sloping or sagging floors.

If a basic home survey reveals signs of subsidence, the surveyor will probably recommend that you buy a comprehensive subsidence investigation survey to determine the full extent of the problem, the treatment required and how much this is likely to cost. This will help you decide whether or not to go ahead with the purchase.

Should I Buy a House with Subsidence?

The first step toward making this decision is to understand the nature of the subsidence and how serious the problem is. The presence of subsidence will put many buyers off, and consequently, these homes typically sell for considerably less than the market value. Not all instances of subsidence cost a fortune to rectify, so you could potentially snap up a bargain.

You must get a professional opinion on how serious the problem is and what it will cost to repair. If the cost of buying the house and rectifying the problem is significantly less than buying a similar property without a subsidence problem, it could be a savvy investment.

Key points to consider:

  • The severity of the problem
  • The cost of fixing the subsidence
  • Eligibility for getting a mortgage on the property
  • Availability of suitable home insurance
  • How easy (or not) it will be to sell the property.

Will Getting a Mortgage Be Difficult?

Getting a mortgage to buy a house with subsidence is certainly not impossible, although there may be less choice than there would for someone buying a property without this problem.

You’ll also need to go to a potential lender armed with in-depth information about the subsidence, such as how it has been treated and how long it has been since it was a problem. If a mortgage provider is concerned that the problem will worsen or recur, they will be reluctant to accept the risk of the property being significantly devalued.

It’s also worth noting that a mortgage company will not be willing to lend on a property without buildings and contents insurance in place, and this can be difficult to obtain for a home with subsidence. Even if you manage to find an insurer willing to offer a policy on the property, the premiums are likely to be high.

How to Fix House Subsidence

This depends on the cause of the subsidence. Fixing the problem is a three-stage process:

  1. Pay for a specialist survey to discover the cause of the subsidence
  2. Fix the cause of the subsidence
  3. Repair the damage that has been caused by the subsidence.

Rectifying subsidence is often a complex and expensive process that requires specialist skills and knowledge. 

What is “Underpinning”?

Only a small percentage of properties with subsidence will require underpinning. This solution is generally only undertaken as a last resort because it is expensive and can take months to complete — during which time the homeowner will need to vacate the property.

Underpinning is a means of strengthening the foundations of a property if they have been affected by subsidence. There are several different types of underpinning:

  • Mass concrete underpinning

This is the most traditional and common method of underpinning a property. It involves digging up sections of the ground beneath the foundations and filling them with concrete one by one. Mass concrete underpinning is relatively low cost and suitable for shallow foundation underpinning.

  • Piling

This is a way to secure the foundations of a building sitting on weak ground such as soil, silt and sand. Piles of concrete or grout are driven or bored through the damaged soil until they reach stronger ground or the bedrock. When positioned in this more stable ground, the piles can support the building above it. Piling is quicker and less disruptive than mass concrete underpinning, so it is becoming a more popular method of rectifying subsidence.

  • Jet grouting

Jet grouting injects weakened soil below a property’s existing foundations with self-hardening grout. This creates a robust mix which can support the subsiding property.

Underpinning can be a lengthy, disruptive and expensive process that costs up to approximately £50,000. 

Is It Hard to Sell a House with Subsidence?

If you’re thinking about buying a house with subsidence, you should also consider how easy it will be to sell when the time comes.

While not a legal requirement, most conveyancers and solicitors will ask a seller to complete a TA6 or Seller’s Property Information Form (SPIF). This contains detailed questions about the property, including whether building works, such as underpinning, have been carried out.

Concealing a historical or current subsidence issue is extremely risky and not recommended. Even if the subsidence happened decades ago and has not recurred, the seller must declare it to the buyer and their estate agent. If they fail to do so, the buyer may be entitled to rescind the contract after completion. However, the problem will probably come to light long before this, most likely when the buyer has searches and a survey completed on the property. Subsidence may also be flagged on a central database when the buyer applies for insurance.

If a property has been underpinned, this will devalue the property, typically by between 20 and 25 per cent. However, the exact amount will depend on the severity of the subsidence and how long ago it occurred. Many buyers will be put off by the merest mention of subsidence, so properties with a history of this problem can take longer to sell. 

Another potential barrier to sale is the reluctance of many insurers to offer a buildings and contents policy on a house that has been underpinned. A house that a lender deems structurally unsound is a higher risk and, therefore, the lending criteria will be stricter. Without insurance, a buyer will not be able to get a mortgage approved, reducing the pool of potential buyers to those with ready cash.

If you’re looking to sell a house with subsidence, the best thing you can do is have a thorough survey completed by a specialist who can provide an accurate picture of the nature of the subsidence. They will be able to determine whether it is historical or ongoing and suggest the best remedy or list the treatments already completed. Provide all this information to potential buyers, and let them decide whether to proceed or not.

If you’re looking for a quick cash sale, House Buyer Bureau can help. Call us today for your free, no-obligation cash offer.

Questions to Ask before Buying a House with Subsidence

There’s no need to immediately discount a property if you discover it has a history of subsidence. A building that has been underpinned may be more structurally sound than one that hasn’t! The important thing is to gather all the information you need to make an informed decision about whether to go ahead with the purchase or not.

  • How serious is, or was the subsidence? (Request a subsidence investigation survey)
  • What work is required to rectify the problem?
  • How much will it cost to complete this work?
  • How much will it cost to repair any damage caused by the subsidence?
  • Would it be less expensive to buy another property that does not have subsidence?
  • Can you obtain the house insurance and the mortgage you need to buy?
  • Will selling the property be a challenge? Or do you plan to keep the house indefinitely?

If the location of the property is highly desirable and the subsidence was rectified many years ago with no instances of recurrence, buying could be a clever move. You’ll probably get a new home for a knock-down price in an area that you might otherwise not be able to afford. However, subsidence is a major structural problem and should not be taken lightly. Enlist the help of qualified professionals to give you a clear understanding of the problem and the required solutions, crunch the numbers to make sure your investment is a good one and ensure it’s possible to obtain the financing and insurance you need before signing on the dotted line.

If you’re struggling to sell a problem property, get in touch with our team of friendly cash house buyers. We buy properties of all types and conditions and have the cash to complete the sale on a time scale that suits you — as little as 7-days if you’re in a hurry!

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