Searching Questions: All you need to know about Property Searches

When you have found your “forever home”, the last thing you need are nasty surprises that could trip you up at the last minute. Failure to spot and respond to these could spell financial disaster and a possible lifetime of regret. Suzanne Bastick, Senior Chartered Legal Executive, reveals the mysterious world of Property Searches – and shows why they are so important.

Property searches cover a number of different searches offered by Local Government, Government Agencies, utilities and commercial organisations. An important part of my job as a property lawyer is to check and flag up any information that may restrict your use and, ultimately, enjoyment of your home. It is not often fully understood what they all mean, but with everything from local financial charges to environmental risks, it is vital to spend time on them so you do not make a costly mistake.

Let’s take a look at the main ones in turn:

Local Authority Searches

Local councils maintain a large amount of data relating to properties in their area and searches of these records (often called “Local Searches”) provide fundamental information, useful to the home buyer.

The Local Authority Search is made of two parts -.  The Local Land Charges search (LLC1) and Enquiries of the Local Authority (CON29).  The LLC1 is a search of a register that the local authority is bound by law to maintain.  The search will reveal any entries kept by the council under the following headings, among others:

  • Conditional planning permissions or restrictions on permitted development (so-called Article 4 directions).  There may also be orders for revoking or amending planning permission previously granted.
  • Tree preservation orders
  • Financial charges (eg. for nearby utility networks or adoption of estate roads)
  • Compulsory purchase orders
  • Smoke control orders

However, it does not show all the information available. The CON29 adds further detail and can include the following:

  • Planning applications that have been made, including those that have been refused.
  • Proposed tree preservation orders
  • Information on whether roads serving the property are maintained publicly.
  • Proposed new roads/railways within 200m of the property.
  • Proposed enforcement and stop notices, and also information on whether existing notices have been complied with.
  • Proposed new road schemes, parking restrictions, stopping up of roads or footpaths, setting out of road humps outside or near the property etc.
  • Proposed compulsory purchase orders
  • Records of any notices in relation to the clean-up of contaminated land.

Depending on the circumstances, further optional questions (known as Part II enquiries) may also be asked. You will be bound by all matters affecting the property when you complete the transaction, so it is important to ensure that all possible issues are revealed and explained prior to  the exchange of contracts.

A key question in the CON29 asks about Rights of Way, which can be a major source of disputes. The singer Madonna brought a high profile case where she felt her human rights had been infringed by ramblers exercising their right to roam on designated rights of way through her land.

The Countryside and Rights of Way Act is a powerful piece of legislation and can override freehold interests in terms of access, so it is essential such risks are discussed before you commit to a purchase.

Land Registry Title

The Land Registry holds the legal evidence of title to about 85% of land and property in England and Wales. Registration has been compulsory since about the mid-1980s, so eventually all land and property will become registered.  

A title plan shows, usually by red edging, the general extent of the property registered under the title number shown. Title plans are prepared on the latest Ordnance Survey map available at the time of registration, which can be quite old. The plan does not normally show who owns boundary features, such as fences and hedges.

The title register contains the details relating to the property including:

  • Details of the property and any rights that may benefit
  • Who owns the property and restrictions on how they use it
  • Any mortgages or interests that may adversely affect it.

Land Registry searches are carried out after exchange of contracts and prior to completion to ensure any changes made since the title was investigated on your behalf at the outset are spotted and dealt with before you take ownership of the property.

Drainage and Water Enquiries

The water authorities of England and Wales, such as Southern Water, are owners and guardians of public water and sewer networks.

The drainage search includes plans showing all our sewer and water assets near the property, whether it is connected to sewers, where they are, who owns them and who bills you. The report also identifies if there are any problems with water pressure and hardness, and whether there is a water meter installed.

Environmental Searches

Our climate is changing and the risks from flooding have become widely known and are widespread. Some 5 million properties are at risk, according to the Environment Agency, whether from rivers, the sea or from surface water when heavy rainstorm deluges. Flood risk matters as it could affect your ability to get insurance and a mortgage.

Cleaning up after a flood can also take many months of disruption and misery. It is therefore an essential part of the property search process, to ensure your peace of mind.

Solicitors are also required to advise property buyers about the risks from contaminated land. Our long industrial history means there are many thousands of sites that were developed on that had very few checks on the land quality before construction. 

Gas works, tanneries and old factories have all used heavy metals that have caused pollution into the soils that can linger for decades. There have been many high profile examples of chemicals poisoning back gardens, followed by lengthy clean-ups that have caused disruption and uncertainty over who pays. It can also blight a future sale of the property if this is not resolved.

Another significant environmental risk comes from subsidence – collapses of the soil and rock below property revealed by cracks in brickwork. This can be for a number of natural causes – soft sands and a water course eroding below the surface, but it can also be due to past mining. In areas affected by past coal mining there is a specific search for this. In the south of England, there has also been a longer and more informal history of chalk, iron and limestone mining.

Heavy rainfall has also exposed many of these often shallow mines, many of which have only recently been discovered, in the form of sinkholes, which can spell disaster.

Other searches

Even if the property does not have a hidden secret, dirty past, flooding or subsidence history, there are other factors that could be as important to you. These include planning applications in the area: will there be a large new development that could affect that tranquil rural view?

Many people want to know what the local area is like. New data is being made available all of the time, including air quality, which will be of concern to you if your family has health problems that could be affected by them. All of these can be asked for via the solicitor and it is important that your mind is put at rest, based on your own needs.

The biggest purchase of your life

Property lawyers like me are here to ensure that you make the right decisions about your intended property. Your heart might be saying yes, but there are times when you need to pause for thought and we will flag up situations through property searches when such a pause is necessary.

You may take a calculated risk about nearby flooding, nearby proposed housing estates, or possible access routes over your intended land – but it is very important that you consider such risks with as much information to hand as possible, of which the searches and title form a critical part.

Anderson Rowntree has helped generations of families and individuals move successfully. We check all the details so you have absolute clarity and are fully informed before you make the biggest purchase of your life. For more information, contact Suzanne on 01903 745666 or email spb@andersonrowntree.co.uk