House Conveyancing Searches

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When buying or selling a residential property in England and Wales, conveyancers will carry out a range of searches relating to the property and land it sits on. These searches form a routine part of the legal conveyancing process, intended to uncover any risks, restrictions, planning issues or other factors relating to the property before the exchange of contracts.

For sellers, it is useful to understand what searches buyers can expect to see, why they are needed, what the results may show and the impact on the transaction. Searches protect the buyer’s interests but can also highlight problems that the seller should remedy before putting the property on the market.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the standard conveyancing searches used in England and Wales, why they are conducted, how long they take, who pays for them, how to interpret the results, and the potential impact on the house sale transaction.

Overview of Conveyancing Searches

Also known as pre-contract searches or pre-exchange searches, these are checks carried out on the property to uncover any legal restrictions, planning issues, infrastructure problems or other factors that may influence the property value or be of concern to buyers.

Conveyancing searches are standard practice and the results can highlight risks the buyer may wish to reflect in the sale price or choose to further investigate. For sellers, they help demonstrate goodwill, openness and their willingness to present a truthful picture of the property’s status.

The searches are arranged by the buyer’s conveyancing solicitor but the seller typically pays the costs. Around 10-15 different searches could potentially be requested depending on the property type and location.

Let’s look at the most common conveyancing searches used and what they cover.

Local Authority Search

This provides information held by the local council relating to the property and surrounding area. It is the most universal search conducted in conveyancing.

Results give details of:

  • Local planning permissions, applications and refusals
  • Building regulations approvals
  • Conservation areas
  • Road schemes, access rights, parking arrangements
  • Environmental health issues like noise abatement notices
  • Integration with council recycling and waste collection
  • Community infrastructure levy charges

It provides a snapshot of how the property fits with wider council plans and requirements.

Drainage and Water Search

This search provides details on the drainage connections to the property and any risks of flooding.

It reveals information such as:

  • Location of public sewers
  • Rights to connect to public sewers
  • Nearby planned drainage works
  • Liability for repairs
  • Properties at risk of internal flooding
  • Water supply arrangements and bills

Important to identify any major issues with drainage infrastructure which could be costly to resolve.

Environmental Search

Checking for environmental factors that may influence land conditions. May highlight risks like:

  • Contaminated land – e.g. due to previous industrial use
  • Landfill sites nearby
  • Radon gas levels
  • Flood risks
  • Fracking exploration
  • Air and noise pollution in the area

Provides peace of mind that no adverse environmental factors have been identified.

Chancel Repair Search

Historically some properties were liable to help fund repairs to parish churches through a charge known as chancel repair liability. This search checks and confirms the property is free from such obsolete liabilities.

Mining Search

Checks for any mining or underground excavation activity, active or historical, in the surrounding area that may pose a risk of subsidence.

Flood Risk Search

Indicates if the property sits within an area at risk of flooding based on river, coastal or surface water models. Check flood history.

Land Registry Search

Check the Land Register to confirm details of the property’s title, boundary plans, ownership, rights and restrictions over the land.

Also confirms if any third-party rights or restrictive covenants exist over the property that the buyer should be aware of.

Additional Searches

Depending on the property, additional searches may be requested looking at things like:

  • Planning permissions and building regulations
  • Tree preservation orders
  • Common land and town/village green registrations
  • Rights of light over the property enjoyed by neighbours
  • Energy/infrastructure schemes nearby e.g. HS2, fracking

The home buyer’s conveyancer will determine which searches are applicable based on property location, characteristics, history and planning context.

Why Are Searches Needed?

Conveyancing searches serve a range of important purposes:

  • Identify risks/defects – highlight any problems e.g. flood risk, subsidence
  • Inform negotiations – issues can be reflected in the offer price/conditions
  • Allow further investigation – buyer can determine the seriousness of any findings
  • Check planning context – understand permissions granted and restrictions
  • Understand infrastructure – drainage, access rights, connections
  • Review legal framework – covenants, third-party rights over the land
  • Assess environmental factors – contamination, pollution, noise
  • Validate history – checks for mining activity, old repairs liability
  • Confirm title – verifies registered ownership and boundary plans

Without searches, buyers would lack the objective information and evidence to assess potential property risks. Searches provide important assurance and context ahead of legally committing to the transaction.

For sellers, searches demonstrate you have nothing to hide. Addressing any adverse findings may also prevent issues further down the line.

Who Pays For Conveyancing Searches?

While conveyancing searches are conducted on behalf of the buyer, it is standard practice for the seller to bear the costs. Reasons for this include:

  • The seller has benefited from living at the property so should cover the associated costs
  • The searches relate to risks associated with the property the seller is selling
  • The buyer does not yet have a legal relationship with the property
  • Costs are factored into sale prices, so effectively covered by the seller
  • Demonstrates the seller is not trying to hide any adverse issues
  • Relatively minor cost to the seller compared to the sale proceeds

That said, in a strong seller’s market, some sellers may negotiate for the buyer to contribute toward search fees within the offer price. But convention sees sellers covering search costs as a sign of good faith in the vast majority of transactions.

Expected Timescales

Conveyancing searches are usually initiated once a draft contract has been reviewed but before contracts are legally exchanged. The buyer’s solicitor arranges the searches.

Many search results are returned within 5-10 working days. However, some can take 15-20 days to come back depending on authority workloads. This is factored into conveyancing timelines, with searches contributing around 2-4 weeks typically.

If certain searches are delayed significantly, it may be possible to agree to legally exchange contracts while waiting for outstanding results, provided these are unlikely to impact on completion. But both parties would need to consent to this.

Assessing and Addressing Search Results

Once search results are received, the buyer’s conveyancer will assess the findings, raising any concerns with the seller’s solicitor. Most reveal innocuous information but some can highlight potential issues that may need addressing, such as:

  • Lack of planning consent for extensions or conversions
  • Discovery of disputes, covenants or third-party rights
  • Contamination or flood risks identified
  • Confusion over boundaries or access rights
  • Major nearby developments are planned
  • Chancel repair obligations attached to the property

If any adverse findings arise:

  • Further enquiries are likely to follow seeking clarification or evidence the issue has been resolved, which the seller must respond to
  • Additional specific searches may be requested for more details
  • The buyer may renegotiate the price or conditions to reflect the risk
  • In serious cases, the buyer could withdraw entirely

In most instances, issues can be clarified or resolved to allow the transaction to proceed. However, sellers should investigate and remedy any historical problems before marketing to prevent searches from flagging up surprises.

Impact of Search Results on the Sale

For the vast majority of property transactions, conveyancing searches present no major issues that derail or delay the sale. They simply provide useful context and confirmation to the buyer.

However, in a minority of cases, the search results contain revelations that could negatively impact the transaction, such as:

  • Flooding, subsidence or contamination risks making insurance difficult
  • Lack of planning permission for extensions or conversions done
  • Historical disputes with neighbours coming to light
  • Major infrastructure projects nearby are being proposed
  • Rights and covenants restricting property changes
  • Chancel repair obligations the buyer is unwilling to take on

The buyer’s solicitor will seek satisfactory explanations and resolutions to any legitimate concerns raised. But if no compromise can be reached, or resolving issues will be time-consuming or costly, the buyer may:

  • Seek to renegotiate the sale price substantially
  • Make the sale conditional on further investigations or works
  • Delay progress until issues are addressed, causing delays
  • In worst cases, withdraw their offer entirely if risks are too severe

So while rare, conveyancing searches can highlight problems that jeopardise transactions. Sellers should take steps to identify and address adverse issues before marketing.

Can Searches Be Bypassed?

In some scenarios – usually due to tight timeframes – buyers may request dispensing with certain conveyancing searches or conducting this post-completion. While legal, sellers should exercise caution around agreeing to this and consider implications like:

  • Risks issues going undetected until after-sale completes
  • Queries from buyers around search validity if done post-completion
  • Potential to inherit liability or requirements for undisclosed issues
  • Voids insurance policies if undetected risks come to light later
  • Scope for buyers to later file claims regarding lack of searches

There are also strict limitations around which searches can be safely omitted without jeopardising the legal transfer. Overall, sellers should think carefully before compromising on conveyancing searches, as they offer protection.

Conveyancing Searches Buying Guide

For buyers and sellers alike, some key tips on conveyancing searches include:

  • Understand the range of searches available and purposes
  • Check average timescales so these can be factored into plans
  • As a seller, gather evidence to quickly resolve any enquiries
  • Be ready to renegotiate if adverse issues are highlighted
  • Ask conveyancers to explain the implications of any findings
  • Don’t be rushed into completing without required searches
  • Use search results to investigate issues before committing
  • Address potential problems early before searches highlight them
  • Be prepared to provide further information if initial results are unclear

Conveyancing searches provide an impartial insight into factors that may influence buyers’ decisions. While delays or issues arising are usually minimal, being equipped to navigate the search process is key.

Conclusion

Conveyancing searches, including the essential question “What is a covenant on a property,” are the backbone of property transactions. These searches enable buyers to assess legal title, planning context, infrastructure, environmental factors, and other elements critical for making an informed decision.

Although the multitude of available searches, waiting times for results, and the potential for issues to arise may seem daunting, they offer a crucial overview of the property and valued protection for buyers undertaking significant financial commitments.

For sellers, preparedness to respond to any enquiries stemming from conveyancing searches and gathering evidence ahead of time to resolve historical issues are key to smoothing the transaction process. Conveyancing searches allow both parties to enter into property contracts on a transparent and equitable basis, providing a comprehensive understanding of factors that may influence ownership. The evident value of these searches lies in underpinning successful sale completions.

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