Subsidence is basically what happens when a property’s foundations become unstable. It can be caused in a number of ways but is generally identified through visible cracks. Subsidence may be avoided with proper management. If it does occur, it can be treated.
Subsidence has a number of causes
As a buyer, it’s advisable to look for the warning signs that a property may succumb to subsidence in future. The main signs are:
- Trees and bushes close to a property
- Clay soil
- Water leaks
Age is an issue because older buildings were built to different standards. In particular, they are more likely to have shallow foundations. This can make them more vulnerable to subsidence. With the other signs, the common factor is that they all encourage the movement of the earth.
For example, mines create tunnels into which earth can drop. Trees and bushes do much the same with their roots. They can also drain the earth of water, thus weakening its structure. Clay is known for drying out easily and hence cracking. Water leaks can wash away soil, thus weakening it. They can also create holes into which earth can drop.
Cracks are a potential indicator of subsidence. There are, however, many other reasons why a property might develop cracks. Two common ones are a general lack of maintenance and seasonal variations in temperature.
Lack of maintenance can lead to materials becoming excessively worn. For example, if wood is not oiled it can dry out. This can lead to cracks. Seasonal variations in temperature can lead to materials continually expanding and contracting. This can ultimately lead to cracks.
Subsidence and home-buying
In principle, a seller should make you aware of any known issues with subsidence. Even if they don’t, a conveyancer and a surveyor between them should be able to spot any warning signs.
If a property has active subsidence, it may be impossible to mortgage or insure. If a property is a subsidence risk or has had past issues with subsidence, then it may be difficult to mortgage or insure. You may find yourself restricted to niche lenders/insurers. With less competition for your business, you can expect to pay higher prices.
On the other hand, however, none of this may actually matter to you if you can get the property at the right price. In fact, subsidence may actually offer opportunities to cash buyers. You could buy an unmortgageable property, fix the subsidence and sell it on as mortgageable.
If it’s too late to avoid subsidence, then you will need to get a contractor in to fix it. Ideally, you want to find a contractor who has a strong history of dealing with subsidence. This has two benefits.
Firstly, they can use their experience to guide you to the best solution for your situation. This may or may not involve underpinning. If it does involve underpinning then you need to choose the right sort of underpinning.
Secondly, any documentation and guarantees they provide should carry weight with other professionals. This can be essential when you (or your heirs) come to sell the property.
Simon Hardingham is the sales manager of Manchester estate agents; Indlu. Indlu offer a no sale, no fee estate agency service in the North West as well as a free online property valuation to find out how much your house is worth.