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The Basics of Environmental Searches

When buying a new home, environmental searches need to be conducted so that the buyer can learn vital information about the historical use of the property and the land it is built upon. This information can potentially have an influence on whether you go ahead with the purchase or perhaps negotiate the price.

An environmental search is different from a local authority search, and so both searches must be carried out to ensure the conveyancing process goes smoothly and without a hiccup.

Homes that have been built on grounds that were previously used for factories and other industrial purposes may well be contaminated, and in the UK, this happens often. This can result in the land being classed as contaminated. This is where environmental searches come in. They can identify any toxic substances like lead, arsenic, or mercury that could be present in the ground or local waterways. If present, these toxic substances would be a concern for human and animal health and wellbeing.

The UK was once the hub of global industrialism since the Industrial Revolution was born in the UK around the mid-18th century. However, since the early 1970s, the UK has rapidly de-industrialised as more and more manufacturing and mining have been off shored, partly because of the growing scarcity of domestic supplies of non-renewable natural resources. This is a common feature of the early industrialised nations.

How to obtain an environmental search

At the start of the home-buying process, your solicitor will request a search from an environmental agency to determine the environmental status of the property and land you intend to purchase as soon as possible. Typically, the search can take some time to yield any results but must be completed before the exchange of contracts takes place so that you will be aware of any potential hazards before buying. If something seriously detrimental is found, the sale is in danger of not going ahead as planned.

Environmental searches are carried out by experienced and competent third-party providers (an impartial agency) who have the requisite access to vast amounts of relevant data needed to check the status of the land’s historical use.

The scope of the environmental searches

Any environmental risk identified from the searches for the property or land will come back as either “failed” or Passed”. Once conducted, the search report will come with a form of certification and often a form of insurance or warranty. If some form of contamination is identified in the report, the local council may require the site to be cleaned up with liability for the remedial action falling on those who “cause or knowingly permit contamination.” If the person responsible for the contamination cannot be identified, then the liability will fall on the current owner of the land, and the costs can be very high.

Environmental Search - Grass

It’s important to note that a physical inspection of the land is not necessary to price the report, and so the searches entail the use of huge databases of information which include old Ordnance Survey amps etc.

The risks searched for are varied, but the most common ones include:

  • Ground stability and subsidence. Former mining areas, for example, may have implications for ground stability
  • Flooding
  • Radon gas
  • Contaminated land from such things as landfill sites, gas storage tanks, or former mining facilities
  • Landslides

The potential list of issues identified also includes things like overhead power cables or mobile phone masts within 250 metres of the property, something that is growing in concern due to emerging evidence of this technology.

Cost and time for environmental searches

It will cost about £50 for a regular search, and there are also more in-depth searches available that will cost about £100.

If buyers purchase a “conveyancing package”, the environmental search is usually included, along with the other two important searches: water drainage search and local authority search.

The standard environmental search can take between two and three weeks to yield results, depending on the third-party agency used and other factors. If any risks or concerns are identified, further and more in-depth research may need to be conducted, which will take additional time.

The reasons for getting an environmental search

“There are many important reasons why an environmental search must be conducted before buying land or property,” said Jamie Johnson, CEO of FJP Investment, “with any potential hazards to health and impact to property and land value being just a few.”

The salient reason for conducting an environmental search is to ascertain if there are any environmental risks surrounding the property. Such risks pertain to both health hazards and property damage.

There was a case in Yorkshire that shows the importance of searches. Around fifty homes were constructed on an old gas works site, and many noxious by-products were produced there also. These toxic substances seeped into the ground, and cancer-causing chemicals remained in the ground on which these houses were built. Residents, and especially the children, were considered at high risk from contact with the soil or eating the produce grown in their gardens.

Furthermore, if you purchase the property and the land it is situated on and the responsible person cannot be identified, as the new owner, you could end up having to pay for the clean-up costs.

Finally, it is likely that your mortgage lender will require an environmental search to be conducted before you borrow to buy your home as a condition for borrowing to do so. This makes sense since the lender will want to know if there’s any danger of a devaluation of the property.


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