House Purchasing in 2020 – to View or Not to View

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected a lot of aspects of our lives, including buying houses. During the midst of the lockdown no viewings were taking place, causing stagnation in the housing market. As the rules have relaxed, people are now able to view properties they are interested in buying, but they must keep to the social distancing measures that have been put in place.

The government has advised house buyers to try to avoid viewing properties in person by doing it virtually where possible, but how does this balance with the legal risks of taking this approach?

The simple answer in terms of the legal risk of purchasing a property sold unseen is not to do it. Property viewings are the most basic form of due diligence that a buyer can do. Not only can they make sure the property “feels” right, but they are also trying to satisfy the contractual principle of caveat emptor (or buyer beware).

Here are five examples of potential issues that an informed buyer might spot when viewing a property. When you look at this list, consider whether you could spot them on a virtual viewing.

1. Is there damp? – This is normally given away by the smell, but would you spot flaky plaster and watermarked walls or ceilings on a virtual viewing? Could you tell that a room you viewed virtually had been repainted to cover any damp?

2. Is the building structurally sound? – Again, there are typical things to look out for such as big cracks around where extensions join and bay windows. Will your virtual tour include a close look at the structure and be detailed enough for you to decide if a surveyor should be instructed?

3. Which way does the house face? – You might not be able to tell or think to ask on a virtual viewing whether a property is sunny and warm. When you view in person, you can tell if a house and garden is south facing. On a sunny day, you will feel the difference between a light and warm house and a cold and damp one.

4. Has the house been staged? –  We have all been to places that looked lovely in the photos, but the reality is very different! It is easier to spot clever tricks sellers use to make their home more appealing in person.

5. Is the property soundproof or at least not too noisy? – Even if you have sound on your virtual tour, can you really judge this without being there?

These are just a few of the things that might be difficult or impossible to spot using a virtual visit to a property. The truth is nothing can really replace viewing a home in person and making sure it feels like a home.

So, what is the right balance to strike? For a fee, a survey could be arranged. Surveys have been a normal part of the buying process for many years. There are two main types of surveys – the homebuyer report and a full structural survey. The homebuyer report is cheaper and better for properties that were built within the last 100 years. A structural survey will be expensive, but it is a must for properties that are more than 100 years old or those that have undergone major extension.

If paying for a survey is not an option, the safest approach is to delay looking – but sadly, some buyers will not be able to do this. Those buyers who cannot wait may have to accept the risk that reality might not line up with what they have seen virtually.