What is an environmental search in conveyancing?

Last updated: April 2024 | 3 min read

Environmental search, though not mandatory, is strongly advised during the home-buying process. In most cases, it is made compulsory by your lender. This comprehensive search report pinpoints possible hazards such as contamination, flooding, or other risks that could impact the value or safety of a property.

What is the purpose of an environmental search? 

An environmental search examines the past and current conditions of a property and its surroundings. It can unveil details regarding the historical land usage, thereby potentially impacting your decision to proceed with the purchase.This report identifies potential risks from contamination, flooding, or other hazards that might affect a property's value or safety.

Why might your conveyancer recommend it?

As a residential property buyer, you could gather some information on your own, but a professional approach offers a much more detailed search insight, ensuring you're fully informed. It forms a decisive part of your conveyancing process.

An environmental search is also a requirement for many mortgage lenders in order to protect their investments.

How can you obtain an environmental search?

Your conveyancing solicitor will initiate the process by requesting the search from an environmental agency, enabling them to conduct the search and furnish the findings.

This search is typically conducted at the outset of the conveyancing process, as it may require some time to be completed. It's performed prior to the exchange of contracts, allowing you to uncover any detrimental information that could influence your decision regarding the property purchase.

How long will the search process take?

Usually, an environmental search requires two to three weeks for completion, although this timeframe may differ depending on your solicitor and their chosen service provider. The duration of the search's completion hinges on the discoveries made in the results. Adverse findings might prompt additional searches to be initiated.

What are the expenses involved?

A standard environmental search is priced at around £50.

This search is commonly acquired as part of a conveyancing search pack, bundling together the Local Authority and Water and Drainage searches.

This bundle, known as a conveyancing disbursement, usually ranges between £250 to £300 and constitutes a portion of your total conveyancing expenses.

Unearthing potential dangers: the essence of environmental searches

Discovering contaminated land and its implications

Historically, the UK has seen a vast array of industries, from heavy manufacturing to coal mining. These previous land uses can leave a lasting mark, often unnoticed in well-established gardens or beneath modern structures.

A search report will highlight if the property you're considering was built on or near the areas that existed previously for industrial purposes.

In one such case, nearly fifty homes in South Yorkshire were found to have been built on the site of an old gas works. Gas used to be produced from coal, and many noxious by-products were also produced such as coal tar. This had seeped into the ground, and a subsequent environmental survey discovered many cancer-causing chemicals remaining in the ground on which the homes had been built. Residents, especially children, were deemed to be at significant risk from contact with the soil or eating fruit and vegetables grown in their gardens.

The Environmental Protection Act establishes a framework for addressing contaminated land. If your property is found to be on such land, you might be responsible for any necessary remediation, even if you didn't cause the contamination.

Health hazards from nearby land and industrial uses

Many manufacturing processes produce certain by-products that can be harmful.

An environmental search can reveal if a property is located near sites where many noxious by-products or many cancer-causing chemicals have been found. This includes sites like landfill sites, factories, and areas where toxic waste has been dumped.

Issues like ground stability and the presence of radon gas, a naturally occurring radioactive gas, can pose significant risks.

Search providers will look at factors such as proximity to old mines or areas with high radon levels. The report will indicate if the property you're interested in is at risk.

Who gathers and maintains this environmental information?

Environmental searches pull data from various sources, ensuring accuracy and comprehensiveness.

Role of search companies in producing an environmental search report

Search companies, often referred to as search providers specialise in collecting and presenting environmental information relevant to property transactions.

Typically, a search company liaises with multiple organisations and databases to compile an environmental search report.

This report details potential hazards, past land uses, and other crucial factors that might impact a property's desirability and safety.

While you can request a residential environmental search directly from a search company, seeking the expertise of a conveyancing solicitor ensures the results are interpreted correctly and any risks are adequately addressed.

How local authorities and councils maintain detailed information

Local authorities and councils maintain an exhaustive list of data concerning land use and potential hazards within their jurisdiction. Such information is derived from their own records, observations, and frequently updated databases.

Old ordnance survey maps, often kept by local councils, provide a historical view of land use over time.

These maps can reveal if a property was for instance, in the past used for industrial purposes, thereby indicating a potential risk of contamination from toxic chemicals or a health hazard.

Besides historical use, ordnance survey maps also help identify nearby features such as energy and infrastructure projects, including solar farms and power stations. Hence, these maps serve as a foundation upon which more specific environmental searches are built.

Financial implications of environmental search returns

Finding issues during an environmental search can lead to financial repercussions for property buyers.

The hidden costs if a subsequent environmental survey is required

Should an environmental search yield unsatisfactory results, a more detailed subsequent environmental survey might be necessary.

While these surveys offer a deeper insight into potential hazards, they also bring added expenses.

For example, if heavy metals or by-products caused by previous industrial activities are discovered, a comprehensive survey would be needed to ascertain the extent of contamination.

Remedial work like removing contaminated soil

Discovering contamination may lead to substantial remedial efforts.

Remedial work involved in removing all the contaminated soil can be costly and time-consuming. If, for instance, cancer-causing chemicals remain in the soil, extensive excavation might be needed to make the land safe.

For the diligent property buyer, it's worth considering whether tackling such extensive work is feasible or whether looking for an alternative property might be more practical.

Potential drop in property value due to environmental risks

Beyond the immediate cost of remediation, a property's long-term value might be affected.

A home located near a landfill site, or one where contamination has been found, may not fetch a good price on the market.

Prospective buyers might be deterred by the potential danger, even if the risk is minimal.

Furthermore, certain environmental factors could discourage mortgage lenders, making the property less attractive for future sale.

What search results mean for buyers

Over 20% of property buyers in the UK encounter unexpected results in their conveyancing searches.

Positive results

Residential environmental searches frequently return positive outcomes.

For a mortgage lender, such results serve as a comforting green signal, signaling minimal environmental risks attached to the property in question.

Buyers, on the other hand, find solace in the fact that their future homes are unlikely to encounter issues like ground instability or the presence of cancer-causing chemicals.

A standard environmental search, especially when returning positive results, also speaks to the absence of mobile phone masts in the vicinity, which some see as potential health hazards.

Furthermore, positive findings can speed up the conveyancing process, since the local council and mortgage lenders face fewer reservations in proceeding with the transaction.

Negative outcomes

Every now and then, the results of residential environmental searches aren't as promising. Discovering a significant risk associated with a property can be a setback for prospective homeowners. A failed result can lead to more than just apprehension.

Insurance providers might hesitate to cover properties deemed to have environmental risks. This hesitancy to provide insurance cover, stems from potential claims down the line, be it related to health issues from contaminants or damage to the property from ground instability.

The discovery of risks might see potential buyers recalibrating their plans. Some might choose to renegotiate the property price, factoring in potential remediation costs or decreased resale value. Others, particularly those under the advisement of a cautious mortgage lender, might decide to walk away entirely, deeming the risk too high to take on.

Concluding thoughts

Environmental searches can, and often do, make or break property deals.

An environmental search serves as a significant piece of the property-buying puzzle. Buyers, already grappling with the weighty decision of a property purchase, use these findings to gauge the long-term feasibility of their choice.

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