The cracks in her plasterwork are driving Cynthia Burnham up the wall; she unwittingly paid £190,000 for a house which has been rendered worthless by subsidence.

From a report by Emma Tyrell in The Guardian of Saturday April 20, 2002

Cynthia Burnham is fighting for her future. Stuck in an unsaleable, crumbling home, she is locked in a legal battle with the UK’s biggest firm of residential surveyors over a subsidence problem she says it failed to spot.

Just over two years ago Cynthia, a teacher in the prison service, bought a £190,000 house in Purley, South London, and started planning decorations and improvements. On the advice of Countrywide surveyors, which had carried out the mortgage valuation survey, she got in a plasterer to repair surface cracking to the inside walls.

When the plasterer arrived, less than two weeks after Cynthia had moved in, the bad news hit. "It wasn’t surface cracking, it was subsidence," she says. "Even the plasterer spotted it, yet the survey had said there were no major defects with the house."

Desperately hoping the plasterer was wrong, but confident that someone would take responsibility for the problem, she called in her insurer, Churchill. It sent round a structural engineer who confirmed her worst fears. Her home was suffering from serious and longstanding subsidence.

Worse still, because the problem pre-dated her purchase of the house, and of the Churchill policy, it refused to cover her. Although she took her case to the insurance ombudsman, he came down on the side of Churchill.

Next Cynthia turned to her mortgage lender, UCB, reasoning that because it had appointed Countrywide to carry out the valuation survey it would take some responsibility. But UCB, which is owned by Nationwide building society, did not share that view, and when an angry Cynthia stopped paying her mortgage, it threatened her with court action. She is now paying her mortgage again, but on a property which local valuers have told her is unsaleable, and therefore worthless.

The only way to get her £190,000 back, and to end the stress of living in a building which is still shifting, is to pay for repairs. But experts have told Cynthia this could cost anywhere between £25,000 and £35,000.

Her only remaining recourse is to sue Countrywide for the money, claiming that the mortgage valuation survey should have picked up the problem. "If it had, I would never have bought the place, and wouldn’t be stuck in this horrifying nightmare," she says.

One surveyor, who did not wish to be named, argues that borrowers who rely merely on a mortgage valuation survey, rather than paying extra for a homebuyer’s report or full structural survey, have little comeback if problems later emerge.

"A mortgage valuation is a limited half-hour inspection. For a claim to succeed there would have to be really strong evidence that the subsidence problem was obvious enough that it should have been picked up within 30 minutes." That is what Cynthia Burnham’s lawyers will be trying to prove.

Meanwhile Countrywide is expected to argue that subsidence was not visible when it carried out its survey. "If subsidence is obvious then we would put it in a valuation report," says Paul Creffield, a Countrywide director.

But he too points out the limitations of a mortgage valuation survey, which the Countrywide website says "will not report in detail on disrepair items unless they are so severe that they may affect value or saleability."

Mr Creffield says the valuation survey is for the mortgage lender, and borrowers should not use it as the only basis for their decision on whether to buy a property or not. "But only about 20% do go for a more detailed sur vey," he admits. "There is a lot of confusion and most people do not understand the limitations of the valuation."

Ray Barrowdale of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (Rics) describes the three types of survey: "The valuation tells the mortgage company how much the property is worth and is not meant to be exhaustive. The homebuyer’s report is a mid-range, mid-price survey, for the homebuyer, which is suitable for modern properties or those of conventional construction, while the full structural survey is suitable for older and more unusual properties."

Mr Barrowdale says a homebuyer’s report usually takes around three to four hours, while a full structural survey can take all day. Even these surveys have their limitations. "Surveyors cannot lift carpets or move furniture, so problems can be hidden," he says.

Mistakes can happen, he admits. "Chartered surveyors have rigorous training, but there will be some that get it wrong. They have to have indemnity insurance, so that if they do miss something a pay-out should be covered."

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