Conserving listed buildings – a beginner’s guide to surveying

As a Chartered Building Surveyor, I am bound to be of the opinion that one should always have an independent building survey carried out when purchasing property. I hope that by the end of this article you will agree with me.

If you do not have a survey carried out on a house, you are among a vast majority. Although a property is by far the single most expensive purchase any of us makes, with or without a mortgage, it is thought that less than 10% of house buyers have an independent survey of any kind. This does not include the mandatory bank or building society survey and valuation inspection. That survey is not there to give you comfort, merely for the mortgagee to ensure that (a) the house exists, (and indeed some haven’t) and (b) that it is adequate security for the loan. I certainly believe that anyone considering purchasing a listed or older property should have an independent survey.

In the 2008 English Home Condition survey there were 22 million houses in England and Wales, of which some 15.3 million were owner-occupied and 4.8 million were built before 1919. There are 368,923 listed homes in England and Wales of which 8,920 are Grade I and 20,586 are Grade II*, and approximately 340,000 are Grade II. Not all of these will be pre-1919 but most of them will be. English Heritage in their latest survey “Buildings at Risk Register”, indicate that 1 in 30 listed buildings are at high risk in the south East of England alone – an alarming statistic.

What should a survey do?

The main purpose of a survey – discounting the fallback position of suing the surveyor should he get it wrong! – is to inform a purchaser of the condition of a property and give advice on repairs, including an indication of how they should be undertaken and when. This requires an understanding of the problems that can be found in the various types of properties from Elizabethan timber framed houses through to brick Victorian houses.

With a listed building it is particularly important to have an informed understanding of what it is you are letting yourself in for. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), says that a homeowner is a “custodian for life” and has a duty to maintain these old and listed buildings so that they can be passed on to the next generation, hopefully in a better condition, and certainly not any worse.

There is often the view that while a house has been here for 250 years it will last a few years more without doing very much to it. This is true up to a point but there will come a time in every building’s life when it needs some TLC and, while there is a growing appreciation of conservation techniques, few still understand why or what will happen if you do not use the right techniques and products. Unfortunately there are still too many builders who don’t understand conservation repair techniques and are doing more harm than good.

What should a survey cost?

Typically about £750 plus VAT for a two to three-bedroom terraced or semi-detached house. Beyond this it rather depends on the size and age of the property as it is this that determines the amount of work for the surveyor. Typically this will be around £1,250 to £1,750 plus VAT for a four-bedroom house. The report should be individually written up, not full of cut and paste standard phrases other than perhaps a few that recur every time, such as the need for “lime mortar repointing”. The only exclusion clause that should be present is the one that basically says “if I can’t see it I can’t tell you about it”. However some things can still be detected such as by smell, for dampness and dry rot; and by feel for things like bouncy floors, which often tell a tale or two.

Typical reports are at least 20 pages long and should have a brief costed summary at the end.

Who should you use?

Well I am bound to say a chartered building surveyor, but someone with some experience of old buildings and preferably a good track record; if possible a member of the  Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC) or SPAB and someone with a post-graduate qualification in historic buildings is preferable. Some chartered building surveyors are also accredited by RICS as having experience in conservation.

In conclusion, I hope I have been able to persuade you that the expenditure on a survey is value for money, taking into account the increased risks in buying a listed or older property.

Don’t take the chance – survey it.

Martin Hall, FRICS, IHBC, PG Dip Conservation of Historic Buildings, RICS Accredited Building Conservation is a Chartered Building Surveyor at Hall & Ensom in Oxfordshire. His practice covers the Cotswolds, Thames Valley and Southern England. He has over 30 years experience of surveying and the design & supervision of repairs and alteration works to a range of listed properties.


Hall & Ensom is a member of ProjectBook which has been created to help owners of listed or period properties understand how their buildings work and to help them find appropriate craftsmen, products and specialist information. The online Heritage Register contains over 540 registered businesses, the largest directory of its type in the UK. For more information, visit; follow Projectbook on Twitter.