Beware! Selling a House With Subsidence
What it is, how it affects you and what you can do to fix it
Subsidence is something that homeowners dread.
A problem that is all too common, once it has been spotted it’s important that it’s dealt with as quickly as possible. There are ways to tackle it, but these options become limited as the problem develops over time.
Needless to say, if you do spot the signs of subsidence, you should act as quickly as possible to have the problem addressed.
What is subsidence?
Subsidence occurs when the ground underneath your property begins to collapse.
Not a pleasant thought ...
Sometimes it doesn’t mean a full collapse of the ground, but rather the ground sinking and the property sinking with it. Whichever of these two cases occurs, it still means that the foundations of your property are sinking into the ground.
If the foundations are affected in this way, the property will sink and this will cause cracks to appear in the building itself. It will also mean that the side of your property that is affected will literally start to sink lower into the ground below it, which gives the house a ‘slanted’ look.
It’s a worrying situation to be in, and it’s quite likely to cause considerable distress.
Just bear in mind that not every property in the UK is at risk of subsidence, but it’s still considerable - 3.7m homes in fact (15% of the market), according to Royal Sun & Alliance.
Even if it occurs, there are some things that can be done to prevent it worsening.
When risk occurs
There are certain risk factors in property that make the likelihood of subsidence very possible. However, some of the risks are man-made, which means that the problem could be avoided.
|Trees and shrubs being close to the property||Roots invade foundations of property|
|The property is old||Could possibly have shallow foundations, making them more vulnerable|
|Water and drainage pipes||If the system cracks and breaks, it will make the soil around it soften or wash away. This means the soil will compact under the property|
|Clay soil||If there is prolonged hot weather, the soil will shrink, crack and shift, leaving the property vulnerable.|
There are some clear signs of subsidence that every homeowner should be aware of. Seeing the following things on your property means there is a strong possibility that subsidence is taking hold.
That said, they’re not infallible signs.
Spotting these should mean that you can be concerned, but investigation is necessary before you take any real action with the property.
- A crack in your property. If this happens one of the very first things you should do is check if the crack is visible on the inside and the outside of the property. Some more modern houses do tend to crack here and there as part of what is commonly referred to as ‘settling in’. If the crack is seen inside and out, you need to investigate
- If the crack is thick enough. A subsidence crack will be thicker than 3mm. It is important to be clear on the thickness because cracks can be quite easily explained. It doesn't always mean subsidence
- The crack is close to doors and windows. This is another possible sign of subsidence. If the crack is near these specific spots, you need to start investigating the problem
- The shape and course of the crack. This is an easy to spot sign. If the crack is diagonal in it’s direction, and thicker at the top than the bottom, this is a sign of subsidence
- Doors and windows might stick repeatedly. This could mean that the building is moving and is a possible sign of subsidence
- Wallpaper may start to ‘ripple’. And you know the home doesn’t have a damp problem
- If the building has an extension. Cracks between the extension and the building (at the ‘join’) could mean the extension is moving away from the property due to subsidence
It’s also important to remember that all buildings expand and contract to some extent over time.
This is perfectly natural.
It's also very common in the early life of new properties. Changes in temperature can cause cracks too, in the areas where ceilings and walls meet.
So it’s worthwhile tackling the problem methodically before you decide it’s subsidence.
If in doubt refer to this chart about the five stages of cracks on a property, created by the Building Research Establishment (BRE).
Tackling subsidence so you can sell
The thing about subsidence is that homeowners have heard all the horror stories about how expensive it is to treat.
It certainly isn’t a small job, but it’s not the end of the world, and certainly doesn't mean fifty workers will have to turn up and take over the place. And if you’ve spotted signs that usually means you’re taking charge of the problem sooner rather than later.
Contact your home insurance provider
This is the very first thing you should do to tackle subsidence.
Your insurer will need all the details and a full picture of what is going on. The simple fact is that the sooner you notify them of a problem like this, the sooner it can be tackled and you can receive financial compensation for the problem.
Acting slowly is not an option!
This is a big problem (in the worst cases it can ruin a house permanently) so you need your home insurance people on your side as a priority. Most insurers are able to act quickly too, but they can't do anything until they know about the issue.
The next stage via the insurance company is the loss adjuster.
He or she will come and visit the property and give the problem a full analysis. This is an important stage because the insurance company will also provide some further advice on what needs to be done.
The insurance company may not feel it can proceed.
This may be because:
- Your cover isn't matching the problem, or that you’ve had multiple subsidence claims previously
- The problem, in their eyes, does not warrant a claim.
- The cracks are superficial, and the insurance company decides to monitor the problem over the next few months
Good to know
Insurers will want to help if they’re able to.
However, the whole process has been known to take up to three years to be resolved and payments to be made. The worst-case scenario is also quite significant. If your insurance is voided in any way and for whatever reason, you will be facing a bill in the tens of thousands of pounds as the homeowner.
Voiding can happen if you do not declare any ‘material facts’ such as the building having a history of subsidence, or cracks being present for a significant amount of time. If you are buying a property, the very best way to ensure that subsidence is not historical is to have a full structural survey done prior to purchase.
Insurers, and especially mainstream insurers, will not normally offer new policies to homeowners who have discovered subsidence at survey stage. It’s also important to remember that if you are turned down for cover by an insurer, you need to declare this to any future insurer you approach.
The monitoring stage
Insurers may want to monitor the property before they offer any compensation.
This can be a particularly distressing time, as insurers may want to monitor for several months. This is entirely up to the insurer, but even if it is a clear example of subsidence, they may monitor for a period of time before they agree to repairs.
While this seems to go against any ‘early action’ ideas that you may have had, it is the way some insurers work. If subsidence is present in your home, be ready for a potentially quite long wait.
What happens in the treatment stage?
There are just a few main areas of treatment:
- Pipework treatment happens if the pipes beneath the property are the reason why subsidence is occurring. They may have leaked or even burst and this causes soil to wash away. This is actually a more positive outcome because if this is discovered (a CCTV survey through the drains is the method used) then it will be relatively cheaper to fix than underpinning would
- Tree root damage is seen as the most common reason for subsidence. During dry spells trees will draw moisture from beneath the property. Trees may be removed to deal with this problem
- Underpinning work is the most costly outcome. It is actually rarer than people think, and generally occurs as a solution for less than 10% of all subsidence cases. It is very invasive and can cost up to £50,000 for a larger property. Most insurers will suggest that other methods of treatment are tried before underpinning due to it’s cost and resource-heavy nature
An example of a house getting treated for subsidence in Croydon, London:
What can you do if you want to sell?
Buyers will not be overjoyed to discover that you have subsidence.
The problem is the expected cost of dealing with it.
Even if you're just fixing drains it still costs money, and there is no real guarantee that the problem has gone away (underpinning is the most ‘final’ of the treatments).
A house with subsidence can suffer on the housing market. In some cases, subsidence can cause a property to sell for around 80% of it’s value. That's not good, and it’s also assuming that estate agents will want to market a property that has the problem.
The other option is a simple, certain, convenient house sale. There are companies that specialise in buying properties for cash. However, while it may be an option (and that's all you really want) the price they will offer could be significantly lower than you expect. But then again, it may not. If in doubt, get your house valued.
It’s important to be honest and open with potential buyers. While this may result in a reduced offer or no sale, it prevents you from getting into trouble in the future.
Selling quickly vs. treating subsidence
We mentioned cash house buyers earlier. You’ll find that these companies will offer you a quick sale, and if you need a quick sale it’s worth investigating. It takes a long time to treat subsidence, but it is treatable. If you’re happy with spending up to three years getting the property in order than this is fine.
At the same time, the reduced offer from a cash house buyer means a quicker turnaround. The lower price will probably reflect what you would have paid to get the problem fixed anyway.
Therefore, the key reason for selling the property quickly is the time element.