It wasn’t a large house with only two bedrooms, but the children loved the attic room that the seller’s had created. This had caused a few problems with the conveyancing as there was no building regulations approval for the works and the bank weren’t happy. Their conveyancers told them that they could just get an ‘insurance policy’ to cover the problem, they agreed to do this, the mortgage monies were released and the sale at last went through.
One night a few months later, after the children were tucked up in the ‘nest’ they had created in the attic room, the happy couple decided to have a date night, ran the bath, put some candles round it and went downstairs to finish off that bottle of wine. One bottle turned into another and they dozed off, forgetting the bath and the candles. The next thing they were woken by the smell of burning and dense black smoke. The reader can imagine the horror that followed.
Unfortunately the insurance policy had not prevented their young children from suffering their terrible fate, whereas proper fire precautions may have saved their lives. This tragic story was related to me by a Head of Building Control in the south west of England, who despaired at the attitude of home owners and conveyancers to building regulation.
The insurance policies that buyers obtained covered enforcement action - but she said it was not the practice of the authority to prosecute - the priority was education to make home-owners realise that these regulations were there to make sure people were not killed and injured by dangerous and badly constructed buildings, and in any case they only had a limited time window to take action and didn’t have the resources to investigate every breach. An insurance policy won’t prevent an unsupported chimney or building from collapsing and killing you, nor will it bring you back from the dead when you are electrocuted by DIY wiring.
Back in the day, when dodgy building work was suspected the response was to get a builder or surveyor in to check whether it was safe, not to just buy an insurance policy. Clients understood that this was not ‘paperwork’ but an essential check. These days everything is seen as ‘paperwork’ and the only thing that is important is speed and getting in without fuss. But the ‘fuss’ is the important stuff, like it or not, and conveyancers seem to have lost the plot and the importance of what they do.
Sure, some building regulations may seem petty or unimportant, and insurance may be one response to the tiny risk of enforcement action. Each situation is different and you need to explain to clients what the potential effect of not having approval is - the structure may not be safe in some cases and proper inspection may be the only sensible step to take, not just get another insurance policy of questionable value.
So what should I do on a residential purchase where there is no building regs for some works?
- Treat lack of building regulations responsibly, not just as an annoying inconvenience
- Explain to clients that this could mean injury or death to them and their family in some cases, if the breach is a structural issue, rather than say a minor one
- Emphasise that you are not a surveyor and that they should consider getting appropriate advice.
- Explain that in general terms it is also possible to regularise the situation by an application to Building Control who will apply the regulations that were in force at the time of the works, not the current regulations, which will deal with the issue once and for all and mean that their eventual sale of the property will go through without this problem coming up again.
- By all means say that insurance against enforcement action can be obtained but point out that it is very rare for enforcement action to be taken and that in any case if they decide to do the work for safety’s sake, this would not be covered by the policy. Neither would fines as it is against public policy for it to be possible to insure against criminal fines.