Shortly after instructing a solicitor on the purchase of a property (whether commercial or residential) or even the taking of a lease as a tenant (whether a new lease or the assignment of an existing lease) you will usually have to part with what may seem like a goodly amount of money “on account of searches”. The purpose of these and the importance placed on them may seem mysterious. The objective of this article is to explain in more detail the reasons behind one of the most important searches – the Local Search.
Why carry out the search?
The Local Authority Search or Local Search ought to be carried out on all acquisitions of property, even if no other searches are carried out or the buyer thinks they know the area well. If the search is not performed, you are buying or leasing the property blindfolded. All lenders will insist, for this reason, that a local search is carried out as a condition of the loan advance.
How is the search performed?
It used to be the case that forms were submitted to the Local Authority covering the area in which the property is situated. These take the form of a number of questions, some of which are standard and required in all transactions, and others which are optional and can be tailored according to the whereabouts of the property and particular things which may be relevant given the locality. The forms are submitted along with a plan showing the property outlined in red, and the requisite fee. However it is now the case that most law firms conduct searches of the local authority, and indeed all conveyancing searches, through a third party search provider who is internet based. It is important to point out that neither your solicitor nor the local authority or search provider will actually visit the property so you should always do this yourself and preferably have a building survey carried out. The solicitor will have to map the property on the screen (if it is a large or complicated area, a hard copy plan can still be submitted) and the search fee is paid electronically. The fee varies between authorities, and the reply to the search can take a variable amount of time to be returned (which is dependent on the local authority in question), although these are much quicker on the whole than they used to be, when four to six weeks was not uncommon.
It is also the case that a “personal” search of the local authority records can be performed free of charge by anyone, although specialist search agents will perform this for a fee. The advantage of a personal search is that it is usually quicker that the “official” local search but some people are wary of relying on the personal search due to concerns over the searcher’s insurance and because information has been interpreted by a third party rather than coming direct from the local authority.
What is the information revealed by a local search?
All local authorities in England and Wales must maintain records of the information requested by the search.
The first section of the search deals with the entries on the local land charges register for the area. Land charges are binding matters affecting the property and are enforceable against property owners, no matter if they are the original owner or successors in title. This can include matters such as tree preservation orders or conservation areas but even more commonly found are conditional planning permissions.
The second part of the search deals with matters such as building control and planning, including outstanding breaches of conditions, for example, compulsory purchase orders and nearby road or rail schemes. It is important to note that the search is only carried out against the specific property as per the submitted plan, therefore a local search will not necessarily tell you about your neighbour’s planning applications even if they would, if implemented, certainly affect the property you are planning to buy. Development plans for the general area drawn up by the Local Authority will be revealed, showing designated areas and road schemes nearby, but not specific planning consents for other properties.
The planning history for the property you are proposing to purchase should be reviewed in detail since any breach of conditions or unauthorised development will become your problem on completion. It will also reveal planning applications which have been rejected, which might be useful if you yourself are planning to carry out work.
One important area which is covered to a certain extent by the local search is environmental contamination. Once again, this will bind (and blight) the land regardless of whether the original contaminator is known, as owner of the land you could become liable for a very costly clean-up exercise not only for your own land, but any nearby affected properties too. Detailed information as to contaminated land may not be kept by the particular local authority in question but any entries affecting the property will be revealed by the search results. In nearly all cases, a separate environmental search should be carried out as well.
Clearly, adverse entries affecting the property may well lead you to seek a reduction in the sale price or perhaps withdraw from the sale all together. Equally, the local authority search can provide reassurance and useful information for purchasers as well as their solicitors, who will ask follow-up enquiries of the seller based on the information discovered by the search result. As in all property acquisitions the general principle of “caveat emptor” or “buyer beware” must be borne in mind and this is why the local search is so crucial to a successful outcome.