Residential building surveyors: requirements of domestic clients

Patience and diplomacy

10 January 2017

Because domestic clients will always have distinctive requirements, a residential building surveyor’s work will be highly varied, writes Patricia Newman

Although residential clients often instruct smaller building surveying practices, the requirements of such clients can demand a range of skills.

The diversity of enquiries and instructions makes for a varied professional life, which could include advising on building defects, neighbour disputes, party wall appointments, building disputes with contractors, expert evidence or design work, for example project management and contract administration, as well as purchase surveys.

Although these functions can be undertaken by large practices, many such companies prefer to concentrate on commercial clients, where securing repeat business can be an influence. However, in my experience, residential clients seem to return, typically about every 3 to 5 years, and frequently prefer an individual approach.

Complex works

Small building works, particularly domestic works, are by their nature often more complex than they initially appear. The clients may want more living space, an additional bedroom, or even a full home refurbishment to add value and improve use of space, prompted by design ideas from magazines or television programmes; however, they frequently misunderstand the physical and financial practicality and scale of their ambitions.

During initial discussions, the likely budget is often the first disappointment for residential clients, and can quash their grand designs. So it takes skill to lead a client towards a suitable solution within their likely budget at the earliest stages of the design brief, offer preliminary suggestions that give them a good sense of the scope of the works, and secure an instruction from them to take these forward.

Diplomatic dexterity

It is important that all parties to the instruction – that is, the different members of the household – share the same initial vision of the project. However, their wish lists can vary, so on occasion I have had to manage their requirements where these do not reflect the wishes of all involved. Diplomatic dexterity is required to smooth out any discontent over the proposals between, for example, spouses.

Once initial schemes are developed, the scale of the clients’ choices needs to be assessed against cost before advice on appropriate detailing for planning, Building Regulations or even preferred contractor negotiations is considered. Here, a good working relationship is necessary with local authorities and, where appropriate, with approved inspectors, as well as with suitable local contractors. This always helps to level the path of the client requirements towards successful applications and tender processes.

Similarly, the outcome of a residential survey inspection can cause much soul-searching for clients, balancing their need to move house with their expectations of future repairs to a property they may have been seeking for many months. This can frequently lead to repeated telephone calls as they try to extract your personal opinion rather than a more detached, professional answer.

Range of work

During a typical day, in addition to documenting information, drafting reports on defects found during inspection, considering designs to meet the client brief or preparing certificates for valuations submitted for payment, I can also be visiting construction sites to deal with anything from a small repair to a listed building to a new dwelling services installation, in discussion with both contractors and clients. This range of work tends to require considerable breadth of knowledge, as well as the ability to research in some depth any potential issues arising.

Managing the progress of work on site is fulfilling when it means projects are carried out smoothly, allowing sufficient time for the residential client to understand the works and making their preferred choices more tangible, while still enabling contractors to incorporate any variations that inevitably occur. Residential clients’ visions or requirements are generally personal and distinctive, and may even vary between members of the same household. Many find visualising the finished article quite difficult until construction is under way.

On many occasions, the careful checking of detailing both on paper and on site can help to prevent the contractor having to redo works, and limit the delays of late client changes. This enables all parties to exercise greater control over costs, and ensures the clients are satisfied when your involvement in their project ends.

Communication is key

Communication is the key, in a way that is clear, uncomplicated and not too technical, helping a residential client to comprehend; yet it should also be sufficiently detailed to be well understood by contractors or other professional advisers, and giving a good sense of the final outcome in ways that all parties can appreciate.

Every interaction with residential clients is different, and each, given appropriate timescales, will be rewarding in different ways.

Patricia Newman is Principal at Patricia Newman Practice

Further information