Why is a property survey necessary in Spain and Portugal?

Contributed by Sussex SEO, 25 July, 2019

If you read the expat forums, you will sometimes see posts expressing the view that prospective purchasers are wasting their money if they commission a condition or building survey when buying a home or investment property in Spain or Portugal. The reasons given for this are varied and usually lack any objective criteria. I would recommend prospective home buyers to be wary of such opinions. Ask yourself about the qualifications, skills and experience of such armchair experts writing these posts and question how they are able to advise you so confidently. When all is said and done, talk is cheap, and if you make a bad purchase they won't be the ones who suffer the consequences.

I have to admit, I have never met anyone who has owned up to authoring these types of posts. However, I have met a few people on my regular travels around Spain and Portugal, who I think would be capable of writing them. These are the expats who still haven't learnt to speak Spanish or Portuguese, and judging from the posts, which often contain spelling and grammatical errors, haven't yet gained full command of their own language. These people seem to acquire an amazing amount of knowledge sitting in their local bars on the coasts of Spain and Portugal, speaking in English to likeminded expats.

Some of the reasoning given for advising people not to spend money on a survey goes along the lines of "surveys are not undertaken in Spain and Portugal", "we didn't have a survey and our house is fine", "if you think you need to have a structural survey, then you are probably looking at the wrong type of property" and one, written by someone claiming to be a retired Chartered Structural Engineer, was "In every case, if there was a defect it was pretty obvious despite what the vendor told me." My reaction to the last comment is, yes of course it was obvious to you, you are a retired structural engineer! A surveyor or engineer is constantly looking at buildings and understands how they are built and the materials used to build them. Also, engineers and surveyors are likely to have studied building pathology.

At this point of the article I have a confession to make. I am not a journalist. I am in fact a Chartered Surveyor, with over 40 years of experience looking at property in many different countries around the world. However, my main focus has been on buildings in the UK and the Iberian Peninsula. I have undertaken mortgage valuations and building surveys of humble studio flats in Reading, Berkshire and Madrid, Spain, to large mansions and villas in Belgravia, London and Lisbon, Portugal. Before I started undertaking surveys of Spanish and Portuguese residential buildings I undertook some additional training. Construction is very different on the Iberian Peninsula and additional training is certainly necessary when making the transition from the UK for example.

Based on my experience, I can agree with one thing in the expat posts at least. If you don't have a survey you will certainly save the survey fee, but that's about the only thing I can agree on. So why would I nearly always recommend that a prospective purchaser have a building survey or condition survey carried out? I say "nearly always" because for a new property it is more usual to have something known as a snagging report. The answers to this question are many and I attempt to summarise below why a survey or snagging report is always recommended when buying a property.

You might be able to use the building survey to negotiate a price reduction

Instead of viewing the survey as a cost I believe that it should be seen as an investment. Many clients have been extremely satisfied with my survey reports, not only because I have alerted them to defects and problems of which they were unaware, but also because they were able to use the information in the survey to successfully negotiate a price reduction. If requested I can include an estimate of the costs of repairs or changes. Sometimes a survey might highlight a single issue such as an illegal extension or maybe a defective roof, for example, but other times there can be many smaller items, the costs of which can add up to a lot of money. In such cases the cost of the survey often turns out to be far less than the reduction in the purchase price achieved.

Defects, damage and decay are often not obvious

Despite assertions in posts that defects are obvious to purchasers, in my experience they often are not. I have come across numerous defects which were not spotted by prospective purchasers. Maybe, among the most common defects missed by purchasers is poor construction and materials. Dampness, cracks to the upper levels of walls and leaking roofs are also often missed. I often stand outside a house with binoculars to establish the condition of the roof slopes and upper sections of the walls. Even if a buyer did look up, would they know what to look for exactly? Damp penetration is often only detectable using a damp meter. There are many other types of defect which could be picked up of course. The most serious is structural failure. Although rare, I have come across a few unstable structures over the years and am pleased that I have been able to help clients avoid making some huge mistakes.

There might be illegal construction

Something I have occasionally seen in the expat posts is the risk of buying an illegal structure. A fair amount of illegal structures certainly exist in both Spain and Portugal. Illegal construction can cover an entire property, usually located in agricultural areas, to ancillary structures attached to modern villas, such as extensions, swimming pools and garages for example. Part of a Chartered Surveyors job, when undertaking a building survey, is to measure the property and note what is there. Building and condition survey reports include a description of the property including ancillary accommodation and floor areas. This enables the surveyor, after looking at the legal documents, to identify any potentially illegal construction and draw it to the attention of the lawyers who should always be provided with a copy of the report.

A Chartered Surveyor will carry specialist survey equipment

In order to determine how a property was built and detect defects a Chartered Surveyor will carry survey equipment. I personally carry a metal detector, damp meter, binoculars, ladder, laser measuring device, tools to lift manhole covers and more. Some, or all of this, will be used on a survey depending on what I find when I arrive at the property. To this day, I have never heard of builders or purchasers carrying such a complete kit when "looking over" a house for purchase.

An inspection takes a few hours to complete

An inspection of a two bedroom apartment will normally take around two hours to undertake and a three bedroom house could take around three hours. Large villas can take substantially longer. Also, a large land parcel, with ancillary accommodation and facilities such as boreholes, water wells, swimming pools, tennis courts etc, will add considerably to the inspection time. Much will also depend on the state of repair of a building. A property with a lot of defects will take longer to inspect and annotate than one with few defects.

A written report

I have yet to hear of a builder writing up a report following an inspection of a house for a potential buyer. However, once a Chartered Surveyor is back in the office the report writing will start almost immediately. The results of the inspections I undertake are delivered to the client in report format. Nowadays a pdf document forwarded by email is the norm. Writing up a thorough and sufficiently detailed report, which will be easily understood by the client takes time. However, it is a very important part of the process, since it leaves the client with a written record of the findings. Report writing is a skill which seems to be completely ignored in the posts I have read on the expat forums.

Qualifications and experience

Most Chartered Surveyors have completed a three, or four year degree course which will cover many subjects including property law, building technology, construction and services, property valuation and town planning. But many more subjects are covered. In addition, a number of characteristics and skills are required including writing ability, building pathology and numeracy skills. Furthermore, all Chartered Surveyors are required to undertake at least 20 hours of structured learning per year. This means that they are constantly updating their knowledge in the light of new technological advancements and research which constantly arise in the building surveying sector.


To summarise, there is a lot more that goes into the preparation of a building or condition survey than most of the people writing posts on the expat forums seem to realise. Of course, you can take a risk and keep your fingers crossed when buying a property in Spain or Portugal. However, given the amount of money you are going to spend, and the consequences of making a mistake, I would strongly recommend that you employ a Chartered Surveyor to undertake a survey. This will give you peace of mind and significantly increase the chances of a trouble free house purchase. In addition you might well be able to use the information in the report to help negotiate a reduction in the price, thereby saving more money than the actual cost of the survey.

About Stan Dickens

Stan Dickens, FRICS, is a Chartered Surveyor, based on the Iberian Peninsula. Stan is the owner of Villa Surveyors, a Chartered Surveyor practice, undertaking property surveys and valuations throughout Spain and Portugal.

Tags: Investment | Invest | Investment | Property Investment | Spain | Portugal |



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