Should You Buy A House With Subsidence?

Should You Buy A House With Subsidence?
If you’ve found your dream home, but it’s showing signs of movement, you’re probably wondering ‘should you buy a house with subsidence?’.

It’s a common question as many houses in the UK do show signs of subsidence. However, you’ll be pleased to know it’s often not as big a deal as you may first think.

Drawing from our own experience, we’re going to take a look at the key things you need to know to answer the question ‘should you buy a house with subsidence?’.

So, let’s start with the obvious first question…

What Is Subsidence?

Subsidence is when the walls of a building have moved since they were built.

The movement often causes cracks to appear along the walls. When subsidence is severe it can lead to significant structural issues for properties.

That’s why when house hunters discover a property they want to buy has subsidence, many immediately pull out of the purchase.

However, subsidence is more common than you may think and doesn’t always require expensive repairs.

How To Tell If A House Has Subsidence

Stepped Crack Subsidence
One of the investment properties we viewed had this worrying crack!

There are a number of telltale signs that a property has subsidence, including:

  • Significant cracking of walls
  • Sloping floors
  • Twisted window or door frames

Knowing how to tell if a property has subsidence is key if you are to understand the consequences of buying a property with subsidence.

In short, vertical or horizontal cracks tend to be the most serious, though stepped cracks can be an issue too. 

If a crack is visible on both sides of the wall or is wider than the thickness of a 10p coin then it indicates potentially serious problems.

Sloping floors and twisted window or door frames are usually only serious if significant.

Get a professional opinion:

Our Experience Of Buying A House With Subsidence

Crack In Supporting Wall
One of the cracks in the retaining wall of a property we bought

Having lived in an area with a strong mining history for a good number of years, most houses we looked at had signs of movement.

This being a relatively normal occurrence in the area, we weren’t put off by it. And one of the homes we have bought over the years had subsidence.

The first sign we spotted was a crack under a window of the extension that was replicated on a retaining in the back garden. Because the two cracks seem to run along the same line, it was likely that there had been some movement, which can often also mean subsidence.

We really loved the house, so didn’t want to dismiss it because of that. While the extension had been built decades ago without any issues, which would suggest that the movement might be non-progressing, it wasn’t built according to building regulations.

We found that this is always a red flag, because whoever built it might have cut corners for financial reasons, which might mean the extension might not be structurally sound. However, the only way to be sure is to have a structural survey done.

And that’s exactly what we did. We told the surveyor about our concerns beforehand, so he would pay special attention to the extension and the retaining wall below it in the garden.

In our experience, it’s always a good idea to mention any concerns you have about a property to any surveyor you engage.

Thankfully, the report he sent us was not the disaster we were fearing. He did confirm that there was movement, evidenced by the load bearing wall bulging out. This meant that the weight of the extension had pushed the wall outwards.

Our structural survey showed our cracks were non-significant
Our structural survey reassured us about the level of subsidence at our home.

However, the structural engineer said that this movement was long-standing and non-progression. In effect, it was more a case of settlement rather than subsidence. This was a relief, because it meant that no further movement was to be expected.

There were some repairs and remedial works he did recommend though. The walls with the cracks needed repointing.

And he also pointed out that the foundations of the retaining wall with the crack were exposed.

While this wasn’t responsible for the movement, the structural report said that this will weaken the wall, which could lead to issues further down the line. He suggested raising the floor level above the foundations as a remedial measure.

Exposed foundations on our retaining wall
We did, however, have to raise the ground level to recover exposed foundations.

After we bought the house, we did carry out any work that the structural surveyor recommended. We also got a builder in to install wall ties on the retaining wall, just to be sure. While this was not necessary according to the structural survey report, it did give us peace of mind.

Wall ties being added to our retaining wall
Repairs being made to our retaining wall for extra strength!

In our experience, buying a house with subsidence doesn’t have to be a problem. But it is important that you know exactly what you are dealing with, which is only possible if you get a structural engineer in to do a structural survey.

Then it’s just a question of affordability. Can you afford to make any recommended repairs? You might have to renegotiate the price with the seller. In particular, if the repairs aren’t just cosmetic, you will be in a good position to offer a lower price.

And it’s definitely worth it, if you get the home you have fallen in love with, like we did.

What Causes Subsidence To Houses?

Common cracks in mining areas
We’ve viewed lots of houses like this with worrying cracks!

There are several possible causes of subsidence in houses and other properties.

Areas with a history of mining commonly experience subsidence. This is due to movements in the ground below from the mining works.

Different ground types can also cause movement as the ground compacts or swells up due to variances in the moisture levels.

Trees and bushes close to the walls of a property can also cause issues with movement and subsidence, while leaking pipes or guttering can cause soil to wash away and foundations to move.

Subsidence can also be caused simply by a structure having inadequate foundations.

This is something we have also experienced during one of our house searches. The house we looked at had a single brick garage, on top of which the owners built an extension. Because the foundations for the garage weren’t made to carry the weight of a second storey, there were cracks in the garage walls.

This didn’t put us off at first, because we bought a house that had signs of subsidence before. The location was perfect, so we got a builder to have a look at it. He told us what we would need to do to fix it and how much it would cost.

Our Mortgage Survey Failure Reason
We had a mortgage refused due to issues with subsidence.

Our offer reflected the additional costs and was accepted. Unfortunately, our mortgage company told us after the valuation, that they wouldn’t give us a mortgage on this property. We tried to negotiate with them to see if anything could be done, such as reducing the valuation of the property.

But they were very clear that they would not lend us money for this property. So we had no choice but to withdraw our offer. We were gutted, but we had no choice.

There are several different reasons why you may notice cracked walls and evidence of movement in a property. Establishing what has caused subsidence in a property is the first step towards fixing it.

And as our experience shows, sometimes subsidence can be a dealbreaker, literally.

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Conducting Surveys To Identify Subsidence

If you are considering buying a house with subsidence, you should seek the advice of an expert before you proceed with the purchase.

A good chartered surveyor will be able to check on the severity of any subsidence and advise you on any necessary remedial work that will be needed.

This will be done via a property survey, of which there are a few to choose from.

It’s, therefore, important you understand the difference between a homebuyers report and a full structural survey.

In our experience, it’s always best to choose a full structural survey if you are concerned about subsidence. Not only will it be conducted by a structural engineer, their report will be covered by insurance.

What you are ideally looking for are the magic words ‘long-standing and non-progressive’ as this will mean only cosmetic work is required.

However, if the surveyor thinks the subsidence is recent or still progressing, they will still advise on the likely costs of repairing the problem.

Can You Get A Mortgage On A Property With Subsidence?

Cracks above window
Cracks like these can often be easily resolved without worrying mortgage providers.

The short answer is yes, though it will depend on how severe the subsidence is and whether it affects your ability to get insurance on the property.

Most mortgage providers will insist that you hold valid buildings insurance for the duration of your mortgage. This is because it helps to protect their investment.

Therefore, if the subsidence is so bad you can’t get insurance, you’ll probably find it hard to mortgage the property.

However, this is rare since most subsidence is solvable and many insurers will still insure you but just with larger excesses on subsidence claims.

However, as our own experience we shared earlier showed, it can happen that a mortgage provider refuses to give you a mortgage on a property. While we might have been able to get a mortgage from a different provider, it was likely that it would have been more expensive.

A good mortgage advisor will be able to help advise you on the best way to get a mortgage for a property with subsidence.

How Long Does It Take To Underpin A Property?

When subsidence is considered to be causing structural issues to a property, underpinning is often the best solution.

This involves digging down below the foundations of the property and pouring in a concrete mix. Sometimes beams are also used, but the aim is the same – to provide added support and strength to the building to prevent further movement.

While underpinning can be an expensive process, it is often less costly than people imagine. In fact, underpinning has something of an unfair reputation for being both costly and intrusive.

While it can be expensive, it isn’t always a dealbreaker, so it’s well worth getting some quotes for the work if your dream property happens to have subsidence issues.

The exact cost and length of time it will take depends on a number of factors.

For example, if the wall the needs underpinning is surrounded by thick concrete or deeply rooted trees or bushes, this will add to the amount of time it will take.

In any case, the underpinning process can be slow as only a small area can be worked on at any one time to avoid further weakening the structure during the works.

A typical underpinning job will take several weeks to complete. More complex issues can take a month or more.

In most cases, you’ll be looking at paying around £1,000 for each metre of wall that needs underpinning.

Do You Have To Declare Subsidence When Selling?

Non-Significant Crack In Our Retaining Wall
Small cracks like this rarely indicate any serious issues.

When selling a property there are certain issues that you need to declare if they are likely to cause issues for the new owner.

This is now part of the conveyancing process as you will be asked to complete a Property Information Form.

On the form, you’ll be asked several set questions for which you must provide full and accurate answers. Failure to do so can result in legal proceedings if it’s suspected you deliberately withheld the truth.

However, it goes further than this. Even if an issue isn’t specifically mentioned on the form, if you’re found to have deliberately hidden the issue (such as temporarily covering up subsidence cracks), you could also be in legal trouble.

If an estate agent or potential buyer asks you about subsidence, you must be honest with them to avoid any potential legal consequences.

Therefore, you should keep this in mind when buying a property with subsidence. At some point, you’ll likely need to sell the property and declare the subsidence.

When we sold our house with subsidence, we were very open about it, if any viewer asked the question. Because we had a structural surveyor report that confirmed that it was long-standing and non-progressing, it didn’t cause any issues.

While it might put off some potential buyers, in our experience, it is always better to be truthful upfront rather than having to deal with more serious issues further down the line.

Which Type of Properties Are Liable to Subsidence?

Subsidence can affect properties of any age, from old to relatively new ones. The type of soil on which the properties are built can make them more prone to subsidence.

For example, clay soils, which are common in the South East of England, tend to shrink in dry weather and swell in wet weather, causing the land to sink.

Similarly, silt, sand or gravel soils near the coast or rivers can erode and subside easily.

Our previous home was built on sandy soil which gave us some initial concern. However, further investigation revealed the house itself was actually build on a layer of hard rock. Only the soil around it was sandy and so the foundations were very secure!

You should also be aware that properties in former mining areas such as Yorkshire, the Midlands and also in the North West and North East, are also at a higher risk of subsidence.

We used to live in such a former mining area, and we saw all kinds of properties that had signs of subsidence. Even houses that were relatively new had cracks, which were a telltale sign of movement.

So in our experience, don’t be put off immediately by any sign of potential subsidence. It might prevent you from finding your dream home.

You can use this map that highlights areas prone to subsidence.

So, Should You Buy A House With Subsidence?

Overall then, when asking the question ‘Should you buy a house with subsidence?’ it’s important to understand a number of things:

  1. How severe is the subsidence?
  2. What remedial work will be required?
  3. How much will it cost to fix?
  4. Will you still be able to get a mortgage?
  5. What impact will it have on selling the property in the future?

Once you can answer all the questions above, it will make it much easier to decide whether to buy a property with subsidence.

Just remember that while many people run a mile at the first mention of ‘subsidence’, it’s often nothing to worry about.

As our experiences show, subsidence can be a big issue. But it’s a rather rare case; most of the time, subsidence can be resolved without too many issues.

The key is simply to know exactly what you are getting yourself into before reaching the point of exchanging contracts and committing to buy the property in question.


  • Paul James

    Paul James, is a marketing expert with a passion for property. As well as being a property investor, Paul has also worked within the marketing departments of some of the UK’s leading estate agents. Paul is the founder of Property Road.

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