To wake up and find that a huge hole has appeared in your garden must be a truly terrifying experience as some Ripon residents found recently when a sinkhole appeared without warning. Ripon has the dubious benefit of being one of a number of areas of Britain where pockets of gypsum occur quite naturally beneath the surface. Gypsum is a rock used in, ironically, the building trade as it’s a component of plasterboard but because it is a soft rock, it is easily soluble in water. Dissolving gypsum can have devastating effects when the holes left can no longer support the earth’s surface and that’s when a sinkhole appears. Thankfully last week nobody was hurt but we don’t yet know when or if those people affected will be able to return to their homes.
Could anything have been done to avoid it? I’m no geologist but I understand that the answer is no. So, as home buyers how can you be sure your hard earned investment won’t simply disappear into the ground? The short answer is that you can’t be absolutely certain but you can arm yourself with as much information as possible, especially if you’re moving to a new area of the country that you don’t know well.
Most solicitors will carry out risk searches that look at ground stability and flooding among other things as a matter of course but if they don’t, ask them. When you get the results, read them and obtain further, more detailed reports if necessary. Because sinkholes appear as a result of dissolving rock, check the Property Information Form that the sellers should supply to see if there’s any mention of flooding having occurred – your solicitors will help you here and perhaps carry out an additional, flood risk search. Your ability to obtain standard buildings insurance without either the premiums or the excess being increased might be affected if flooding has occurred in the past and, if so, that may have the knock on effect of you not being able to get a mortgage.
Whatever the outcome, at least you will know that you and your solicitors have done as much as is possible to find out what risks exist before you make your final decision to proceed with your purchase. We hope that the residents affected in Ripon will be able to move back into their homes – although we doubt it will be as fast as the road in Japan has just been repaired.
Diane Scott is a residential property specialist at Berwins where she handles all types of residential conveyancing matters