One person serves another with a lawsuit over building regulations. SAM Answers: Can I Sue Previous Owner? Building Regulations Fix.
Were you mis-sold a property which didn't meet building regs?
If the seller or their estate agent lied, or your solicitor was negligent in carrying out the relevant searches, you may be able to sue.

Arrange a free* consultation to discuss whether you can sue the previous owner.
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Can I Sue Previous Owner? Building Regulations Fix

(Last Updated: 12/06/2023)
11 min read

Key Takeaways

  • You can only sue the previous owner over a building regulations fix if they made a 'misrepresentation' that the work was compliant.
  • The local authority cannot enforce alteration or removal of the work, more than 12 months after the work has been completed. However, non-compliant building work will continue to effect the property's value, let-ability, saleability, and the building may still be dangerous.
  • There are several options for resolution including retrospective sign-off, insurance and remedy or removal of the offending work.

What happens if I buy a house without building regulations?

What happens, if you buy a house without building regulations, depends on where the liability lies. If you've already bought the property it may be possible to sue the previous owner for the building regulations fix, in a property misrepresentation claim. However, you may not have a claim against the seller at all. It's possible you may have a professional negligence claim against your solicitor or the seller's agent instead, if they failed in their professional duty of care. Unfortunately, the most common result is that the buyer is liable and you'll have to fix the issue at your own expense.

Property in the UK is sold under the legal principle 'Caveat Emptor'. This translates to 'buyer beware' and means that the buyer is responsible for doing their research before making the purchase. If you've missed something like unregulated building works and bought the property anyway, then the problem became yours with the house.

Who is at fault?
If you're looking for a building regulations fix, your first thought may be to sue the previous owner to recover the money you've lost (or will have to spend to fix the problem). But whose fault really is it?
  • The Seller
    You can only sue the previous owner if they have misrepresented the property to you. They might have lied directly, pretended not to know the answer to a question, or given the impression that they did know, when really they didn't. Only a property litigation solicitor will be able to assess your situation to give you an idea of whether you have a claim.
  • The Seller's Solicitor
    It might not be the seller's fault directly, perhaps their solicitor made a mistake in the information they gave to you, or they gave the seller bad advice. You can't complain about a solicitor who was not acting on your behalf, so you may still need to begin a claim against the seller, who would then have to sue their own solicitor for professional negligence. A property litigation solicitor will be able to assess the merits of taking this course of action in your case.
  • The Seller's Agent
    If the seller's agent has lied, or misrepresented the property to you, it may not be their fault, it may be down to a mistake or a lie told to them by their seller or their solicitor. However, if they have breached their duty of care to you, you suffered financial or personal damage (i.e. you paid more than the house was worth, or you're having to pay to fix the unregulated building), and you can prove that this damage was caused by the negligence of the agent, you can begin a professional negligence claim. Speak to a property litigation solicitor for advice on if and how you should proceed.
  • Yours
    As we mentioned before, in most cases it is the buyer who is ultimately liable for buying a house with a building regulations problem. If this is the case, your options are to purchase indemnity insurance, apply for retrospective sign-off, or, if you're unlucky, you'll have to have the building work undone or redone with proper certification. We'll discuss these later.
  • Your Surveyor
    Your surveyor would usually find signs of building work which is unsafe, or obviously not up to building regs. However, homebuyers and buildings surveys are non intrusive, so if work was done to the house and then disguised, they could not reasonably be expected to uncover it. If there is visibly a wall missing where there should be one on the title plans, or if the stairway to a recent loft conversion, for example, does not meet regs, and your surveyor failed to report this, then you may be able to bring a professional negligence claim against your surveyor. Speak to a property litigation solicitor first.
  • Your Solicitor
    Now, in some cases, your solicitor may have let you down. If they did not carry out the relevant, necessary checks, or they gave you bad advice when they should have known better, you may be able to bring a claim against them for professional negligence. As with a professional negligence claim against an estate agent, you will need to be able to show that they breached their professional duty of care to you and that you suffered financial or personal damage as a result of this breach. Speak to one of our hand selected property litigation solicitors to find out what you can do.

Follow complaints procedure
If you think the estate agent, the surveyor, or your own solicitor is at fault, you should follow their internal complaints procedure first. If their response does not resolve your problem, the next step is to report them to The Property Ombudsman Scheme and/or speak to a property litigation solicitor about raising a claim.

If you've not yet bought a house and are thinking about whether to move ahead with the purchase, in spite of missing building regs, read our article about Buying a House Without Building Regulations Approval, to learn about your pre-purchase options.

How to sue previous owner: Building Regulations Fix

If you're aware of the above and you'd like to move ahead with a property misrepresentation claim, the first step is to write to the previous owner stating your position.

SAM Conveyancing recommends that you instruct a property litigation solicitor to handle this part for you as anything you do from now forward could effect your claim's chances of success. Setting your position out correctly at this stage is a crucial moment which requires a legal understanding and strategic experience.

Contact us to arrange a free* consultation with one of our hand selected panel of property litigation specialists.

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What happens if building regulations are not followed?

Buildings that are missing building regulations may be unsafe to live in, they may be impossible to mortgage and hard to sell (unless you can find a cash buyer) and you could face prosecution and heavy fines if you let the property to a tenant.

If you've bought a house with work done where building regulations were not followed, it may not be too big of a deal. The first thing to do is arrange for a structural engineer to carry out an intrusive survey to check that the building is safe. (A building control inspector cannot carry out an intrusive survey and so won't be able to vouch for the safety of hidden construction work. It can also take some time to wait for an inspector to become available, during which your safety may be at risk).

If it is unsafe and/or against building code - you'll have to just bite the bullet and pay for a contractor to fix it. If you choose a contractor who is registered with the competent person's scheme, they will meet acceptable quality standards and can sign-off the work themselves. No 'Cowboy Builders' to worry about here.

If you cannot afford to have the work done, you may be able to do the work yourself, provided that a building control inspector comes to check the work and sign it off. If you cannot manage this, you take the risk of living in the property in its current condition.

If the building is safe, you may be able to get retrospective sign-off.

Can I get building regs after work is done?

You may apply to the council for retrospective sign off. This is only available on work carried out after 11th November 1985 and you'll have to wait for a building control officer to come and inspect the property. They may grant a 'letter of regularisation' which certifies that the work is compliant. They may, however, find that the work does not meet building regulations, in which case they'll likely take enforcement action, forcing you to undo or fix the offending work.

What is indemnity for lack of building regulations?

Indemnity insurance for missing building regulations can only be bought through a solicitor and it is only available if the council does not yet know about the unregulated works. The cover does not guarantee your safety, but it will cover your costs if the council later takes enforcement action, or if the house turns out to be worth less due to the non compliant building work. It is usually bought before you purchase, but you could take out a policy after you've completed, which will offer some financial protection and help put the next buyers mind to rest (and their lender's) if or when you decide to sell the property.

The obvious downside to this option is that there is no guarantee for your safety, which is why SAM recommends you involve a structural engineer to assess the unregulated work.

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Caragh Bailey, Digital Marketing Manager
Written by:

Caragh is an excellent writer in her own right as well as an accomplished copy editor for both fiction and non-fiction books, news articles and editorials. She has written extensively for SAM for a variety of conveyancing, survey and mortgage related articles.

Andrew Boast of Sam Conveyancing
Reviewed by:
Andrew started his career in 2000 working within conveyancing solicitor firms and grew hands-on knowledge of a wide variety of conveyancing challenges and solutions. After helping in excess of 50,000 clients in his career, he uses all this experience within his article writing for SAM, mainstream media and his self published book How to Buy a House Without Killing Anyone.

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