Digging the dirt on your house

From the Financial Times



Private Detective Richard King-Evans reckons he has done a good day's work if he can find reasons for a client not to buy a property, and he usually does, writes Liz Gill


The exquisite Georgian rectory could be seen for miles across the open Lincolnshire countryside. The nearer the couple approached, the more they were convinced it was the house of their dreams.


Unfortunately, 150 acres of surrounding land was owned by a struggling farmer who had just discovered that turning them into a wind farm would be a lot more profitable.


"He had not got as far as a formal planning application," recalls Richard King-Evans, "but everyone in the village knew what he had in mind. And if it had gone ahead it would have destroyed the house. These turbines are 250ft high, they make a lot of noise and they draw hundreds of tourists. The buyers just had to pull out. They were broken-hearted but grateful."


Richard King-Evans is a professional killjoy. As a private detective specialising in what he calls "a moving house risk assessment service", he feels he has done a good day's work if he can find reasons for a client not to buy a property. And he usually can: noise, pollution, flooding, development schemes, difficult neighbours, even micro-climates, have all been revealed by his researches.


If the client goes ahead with the purchase - and, interestingly, most of them do, he says - they are buying with their eyes open and usually at a renegotiated price. "Not every flaw is a deal-breaker. Some things can be changed or buyers decide they can put up with them. But at least with a warts-and-all portrait there'll be no nasty surprises."


He does not concern himself with the fabric of a building - that remains the surveyor's job - but with its surroundings in the widest sense: the geography and history of an area, local customs, social behaviour and ethnic mix, traffic flow and rat runs, public transport realities, hunting and other sporting activities, footpaths and rights of way, landfill sites, genetically modified crops, set-aside land, sewage discharge systems, crime patterns, civilian and military aircraft flying patterns, and emergency services capabilities and response times.


"If you're a potential heart-attack case after a lifetime of stress in the City, you need to know how long it'll take an ambulance to get to you. And if you buy in the vicinity of Ampleforth in North Yorkshire your fire brigade is drawn from the monks of the Abbey. I've seen them yanking up their habits to pull their boots on. I'm sure they do a brilliant job, but you might want to know that if you moved to the area."


The service, which he believes is unique in the UK, begins with an interview with the clients to establish their priorities or particular concerns. Wealthy or high-profile clients, for instance, may be particularly conscious of security, even kidnap. Others may be keen that they and their children will find kindred spirits in the neighbourhood.


From there it is a question of building up a picture of the area from maps, aerial photographs (which often give a much clearer picture of how land is actually used), environmental surveys, public records and various websites. These can provide details of past industrial use, including mines and factories, soil contamination, storage of hazardous materials, landfill sites, discharges into air, sea and rivers, and designated burial grounds for foot-and-mouth carcasses.


After that, he or a colleague will visit, usually in the guise of a prospective purchaser. "Obviously most sellers and estate agents don't want us around because it's our job to find problems. And if clients do go ahead and buy, and their new neighbours find out they've been making inquiries about their lifestyles, they might never speak to them."


There has to be a bit of subterfuge and covert surveillance, says King-Evans. "For example, most buyers don't view during rush hours, but that's when a road can be transformed by an endless succession of cars hurtling past. I also remember a lovely house in south Buckinghamshire. It was set in 3 acres but less than a mile away was a commercial kennels where the dogs were fed at 6am and 6pm. Three hundred dogs barking and howling all at once is the most amazing noise."


On another occasion a client was buying a beautiful house in Surrey from a well-known film producer, says King-Evans. "The place was completely quiet in day time but almost every weekend from Friday night to Monday morning he had very extreme parties with the most awful loud music ... When my man rang me from the site I could hear the bass line over the phone. I rang the client and said 'We have to go down there now and listen'. He didn't buy."


Sometimes it is a case of following up a hunch. "I looked at one place which was completely bare outside. I mean there wasn't so much as a plant pot. It emerged there was a council estate hidden behind the trees and lads from there were nicking anything they could carry."


To accompany King-Evans on one of his fact-finding missions, checking out a barn conversion in a Buckinghamshire hamlet, is to receive an instant lesson in paranoia. To my eyes the stream flowing alongside looks idyllic, to his it is a potential flood plain. To me, the nearby footpath seems insignificant, to him it could be attracting 100 ramblers every weekend or, worse, being used by thieves to case the joint.


What really gives him cause for concern, however, is the knowledge that a local farmer wants to sell his land for gravel pits. "He's already been defeated twice at public inquiries but the trouble is that, if people keep asking, eventually they tend to get permission. Besides, do you want to have to spend your time fighting a planning application?"


King-Evans, a former lieutenant-colonel in the army, developed his speciality partly as a result of his own experiences. "We saw our house in the paper on a Saturday, viewed it on a Sunday and decided to buy. Our solicitor warned us about plans for a by-pass, but we were in such a rush to get somewhere I waved the problem away. Well, the wretched thing is 200 metres from our house. It's not the end of the world, but it was bonkers not to be more thorough."


If he had employed one of his own experts, a meteorologist, he would also have discovered that its position within the triangle bounded by Milton Keynes, Aylesbury and Banbury puts it in one of the wettest areas in the country.


After a stint with the UK arm of Pinkerton's Security Services - "the company that caught Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" - he set up his own agency a few years ago and now surveys about 100 properties a year as well as performing general detective and security work. He charges 0.5 per cent of the asking price on the day the commission is accepted, with a minimum fee of 750. Most properties are country houses of 500,000 and upwards.


Although King-Evans and his employees, mostly retired military or police officers, have the "nose" for deception and the tenacity that result from their training, he would be the first to admit that buyers could do the job themselves if they were prepared to put in the time and effort.


"This isn't rocket science. Most of this information is in the public domain and there's always someone in a village who'll tell you everything for the price of a pint. But there's a psychological barrier here: people tend to fall in love with houses so they want to ignore the imperfections. I am paid to be the cool dispassionate eye."



RKE Associates: www.rke-associates.co.uk

Copyright: The Financial Times Limited 1995-2002



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