Labradors Mick and Mack trained to sniff out Japanese Knotweed
The two one-year old Fox Red Labrador Retrievers, Mick and Mack (pictured) have been trained to cover a garden or development site in minutes and if knotweed is detected they freeze on the spot.
Japanese knotweed removal firm Environet UK partnered with dog training experts RFA security, who train dogs to sniff out drugs and bombs, to teach Mick and Mack to hunt down the weed.
The plant can cause damage to buildings and foundations and if found, can cause a property to a plummet in value and deter some banks from offering mortgages.
The dogs can detect the plant even if it is below the ground which Environet’s founder and managing director Nic Seal said is essential because some sellers try and hide knotweed by concealing it with paving slabs.
“Japanese knotweed is a growing problem for homeowners in the UK and misrepresentation cases are on the rise, where sellers have answered dishonestly about whether their property is affected or deliberately concealed the plant,” said Seal. “It’s not uncommon for knotweed to be cut back prior to a survey and I’ve even seen cases where the seller has placed a membrane horizontally in the ground over a knotweed infestation and laid a lawn or pathway over the top.”
Japanese knotweed was introduced to the UK from Japan in the 1840s and now lives in parks and gardens, along waterways and railways. It can grow at a rate of 10cm per day to reach up to three metres in height by late summer.
Sellers are required by law to declare if their property is affected by Japanese knotweed on the Law Society’s TA6 form, completed as a standard part of the conveyancing process.
But if they are uncertain they can declare that presence of the weed is not known which puts the responsibility of finding the plant on the buyer.
Revealed: UK areas worst affected by Japanese knotweed
Incidents have been marked on a heatmap created by Environet, a company that specialises in the removal of the destructive and invasive plant.
The worst affected areas are Bristol, Bolton, London and South Wales, according to the map.
Anyone can report a sighting of the plant on the map, which is then verified by Environet.
Property professionals, including mortgage brokers, developers, surveyors, conveyancing solicitors and estate agents have been encouraged to use the map to help assess the level of risk posed to a property or site.
Japanese knotweed is notoriously difficult to treat and can impact a property’s value.
Users enter a postcode into the ‘Exposed’ tool to find out the number of reported knotweed sightings nearby.
It comes after recent conveyancing changes placed greater emphasis on buyers to find out about a property’s knotweed risk.
Nic Seal, founder and managing director of Environet, said: “We’ve had an incredible response to the launch of Exposed, with over 100,000 visits during the first year and 93,000 postcode searches.
“This just goes to show the thirst for information about Japanese knotweed and the need for credible resources to help property professionals and their clients assess risk during the buying and selling process.
“High risk results should always prompt further investigation with an on-site Japanese knotweed survey, in order to give the buyer as much certainty as possible.”
Onus on buyers to find Japanese knotweed after conveyancing change
More sellers are now expected to swerve a firm answer when asked about the aggressive plant, which is difficult to eradicate and can cause structural damage to buildings.
Guidance has previously said sellers should state whether the property is affected by Japanese knotweed.
But new explanatory notes on property information forms (TA6) add that if a vendor is unsure about whether the plant exists on the property to indicate ‘not known’.
And that if a seller says there is no knotweed, they “must be certain” no root is present within the ground of the property or within three meters of the property boundary, even if there are no signs above ground.
The more stringent guidelines mean sellers are more likely to say ‘not known’ when asked about the plant.
Buyers who want a firm answer to the question will be obliged to undertake their own enquiries by commissioning a professional Japanese knotweed survey.
The changes will help the legal process in misrepresentation cases where a seller has answered ‘no’, but the weed has been subsequently discovered, according to Environet managing director Nic Seal.
In some cases, owners have sued previous vendors after finding the plant on the property.
Seal added: “With visual surveys, no reputable knotweed specialist could certify that no rhizome is present in the ground, reinforcing the message that the safe bet is to always answer ‘don’t know’, except of course where the answer should be ‘Yes’.
“I therefore welcome the Law Society’s revisions to the TA6 form guidance made last week.”
Network Rail slammed by property owners over Japanese Knotweed infestation
According to a freedom of information request by The Times, the state-owned company has received 11,000 complaints about the weed since 2011. The figure includes more than 6,000 complaints that the plant was spreading to private property from Network Rail land.
The number of complaints lodged each year against Network Rail, which owns and maintains the UK rail network and adjoining land, has increased by 70 per cent between 2012 and last year, according to the newspaper.
Japanese knotweed is known to be a danger to property and has an intricate root system that can wedge itself between cracked brickwork and can block drains and damage building foundations.
Nic Seal, founder and managing director of Environet UK, said: “Complaints to Network Rail from homeowners regarding Japanese Knotweed have increased by 70 per cent between 2012 and 2018, which goes to show how voraciously the plant is spreading along Britain’s railway lines and suggests a growing awareness among homeowners of the risks to their property.”
He added that simply treating infestations with herbicide where homes are under threat is not enough, because homeowners are required by mortgage lenders to produce an insurance backed guarantee for the work when they sell. Network Rail does not provide such guarantees, which are typically offered by private firms.
“Without the guarantee, homeowners find themselves trapped in their homes, unable to sell, rendering their homes effectively worthless. This is unfair and unjust.
“Network Rail must face up to its responsibilities and take action now to remedy the situation by swallowing the cost of offering guarantees to homeowners for treatment work,” Seal concluded.
In May, the government’s Science and Technology Select Committee called for more academic research to establish the impact of the Japanese Knotweed on the built environment.
Japanese knotweed valuation tool launched to offer ‘more nuanced approach’
The free online JK-VIM tool enables surveyors, estate agents and property owners to check how much the value of a property may potentially be reduced if it is affected by knotweed.
It also offers revised valuations if a property is treated by herbicide or excavation and if it has a ten-year insurance-backed guarantee for the works
Environet UK developed the software with support from Expert Surveyors – a Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors registered surveyor.
Earlier this year the Science and Technology Select Committee of MPs concluded that the current approach to Japanese knotweed was overly cautious.
Environet said its tool “allows for a much more nuanced approach, taking into account the size of the infestation and the distance to the nearest boundary”.
Ten per cent lower value
Environet founder and managing director Nic Seal said that in reality, affected properties were typically worth around 10 per cent less than an unaffected property, which reflected the cost of treatment plus the so-called knotweed stigma.
“JK-VIM offers RICS surveyors an easy to use online valuation tool to assist their own professional judgement based on the facts of the case and guides homeowners on how the value of their property can be preserved if the knotweed is professionally treated or removed,” he added.
Expert Surveyors director Paul Raine said: “The Select Committee was right to conclude that lending practices for properties affected by knotweed need urgent review.
“All that’s required to sell in such cases is a treatment plan and a sensible readjustment of the price.”
Select Committee calls for research into Japanese knotweed’s effects
The Committee revealed that the approach to Japanese knotweed is ‘overly cautious’.
It also recommended a study of international approaches to Japanese knotweed commissioned by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in the context of property sales to further inform discussions on the issue, and report by the end of the year.
Nic Seal, founder and managing director of Environet, said that lenders are right to be cautious when it comes to lending on properties affected by Japanese knotweed, bearing in mind the damage the plant can cause and the difficulty entailed in killing or removing it.
He added: “Personally, I think most lenders have their policies about right, although I’d agree the 7m rule is a somewhat blunt measure that could be improved. If the plant is in a location that is judged to threaten the property, or that of the neighbours, then it should be professionally treated, preferably with a 10-year insurance-backed guarantee.
“The UK is probably the worst affected country; we’re not aware of any other country putting restrictions on mortgages due to knotweed, but that is why their knotweed industries are non-existent or in their infancy.
“The UK is considered to lead the world in knotweed eradication. More public money for Defra research? I’m not convinced it’s necessary, instead let’s continue to lead the fight against knotweed to protect home-owners and lenders from this aggressive and destructive plant.”
Japanese knotweed heatmap launched
The tool – named Exposed: The Japanese Knotweed Heatmap – has been produced by removal specialists Environet. It is based on ‘sightings’ of the problem plant, some verified by the firm and others simply reported by members of the public.
The firm suggested the tool will be an “invaluable source of information to property professionals” as it will help them work out how likely a property deal is of being affected by issues arising from the plant.
Research from the firm last year suggested that Japanese knotweed has wiped as much as £20bn off the value of property in the UK.
Lenders are often unwilling to offer mortgages against properties affected by the plant, unless there is some form of plan for dealing with it in place, due to concerns over how quickly it can grow and the damage it can do to buildings as a result.
However, research published last year suggested lenders should be more lenient as its structural impact may be much less than originally believed.
Anyone can report a sighting of Japanese knotweed, through their mobile phone. They just need to go to the heatmap, click the ‘add sighting’ option, and then zoom in on the satellite view.
They’ll be asked to define the size of the infestation, with no sign in or passwords required. Environet said that wherever possible it will look to verify new sightings in order to keep the heatmap as up-to-date as possible.
Nic Seal, founder and managing director of Environet, said the heatmap would enable the firm to build a nationwide picture of the Japanese knotweed problem and help property professionals to assess the risk locally when dealing with transactions.
He continued: “High-risk results should prompt further investigation with an on-site Japanese knotweed survey. The site is already well populated, but this is an ongoing project.
“The more people who report sightings, the more effective it will become.”
Japanese knotweed to be under control by 2040 – research
Mortgage lenders will only offer loans on properties affected by knotweed if a professional treatment plan is in place with an insurance backed guarantee lasting five or ten years, according to research by Environet UK.
If the knotweed returns after treatment has been completed, further treatment will take place to protect the property and loan.
Sellers are legally-obliged to disclose the presence of knotweed, when completing the Law Society’s TA6 Conveyancing Form, even if a property is bought without a mortgage.
If sellers are unaware of the presence of knotweed, surveyors should pick it up in their survey and order a treatment plan to be put in place before the sale proceeds.
Nic Seal, founder and managing director of Environet, said that the problem of Japanese knotweed has only been confronted by lenders in the last decade, meaning firms are still dealing with a huge backlog of affected properties.
He added: “Around 4.5% of UK properties come to market every year which means that, by 2040, the vast majority of UK housing stock will have been sold at least once and any knotweed infestations should have been tackled.
“While new cases of knotweed will of course arise in that time, and knotweed will continue to encroach on our homes from public land, railways and road sides, the rapid spread of the weed across the UK will be under control by that point.”
According to the figures released in September 2018, Japanese knotweed wiped £20bn off the value of the property market in the UK.
Japanese knotweed wipes £20bn off house prices – research
Around 4-5% of houses are currently affected directly or indirectly by knotweed, and approximately 850,000 to 900,000 UK households are suffering an average reduction in value of around 10%, according to research by the Japanese knotweed removal firm Environet UK.
Mortgage lenders will typically refuse loans against affected properties unless there is a professional knotweed management plan in place with an insurance-backed guarantee.
Sellers are also required by law to inform potential purchasers whether a property is, or has been, affected by Japanese knotweed, which can act as a deterrent, even if the infestation has been treated.
According to research conducted by the University of Leeds and infrastructure services firm AECOM, there is no evidence Japanese knotweed caused significant structural damage.
Some academics believe refusing mortgages on properties where Japanese knotweed has been found is out of proportion to the risk posed by the species.
As a result, mortgage lenders have been urged to reassess their lending policies taking into account the new data.
Impact on values by deterring buyers and making homes difficult to sell
Founder and managing director of Environet, Nic Seal, said that Japanese knotweed is having a serious impact on values by deterring buyers and making homes difficult to sell, even if the knotweed has been successfully treated.
He added: “Several high profile legal cases this year, whereby landowners were successfully sued for allowing Japanese knotweed to encroach onto neighboring properties, have led to greater awareness among the general public of the damage Japanese knotweed can cause to homes and house prices.
“Those affected by knotweed should seek to resolve the issue as quickly as possible by appointing a professional removal firm and securing a ten-year insurance-backed guarantee for the work, which will can be passed onto a buyer and their mortgage lender.
“DIY attempts at treatment will usually only make things worse and can even hasten the spread of the plant.”
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The advertising regulator also had to get tough on an estate agent and there was potential relief for borrowers affected by Japanese knotweed as research revealed it may not be as severe as feared.
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