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Conveyancing is not fit for purpose – we must blame someone

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Have you noticed that right now, more than ever, it seems that we all need someone to blame?

Cost of living crisis? World economic events.

Descent into moral bankruptcy? Boris Johnson.

House buying and selling? Conveyancers. Obviously.

When the mainstream media runs stories on their front pages with claims that, like Boris, it’s “broken … not fit for purpose” you know the mood music is changing.

However, the question should be, IS the process broken and if so what aspect and is it possible to fix it?

“Communication, communication, communication”

The main culprits seem to be poor communication, third party delays and “problems with chains” – whatever that means.

When people talk about communication problems, they actually mean “we don’t know what’s going on” and lawyers are the obvious target.  Given that for many, working 100 cases is not unusual, it won’t come as a surprise if they don’t know what’s going on themselves.  Especially when they are forced to work in paper-stuffed sweatshops, or worse, from their kitchen table surrounded by suitcases of files, it’s no wonder they can’t keep people updated.

Conveyancers are not going to be able to solve this communication problem by themselves – everyone involved in the process has a part to play. Firstly, the number of cases per lawyer must be reduced –this will be achieved by increasing fees and this is where agents come in.  By abandoning the ludicrous panel management system, ( now there IS something that is not fit for purpose ) and dealing directly with lawyers, this will improve margins so caseloads will be reduced.

Secondly, and yes, it’s obvious, lawyers need to take some baby steps on technology adoption.  We know wholesale change is a distant pipedream, but lawyers can make small changes that cost nothing. For example, we occasionally receive Word documents with enquiries so we can fill in the replies and send it back.  It’s not elegant, but it’s efficient, it works and it’s free. If everyone just made that small change, it could be shared and will have an immediate impact on communication.

Third party delays

Communication issues are nothing when compared to delays with third parties. The problem is the house buying and selling process involves a lot of them; local authorities, water companies, managing agents, mortgage lenders, surveyors and removal companies – each work independently with widely varying degrees of efficiency.

This year, we’ve seen that if a process involves a human this will usually cause a delay. Call any bank or lender and the message “our phones are very busy due to Covid” is the starting point.  Addressing this problem will be difficult.

During lockdown, local authorities received heavy criticism and while a few are not covering themselves in glory, most have sorted themselves out and are working well – the days of blaming them for delays are pretty much behind us.  While Land Registry are to be commended for their efforts in digitising searches, this is just enforcement notices, listed buildings and planning agreements; planning history, building control and highway information are not on the list yet, but it’s a step in the right direction.

When it comes to leasehold properties, there has been little progress around the provision of management information, so dealing with companies will continue to be painful. No doubt there is a cool proptech solution out there, but it’d need to be free to use and mandatory.  Which could be a challenge.

“Chains – it’s all their fault”

Ask any Australian (in our opinion, THE thought leaders in property ) and they’ll explain that because they don’t have chains, they don’t have stress and delays – if it works in Melbourne, it’ll work in London.  Only it won’t.  There, chains are much shorter, less frequent and the settlement process brings far more certainty.  It’s also cultural – “it’s not the English way” – we move from one owner-occupied property to another – that’s what we do.  They may as well suggest we stop getting into fights at England away games in Europe – it’s just not going to happen.

The reality is the chain is not the issue itself, but problems within each individual transaction.  Suggesting the “chain” is responsible for delays is like blaming motorways for traffic congestion.  Eliminate the transactional issues and the so-called “chain delays” will be reduced.

Broken and not fit for purpose

The term “not fit for purpose” is thrown around quite freely these days, whether it’s the NHS, passport office or the DVLA, but when it comes to property, we do need a reality check.

Could the house buying and selling process be better? Absolutely.

Is it broken and not fit for purpose?

If you ask one of the 1.5 million people who moved last year, many will say it was stressful, took longer than expected and they wouldn’t do it again soon.

But it worked.

Peter Ambrose is founder of conveyancing specialist The Partnership. 

As published:

Conveyancing is not fit for purpose – we must blame someone

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