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Ready to Exchange– and other conveyancing myths

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You probably won’t be aware of it, but February 28th 2018 was a sad day in television history.  It was the last airing of a fantastic show called Mythbusters, which set out to prove or disprove popular myths through the use of scientific investigation and analysis.

The programme shone a light on beliefs that had been around for years but which no one had ever bothered to question before.  Like whether the Great Wall of China is the only man-made structure that can be seen from space.

When it comes to myths, if you spend time on social media you’ll see plenty of them surrounding how to improve the house buying and selling process.  With transactions being more painful than ever, we thought it might be useful to examine these a little closer and see if we could debunk any of them.

1.    The conveyancing system needs replacing

An easy one to start with.  The process for buying and selling properties does not work and needs replacing. 

Sure – it’s slow, unpredictable, and painful at times, but it works.  Otherwise, in the last five years, how did over six million properties change hands?   In many ways it’s similar to visiting your doctor; it’s not what you’d call a brilliantly efficient service but it does the job.  Oh, and it’s not going to change so let’s not waste any more time talking about it.

2.    Higher conveyancing fees result in better service

Lawyers love this one.  It is based on the idea that the more you pay the better service you will receive.

This is a great misdirection myth because in theory, it makes complete sense.  Paying higher fees should mean the lawyer can afford to work on fewer cases, devoting more time to each, so issues will be dealt with more quickly.  Unfortunately, it’s completely distorted by the panel managers who add fees for themselves and their referrers so the client pays for a Stella-like reassuringly expensive service, but actually receives a cheap Carling version that helps no one.

3.    Educate the public to make better choices

An absolute classic.  If the public had a better understanding of what’s involved, they’ll happily fork out higher fees and we’ll see an improvement in service.

Over the years, we’ve spoken to tens of thousands of clients and not one wanted to know how difficult the process is and what could go wrong.  They always tell us that their transaction is straightforward and we just get in the way; like Eeyore, clouds follow us on a sunny day.  They just want to know the cost and how long will it take?  A government brochure explaining the process is not going to help, and as for flowcharts – let’s never talk about them again. Ever.

4.    Lawyers must manage expectations better

This is tricky because it’s so popular.  It’s based on the principle that clients have an expectation of a level of accessibility, responsiveness, and predictability and lawyers must manage this.

People compare conveyancing to other services, such as Waitrose which offer a premium service that includes delivery timescales and instant responses to changes in circumstances.  The argument goes, if they can do it, why can’t lawyers match the same level of expectation.  The problem is you are comparing apples with chairs.  Clients typically have little experience with conveyancing – an opaque process in which they have neither the interest nor the understanding.  Clients ask us why, if they can book a delivery slot for their shopping, why can’t we guarantee an exchange date?   As they have no comparable frame of reference for what is a reasonable expectation, then trying to manage it is just not going to work.

5.    Legal experience, not technology is the only solution

Let’s finish on a classic.  We’re always told that in the good old days, deals went through more quickly because solicitors had the relevant experience to enable them to ask the minimum questions and take a view on more issues.  It is this lack of experience that causes the delays and service issues we see today, and technology is not a suitable replacement.

So here we go.  We just can’t compare the demands placed on lawyers today with those of the past.   Deals are more complex, there is more case law to consider, lenders have greater demands and clients expect more responsiveness and transparency.  While increased experience can reduce the number and quality of enquiries raised, it does not solve the issue of handling the increased range of issues arising and client transparency.  Technology does.  End of story.

What can we do about it?

Busting these myths is really important for everyone in the property industry.

If we don’t, we run the risk of trying to find solutions to the wrong problems, something that we are already seeing.

In future, the next time someone suggests “we really need a government brochure to educate the public on the conveyancing process” just remind them that Neil Armstrong did land on the moon in 1969 rather than it being staged in a warehouse in New Jersey.


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