As a residential property lawyer for over 40 years, working in the London prime residential market, I feel the frustration. It’s in everyone’s interest that a house sale goes through quickly and smoothly. As a rule of thumb, it should take no longer than 2 months – that’s one month to exchange and a further month to complete. In my experience, any longer than that and people start to become jittery. Even worse, they may pull out.
So what is causing the slowdown? I’d say there are five main issues at play.
Here they are, in no particular order:
1. Local Authority Searches
As any conveyancer working in prime London (and no doubt the rest of the country) will tell you, there have been huge delays in local authority searches. Pre-Covid I would have expected documents on a typical Kensington & Chelsea sale to take a week. They now take between three and four weeks.
One possible explanation is that the pandemic took its toll on the workplace. At the height of Covid, many local authority workers lost their job and it has taken time for staff to be recruited and posts filled. Two years on many are now working from home with little or no access to records.
But the reality is, that both official searches (carried out directly by local authority staff) and personal searches (using third party/external agencies) are still taking forever to carry out and both are considerably slower than pre-pandemic.
2. Land Registry
Anyone who has ever had contact with the Land Registry will know they can take their time. But they are now taking more time than ever. Registering a new lease takes well over a year, instead of six months pre-pandemic. Land Registry staff are suffering the same plight as local authority employees, where working from home means limited access to information. As a result, the conveyancing system is becoming increasingly log-jammed.
3. Lender portals
Not being able to telephone a bank is the bane of all conveyancers’ lives! Virtually all lenders now operate a hub or portal system. They’ve been around for the last four years or so but far from streamlining the conveyancing process, it has become more difficult, and slower too.
One loan often requires seven emails and five calls to get you to the point that one phone call would have gotten you to five years ago. A complex sale is particularly difficult to manage via a portal and it’s not surprising that conveyancers (universally!) find them frustrating and difficult to work with. They may have come about as a cost-cutting exercise by the banks, but I think I speak for all when I say they cost us more time and more money.
For many sales – especially in prime central London – lenders require a valuation inspection by a surveyor. During the pandemic, this was, unsurprisingly, difficult. But while things may be a lot easier two years on there are still hold-ups
Finance in general seems to be more long-winded than ever. And whether a lender is dealt with quickly and efficiently comes down to the buyer having a good broker who is able to push on through.
International and private banks generally require an additional (legal) representation which only slows things down. Many, but not all, rely heavily on junior lawyers, who lack experience or the authority to make reasoned judgements. I was once asked by a solicitor if a tin mine search had been made on a house in Kensington. An experienced lawyer would know that this was a question that needn’t be asked.
5. Inexperienced professionals
My last point is an extension of the previous one. Some of the largest conveyancing companies rely on junior solicitors, who are reluctant to take a view. Quite rightly they don’t want to make a mistake but sometimes the solutions they’re being asked to find are outside their comfort zone. When you’re dealing with eight or nine law firms at any one time, as I often am, things quickly become snarled up.
It's often quoted, but after death and divorce, moving house is one of life’s most stressful experiences. It’s a huge spend both financially and emotionally. The last thing anyone wants is for the conveyancing process to drag on.
From a professional standpoint my solutions are straightforward - a return to a world of lending where people can talk professional-to-professional without the need to go through a portal. So much quicker, so much easier!
And a return to work, or at least the ability to access all the necessary information people need to do their jobs from home.
Meanwhile, my top tip for would-be buyers is to get your mortgage in principle before you find a property. This really can save on time – up to six weeks – and fast-track you directly to the valuation stage.
And for sellers – if you know you’re going to sell – instruct your solicitor early. And if your property is leasehold, make sure you get hold of your management pack. It holds all the information that a buyers’ solicitor will need to transact on a sale. It could save you up to three weeks.
But my absolute top tip to all parties – prepare beforehand. The conveyancing process has been gradually slowing and anything that can be done to ease the pressure has to be welcomed.
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About the author
Simon Mapstone is a consultant for Russell-Cooke a London-based top 100 legal firm. Simon specialises in prime residential property - including site acquisitions, secured lending, development and property investment.
Simon has over 40 years of experience in the Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster property markets.