Opinion: The conveyancing process is NOT broken

“Oh yes it is!”

“Oh no it’s not”.

While panto season seems a lifetime away, when it comes to the home buying process, the pantomime villains of the peace are definitely the lawyers.

However, unlike these annual theatre-based bust-ups, arguments about the conveyancing process are far more frequent.  Barely a month goes by without an online flare-up, normally resulting in someone declaring; “The conveyancing process is broken – we need to start again”.

In my opinion, this is just plain wrong.

The conveyancing process is NOT broken.

What do you mean it’s not broken?

I can hear the cracking of the knuckles of those anonymous posters warming up their fingers to start writing their responses.  “Absolute drivel … the quality of opinion on this forum has really gone downhill … Ros would have never allowed such nonsense.”

But let’s look in reality at the conveyancing process itself;

Step 1 – lawyers confirm their client’s details and what they are selling and/or buying.

Step 2 – the seller’s lawyer sends the information they have to the buyer.

Step 3 – the buyer reviews both this and other information from other sources.

Step 4 – the buyer then asks seller to clarify any areas of concern.  When these are all addressed, the seller and buyer agree terms and the buyer sends a deposit to the seller’s lawyer.

Step 5 – on the day of completion the buyer sends the balance of money outstanding to the sellers lawyer.

This is the process that enables millions of people to move house every year.  It is reasonably secure, protects clients and it works.

Compare this with banking services.  Mortgage offers are taking 6 weeks.  Redemption statements can take hours to obtain.  Debit card payments don’t clear for 3 days.   Does this mean the banking system is broken?  No – the banks’ role is to protect our money and move it between people securely and they achieve this.

Yes, we’d like to see improvements, but that doesn’t mean it’s broken.

The process is not broken, it’s difficult

The answers to my favourite question “what is wrong with conveyancing?” can be summed up by “it’s done by too many poorly trained inefficient and lazy people that are running too many cases”.

However, from my experience, the problem comes down to expectation.   At the start of the process, clients often tell us their matter “is a straightforward transaction which will go through quickly”.  How can this conclusion be reached before anyone has got any data about the property to back this up?

Which goes to the heart of the problem.

Conveyancing is a highly time-consuming activity, most of which is hidden from clients and agents – the only external signs of which are poor communication and delays.   To illustrate this, I want to share some of our data to shows just how much is involved in each case.

Since the start of 2020, we have completed about 1500 transactions.

There were on average, 26 enquiries (the black hole of conveyancing) raised on every case – the highest figure was 111.

With emails, the bane of everyone’s life, we processed 225 for each case, with the most being 884 – and these were just with other professionals.

All our clients communicate through our portal and exchanged on average 103 messages, with the highest being 338.  Obviously this doesn’t include telephone calls.

Finally, we handled on average 156 documents per case, with the most being 389.

The sheer volume of data that needs to be dealt with gives a glimpse into how much work is involved in “straightforward cases”.   It’s no surprise that things take so long, or why lawyers struggle to answer the telephone.

Can we fix this?

I’ve shown that the conveyancing process is drowning in the sheer amount of data that needs to be handled per case.

But does having a lawyer with more experience overcome this issue?   Potentially yes, because with more experience the number of enquiries raised may be reduced, and documents could potentially be interpreted more quickly.  However, this is not guaranteed and we have no evidence to back this up.

Unfortunately, there is no quick fix to this problem of lack of experience.

The answer will come from technology that can analyse property documents, automatically raise and track enquiries and interpret documents to reach conclusions.

Conclusion

As conveyancing is not broken, it doesn’t need fixing.

But it does need refinement, particularly in the way that data is handled. Address that problem and you’ve got a perfectly workable mechanism in place today for buying and selling properties more efficiently.

However, in reality, it’s going to take a bit of Panto magic from Aladdin and his lamp to spirit lawyers away from their reliance on paper files and their ineffectual use of even basic technology.

 

Peter Ambrose is the owner and managing director of The Partnership specialising in the delivery of conveyancing service.

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16 Comments

  1. mattfaizey

    Yes it is. Or rather it’s application and use is.

    If it were not the clients wouldn’t experience such stress.

     

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  2. Rob Hailstone

    The Conveyancing process, per se, may not be broken, but the Home Buying and Selling Process as a whole, needs improving.

    “There were on average, 26 enquiries raised on every case.” Get the seller to instruct their conveyancer when first marketing a property, get a comprehensive contract pack ready for when a buyer is found, and those 26 enquiries would be substantially reduced.

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  3. #ImpressiveConveyancing

    It is completely broken, as it is run by an excess of individuals who are not conveyancers fit for purpose.

    But decision makers are not interested and ‘pay to enter awards’ continue to mislead.

    So, nothing will change, and the public will continue to move into houses with legal defects in their paperwork, having taken twice the time to get there than the dynamic lawyers they could have used.

    End of. Depressing.

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    1. Peter Ambrose (The Partnership)

      Gracious.

      Not sure if you are still practising law but if you are, maybe it’s time to change career.

      The house buying public needs positivity more than ever and this comment suggests that you are running a little low on that commodity.

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      1. mattfaizey

        Or maybe conveyancers with this outlook are exactly what is needed

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    2. Robert_May

      to  #IC, I have to admit I was a little confused by your posts about the role of the conveyancer in the buying process. If a buyer cannot expect any protection from a bad, impetuous or unwise purchase from their conveyancer, who exactly is providing buyers with  any help me, protect me advice?

      If a lease has onerous terms and conditions do you expect to pass your clients a copy of a lease and expect them to spot clauses that might be exploitative or should that be your job?

       

      It seems to me conveyancing has a full service option and the equivalent of  passive intermediary, internet listers

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  4. EAMD172

    If the conveyancing process is not broken why does it take twice as long now as it did in 1982 for an average transaction to exchange contracts? Because the solicitors and conveyances in the business are broken! Fees have been driven down so far that quality solicitors and conveyancers are driven out of the business as the money is only available to employ clerks, or for the partners to do too much of the work themselves and not have enough experienced assistants. Solicitors/conveyancers should be paid more but should be paid on a no sale – no fee basis. Where is the motivation to get things done? They have generally become less and less cooperative over the last 30 years. The government doesn’t fix problems quick enough. EG Ground rents falling into the rent act because they have been allowed to rise to sickeningly high levels. Government bodies are not accounts for their timing. HMLR, HMRC, Court of protection etc. Etc. It largely comes down to inefficient people, not the process.

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  5. MarkJ

    Identifying problems early can allow you to fix contentious issues up front. It never ceases to amaze me why:-

    1/ More estate agents dont use the Land Registry and their own experience to spot problems early on.

    £3 each buys you the Register and Title Plan which may highlight issues up front.  No youre not a solicitor but some things can be obvious.

    2/ Sellers solicitors dont amass all info that the buyers solicitor will require up front in a data gathering excercise.  Ask themselves what would I want to see on this property if I were acting for the buyer.  This should run in parallel with the viewings.

    Collecting info upfront takes time but its still faster than watching solicitors communicate later.  A lot of solicitors just seem to wait to see what the buyers solicitor wants and address those enquiries when they arise. Which normally morph into further enquiries …

    3/ If you think about it …Theres not a lot of information passed (apart from a set of particulars) from an estate agent who has experience of the property to the sellers solicitor – who the agent is relying on to get the sale through as quickly as possible to get paid (in most cases).

     

     

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  6. Jacqueline Emmerson

    One of our fee earners used to work for a firm who had an online conveyancing portal. Every time an update was sent out to a client there would be a flurry of further questions. In his opinion the very thing the system was designed to do, ie, cut down on client queries, only served to add to the confusion of the clients. He is very much in favour of picking p the phone to clients and letting them know what is happening.

    Another thing that wastes a huge amount of time is when agents send over the details of of seller and buyer and insert wrong names. This doesn’t go down well with a lender at all.

    Why does it take twice the amount of time that it used to take? Because the lenders want more information. They were stung in 2007 and don’t want to go there again. They aren’t loaning the amount of money that would buy you a tin of beans are they. Add to this the very strict rules about money laundering, the fact that many clients don’t inform any of us about the bank of mum and dad until part way through the process. Thus more money laundering checks for us, often with foreign translations required. I would say that occurs in about 15% of cases.

    From a conveyancer’s perspective the requirements of the process are now extremely onerous. Our job is to protect the client, their lender and our insurers. There is probably about double the amount of work now required on a file than there was fifteen years ago.

     

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    1. AlwaysAnAgent

      A good post and by the virtue of this it sounds as if conveyancers can’t offer a faster and more satisfactory service without charging more and increasing resources.

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  7. Another House

    Sellers don’t want to pay and instruct solicitors until they have a buyer. Solicitors do not want to start any pre-sale work until they have memos in from agents as many are no sale no fee, so its a vicious circle. As much as they were ridiculed for their failings the HIP’s were a solution to this. For leasehold they did make the process a lot quicker.

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  8. smile please

    Two things that i would say.

     

    1, Its not broken but its not fit for purpose. Pre Covid the average time from sale agreed to completion was 17 weeks (national average) This is far too long.

    I get it lender requirements have grown but that is a smoke screen to deflect the issues. Conveyancers have not moved with the times. They have reduced support staff, not invested in new technology and take on too much work.

    If their profit margins are being reduced they need to put up their fees or look to streamline their processes.

     

    2, Most (not all) have an attitude problem and a ‘GOD’ complex. They have done it one way for years so they will not change now, even though clients and third parties expectations have changed. They have a 19th Century view on service and customer experience when we are firmly in the 21st century.

     

    * Some further observations that i would welcome any brave conveyancer to defend.

    1, Why in this market do many conveyancers i speak to STILL have staff on furlough? If you cant make it work now you will never make it work.

    2, Why is it becoming the norm NOT to raise enquiries until searches are back? (wastes over a month if not 2).

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  9. Alan Murray

    The system is not broken, it is the same system as when I started work forty years ago. And the same as many years before then. It is antiquated but it would work okay were it not for all the changes for the worse that have occurred during my working life.

    When I started work conveyancing was just another area of law practiced by Solicitors with the same respect there was for Probate, Litigation etc. Whilst the Law Society would never agree to dumb down the process of Corporate Commercial Law or Litigation, for some reason over that time conveyancing has been allowed to become a cash cow free for all. In 1982 you couldn’t advertise as a Solicitors, you couldn’t post all over social media every five minutes, and everyone treated each other with respect as it was a profession, you knew everyone in your home town who you dealt with on a regular basis.

    Now with the advent of the nationwide factories conveyancing is viewed as an industry, nobody is trained properly as Firms just give their new administrators tick sheets to allow them to process the files. You can build no relationship with the case handler on the other side and, where you used to have to respect your peers when I started work, nowadays your best advice to a client should you see one of about thirty firms on the other side of a transaction at the outset, is to advise them to expect huge delays and frustrations within the process.

    We are still all using the same system, it is just that those of us who are the most experienced and able use it properly, whilst those not trained who don’t know what they are doing, or why they are doing it, are lost. And that is where delays and issues begin. Outsourcing is another evil, most of these companies probably do not know whether the file is being worked on in India or  by someone at home hundreds of miles away, and until they find out they cannot do anything.

    Add to that the rise of companies who sell clients and quotes, online Estate Agents and conveyancers, and an alphabet soup of regulators, and within the system there is so much going on and so many fingers in pies. Over the years everything has spiralled from the centre to the point where nobody can probably remember why we started on the road we are now. Even this morning before reading this I came across an article about conveyancing fall throughs written on behalf of a ‘trade body’. Why is one of them required in a profession supposedly regulated by law? Ironically it is a Body who supposedly looks after the very firms who cause us all problems, yet it was written very seriously with not a hint of the tongue  in cheek. Unbelievable how people see themselves, when the factories actually seem to think they do a good job we have no hope of them ever improving.

    And in all this there is no way anybody can claim the clients buying their dream properties are better off now than they were forty years ago. They are not, not even close. When I started work a job in a Solicitors was one to be valued, and whilst I still love working as a conveyancer being one of the last who actually does it properly and knows what he is doing is a position that gives me no comfort, I worry about where we go from here because we lost control a long time ago.

    I know one thing, if people like myself are allowed to disappear from the profession in the next few years without our  brains being picked for possible solutions to all these, the process will get worse and worse. I know I would not want to be buying a house at the moment because there are so many pitfalls a client can come across.

    So not broken, but probably creaking at the seams.

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    1. philipcartin

      A good post

      Referral fees have caused a huge deterioration in services and many agents reading this will know that in their bones. I am experienced and can be sensible and take a view on things. A clerk in Sheffield or North Wales with no knowledge cannot. I am privately given a lot of work from agents in chains who despair at their own referral services on the grounds i will do a decent job and do not pay a penny in referral fee.

      There has been huge consolidation in volume conveyancers in recent time. Cleverer people than me will know why but my suspicion is that has not come from strength. if one of the big ones topple now they have so many transactions now it will cause chaos – be warned.

      We are asked so much about condition and survey – for example can you get the installation certificate for a boiler installed 14 years ago. I am not a surveyor but that boiler is knackered. I am in suburban London and regularly get asked if we have any fracking locally – really????

      There is a protocol which covers all this but so little of it is understood by volume conveyancing clerks.

      Ultimately though one thing has not changed- lenders expect more and more from conveyancers every year- and will put you out of business if you get it wrong. They do not pay for the legal service they get.

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  10. Truthspeaks

    As a conveyancer 14 ish years, I can confirm it’s ducked……  so much of it’s not fit for purpose anymore, mainly leaseholds, but everything could be made so much simpler.    Can’t see it happening anytime soon sadly

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  11. #ImpressiveConveyancing

    Just received ….

     

    ADDITIONAL ENQUIRIES
     
    Re: Flat

    1.    Please confirm that the tenants will sign the contract.
    2.    Please confirm that the central heating at the property is in good working order
    3.    Is the seller aware of any defects in the wiring?
    4.    Please confirm that at completion the seller must remove all rubbish and other items
    belonging to the seller and tenants from all parts of the property
    5.    Please confirm that the seller will make good to the buyer’s reasonable satisfaction any
    damage caused to the fabric of the building in removing any fixtures and fittings being
    taken by the seller.
    6.     Will the seller be removing anything from the property that needs to be unscrewed,
    unbolted, or detached in anyway? If so, please give details.
    7.    In which band is the property rated for council tax purposes.
    8.    Please state the council tax payable in the current year in respect of the property.
    9.    Has the property been subject to a gift or transfer at an undervalue in the last five years
    10.    Are the drains at present clear and unobstructed
    11.    Have any costs been incurred in connection with the drains during the sellers period of
    Ownership
    12.    Has he seller experienced any problems or disturbance from the neighbours

     

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