Opinion: “You were only supposed to blow the doors off”

When the chancellor Rishi Sunak introduced the stamp duty holiday in July, he probably wasn’t thinking about Michael Caine inching his way down a bus teetering on the brink of disaster in the 1960’s classic movie, The Italian Job.

It seems many are fearing a similar cliff-hanger in March next year.

When the announcement was made, the SDLT abolitionists had a party while the thoughts of lawyers immediately turned to a potential collapse of the market in April.

But here we are, three months later and the petrol that Rishi threw on the property market fire is causing all sorts of delays to transactions.  It does raise the question; how on earth are we going to get all these deals through?

Normal service isn’t being resumed

Early October is the traditional time when the thoughts of buyers and sellers turn to Christmas.  Sadly, not with the anticipation of the latest John Lewis advert but whether everyone is going to pull their finger out and complete before their turkey gets delivered by Ocado to their new home.

Only this year, things are a little different.

Now the discussion is whether we can squeak deals over the line before the end of March 2021. SIX months away.

I know we’ve got Christmas in the middle of all this threatening to slow things down, but I doubt many businesses will be shutting early to enable people to spend more time at home.  Judging by the number of divorce cases we are seeing, increased “quality family time” is the last thing some people want.

It does seem those worrying about missing that SDLT deadline could be over-reacting somewhat.

So what is going on right now?

Let’s be clear about this.

Deals are proving an absolute pain to get through at the moment and I believe the responsibility lies with the owners of law firms.

While cases have increased significantly – our pipeline has gone up by 150% since May – delays are definitely self-inflicted.  I say this because, and heaven forbid someone accuses me of self-promotion, our deals are taking LESS time than last year – exchanges in September took on average 63 working days compared to 65 in 2019.

For those cases not exchanged yet, cases that started in June make up only 5% of our pipeline and have been running for an average of 73 working days.   Cases started in July make up 17% of our pipeline and have been running for an average of 52 working days.  Not brilliant but not sickeningly horrendous.

Other firms will admit they are not performing to the level they would like, and are blaming lenders and local authorities for the delays.

Unfortunately, this does not stand up to close examination.

Mortgage offers are taking longer – at least a month in many cases – but offers run in parallel with the conveyancing process.  While it may delay reporting on the mortgage to clients and we are all wasting a lot time on hold to lenders, this doesn’t explain the glacial performance of many law firms.

According to our search provider, InfoTrack, the average time nationally for personal local authority searches in August was only 10.5 days.  There are a couple that really do need to improve, for example, Tower Hamlets in London is running at about 25 days, but they are a minority.

What have lawyers been doing?

From interviews I have been having with lawyers, many are either furloughed or working from home in archaic conditions.  For all the talk of the pandemic accelerating change, we see precious little evidence of this, with lawyers manhandling suitcases of files and only having basic remote access to network drives.

Although some small progress is being made with on-boarding clients, mistrust in technology continues to abound.  Online articles typically generate comments from lawyers clinging to the view that innovations such as electronic signatures on deeds are somehow more insecure than a wiggly line on a piece of paper.

The other problem that we see is that remote working in conveyancing, even when paperless, is not as efficient as office working.  We are constantly battling to speak to lawyers on mobiles and the support and infrastructure of the office environment simply isn’t there.

Finally, despite the large numbers of lawyers sadly being made redundant, firms are being highly cautious with recruitment, meaning that caseloads are much higher.  This does introduce delays and is a difficult problem to address.

Conclusion

The fact that people are questioning whether current deals are at risk at not exchanging within 6 months is deeply depressing.

Owners of law firms need to step up and start investing in innovative technology and people.  If they don’t have the confidence and ambition to do this, they need do the decent thing and shut their doors before they meet the same end as Michael Caine’s Minis.

Because, frankly, right now, we need all the exchanged cases we can get.

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

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4 Comments

  1. AlwaysAnAgent

    There isn’t enough time for conveyancing firms to invest or scale up, and they won’t scale up because they will need to immediately scale down after March 2021.

     

    Let’s hope Sunak grants an extension.

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    1. tim main

      there might not be time for conveyancers to scale up but sellers can complete their PIFs, get their searches and make sure their ‘house is in order’ which will greatly increase the chance of a successful sale before March 21.

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  2. richardmathias

    Both comments above are correct & one law firm alone cant change the whole landscape – we are only as quick as the weakest link.

    The next 5 months will be really difficult for agents and law firms. The best thing agents can do right now is to be understanding and try and manage client expectations. I would estimate as a whole, the conveyancing community is 50% over capacity right now with many firms turning work away.

    Agents and Clients calling firms and getting angry will not solve the situation which is what tends to happen when deals take longer than expected.  My advice to agents would to be work in partnership with the law firms you recommend, now more than ever. You will need there help now and in the future. There is no point threatening to move work elsewhere as every firm is in the same boat ( albeit some are better than others) and most firms are prioritising the agents who have looked after them the most.

    I know one high profile law firm who is turning away better paying direct clients in order to keep his larger introducers happy as he understands that post April 2021 , it will be those agents / introducers that keep him afloat.

    Those firms using onboarding tech will rise to the top as they are cutting out 2-3 weeks from transaction times.

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  3. Andrew Stanton Proptech Real Estate Strategist

    Peter Ambrose I totally agree with your thinking, speaking as an ex-agent who started selling property in the mid 1980’s and continued until a few years ago, and as a person who has in the Proptech conveyancing vertical been talking to just about everyone at every level, from Digital Street HMLR to the law society, to hundreds of solicitors, digital conveyancing tech leads, maybe over 400 hours of calls in the last year alone, I am amazed at the ostrich like way that the conveyancing profession still carries on as if it is in the the 1950’s.  Residential estate agency may well be a national cottage industry, but the lack of adoption of technology by the conveyancing profession is astounding.

    We know that AI and ML can speed up the paper processes, and having spent an hour filling out some basic forms for a house sale for a solicitor, which was posted out two weeks after a sale was agreed … and though hand delivered, I anticipate that a draft contract will not be issued for some time yet – is now not the time to embrace we are in the 2020’s, and no industry or profession is impervious to the technology that washes through all of our lives.

    Time for filing cabinets and letters and faxes to go, and secure and super fast processes to prevail, this pandemic is terrible, but it also has shown that business can adapt, and maybe the chancellor’s rash idea on a SDLT holiday was a mistake, just like 1988 and another Chancellor having a bright idea about MIRAS, but surely 32-years later, conveyancing should not still be done in the same archaic fashion.

     

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