Following reports of record times in property conveyancing, we asked 12 property and mortgage industry experts for their views on the current conveyancing system.
Though some supported conveyancers, others labelled the conveyancing industry “shambolic”, “farcical” and “archaic”. Two suggest we need to urgently use the blockchain to solve the problem.
Lewis Shaw, founder of Mansfield-based Shaw Financial Services: “Conveyancing has been a bugbear since before the pandemic, and Covid simply exposed and turbocharged the failings and cracks in conveyancing processes. Mortgage lenders, mortgage brokers, estate agents and surveyors have all implemented technology to increase efficiencies in their businesses, yet conveyancing is still firmly stuck in the 1890s.
“For example, many firms still send out paper packs to complete, or 10 PDFs for a customer to print, complete, and post back, without any help on how to fill the forms in. For god’s sake, how difficult is it to build a data capture form, for example? Delays in transactions have led to mortgage offers expiring, causing us as brokers to select a new mortgage product at the same time as rates have risen.
“I personally had a deal recently where the mortgage applied for was 1.14% fixed for five years; the offer expired, which meant I had to select a new product, 1.92%, all because the chain took eight months to complete meaning the customer had a significantly higher mortgage payment because of delays caused by solicitors. As brokers, we’re constantly bombarded by clients asking where things are up to with solicitors; often, we’re none the wiser. There are three things that almost every conveyancer could get better at; communication, communication and communication.
“It often feels like they’d rather pick a snake up than answer the phone. As we all know, buying or selling a home is stressful, expensive and emotional; it can only be as good as the weakest link. Currently, conveyancing isn’t just the weakest link, it’s completely broken. We need root and branch overhaul as the current delays and issues will only worsen without wholesale adoption of technology. Recently I’ve arranged mortgages and had offers issued in four hours. What good is that when the solicitors will then take a further four months, at best, to complete the transaction? Conveyancing firms need to increase productivity and drive innovation; otherwise, they could find themselves redundant if someone develops an end-to-end tech-driven solution.”
Joe Garner, managing director at London-based property developer, NewPlace: “Archaic conveyancing practices unchanged for 100 years perpetuated by a stubborn refusal to move on from quill and ink signatures, hard paper copies and postal searches result in the average offer to acceptance period shooting up to an agonising 133-day average. My memory may be fuzzy but I am pretty sure it was bureaucracy that killed the cat and in the world of conveyancing, ‘tiddles’ is well and truly pushing up the daisies.
“An alternative system that doesn’t require too much of a jump from the current status quo could see the onus on the seller to provide the buyer with a full and honest disclosure of all known ‘structural and building’ and legal issues relating to the property to be sold. The change in legal responsibility would mean the seller would need to get his or her ducks all in a row before proceeding with the sale process by submitting a detailed contractual pack of information. However, seeing as we are in 2022 and not 1922, perhaps it is time for a full makeover as opposed to a bit of lippy and a slap of the cheeks? Technology offers the key to facilitating a path of least resistance, even in a notoriously slow and convoluted area such as conveyancing.
“We need greater communication, speedier actions and additional transparency through to completions. Less of a reliance on human back-office staff would result in a slicker process across the board, cutting down errors and inefficiencies which invariably drive up the time taken to complete the conveyance. Out of touch high-street conveyancers relying on old working methods are not integrating the kinds of technology demanded by clients, intermediaries and lenders, and should be a thing of the past. Conveyancing is desperate for the kind of treatment Stripe dished out to payments and Amazon blew the ecommerce world to smithereens with.”
Oli Pearce, director at Wellingborough-based Guild Mortgage Services: “The conveyancing system is absolutely shambolic. More often than not, the issue is a lack of organisation. We ourselves are ‘trying’ to move home and are speaking from experience. Our conveyancer emailed some pretty basic enquiries to our seller’s legal team on the 23rd May. The seller got these on the 8th June and they hand delivered their responses to their legal team on the 10th June. They were emailed to my conveyancer on Friday 1st July. It shouldn’t take almost six weeks to deal with some standard legal enquiries. The pandemic is still an easy ‘get out clause’ for the lack of service from some firms. The process for buying a home needs a big shake up.”
Paul Neal of Derbyshire-based Missing Element Mortgage Services: “It feels that solicitors are grabbing every bit of business they can without thinking “can we actually do this”. There are some real frustrations within the industry especially when it comes to free legals. What you get for free you pay for tenfold in frustration. Many lenders are closing their doors to allow them to catch up. Maybe solicitors need to do the same.”
Luke Loveridge, CEO at Bristol-based property specialist, Propflo: “A shortage of lawyers and, possibly, working from home will have some bearing on the current long transaction times, but productivity is the core issue. We’ve seen up to 80% of a conveyancer’s time on some transactions being wasted chasing parties for information. More upfront information and better prepared buyers and sellers are crucial to reducing transaction times.
“Thankfully there are a number of initiatives and technology providers working on facilitating more upfront information, better preparing sellers and buyers before they even start the process, and making the process more streamlined and digital. Although no immediate solace to the eye-wateringly long transaction times, the next few years should start to see a revolution — driven by things like AI and distributed ledge technologies — in how we buy and sell our homes.”
Rhys Schofield, managing director at Belper-based Peak Mortgages and Protection: “The situation is a total farce at the moment. It used to be that having to request an offer extension for a client which normally lasts 6 months was a once in a blue moon event, now it’s a regular occurrence because too much work is dealt with by sausage factory conveyancers. These outfits when they come up with a problem are happy to ‘send an email’ to get the case off their desk for a fortnight rather than spend a bit of time on the phone actually sorting the matter.
“As it stands, the market seems like it’s being propped up by conscientious mortgage brokers and their admins who seem to be doing everyone else’s chasing for them. Yet again, when other parts of the housing and mortgage market are on their backsides when it comes to service levels, it’s mortgage brokers holding the whole house of cards up.
“There are good conveyancers out there though and finding a good one is so vital that we’ve even taken matters into our own hands and are building our own platform for finding a quality conveyancer because no one else seems to have the desire to actually try to improve the situation. To be honest though, just chuck our current uk process in the bin and start again using modern technology. Why are we still more or less working within a set of processes hundred of years old when the rest of the world is doing this better?”
Simon Allen, director at Knutsford-based property finance broker, Searchlight Finance: “Conveyancing was near to breaking point before Covid and working from home is now the convenient excuse for years of neglect and underinvestment. Clear communication and delivering to agreed timescales isn’t too much of an ask, but for most firms it’s very difficult to achieve. Improvements in technology could reduce most of the issues that cause the delays as well as using the good old fashioned phone. Yes conveyancing can be complex but a call between both sides in the transaction is so much quicker than weeks of emails to resolve outstanding enquiries.”
Simon Shinerock, chairman of Horley-based Choices Estate Agency: “Ever since technology rode to the rescue of the old-fashioned, cumbersome and bureaucratic conveyancing system we use in this country, things have got steadily worse. It’s a bit like David Cameron promising a bonfire of red tape, followed by the largest rise in red tape in history.
“Technology is definitely the answer but to work it has to be joined up and all the players in the game must have access to the system. The technology already exists to link buyers, sellers, agents, conveyancers, lenders, mortgage advisers and local authorities, it’s called ‘the blockchain’. Yes, the blockchain does have other uses than creating useless crypto currency Ponzi schemes.
“There is even a company called Coadjute working on a solution and starting to make progress but really, like WiFi for everyone, this should be a Government-sponsored project. Unfortunately, it’s not just technology that is not joined up. The Government is wholly unable to keep up with the pace of change, much less respond to it or take a lead role.”
Ben Tadd, director at Chippenham-based broker, Lucra Mortgages: “The conveyancing system in the UK right now is deeply flawed, and there is no getting away from the fact that the whole process needs to be overhauled with swathes of technology required to help digitalise the process, and cut down on the huge amounts of paperwork required by purchasers. This, however, is not a quick fix. So my advice to anyone looking to purchase a new property would be to spend a bit more money at the start of the process on a decent and reputable solicitor/conveyancer.
“The extra amount you spend now could save you weeks, sometimes even months in the house buying journey, and really could be the difference between completing on your house purchase or not. Do your homework, check online reviews, ask around to see if anyone you know has had a good or bad experience with a particular firm, and choose wisely. The phrase, “pay peanuts, get monkeys” couldn’t be more apt when it comes to conveyancing. Cheaper ‘alternative’ conveyancers in particular have cost the industry a huge headache for a number of years, and there doesn’t seem to be any sign of a quick fix to combat the issue. Buyers are shooting themselves in the foot, opting to save money by instructing the cheapest, often online conveyancer out there, whose service is usually reflected by the lower prices they charge, versus the more expensive, traditional high street property solicitors.
“The service issue has certainly been exacerbated by the pandemic, and it isn’t just confined to online conveyancers, it has affected all high street property solicitors and conveyancers generally. The fact that the majority of conveyancers are now working from home for large parts of the working week, with less direction and pressure from their employers to keep the cogs turning and keep the conveyancing conveyer belt moving, has had a knock-on effect on the service levels that conveyancing firms provide to their customers.
“Cheaper ‘online’ alternative conveyancing firms in particular, often now have a ‘team’ or ‘pod’ system in place, where a team of conveyancers now deal with each transaction. In theory, this acts to spread the case load among a greater number of people, with the intention to help speed up the process and make the transaction more efficient. In reality, however, this team system often simply leads to much less accountability from the individual conveyancer appointed to act on behalf of each customer for their purchase. It also means there is a huge lack of personalisation, and a lack of efficient and effective communication too, not only with the customer, but with the vendors solicitors as well.
“As a consumer, if you choose the wrong conveyancer, there is now a real danger that your mortgage offer could well expire before you are in a position to complete on your new property. Unless you are purchasing a new build property, the vast majority of high street lenders are unable and unwilling to extend mortgage offers by more than a month. Some can only extend the offer by a few days at most.
“This effectively means that if your mortgage offer does expire before you complete, you will be forced to re-apply for your mortgage, and with the Bank of England Base rate on the rise, this will most certainly mean the initial interest rate you secured six months ago, will inevitably be considerably higher now, on a new rate you have to select, versus the initial rate you first applied for at the start of the process. This new much higher interest rate now available, in today’s mortgage market, could therefore end up costing you thousands of pounds more in interest payments. For this reason, make sure you choose the right conveyancer, and don’t scrimp on the cost, as it could cost you a lot more in the long run.”
Robert Payne, director of Bristol-based Langley House Mortgages: “In order for conveyancers to operate efficiently, they need to be highly communicative, not just with clients but also with other conveyancers in the chain. This seems to be the biggest failing in the industry and is most likely caused by a number of reasons including unmanageable workloads, lack of innovation of technology and mounting pressure from buyers.
“There’s no quick fix but I have seen some of the more reputable firms, who charge higher fees turning business away because they don’t want to compromise their service, which seems like a good solution if you want to retain customers and staff. Perhaps raising fees and reducing the amount of volume would be an appropriate move for other firms too, rather than drowning in greed.”
Marcus Wright, MD of Bolton Business Finance: “Honestly, if conveyancing was any slower, it would be going backwards. The whole process is slow, outdated and very frustrating for me and my clients. Things still being lost in the post, bits of paper flying here, there and everywhere. The legal profession, banks and the government need to come together to modernise and streamline it. Improvements would provide economic benefits to the economy for sure.”
Ashley Thomas, director of London-based mortgage broker, Magni Finance: “Without doubt the processing times have increased for purchasing a property. This is across the board, you cannot point the finger at conveyancers as the main reason. Yes, they are slower as they have been inundated with increased business and trying to manage service with more staff working from home.
“However, you could argue this is the same for other parties. Mortgage lenders are very busy. With rates increasing on a daily basis, clients are looking to renew their rates as soon as possible. Where they have given short notice with rate changes it has resulted in huge volumes of business being submitted. This then slows the process for all the mortgage applications, the average time to get a mortgage offer has definitely increased in recent months. Also, it will invariably be longer for those purchasing in a chain as it is harder to purchase a property with current supply and demand. For every property being sold, most have numerous offers. We had one the other day where a client was competing with over 18 offers.”