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Why is the time taken to complete a property purchase continuing to elongate?

In Propertymark’s latest report, ‘A Dickensian legal process’ the industry body explores the reasons why the time taken to exchange contracts on a property is taking an increasingly longer time.

Propertymark’s Housing Insight Report shows that in March 2016, 78 per cent of transactions progressed from offer acceptance to exchange of contracts within 12 weeks, whereas in March 2024, the figure was just 29 per cent, representing a significant deterioration.

Timothy Douglas, Head of Policy and Campaigns at Propertymark comments: 

 
 

“It is not new news that the amount of time taken to complete a purchase on a home is becoming increasingly tedious and lengthy. However, it’s important more than ever considering that the time taken to complete is up to six months and longer in some cases, to understand the fundamental issues causing this.

“Our member agents are on the ground witnessing delays and have bought their concerns and thoughts to the fore. Policy makers and the new Government at Westminster need to address these in order to speed up the house buying and selling process to keep the wheels of the housing market turning as it’s a vital cog in boosting the economy.”

Hearing from agents across the UK, the industry body said the reasons for the elongation are multifaceted, interlinked and variable. As one agent summarised:

 

‘I think it’s a mixture… I think solicitors are under resourced and don’t get paid in line with doing what they do, so they take on too much work and have no sense of urgency. I think lenders are taking too long to send out mortgage offers. Generally, the whole system is much slower to the previous 30 years.’

However, agents identified key challenges and delays, which they believed accounted for the bulk of the problem. Firstly, agents reported that the sales process is outdated (‘Dickensian’) and administratively intensive. Furthermore, the administrative burden has been growing due to successive legislative changes:

‘Far more paperwork is now required due to increased legislation.’

 
 

This is problematic as the existing system was not designed to deal with large information flows:

‘The system of property transfer was designed for much smaller amounts of information to be considered.  There is now so much information in the system.  It arrives on the solicitors’ desk at different stages and takes time to cross reference the client best interest, lenders requirements and best practice as the conveyancer sees it.’

Agents noted that despite the existence of technology, which could be leveraged to streamline the process, the adoption and integration of these technologies was patchy at best:

 
 

‘The system is awfully dated with solicitors having different methods-some do digital, some don’t. It needs to be streamlined and digitised.’

Next, agents identified areas where they experienced regular delays in the production of the information required to progress to contract exchange. This included information flows from buyers, sellers, surveyors, and mortgage providers. However, most agents pointed to lengthy delays in the provision of local authority property searches as a key issue.

Agents posited several reasons for solicitor-based delays. Some suggested that solicitors had ‘slowed’ because of challenges in the operating environment, which had made them more risk averse.

 

More broadly, agents reported that there was a ‘shortage of solicitors’ meaning that firms were ‘under resourced’. In fact, 59 per cent of agents suggested that solicitor resource constraints were the key reason for extended exchange times.

As a direct impact of resource constraints, it was reported that ‘solicitors seem to be taking longer to action activities and respond than before.’

It should be noted however, that the perceived resource shortage extended beyond solicitors. One agent reported a ‘lack of manpower across stakeholders’, and another suggested:

 
 

‘Solicitors are most certainly under resourced… [However], the organisations that surround it are under resourced… The surveyors, banks, and local authorities.’

For balance, it should also be recognised that agents can also be responsible for delays, with some members highlighting that ‘agents also need to have their houses in order’. As one member reported, ‘some agents don’t use a PIQ at instruction’ or ‘fail to disclose material information’.

The full report can be read here: https://www.propertymark.co.uk/resource/spotlight-a-dickensian-legal-process.html3

 
 

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