Buying a house can be the most expensive purchase in an individual’s life, and it can also be an extremely stressful time. Therefore, if after moving into your new house you find that there is a problem with the property then this can be particularly distressing. We often engage professionals such as estate agents, solicitors, and surveyors to assist in buying a property and we expect this to enable the experience to run as smoothly as possible. Unfortunately however, occasionally things go wrong.
A recent survey published by the Solicitors Regulation Authority reported that for the period 2004 – 2014 (the most recent period for which the statistics were available) over 50% of payments made in claims against solicitors resulted from a failure in conveyancing work; this amounted to over £770 million. The main reasons for claims against conveyancers (where reasons were given) were as a result of inadequate searches being carried out on the property; failure to identify the planning issues or the extent of the property; and failure to investigate the title of the property.
We set out below a number of tips to ensure that the legal steps taken in buying a house run as smoothly as possible:
1. Choosing the right professional for the job
Research the different conveyancing solicitors in your area to obtain a quote and an indication of what services they offer. Compare the quotes you receive and make sure that you are comparing like with like. For example, does the solicitor offer a fixed fee or will he charge an hourly rate – ask for an estimate for the entire transaction; and does the quote include a breakdown of all the disbursements that will be charged? A solicitor is likely to charge for the firm’s fees, plus VAT and disbursements (these are likely to include local authority search fees, Stamp Duty Land Tax, Land Registry fees, valuer fees and surveyor fees). Also check the searches and investigations the solicitor will carry out on the property.
Whilst everyone likes to get a good deal, buying a property can be the biggest financial commitment you can take on, so do not simply go with the cheapest quote, check that your solicitor is well-respected and has a good reputation for this type of work.
2. Get a survey of the property
This will assess the property for any potential problems or defects. Whilst a mortgage provider will insist on getting a valuation of the property, in certain circumstances it may also be advisable to instruct a surveyor to check for problems you may encounter with the property after moving in and to provide an indication of how much it will cost to put right. This will pre-warn you of any costly problems you may face after you move in and may enable you to negotiate a lower price with the seller.
3. Make sure your solicitor carries out appropriate searches
A solicitor will carry out a number of searches on the property to check that there are no hidden surprises when you move into the property. The specific searches conducted will depend on the type and location of your property. For example, a Local Authority Search will show planning permissions and building regulations relating to the house; a Water and Drainage search will reveal if the property is connected to the mains water supply and if the sewerage drains to the public sewers; or an Environmental and Planning search will identify if there are any concerns about the land being contaminated and may identify if the property is at risk of flooding.
It is important to discuss the searches available with your solicitor at the outset to identify which are the most relevant to your property. Your solicitor will usually send the search results to you and highlight any key information. It is also essential that you review the searches and raise any concerns with your solicitor.
The most common areas of complaint against conveyancing solicitors is that they did not carry out adequate searches, or failed to draw planning issues to the purchaser’s attention.
4. Do not be afraid to ask questions or raise concerns
It is essential that you have good lines of communication with your solicitor. Make sure that your solicitor is aware of anything that is particularly important to you, so that they can take the necessary steps to protect you. If there is something in the transaction that you do not understand or are concerned about then raise it with your solicitor. Your solicitor only has the paperwork available to him or her, whereas you will have visited the property (often on a number of occasions). If, when you visit the property, something appears odd, discuss it with your solicitor as this may be important. For example, a well-trodden pathway through the garden may indicate a right of way over the property. Unless the solicitor is aware of these potential problems he/she cannot investigate them.
5. Be certain that you know the extent of what you are buying
Your solicitor will obtain a title plan of the property showing the outline of the land that you will be purchasing. Problems may occur if there is a plot of land next to, or in front of the house that you assume belongs to the property. However, once you move into the house you discover that it is in fact owned by someone else. This can occasionally lead to arguments over access to the property. It is therefore important that your solicitor shows you the plan of the property held at the Land Registry so that you can ensure that the extent of the property on the plan matches what you thought you were buying.
Buying a new house is an extremely stressful time and your solicitor should ensure that everything runs smoothly whilst protecting your position. Hopefully the top tips set out above, whilst not an exhaustive list, will help to keep the stress to a minimum. Good luck.