For many people, finding a solicitor to help with the process of buying a property might be the first time you have ever needed legal assistance, particularly if you are a young couple and first-time buyers. So where do you start when looking for a conveyancing solicitor? The first thing you need to understand is that you definitely need one. There are no short cuts with this process, and it’s not like building an extension where you can do part of the work yourself to save money. Buying a house is a very different beast.
The process of buying a property and moving in, is one of the most stressful we will ever experience in our lifetimes, and your legal representative is a key factor in how stressful that is. In short, they can be a major contributor to your stress, or they can be a huge factor in relieving it for you. Like choosing any tradesperson or professional contractor, however, sometimes you only realise your mistake when you’re in the middle of the process and it’s too late to change your mind and go back, and with a house purchase, this mistake can be very costly. So there is a lot to consider when choosing the right conveyancing solicitor, but first of all, let’s understand what conveyancing is and what is involved in it.
What is conveyancing?
‘Conveyancing’ is the name for the legal process of transferring the legal title of a property from one owner to another. However, the term has become a catch-all name for the legal aspects of the whole house-buying process.
It is important to understand the distinction between a conveyancer and a solicitor. A conveyancer is a specialist legal professional with an expertise in property law, but is not necessarily a qualified solicitor. A qualified solicitor can help you with a full range of legal services, including conveyancing, but is not necessarily an expert in conveyancing. It is often found that a family has been using an experienced solicitor for several years and for a range of legal issues (wills and probate, claims, family law etc.) and is the go-to resource when a son or daughter is looking to buy their first house. There is nothing wrong with this if the solicitor is someone you respect and trust, but you may get a better service and more expertise from a recognised and qualified conveyancer.
What we do know is that you need legal representation from the off. As soon as you make a bid for a property and it is accepted, the seller’s solicitors will ask who your legal contact is in order to get the ball rolling, so you need to be thinking about this while you are looking at properties and weighing up bids.
What does a conveyancer do?
There are lots of legal aspects to purchasing a property which only a qualified legal professional can deal with, but often, the most important thing you want from your conveyancer is diligence, efficiency and understanding. You will have lots of questions, you will need advice and you will need updating frequently, so a lot of what a conveyancer does is just to be there at the end of a phone as a reassuring figure and someone you can trust. When you have your heart set on a dream home, it feels like your fate is in the conveyancer’s hands, so you need to know that they are working on things as quickly as possible, nothing is being delayed and problems are being dealt with. The one thing you know is that at some stage there will be niggles, delays and problems. Usually only your conveyancer can deal with these, so you need to be able to trust them to be getting on with things, and that your future dreams are not just sat in a pile of files on their desk being ignored.
Essentially, the nuts and bolts of what a conveyancer is responsible for, include:
Preparing contracts for the sale of the property and exchanging them with the seller’s solicitors
Carrying out local council searches and communicating any problems
Dealing with the Land Registry deeds and transferring legal ownership
Transferring money for the deposit and mortgage payments
Dealing with stamp duty and other taxes
In between these tasks you want your conveyancer to understand and pre-empt where problems could occur, explain this to you and act swiftly and decisively in your interests. The conveyancer cannot speed the process up, but they can minimise delays through being attentive, reactive and diligent. They should be doing this without you having to ask, and that quality is something you need to be confident of when you are choosing your conveyancer or solicitor.
Considerations when choosing a conveyancer or solicitor
When looking at your options for choosing a conveyancer or solicitor, you should consider the following:
Is there an approved list? Your mortgage lender may have a list of approved solicitors they will only deal with. It may be that your chosen option is on that list, or at least they can get themselves on that list. Banks and building societies obviously have a lot riding on your house purchase, so any legal professionals they have approved would be a decent starting point in appointing someone, as they are much more likely to be trusted and credible, otherwise an institution like a bank or building society would not want to be associated with them.
Read reviews: There are plenty of online property websites offering reviews of conveyancing options, and you can also do Google searches and read Trustpilot. A social media search of your potential solicitors may also throw up some worthwhile feedback and valuable real-life experiences. You need to read up as comprehensively as you can because the solicitors’ website won’t give you the kind of information you need when assessing how trustworthy or reliable they are.
Agree fees structure: A conveyancing service is likely to be charged in one of three ways, either with a fixed cost, on an hourly rate or as a percentage of the eventual sale price. Like any service you are paying for, you are entitled to get as many quotes as you like, but make sure you understand the cost structure and break down the costs so that you can compare them like-for-like. There may be hidden costs which come as a nasty surprise at a late stage, so try and ensure every cost is upfront and made known to you. Also, don’t just go for the cheapest option. Everyone will have a budget for this kind of thing, but the best legal services are usually worth paying for, and could save you money in other areas.
Recommendations: There is a lot to be said for opting to use a legal resource on the recommendation of friends or family, or an independent financial advisor. This can save you time in searching for someone, and quickly gives you a level of trust, which can relieve a lot of stress at a key early stage of the house-buying process.
Be wary of estate agents’ advice: Estate agents will likely recommend a solicitor to you, and if you have no idea where to start looking, this can be a helping hand you are eager to grasp at a time when there is lots going on and lots of decisions to be made. However, in many cases, the estate agent will have a financial agreement with the solicitors, whereby they pass on work to each other for a fee. So this doesn’t necessarily mean the solicitors being recommended to you is the best one.
Check their credentials: Conveyancers should be members of the Law Society and the Council for Licenced Conveyancers, while a solicitors should be members of the Quality Conveyancing Scheme. You should ask about their experience in the field of conveyancing, their current workload and what resources will be available to you. This should give you a good indication of what kind of service you will receive.
Be wary of online conveyancing: Increasingly, the services of online solicitors are being promoted where everything is done over email and phone conversations and these are cheaper because there are less overheads etc. However, a good conveyancer is someone you build a relationship with and learn to trust and rely on. You can’t substitute the value of face-to-face meetings and getting to know someone. With online conveyancing you are often dealing with a different person every time you contact them and hence waste time explaining situations and ongoing issues that a dedicated solicitor would already know about.
Local or not? Some people think that conveyancing is a pretty transferrable skill and the location of a solicitors is not too important. To an extent this is true, but there are advantages to using a local solicitors, in that they will have a good knowledge about planning issues and possible problems with searches, and there are occasions when you need to physically drop-off or collect documents to view or sign.
Good communicators: The house-buying process can be long, drawn-out and complex. The many twists and turns can be varied, unexpected and hard to understand. So a key skill you need from a conveyancer is good communication. Inevitably, your conveyancer is not as invested in this transaction as you are, but they need to appreciate what this means to you and act accordingly. You don’t want to be chasing your legal team for answers every day and you need to be confident that when something needs communicating, that it will be. Many conveyancers now have automated online systems whereby key milestone events (deposit paid, searches conducted, contracts exchanged etc) are sent as notifications, but in between times there are lots of things that can happen which you need to know about. So if there is a problem with the local authority searches which is causing a delay, or any reason for delay, this needs to be communicated to you. Also, you need to agree on points of contact when someone is away on holiday or off sick. Essentially, your conveyancer is there to hold your hand through the process, and, particularly as a first-time buyer, is someone on your side who can offer help with the ancillary issues such as setting up utilities for the new home, understanding council tax bands and finding removals services.
A good reputation: This should come hand-in-hand with credentials in all honesty, but it is worth considering this separately as it can be critical. Your solicitors can be a big, successful name in the legal sector, but this can come with an element of ruthlessness that doesn’t always go down well. When buying a home you need the cooperation of mortgage lenders, estate agents and the seller’s solicitors to ensure the process runs smoothly and efficiently. If your conveyancer has a poor reputation and is not liked within the legal sector, this can be disruptive and cause you problems and delays.
Making the right decision when choosing a conveyancer
Choosing your solicitor or conveyancer could be the biggest decision you make during the house-buying process, so it merits considerable research. But this needs to be done quickly as you could face a bottleneck of jobs and processes which can’t proceed, and in extreme cases could even lead to the house purchase falling through if the seller gets frustrated by delays. Choosing the right conveyancer makes the whole process less stressful and allows you to concentrate on the many other things involved in moving into a new home, and done right, could land you with trusted and reliable legal support for you and your family for the rest of your life.