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Exchange to completion: how long does it take and what can go wrong?

4 mins read
by Kate Morgan
Last updated Monday, December 11, 2023

When you exchange contracts, the solicitors representing you and your seller swap legally binding documents, and you pay a deposit.

No one can back out now, so it all feels quite cut and dried. There are however some circumstances that can hold up your journey towards completion.

Here we take a look at the potential obstacles and how you can prepare to achieve completion without delay and hassle. 

How long should exchange to completion take?

This is often the lengthiest part of the home buying process and can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to several months.

There are plenty of things you can do to try and speed things up, but at the very least it makes sense to be as organised as possible, with all the right paperwork to hand.

Answer queries from solicitors quickly and let both your estate agent and solicitor know if you’re going away. 

When you exchange contracts, the solicitors will agree a completion date, and they can be sued if this date is missed, so they’ve got a very good incentive for ensuring that completion happens on your agreed date. 

If no one is in a real hurry to move, you can set a longer period before completion, giving you time to sort out your move, find the right removals firm and change all your contact and address information. 

What can go wrong between exchange and completed?

There are a several issues that can slow down or stop your completion, but it’s worth remembering that most deals go through without such hitches.

There’s no harm in knowing what the potential pitfalls are though, so here we’ve listed some of the most common ones. 

  • Your mortgage offer is withdrawn. This is not likely to happen, but if for some reason your lender decides to withdraw your mortgage offer, progress to completion will stop. If you’re not too close to completion date, it may be possible to arrange another loan in time, but if you’re too close to the big day, you won’t be able to complete   
  • You’re made redundant or lose your job. If you’re made redundant after you’ve exchanged contracts, you must let your mortgage lender know. Your main priority will naturally then be seeking a new job, as there is now a risk that you’ll lose your deposit and have to pay further costs linked to failed completion. If you’re using a mortgage broker, be sure to let them know what’s happened and take their advice on what to do next 
  • You get involved in a dispute with your seller. Occasionally problems arise that weren’t spotted before contracts were exchanged. Perhaps some important information was concealed, or questions were not answered correctly. Disagreement over the purchase price can also obstruct completion 
  • Your seller goes bankrupt. Here’s another potential hazard — particularly if you’re trying to buy a property from someone who is in financial difficulty. If this happens to your seller, it’s vital to discuss the legal position and options with your solicitor 
  • The sales chain breaks. When buying a property, there will probably be a number of linked deals going through which all depend on each other for smooth progress. Your completion can be slowed or blocked by a problem further up this chain – perhaps a buyer has their mortgage offer revoked for example — and in this case you could find yourself in breach of contract through no fault of your own. Always speak to your solicitor, mortgage broker or adviser if there’s a problem within your chain 
  • Problems on completion day. In addition to longer-term issues, there are a few hazards to bear in mind on the day of completion. For example, there might be a delay in the transfer of payment. If your seller’s solicitor hasn’t received funds, they can’t allow you to complete. Equally there might be a delay with removal companies, due to a breakdown, bad traffic or illness. Sometimes the seller may remove fixtures and fittings from the property that you had expected to be part of the deal 

How can you help to ensure a smooth, speedy completion? 

The chances are, you won’t encounter any of the major difficulties we’ve discussed above, but to make sure your move proceeds at a pace that suits you, there are a number of things you should do. 

Plan ahead. Even before starting your search for a property, get an Agreement in Principle [AIP] from your mortgage lender. Also, choose a solicitor as soon as your offer on a property is accepted. 

Sort all your documentation. It’s really important to have all the right documents to hand. These include a buildings insurance policy, which will be required by your mortgage lender, and — if completed — a copy of the survey on your chosen property. 

Your solicitor should supply you with a range of documentation on the property, such as Title Deeds, a Property Information Form, a warranty for new builds and a report on title, which details property search results. 

Be communicative and efficient. Make sure everyone has all the information they need to proceed — including your solicitor, your estate agent and your seller’s agent. 

Always respond promptly to queries and don’t delay if there are issues that need resolving — such as with survey results.

Timely communication and accurate information are vital elements for making the exchange to completion period less stressful. 

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Kate Morgan
Kate has written for leading publications and blue chip companies over the last 20 years.