Updated 03 December 2020
It’s really useful to know exactly what a solicitor does for you when you buy (and/or sell) a home. This process is called conveyancing, and the complexity of it can take even seasoned homebuyers by surprise. Conveyancing involves all the legal aspects of transferring the ownership of a property from a seller to a buyer. Typically it takes at least eight weeks and involves a number of stages.
This walk-through will help you prepare yourself, plan around any unpleasant surprises, and work with your solicitor to make your purchase as quick and hassle-free as possible.
Properties are very expensive. So when you buy one, it’s vital to be sure of exactly what you are buying, and that you really do own it in the eyes of the law. Otherwise, you may find yourself in a bitter dispute over something as trivial as where you park your car – or something as calamitous as discovering the land on which your house is built is on a lease that’s about to expire.
Although it’s permitted to handle conveyancing yourself, in practice the vast majority of people will want to use a professional conveyancer, usually a solicitor.
You’ll need to hire (‘instruct’) your solicitor as soon as your offer on a property is accepted, so it’s a good idea to have a few options lined up.
Your solicitor will provide you with terms of engagement (including their fees and the deposits you need to pay), and will then contact your seller’s solicitor to obtain a draft contract and the necessary forms and other documents, such as the property title deeds.
Your solicitor will study the draft contract and documents to see what needs to be investigated further. Most importantly, you and your solicitor must establish whether the property is freehold or leasehold. Leasehold means that someone else owns the land on which your home is built – meaning ownership of the property can pass to them if the lease expires and is not renewed. Double-check the length of any lease; under 80 years is a problem, while under 60 years is best avoided altogether.
What don’t you know about this property? There could be a great deal hidden below the surface, both figuratively and literally – anything from an obligation to pay for local church repairs (Chancel Repair Liability) to an abandoned mine under your property. Such risks are why your solicitor will carry out property searches.
Some property searches are a legal requirement, or demanded by your mortgage provider. Other are just good sense. Searches can turn up issues such as the local level of flood risk, ground contamination, radon gas, locations of drains (which might affect plans for extending the property), ground stability and more. Again, the information that emerges may give you a stronger negotiating position, or cause you to rethink the purchase entirely. At minimum, it gives you peace of mind.
While your solicitor takes care of the above, your task is to go through the forms the seller has provided. In particular:
This specifies what fittings and contents are included in the sale. For instance, you may be lucky enough to have a seller who will leave behind a good cooker and fridge – or unfortunate enough to have one who takes everything including the curtain rails. Sometimes they may want to leave behind something (like an old battered wardrobe) that you’d rather they took with them. The seller should not take or leave anything without making it clear in this form (and you can contest their decisions and try to renegotiate price if you wish).
This covers a wide range of additional information about the property, such as boundaries, past building work, planning permissions, parking facilities, any ongoing disputes with neighbours, current utility suppliers and much more. Essentially this is the full fact-file of important information that you as home-owner would be expected to know. Go over it carefully and make sure your solicitor does the same if there is anything you’re uncertain about.
After you’ve moved, keep this form in a safe place – you’ll need much of that information for the next time you move.
Selling your old home while buying a new one adds another layer of complexity to the conveyancing process. You don’t have to use the same solicitor for both transactions, but it usually makes sense to do so.
As seller, you will have to supply the forms TA6 and TA10 (see above) and form TA13 (Completion information) to your buyer’s solicitor. Your own solicitor can advise you on how to complete these, and will usually forward them on for you.
Don’t be shy about contacting your solicitor regularly for updates on progress, and to check that there’s nothing they’re still expecting from you. You (or someone else in your property chain) may be on a restricted timescale, and chains can sometimes collapse if the process takes too long. Although no-one wants to be a nuisance, there’s nothing wrong with requesting a weekly update.
In England and Wales, you will ‘exchange contracts’ when all solicitors are satisfied that their searches have shown no problems. Any deposits are usually paid at this stage and the contract becomes legally binding.
In Scotland the law on property is different – when you buy a house contracts become binding at an earlier stage and can be signed on an ‘offers over’ basis, a ‘fixed price’ basis or ‘subject to survey’ basis.
Once your property searches, forms and any surveys have been taken care of, your solicitor can finalise the contract. You will also have to arrange your preferred completion date (which is usually also your moving date). This is usually around 1 to 4 weeks after the exchange of contracts. It is also a date that everyone in your chain will have to agree upon, so be as patient and flexible as you can.
Your solicitor will exchange contracts for you. Once this is done, you are contractually committed to the purchase. This means that if you pull out at this stage, you must still pay 10 per cent of the value of the property (this sum is usually paid on exchange, as your deposit).
Between exchange and completion, your solicitor will send you a final statement showing you how much money you need to pay (including any mortgage you may have). This sum will need to be cleared into your solicitor’s bank account at least one day before, so make sure you transfer it in plenty of time. Remember that some bank transfers may take several days to clear, and also factor in any time it may take to access funds from your savings.
Completion day itself can be a bit like a relay race, depending on the length of the housing chain. Your solicitor transfers all relevant funds to your seller’s solicitor, and so on up the chain. Only when these funds are received will the solicitor confirm the sale with the estate agent, who will then release the keys. This means that if you are higher up the housing chain, you may have to wait quite a while for this confirmation. Again, don’t be afraid to ring up to check on progress.
You now own your home – but your solicitor’s job isn’t quite done yet. They will now pay Stamp Duty for you (from the funds you have already provided) and send your legal documents to the Land Registry to confirm you as the new owner of the property. Your solicitor will also send a copy of the title deeds to your mortgage lender.
You should receive your legal documents back from the Land Registry within about three weeks.
It can be a long and stressful journey from making a successful offer to owning your home, but the help of a good solicitor can make it a great deal easier.