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Conveyancing: the legal process of buying a house, explained

When you buy a house, you're probably concentrating on getting your mortgage sorted – but what about the legal aspect of buying property?

There's considerable legal work involved in buying a house. This process is known as conveyancing, and knowing what to expect can help you to plan ahead, and find the right person to do the job. This guide is for you if you're getting ready to buy a house and want to know more about the conveyancing process.

What is conveyancing?

Conveyancing is the process of transferring ownership of a property from one person to another. It begins when your offer is accepted by the seller, and doesn't finish until after you've moved in.

Because it involves lots of legal and administrative work, it has to be done by a solicitor or specialist conveyancer. In theory it is possible to do the conveyancing yourself, but the vast majority of people are better off leaving it to a professional – and if you're getting a mortgage, the lender will most likely insist on it.

What's the difference between a solicitor and a conveyancer?

The key difference is that solicitors are all-round legal professionals, whereas a conveyancer only handles property matters. All solicitors are qualified to carry out conveyancing, but they won't all have as much experience as a conveyancer, who specialises in it. Because solicitors are fully qualified, they are usually more expensive.

If there are complicated legal issues involved, you'll need to use a solicitor rather than a conveyancer – for example, if there are any boundary disputes, or if the sellers are getting divorced and are therefore using two solicitors.

How to choose a conveyancer

Choosing the right conveyancer will make the whole process quicker and smoother, particularly if any complicated legal issues arise. You may have to choose from a list of conveyancers approved by your mortgage lender, or you might be able to choose your own. If you can, word of mouth is a good place to start – ask about the experiences of people who know, and research the conveyancers in your area.

Sylvia Garcia, a solicitor who specialises in conveyancing, shares her tips on making sure you get the right person for the job:

Firstly, you need to think carefully about the type of conveyancing service you actually wish to receive. The conveyancing industry has changed dramatically in the last decade, and it ranges from your traditional, mostly face to face service, to the more cost effective online and call centre legal service that is now on offer.

The online service may suit you if your transaction is straightforward. However, you may be taking a significant risk if the property is unusual, or if something unexpected crops up. Of course, the difficulty is that you won’t always know at the outset if a transaction is going to be straightforward or not. You may find yourself feeling frustrated if you have opted for an online service and need to discuss and resolve complex issues around your purchase. It certainly is a case of “what you pay is what you get”.

— Sylvia Garcia, Mayo Wynne Baxter Solicitors

The conveyancing process: step by step

Once you've chosen a conveyancer (or solicitor), you'll need to "instruct" them to do the conveyancing for you. They'll outline all their services and charges, and then the process can begin.

Draft contracts and enquiries

Your conveyancer will get in touch with the seller's conveyancer. They'll go over the draft sale contract and raise any enquiries about the property. The draft contract contains information about how much you're paying for the property, the buyer and seller's details, and information from the property's title deeds.

At this point you'll need to pay particular attention to whether a property is leasehold or freehold, and if it's the former, how long the lease is. It's not usually worth buying a property with a lease shorter than 70 years.

Searches

You should always have a building survey carried out on the property, but your conveyancer will also perform several searches to pick up other things you may not know about. These include:

  • Land Registry check: This is compulsory by law – it ensures that the seller is the legal owner of the property
  • Local authority search: To check for any planned construction around the property – you don't want to end up living next to a dual carriageway you didn't know about
  • Water authority search: To check for pipes and drains around the property that could potentially get in the way of building work
  • Flood risk search: Determines whether the property is at risk from flooding, and can make an informed decision on whether you want to proceed
  • Chancel Repair search: Rules dating back hundreds of years mean that you may be liable to pay for church repairs. The laws around Chancel Repair changed in 2013, and it's now the Church's responsibility to establish your liability and lodge it with the Land Registry.
  • Environmental search: To check for contaminated land, former industrial sites, landfills and other potential hazards nearby
  • Other searches: Depending on where the property is, they can carry out tin mine searches (Cornwall), coal mine searches and additional local authority questions such as public paths, noise abatement zones, common land etc

In the meantime you'll need to get your mortgage locked down and commission your building survey.

Signing contracts

Once searches and surveys have been carried out, your conveyancer will make sure that all the enquiries they raised with the seller have been resolved, and they'll check that all the property's fixtures and fittings are as you expected them to be.

This process can take a while, depending on how many enquiries there are. A good conveyancer will help you here, by communicating effectively with their counterpart and keeping things moving. It can be frustratingly slow at times, but it's worth taking the time to get everything exactly right. When all the enquiries have been resolved, they'll make sure that a completion date has been arranged between you and the seller.

One of your conveyancer's main jobs is to handle the money in the transaction itself. Once the enquiries are resolved, you'll need to transfer your deposit to your conveyancer in time for the completion date, and they'll arrange the transfer of funds from your mortgage lender to the seller's solicitor.

Exchange and completion

The next step is to exchange contracts. This involves both conveyancers reading out the contracts over the phone to make sure they're identical, then posting them to each other. Once you've exchanged, the contract is legally binding – so there's no backing out now for either party.

Between the exchange and the completion date, you need to organise your move. The final sale price needs to be paid to your conveyancer at least one day before completion.

Completion and beyond

When the seller's solicitor confirms that they've received all the money – usually at around lunchtime on the agreed completion date – the seller will drop off the keys at your estate agent.

Congratulations, you can now move in!

After completion, it's your conveyancer's job to tie up the loose ends. This includes:

  • Paying stamp duty on your behalf
  • Sending the legal documents to the Land Registry
  • Sending the title deeds for the property to your mortgage lender, who will keep them until you've repaid the mortgage
  • Notifying the freeholder if your property is leasehold
  • Billing you for their service

How much will a conveyancer cost?

The overall cost usually depends on the value of the property, and can range from around £500 to £1,500. This covers the conveyancer's time, as well as the fees for the searches and Land Registry administration work. Sometimes you will have the option to pay extra for a "no completion, no fee" deal which protects you if the seller pulls out. Some conveyancers or solicitors will also give you the option of paying upfront, although if complications are revealed in the searches you could end up paying more.

Jargon buster

Our friends at Clutton Cox have produced a handy jargon buster to help you understand the legal jargon you'll come across along the way.

Last updated: 30 May 2016

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