Chapter 12: Choosing a Conveyancer or Solicitor

This is an extract from the ebook How to Really Buy a Property.

What's covered in this chapter
  • The secret agenda of some solicitors;
  • Why it's worth choosing a solicitor before you start looking for a property;
  • How different solicitors work;
  • Why the cheapest solicitor can kill your purchase;
  • How your lender can force you to pay for a second solicitor;
  • Why you should avoid small firms;
  • How to tell if a solicitor is 'trapped in the past';
  • Why a friend's recommendation can lead to disaster;
  • The quick check-list for choosing a solicitor;
  • True stories of solicitors who made mistakes.

Before You Start Viewing Properties

The last thing you want to do when you have made the decision to start house hunting is bother with looking for a solicitor (and in this chapter we will use 'solicitor' to mean solicitor or conveyancer). It is however, one of the single most important decisions you will make and getting it wrong wastes your time and money and could result in you loosing the property you want for no good reason. In the vast majority of cases the following principle applies:

If you buy the property the solicitor gets paid but may be sued for missing something. If you do not buy the property the solicitor still gets paid and has no chance of getting sued.

It is therefore subconsciously in the solicitors interest to make sure the deal does not happen although not that many spend too much time thinking about this. They have, after all, got to marry the advantageous of you not buying with the disadvantageous of you not recommending.

In almost any location the choice of solicitors and the variations in price are mind boggling but there are quick and simple ways to narrow the choice down quickly.

Finding the right solicitor has nothing to do with price, this is truly a field of getting what you pay for. If you are at offer stage and almost all of your savings have been taken up in deposit money and stamp duty it's tempting to try and save a few hundred pounds on the legal services. It's also a mistake that you will kick yourself for as you sit on hold, or wait for your fourth call of the day to be returned, or chase them to raise the enquiries that will allow exchange.

A well financed conveyancing firm will charge a higher fee, but it will be appropriately staffed and have the technology to move things through quickly. Leaving your decision until after your offer has been accepted will lead to the same panic as not organising your finances and could leave you with many regrets.

If the cheapy solicitor that you choose does not return calls or is overloaded with work there is an extremely high chance the vendor will loose confidence in you as a serious buyer and pull out of the deal.

Remember above everything that swift progress to exchange is crucial (see Chapter 19: Time Costs Deals). An efficient solicitor who knows this should work as follows:
  • Receives contract and title deeds (or office copy entries) and starts the local searches
  • As soon as the sellers questionnaire, fixtures and fittings form and managing agents accounts (in the case of a Leasehold purchase) come through he raises enquiries
  • The local searches come back, perhaps prompting a couple of queries, which can be resolved quickly
  • He asks you for the funds to allow exchange and gets you to sign the contract, even before all enquires are back
  • The mortgage offer arrives
  • He calls you, informs you of any unusual circumstances, and confirms you are happy to exchange

In other words everything happens at once which dramatically reduces timescales. An inefficient or "traditional" solicitor works like this:
  • Receives contract and title deeds which he files
  • He waits to get the mortgage offer through (3-4 weeks). No point doing any work that will cost you money until the bank has given the green light.
  • He then starts the local searches (2-10 weeks). This was not done earlier as there is a fee involved and he didn't want to spend this until the mortgage offer was confirmed.
  • Once the local searches are back he then gathers all the papers together at one time. He looks at the contract, title and lease along with the local searches. He now raises enquiries all at once as this is easier and takes less of his time. These will take 2-4 weeks, often depending on the efficiency of the managing agents, the local council and the vendors solicitor.
  • He receives these enquiries and raises a couple more for clarity (Another 1-2 weeks)
  • He receives these replies and posts you the contract (2-3 days)
  • You sign it and return it with a cheque (1 week to clear)
  • You exchange
The traditional approach will easily take three to four months from offer to exchange whereas the modern approach can usually keep the timescales to within four weeks! The traditional solicitor will argue that if anything were to go wrong at any stage he has saved you money. If your survey is a problem, for example, at least you will not have paid for local searches or his time to look at the contract. It's a contradiction - the longer a sale drags on, the more likely it is to fall through (see Chapter 19: Time Costs Deals) and cost you money anyway.

Traditional solicitors are more likely to be found in rural areas of the UK where, to be fair, there is less urgency on a sale and they may save you money. They are not to be used for purchases in a major city or booming markets where their slow pace can have the vendor doubting how serious you are.

If you are in doubt and if you want an easy life one of the best ways to choose a solicitor is ask several Estate Agents who they would recommend.

Any of these names are likely to be good. Estate Agents only recommend solicitors who work fast and return calls. It makes their lives easier too, especially when there is a change of buyers and sellers involved. Collusion between solicitors and agents is extremely rare as the law surrounding the obligations of solicitors and your rights to sue are very advanced.

How your lender can force you to pay for a second solicitor

Before we move onto how you can chose a good solicitor it is worth bearing in mind the following. No matter who you chose your lender, if you are taking out a mortgage, might end up forcing you to hire a second solicitor.

Lenders are risking their money on your property. If you stop paying your mortgage they will take the property and try to sell it in order to get their cash back. So far that seems obvious.

The surveyor will confirm the market value of the property but it is the solicitor who will raise flags on anything unusual that may affect this value. If, after receiving the paperwork from the solicitor you hired, the lender feels the conveyancing has not been carried out competently they will refuse to lend until a solicitor they trust has been over the documents and raised any enquiries of their own.

This comes as a profound shock to many buyers because they also find out that the lender is expecting them to pay for the second solicitor as well. These situations are common where:
  • There is a high Loan to Value (LTV) - in other words the buyer is borrowing most of the money.
  • The solicitor is small and relatively unknown - and this usually means cheap which was why they were chosen.

In the end the buyer ends up paying for the cheap solicitor and the lenders more expensive solicitor which, in total, cost more than if the buyer had simply chosen a quality conveyancer in the first place.

If you are in doubt, or your finances are stretched and you do not want to risk this outcome, it is recommended that you contact the lender and ask them for a list of solicitors that they recommend. Most have specific panels for each area of the country.