It was Michael Gove who famously said “I think that the people of this country have had enough of experts” but when it comes to those expressing opinions about why house buying and selling is so slow, we have to agree.
As a company deep in the muck and bullets of the residential conveyancing front-line, we’re bemused by the opinions expressed by those armchair generals viewing the battle through their rose-tinted telescopes on comfy sofas.
They come from all walks of life – government, trade bodies, consumer watchdogs and even those panel managers that make such an invaluable contribution to the process.
Buying a property is very slow with deals currently taking four months on average to go through, which is frankly ludicrous and much of the responsibility must fall on solicitors.
So why does it take solicitors SO long to do what most people think should be a straightforward process.
The problem is that conveyancing is actually quite tricky.
We’d love to reduce the process to a few tick-boxes, but it simply can’t be done.
Firstly, one of the problems we’ve inherited are the failings of the previous generation of lawyers where deals went through on a handshake followed by a sherry down the Dog and Duck and a leisurely round of golf. Mistakes were often ignored or fixed with a few crossings out.
If we had a pound for every lease-plan that does not match the title, even by conservative estimates we’d have over £342.
So why is it, that if mistakes were acceptable for those dusty solicitors of that bygone age, why are solicitors now more cautious and spend so much time and effort having to fix these mistakes.
The answer is simple.
It’s our litigation culture.
It is now very common for people to try and profit from property disputes, which means that we have to be much more careful to protect our clients, the mortgage lender and ourselves.
For example, when one of our clients moved into a flat and subsequently had a baby, a neighbour alleged they had breached the lease which only allowed two “persons” to live there.
We successfully argued that as their child was under 18 they were not a legal “person” but it was highly stressful for our client and shows how difficult people can be.
These days, when neighbours turn up at the door to welcome a new owner, they’re more likely to be brandishing a solicitor’s letter than a basket of muffins.
It’s not just the public that have raised the stakes in the litigation game.
The idea of receiving a letter from a mortgage lender asking about a problem with a recently completed property transaction scares solicitors more than Stephen King’s clown, “Pennywise”.
Whilst the challenge of protecting our clients is extremely time consuming, another key element of delays are solicitors, who often do not do themselves any favours whatsoever.
Ensuring that all the issues that arise in a case are effectively addressed requires organisation, process efficiency and modern, decent technology.
Relying solely on a solicitor to use his experience to overcome issues is simply not practical these days.
Inexperienced conveyancers usually get blamed for slowing the process by asking irrelevant questions and not being pragmatic to the responses they receive.
However, those suffering from too many years in the trenches can be equally difficult – last week an experienced solicitor who we were selling to, refused to accept our certified identification documents because we had not met our clients personally.
Most delays occur at the enquiry stage, and the legal industry really needs to re-examine its approach here. Whilst there are many people involved in finding answers to enquiries, solicitors often will not respond to all enquiries or repeatedly ask the same questions, which causes delay and frustration.
This is due in most part to the atrocious case management systems in use today, with the majority using paper files.
The suggestion that solicitors store these enquiries centrally and electronically, typically receives the same wide-eyed wonderment as a teenager meeting Justin Bieber in the Peckham Aldi.
Finally, the issue of caseloads is simply too big an elephant in the room to ignore.
One of our colleagues came from a firm where he was expected to manage over 300 cases. While this is an extreme example, we regularly interview candidates who are managing over 100 cases from start to finish.
Such high caseloads combined with the constant interruption of the telephone, due mainly to a lack of proactivity, will always slow the process.
These volumes are typically due to the low fees being charged, usually caused through the use of panels, whose business is driven by the need for agents and mortgage brokers to “widen their revenue streams”. Understandable, but frustrating for all involved.
These are just a few of the areas that cause delays in the conveyancing process, so the next time you are getting frustrated about how long a deal takes, be sure to ignore those armchair experts who too often share some attributes with Pennywise; someone who makes even Mr Gove look credible.
Peter Ambrose is founder of independent conveyancing firm The Partnership