Solicitors for house sales and purchases

Recently I was asked for recommendations on which solicitors to use for house sales/purchases. I ended up composing a fairly lengthy email, and thought it might be useful to others as well. None of this is legal advice for your specific situation – it’s more a general guide as to how you might find someone to provide you with that advice.

The first thing you need to check is whether your mortgage provider will allow you to use any solicitor (assuming you are buying and borrowing to do so). There are three possibilities:

  1. You can use any solicitor.
  2. You can use any solicitor, provided they are on the lender’s panel or are willing to join the panel.
  3. You can only use a solicitor from the lender’s panel.

If your mortgage includes the payment of legal fees, you will probably have to use whatever solicitor the lender provides. Be very careful about checking first, as otherwise you could end up having to pay two solicitors: yours and the lender’s if they are different firms.

Solicitors I have experience of dealing with for residential property transactions are Peter Robinson & Co (reasonably efficient, but based in Oldham) and AST Hampsons (efficient and open on Saturday mornings) – specifically the Bury branch. One of my friends from university, Gareth Aubrey, also works at Griffiths ings (I haven’t used them, but if you ask for Gareth and mention my name he’ll at least know where you’re coming from).

Whilst you can do everything by post, you might find it more convenient to use a local solicitor near your house or work, as then you can drop off and pick up documents without risking loss/delay in the postal system. Small firms are likely to give you a better service – large firms are unlikely to care about residential property unless you are spending substantial amounts or are an important client who might have other business to send their way (e.g. a CEO who will use them for corporate issues).

Watch out for hidden costs – there are two main types of charges/fees:

Solicitor fees: Pays for the time of dealing with your case. May be paid by your mortgage provider, and will probably be around 1% of the price paid for the property (or about £400-500 if you are just selling).

Disbursements: These are costs the solicitor incurs on your behalf, such as Land Registry searches, CHAPS fees etc. They will be recharged to you at cost, possibly with VAT added. Budget around £500 for this. Watch out if your lender says they will pay for your solicitor – they usually mean just the fees and not the disbursements.

You will have to pay all the costs even if the offer falls through. However, your solicitor might pro-rata the fees if they’ve only completed some of the work, and they shouldn’t charge you for any costs they’ve not incurred (e.g. if it falls through before they’ve started the searches).

Just to complicate matters, there are two types of firms: conveyancers and solicitors. Conveyancers just handle property/land sales and purchases, solicitors are more general but will usually have someone who specialises in conveyancing. There are slight differences in how they are regulated and insured, but nothing of practical significance. You might find a conveyancer a bit easier to deal with as they’re a specialist, but they probably won’t be able to advise you on other services – e.g. if you want to make a will at the same time (though you can use a separate firm for this).

Before you register with a solicitor or conveyancer, call them and ask:

  1. Who their regulator is and what their registration number is. It will either be the Council for Licensed Conveyancers or the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Go to the regulator’s website and double-check that the details you’ve been given by the firm match those on the register. Especially check the branch address details – some rogue firms have managed to get themselves on the register by adding themselves as a fake branch of a legitimate firm.
  2. Who their professional indemnity insurer is. This covers the firm if you have to sue them for negligence – e.g. if they forget to check something or give you poor advice (the insurer will pay as the firm probably wouldn’t have funds to meet the claim). It’s compulsory for conveyancers and solicitors to have this insurance, so avoid any firm which is reluctant to disclose the details of their policy.
  3. How they handle client money. You will transfer your deposit into an account with the firm, so there is a risk that they will go bust before handing it over to the vendor’s solicitors. They should keep the funds in a separate client account with a trust deed that means it can’t be seized by their creditors in the event of the firm becoming insolvent. They will mix your funds with other clients in the same account, but they should have a mechanism in place to work out which parts of the balance belong to each client.
  4. What their fees are, including an estimate of the disbursements. They won’t be able to give you an exact figure as there might be some unexpected costs – e.g. if they have to order extra documents – but it will give you a ballpark figure to see if they are competitive. You may have to pay part of the fees upfront before the solicitor will commence work.
  5. Whether the firm will deal electronically – e.g. via email, allow you to make bank transfers instead of writing cheques etc. A lot of firms are still stuck in the 19th century, and even with more up to date firms you’ll probably have to do some things on paper.

Residential conveyancing is a pretty standard process at the sub-£1m end of the market, so there shouldn’t be a great deal of difference in price between solicitors. If you do find a price differential, make sure that the firms are including all the fees in their quote, as some will leave out certain disbursements or VAT.

When it comes to exchange of contracts, if anyone pulls out after this stage they will have to pay the costs of everyone else in the chain. You might exchange and complete on the same day, which keeps thing simple, and your solicitor should be able to exchange on your behalf – i.e. you don’t have to attend in person.

If you’re buying a property with other people (e.g. a partner) you need to think about how the property ownership is split. Specifically it’s important with regards to what happens if one of you wants to sell (relationship break up, new job etc.), or passes away. If you’re not married, you won’t get any of the default rules regarding inheritance (including the tax-free transfer of assets), and living together doesn’t give you much in the way of rights. There are also potential complications with the difference between legal rights and rights in equity, but your solicitor should explain this in plain English if it applies to your situation. Even if you are married, it’s probably sensible to ask your solicitor about wills, just so everything is written down and agreed with regards to inheritances.

Finally, if in doubt, ask, double-check and if necessary get a second opinion. Solicitors make mistakes and have gaps in their knowledge just like everyone else, except when they mess up it tends to cost other people a lot of money. Also, I’ve found that if you ask the occasional sensible question, you get taken far more seriously than if you just sit there and nod at everything the professional says.