They say moving home is one of the most stressful things you can do in life. Having just moved house myself, I can understand why. But it did at least provide me with a useful insight into the conveyancing process from a client’s perspective. And I’m afraid the news isn’t entirely good.
I decided to get quotes from a few different law firms for my sale and purchase. Keen to save a few bob, I contacted a large bulk conveyancer in Leeds that had previously done my remortgage. I expected that as their approach would be very process-driven, they would probably be cheaper. But my estate agent Gary also offered to recommend some local firms.
Out of interest, I asked him whether he was paid a fee for the recommendation. Sometimes, yes, sometimes no, he said. He gave me two firm names.
I contacted the first local firm, which gave me a quote that was a few hundred quid higher than the bulk conveyancer. I asked the partner whether he paid a referral fee. He said the estate agents had asked him a few years ago to pay £100 for every referral, but he had flatly refused as he was against the principle of referral fees. Clearly this had not prevented Gary from recommending him, but then maybe that was because I had been asking about referral fees.
I respected this lawyer for his stance on referrals, but I did not instruct him because he was too expensive. He struck me as the type of traditional firm that would start charging me separately for things like photocopying. And I noticed when he sent out the quotation in the post (which he sent the same day, and I have no doubt that his service would have been good), he had included an envelope to return the quite weighty documents with the first class stamps already stuck on. Surely there would be a more cost-efficient way of doing this? I ended up using the pre-stamped envelope he had sent out to post a present to a friend.
The second local firm Gary recommended quoted me a lower price. He quoted the same price for both the sale work and the purchase work, even though the purchase generally costs more, and when I asked him about this he said he had just evened out the costs to make it more straightforward. I asked him about the level of any referral fee, and he said, ‘oh, that’s all in the letter’. But I noticed when his quotation letter arrived it simply said that a referral fee had been paid, without saying how much.
In the end, I decided to go with the bulk conveyancer. They were open late and on Saturdays, they were slightly cheaper than the local chap – I was a bit suspicious of how he was managing to quote lower than the first guy, even though he was presumably paying Gary £100 for the work – and I thought they would be IT-savvy and do a lot of their correspondence by email.
Sadly, during the earlier stages of the process, my assumptions about the bulk firm were pretty wide of the mark. My caseworker – a legal executive, I think – was very slow to respond to emails, went on holiday without bothering to tell me, and set her telephone almost constantly onto divert. It would be answered by junior colleagues who were friendly, but not much help.
She insisted in doing all communication with other lawyers in the transaction by post, even during the postal strike. When an issue over who should pay chancel repair insurance cropped up, myself, the vendor and the person she was buying from were able to resolve this ourselves within 24 hours by text message, before my adviser’s letter had even reached the other side’s solicitor.
As the hoped-for date of exchange drew near, she became completely unavailable. I had already given up on trying to call her but emailed her several times with no response. My seller was getting very edgy. I then had a call from the seller’s estate agent telling me that my lawyer had left the firm. I had not been informed, and it appeared that even though the transaction had reached a crucial point, no one had been working on the file since she had left, nearly a week ago. She had not let me know that she was leaving, but then perhaps she herself didn’t know it was coming.
I rang the firm and got the name of her supervisor, then contacted him directly. He replied immediately and said he would draw up the relevant documents himself, that afternoon, and email them over for us to sign. He did exactly that. Thanks to him we did exchange on time – by the skin of our teeth – and he provided excellent service right though until completion.
Did I just get a bad egg with my first adviser? Probably. Certainly the second guy was excellent. I would use that firm again if I could be sure my transaction would be dealt with by him. But if not, I don’t think I could take the risk.
I have to say that I was not the only party in the transaction who was unhappy with their lawyer. My vendor, who was a former City lawyer herself, used a local solicitor and was frustrated by his ‘one-word replies’ to her emails and general lack of responsiveness.
One point which did interest me during the transaction was how my estate agent, a very clued-up businessman, was able to make money from every aspect of the process. As well as recommending law firms – and indeed my purchaser did use one of the firms he suggested – his estate agency (like many of them) had its own financial adviser, also used by my buyer.
He sold my house very quickly – being good at his job – and the sold board outside bearing his logo gained him more business from my neighbour, who was also planning to sell.
When it came to completion, he called me to make sure everything had gone through okay, and it turned out he could even have recommended me a removal firm.
I get the feeling that if conveyancing solicitors could be even half as savvy as the estate agents they love to hate, they might have a lot less to worry about in these difficult times.