Solicitors are core to the house-moving process and attuned to the complexities poorly understood by others
Everyone has an opinion on the housing market. Last week, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors cited ‘an acute shortage of conveyancers’ contributing to longer transaction times.
Being a solicitor, my first thought was to find evidence for these propositions. Sadly, I could find none other than anecdotal observation of an increase in advertisements seeking conveyancers.
We can all remember cases where a matter has been delayed for a myriad of reasons, but equally I would suggest a similar number proceed smoothly and are less likely to be recalled. Solicitors are the metaphorical ringmasters in the conveyancing circus. Perhaps the implied criticism of speed is the price we pay for our role – that is, being absolutely central to the house-moving process, and carrying risk and liability. But this is understood by few outside the profession.
Each commentator lobs their opinion into the ring (sometimes informed by considerations of financial gain). But unless one understands the market’s complexity, drawing conclusions is risky.
Examine the dynamics. Some 1.4m transactions in 2007/8 (2.8m sellers and buyers) to around half that number a year later, and now reportedly well over a million again. Each transaction is dealt with by a business that is subject to complex regulation, negotiating constantly changing rules and instructions. Billions are transferred, accounted for down to the penny. There are very high client satisfaction levels, despite moving house being among the most stressful activities. Acute competition between ourselves keeps fee levels low and margins tight.
Even if transactions are taking longer, there are factors notably absent in the RICS press release – for example, any mention of ‘chains’.
We all know that a single transaction with a willing buyer and seller can proceed smoothly. But add others who are dependent on that transaction and problems grow exponentially. Thus in a chain of five, a problem with one means that all five are delayed. Hey presto, the average time increases. A surprise to some.
In a buoyant market, sellers want to stay in the game. Moving into temporary accommodation brings the risk of the market leaving you behind. Thus longer chains are symptomatic of a stronger housing economy.
The Mortgage Market Review, which introduced tougher checks on borrowers’ circumstances, may have lengthened offer times, but if a few days’ delay means less risky and more sustainable lending that should be welcomed.
A thought might be spared for the additional time spent these days in checking planning and building regulation certifications. When RICS members inspect a property, a quick scan of the electronic planning register, followed by a ‘heads up’ to the conveyancer describing what has actually been done, may help to save a few days. Joined-up thinking?
As for the mention of skilled professionals, I am pleased and proud to see an acknowledgement of our expertise. This talent does not grow on trees but is forged through years of learning and experience. Satisfying the hopes of our clients is not just good business practice but is also central to our core ethic.
As the market picks up, thousands of professional practices are not only seeking to recover financially but are working harder and longer hours, taking up all available slack in their firms to meet demand.
There is also impetus behind the search for new ways of working. The Law Society investment in the coming Conveyancing Portal is designed to help all practices move to a common digital working format, solicitor-to-client and practice-to-practice. It provides new possibilities for information exchange, the control of which will keep our profession at the centre of this vital market.
So if you hear anybody saying that the speed of professionals is causing difficulties, perhaps you might suggest that they hire an amateur and watch how they get on.
Jonathan Smithers is vice-president of the Law Society