Law: Battle looms as solicitors muscle in on property market

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The Independent Culture
Lawyers may soon be fighting it out in the market place with estate agents for the right to sell houses. Michael Streeter, Legal Affairs Correspondent, looks at a potentially huge change in how - and where - we buy and sell our homes.

As professional popularity goes, solicitors rank just above journalists, politicians and ... estate agents. If large sections of the legal profession have their way, lawyers could be risking a move downwards in public esteem - by muscling in on the pounds 1.5bn property selling market. A report commissioned by the Law Society suggests that while there are formidable obstacles to solicitors moving into the area, there are compelling reasons why they should.

The main factor is brutally simple: even as lawyers consider the attraction of property, estate agents are already beginning to move into conveyancing, traditionally solicitors' domain. Hambro Countrywide are believed to be convincing 70 per cent of their clients to use their in-house conveyancing service. To many observers there is a clear message for lawyers: take on estate agency business before it takes over you.

As the Law Society Gazette remarked last week, "Perhaps the biggest [risk] would be in failing to take any action at all."

The Law Society report, carried out by consultants BDO Stoy Hayward, believes that to gain a significant share of the estate agency market and its 1.4 million transactions a year would require the involvement of a "critical mass" of some 2,300 law firms, about a quarter of the overall total.

The crucial opening for solicitors is that the report found widespread dissatisfaction with the current house buying system and, especially, with estate agents. This suggests that the lawyers will have to offer something different from the service provided by agents.

Already some solicitors have moved into the business. A company called Solicitors Property Centres Limited (SPCL) has set up a national franchise system based in London, while the Edinburgh Solicitors Property Centre has been running for some time in Scotland. Its chief executive, Annie Murray, says it also is drawing up plans to set up in London. "In a survey of the London and the south-east, 61 per cent of people said they would consider visiting a solicitor to sell their house. We were quite encouraged by that," she says.

Such centres provide a marketing centre and office for a large number of solicitors, and there are expert lawyers on hand in the same premises that customers choose their properties.

SPCL already have signed up 700 firms and hope to have 12 centres across the country by the year's end. Chrissie Masterman, a marketing executive, says there has been no alternative to estate agents for many years, despite customer dissatisfaction. "Now there is. This is one of the most exciting things to hit the profession in many years," she says. "This is the way forward."

But Hugh Dunsmore-Hardy, chief executive of the National Association of Estate Agents, says his members are well used to dealing with competition. "Estate agents are not going to stand idly by and surrender their business. They will rise to the challenge."