Leading Article: House-sellers' packs will do little to prevent gazumping

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The Independent Culture
NO OTHER country in the world boasts Britain's dependence on the ownership of a home as the single most important economic fact in an individual's life. No other country boasts, either, the miseries of trying to buy or sell that home. It takes too long, it costs too much and the process is at the mercy of the vagaries of the buying-and-selling chain that accompanies it, and the fear of gazumping that shadows it.

For a government as determined as this one to leap on every passing concern, and be seen to "do something" about it, action against gazumping must seem irresistible. For a government as enamoured of fiddly interventions, it is hardly surprising that it has come up with a gesture that promises much, costs little and could end up achieving almost nothing.

There is nothing intrinsically bad about the Government's plan for a "seller's pack" now being tried out in a pilot scheme in Bristol. The idea of placing on the seller the obligation of producing, and guaranteeing, the results of a search and survey is an appealing one. If every potential buyer didn't have to do his own search and survey, then the transactions would be quicker and the unfortunate bidder who was then gazumped would not have wasted his time and money.

Barely has the Government begun to consider how it might all be put into legislation, however, than officials are having to think of exemptions. Forcing the house owner to spend pounds 550-pounds 650 on a "pack" may be all right in a seller's market of high prices in London. It hardly works for an owner desperate to sell a pounds 5,000 back-to-back in the north.

Nor does the scheme stop gazumping. It merely removes the cost of paying out for an unused survey for the purchaser who is outbid at the last moment. There is still nothing to stop a later buyer coming in with a higher price the day before completion, and so wrecking the whole process. Nor does it, or necessarily should it, transfer all the onus of responsibility from buyer to seller. Which mortgage provider, or purchaser, is going to rely completely on the seller for the survey? And, if they do, how are they to sue if the details prove inadequate?

If the object of the exercise is to speed up England's abysmally slow process of conveyancing, then computerising land records and simplifying the legal documents are already on the way. If the object is to break the chains and prevent gazumping, then the only answer has to be to introduce a legally binding deposit, as happens in Scotland and the Continent. Anything short of that is just fiddling while the chains grow longer.