Leading Article: Neither a gazumper nor a gazunderer be

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The Independent Culture
WE SHOULD be wary of Hilary Armstrong today, when the housing minister announces measures designed to make the buying and selling of houses easier, cheaper and faster. These are laudable objectives. And there is no doubt that the business of conveyancing is more difficult, expensive and slow than it need be, and that this works against a fair market in the most expensive things most people ever buy.

But house-buying can never be reduced to the simplicity and efficiency of buying baked beans, precisely because houses are large, complex things and the amounts of money involved are so big. Many of the quick fixes are misguided. The Scottish system of sealed bids does not guarantee the best price. The idea of a "log book" for every house is flawed: who would compile it and to whom would they be liable if it turned out to be misleading?

There are two ideas which, if they appear in Ms Armstrong's plans, should be welcomed. One is that sellers should be forced to compensate prospective purchasers if they "gazump" - that is, accept a higher offer after agreeing a price. Equally, buyers should not be allowed to "gazunder" - drop the price before exchanging. The other is that surveyors should be made liable to anyone who relies on a survey, not just the person who commissioned it. This would enable sellers to have surveys done for any prospective buyer.

What is depressing is that the proposals should be necessary at all. Making the market work better does not appear to require any changes in the law. The legal and surveying professions have been slow to innovate. If Ms Armstrong can give them a kick to get them to cut the three months it takes on average to buy a house, it will be justified intervention in the supposedly free market.