Property: Hand over the keys and the survey details

New plans are afoot to put a greater burden of responsibility - and cost - on to people trying to sell their homes, to speed up the process and make it fairer all round. Let the vendor beware.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It costs most of us nothing to put our homes on the market. We can sit back while it is valued and marketed, while the buyers pass through each stage en route to an exchange of contracts, clocking up expenses as they go.

No wonder Government proposals for the seller to pay for searches, surveys and the like have not been met with universal joy. But however valid the specific criticisms, few would argue that the time has come for sellers to play a more responsible role in the buying and selling process.

Indeed there has already been a quiet revolution in attitudes among estate agents and homeowners who want to see the balance redressed. These days vendors who delight in regaling their friends with stories of how they fooled their buyers are likely to draw only a wry smile. In practice, though, a seller's secrets are almost bound to be discovered, delaying the purchase, if not stopping it altogether.

It was the snail's pace of most sales, as well as the hazard of gazumping, that prompted the Government to review the system of house-buying. Since a great many sellers have a tendency to do nothing to facilitate a sale until an offer pops up, they are an obvious target for change.

Hugh Dunsmore-Hardy, chief executive of the National Association of Estate Agents, is of the opinion that the vendor should be far more responsible for providing information about the state of a property, even if it shifts the balance of cost from buyer to seller in the early stages of the process: "We must get away from the adversarial system based on the adage of caveat emptor."

There are those who need little persuasion. Patrick Barrington, who lives in Weymouth, Dorset, is one of a growing number who keeps a record of anything done to his house in a log book. "While the double glazing was being done, I took photographs of the ties in the cavity wall. I did the same when we were insulating our roof, in case a buyer was interested in how it was done."

And far from concealing any problems, Barrington has recorded them. "I have pictures of cracks so that a purchaser can see that nothing has moved and won't get agitated. I know what insurance companies are like."

He has, in the past, gone further than many sellers would want to and commissioned a building survey on a house he was selling. "We found a buyer immediately, who was delighted. It's ridiculous that one house can be surveyed numerous times. One I know that went to auction had 25 surveys done on it, all by the same firm."

A survey is the most controversial feature of any vendor's packet. Michael Day, a vice chairman of the Society for Valuers and Auctioneers, believes that it has more issues attached to it than first appear. "Will it really speed things up if a buyer wants his own survey? What happens if a few sellers in a chain don't have one? Will lenders accept it? After all, they will still need to do a valuation."

Another concern is how dependable it would be and what recourse buyers would have if a serious problem appeared in the house.

Certainly the reluctance of buyers to commission surveys is hardly encouraging - closer to 25 per cent than the 40 per cent quoted by the Government, according to Day. And only a third of those will opt for a detailed building survey.

But where estate agents strongly recommend a vendor's survey is on properties that need work. Guy Gibson of the surveyors and valuers with Hamptons International, says that if it is clear that a house needs a new roof, or certain repairs, its price will reflect that, and it will therefore become more saleable.

He says: "The days when you have uninformed purchasers are gone. We should move towards providing a survey that serves both buyer and seller. It would have a shelf life and stay with the property for that period."

At the very least, he says, a seller's packet should include things like title deeds, local searches, planning permission, guarantees, building regulation approval and so on - all the time-consuming features of a sale. An owner's log book is not a new idea, but it has begun to catch on.

Knight Frank, the estate agent, issues one to all its new purchasers so that when they come to sell they can demonstrate that the house has been cared for. "If all the documentation is kept up to date, and the seller can provide a legal package, exchange of contracts need take no longer than five days," says Martin Lamb.

Whatever the Government decides, it is almost bound to make new demands of the seller. Some estate agencies intend to get a head start. Black Horse Agencies, now owned by Bradford & Bingley Building Society, this week announced plans for a new "fast move" service, which includes a pre- market survey, a 95 per cent mortgage for buyers, insurance covering the sale's collapse, and a guarantee covering any structural faults not disclosed in the survey to be transferred to the purchaser on completion.

They expect the sale time to be halved. Estate agents are used to being criticised for doing little to earn their commission, but if sellers have to be ready with a packet for the purchaser, it is the agent who must oversee it. Could this be the answer to higher standards and a new professionalism? It will certainly widen the gap between the best and the rest.

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