Practically anything can be bought online now. However, the buying and selling of properties has almost entirely eluded the virtual retail environment. The reason? Buying or selling a house or an office block involves surveys, due diligence, lawyers, site inspections and an exchange of contracts with legally binding signatures.
While much of this process can be adapted for online sales, what has often mystified lawyers and software geeks was how to create a valid sales contract and legally binding electronic signature. That is, until now.
London property investment services firm Singer Vielle has launched clicktopurchaseproperty.com which allows properties to be legally bought and sold entirely online. Neil Singer, who heads Singer Vielle, says he wants to "drag the property industry into the 21st century".
He created Click to Purchase last year for his worldwide clients allowing them to buy a commercial property online and offering the only real-time live online property auctions. Now the plan is to move Click to Purchase into residential property sales, which could finally stop the practices of gazumping and gazundering in the England and Wales property markets.
"It is well reported that buying a house is one of the most stressful events," Mr Singer said. "Legislation has tried and failed to end gazumping and other unscrupulous practices. For users of Click to Purchase an acceptance of an offer is an exchange of contracts. Now, a buyer can quickly and transparently submit an offer to treat. If accepted, a contract will be exchanged immediately electronically. The buyer cannot be gazumped; the seller cannot be gazundered."
Mr Singer said that residential and commercial agencies can now use the software under licence from Singer Vielle. And his venture is already gaining ground as he has signed up property services firms Christie & Co and John Miles & Co as the first users of clicktopurchaseproperty.com.
The firms will continue to market their properties and businesses for sale on their own websites and in auction catalogues. But any properties which can be bought and sold online will have a "click to purchase" link.
Mr Singer said: "What started as an idea has rapidly become a recognised way of buying and selling, with the advantages of fairness, speed, a worldwide reach and transparency".
How can I use Click to Purchase?
If you click on a Click to Purchase symbol on an estate agent's website, this will take you to the estate agent's list of all properties for sale at Clicktopurchaseproperty.com or the particular property in question.
What steps must be taken to submit an offer to purchase a property?
Once registered, an online verification form must be completed. This generates an email to the UK solicitor for the proposed buyer, including a money-laundering form. Once the solicitor returns this form, identity checks can be cleared and you can submit an offer provided clearance of your ability to purchase from the selling agent has been given.
Where will I find the legal package for each property?
In the left-hand column when viewing information for a property.
Can I raise further legal enquiries?
Yes. The buyers and their lawyer can contact the vendor's solicitor whose details are displayed.
If I clicked "Click to Purchase", could I inadvertently buy a property?
No. There are ample opportunities to cease the offer process and to review offers.
Can I bid on behalf of someone else?
Yes. The buyer's identity is the one that needs to be cleared by the UK solicitor to accord with money laundering regulations.
When will I know when to submit an offer?
When logged-in a buyer's status is depicted by red and green "traffic lights" in the My Account page. These can also be seen on the web pages of every property for which a verification form has been completed.
If I submit an offer online, is the vendor obliged to accept this offer?
If I win an auction, have I exchanged contracts?
Can I withdraw my offer?
A Click to Purchase offer can be withdrawn at any time, even before the expiry time stipulated when the offer was submitted, as long as it has not already been accepted by the seller and a contract exchanged. In the event of bidding in a Click to Purchase auction, you cannot withdraw a bid for a lot; the bid remains active until superseded by a higher offer, accepted or in the event of the bidding ending without a sale it being rejected. In any event, your bid will lapse after 10 minutes at auction.
Can I exchange a contract with completion conditional upon any event?
Click to Purchase is designed to enable the seller to turn on or off a feature which provides a buyer with the option to submit unconditional offers, or offers with completion dependent upon finance or satisfactory survey. If your offer is submitted with completion conditional upon finance and a contract is exchanged but you are unable to complete, you will be charged 0.5 per cent of the contract price, but if the survey highlights a "material fault" then the contract can be rescinded without charge.
Can I suggest the completion date?
If your offer is accepted and contracts exchanged, the completion date you have proposed will apply. At a Click to Purchase auction, only the seller's completion date will apply and you will not have the option to choose another completion date.
What do I do if I have exchanged contracts?
Make sure your solicitor sends the deposit sum to the vendor's solicitor within two working days. Details of the vendor's solicitor's bank details will be automatically emailed to you and your solicitor.