Property Conveyancing: Get the legal work done - without the criminal charges

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For those who haven't been through it before - and even for those who have - the legal part of the house-buying process can be very fraught.

A solicitor or conveyancing firm is usually required to transfer ownership of the property, carry out checks on legal documents and local authority searches, arrange the completion and exchange of contracts and oversee the payment of stamp duty.

While they must find an efficient, reliable firm to do the work, homebuyers also have to make sure they are paying a fair price - and unfortunately, conveyancing costs are not easy to track or compare. Some firms quote a fixed sum at the outset, with a proviso that fees may vary and expenses such as postage and VAT may be added to the bill.

"You may be offered a low quote from a solicitor, only to find that they add a whole load of extra costs on at the end for 'disbursements'," says Nick Gardner of broker Chase de Vere Mortgage Management.

Most homebuyers want to keep the legal process as simple as possible, and Nationwide building society has sought to meet this demand with the launch of a new conveyancing service. It's the third mortgage lender to do so, following the Halifax and the Britannia building society.

Nationwide's deal offers customers a fixed-fee tariff based on the price of the property and whether it's leasehold or freehold. For a flat worth between £150,000 and £200,000, Nationwide would charge a fixed fee of £938.83.

The service also promises that, if the deal is not completed, no fees are payable.

Melanie Bien from mortgage broker Savills Private Finance welcomes Nationwide's move. "Conveyancing is a long, drawn-out and complex process," she says, "so anything that speeds it up is definitely a good thing."

Although greater competition in the legal services market should help keep prices down, brokers warn that the new entrants won't necessarily be cheaper than standard conveyancers. Figures from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister put the average cost at £560, and Nationwide's prices are unlikely to be the most competitive, warns Mr Gardner.

However, he adds: "Some people will be happy to pay that bit extra for the peace of mind of knowing you won't have to pay for anything if the deal falls through."

For properties in the same £150,000 to £200,000 price bracket, Britannia says its basic fixed fee is £399 plus £150 each for land registry and the local authority search ; at the Halifax, the basic fixed fee is £489. Nationwide's service is also only available to its own mortgage customers - unlike the Halifax's.

When seeking a solicitor, ask for a number of quotes but don't make your decision on price alone. You will need to get on well with the person acting on your behalf, and he should be able to explain the process clearly.

"Large [firms of] solicitors process thousands of deals simultaneously," says Mr Gardner. "You're more likely to get a personal and possibly a quicker service at a smaller solicitor's."

Alternatively, you could carry out your own conveyancing - but there are risks here for the inexperienced. "Get it wrong and you could make a costly mistake," says Ms Bien. "And there's no comeback if you do mess up."

First-time buyer Chris Rawle, 21, is looking for a two-bedroom terraced property in Swindon with his twin brother, Tom. They have a budget of around £120,000 and plan to use Nationwide's conveyancing service. Chris says he likes the idea that it offers "some kind of safety net if the purchase falls through".

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