Fines and jail for gazumping

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The Independent Online
HOUSE SELLERS who connive with gazumpers or provide dishonest particulars about their homes face large fines or even imprisonment under legislation to be introduced this autumn. The Government is determined to change the way houses and flats are bought and sold in order to beat gazumping, and cut the time it takes to complete a purchase.

The new property rules will require prospective sellers to carry out surveys and complete detailed property forms before they offer their homes for sale. Currently it is up to the buyer to pay for a survey.

After consulting widely on their manifesto pledge to reform the property market, ministers are now convinced that sanctions are the only way to ensure the rules are universally adopted. Property sellers who flouted the new law and then failed to pay their fines would risk imprisonment - the first time threats of jail have been used in such cases.

Under the new system, sellers will have to instruct solicitors as soon as they decide to sell, not once they have found a buyer. And they will be required to draw up accurate specifications of their homes. At present, estate agents do this, often in a misleading way.

Within the next fortnight, the Government will also ask the private sector to tender for a contract to provide a computerised "one-stop shop" for all property searches. The current system, whereby local authorities carry out the search, is judged too expensive and cumbersome. Fees range from pounds 30 to pounds 130 depending on the location.

The introduction of the new centralised computer search system is expected to reduce the time between "shaking on the sale" and actually exchanging contracts to days. The average time now taken to complete the sale of a home, once an offer has been accepted, is eight weeks, one of the longest delays in the world, government research shows.

A spokeswoman for the Department of the Environment, Transport and Regions, which is spearheading the change, said the new rules would help prevent gazumping, giving the seller little time to find a better offer.

It would also reduce anxiety in a process recognised to be one of the most stressful experiences in a person's life, she said.

Property prices across the country have soared to record levels, it was reported last week. In London,10 buyers are chasing each property, forcing prices up by 50 per cent over the past three years. The average home now costs pounds 150,000, up from pounds 100,000 in 1996.