Lawyers muscle in on estate agents' patch

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It's War on the high street. Solicitors and estate agents are battling for their livelihoods by trying to claim one another's territory in the lucrative housing market.

For years, house-buyers and sellers have used agents to market their homes and lawyers to carry out the legal paperwork. Privately, the two professions were often highly critical of one another but publicly forgot their differences and worked together. Now the rivalry has spilled into the open as the housing boom continues and agents and solicitors vie to secure profits from rising house prices.

Estate agents are attempting to take away business from solicitors by setting up conveyancing divisions as part of their work, while solicitors are looking to form one-stop property shops where customers can find a home and hire someone to carry out the conveyancing.

The shake-up comes as house prices continue to move upwards, with prices in many areas of central London passing the peak they set in 1989. Lawyers and residential agents have realised they are on the brink of a revival in their fortunes after the lean years of the property slump during the early Nineties. The money to be made runs into billions of pounds a year.

Solicitors have pressed the Law Society, the body that polices their profession, to change the rules governing how they carry out their work.

Next week the society's council is expected to ratify reforms enabling solicitors to work for buyers and sellers. Under existing regulations a solicitor cannot act for both the house-seller and the home-buyer in the same transaction.

This week a national network of property centres is to be launched by solicitors keen to increase their share of high street housing business.

The Solicitors' Property Network will form a series of linked, franchised property centres across the country, offering clients estate agency services and conveyancing via solicitors' practices.

Richard Berensen, chairman of the Solicitors' Property Network, says solicitors will do well in estate agency because there is a clear need for the market to cleaned up.

"There are some good estate agents but they have got a spivvy reputation," he said.

Estate agents are equally scathing of solicitors. Richard Sawtell, who is developing conveyancing services for Hambro Countrywide, the country's biggest chain of estate agents, said: "We're still working hard when they're on the golf course."