Buying and selling: Critics pick holes in the big hope for housing

Laura Brady asks if Home Information Packs will really make buyers' lives easier, speed up the chain and cut out gazumping
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The Independent Online

Are you female and interested in other people's homes? Then the Government wants you: it thinks you might be ideal material for a new role of "home inspector", one of 7,000 needed over the next 18 months as the property chain is shaken up.

Sellers' packs - the informal name for Home Information Packs (HIPs), which aim to speed up the buy/sell process - will be compulsory in England and Wales from early 2007, Yvette Cooper, the housing minister, confirmed last week.

At the moment, it is up to buyers to arrange inspections of a property and commission the legal work, after they have had an offer accepted. But in the future, the onus will be on the vendor to have all this information assembled and ready when the home first hits the market.

For the scheme to work, huge numbers of inspectors will be needed to assess homes and put the packs together. Although many posts will be taken at first by chartered surveyors, the Government is keen to attract more women - perhaps mothers seeking part-time work - to a male- dominated industry that is often viewed as overbearing.

Training courses will be offered and, while the target salary has yet to be confirmed, "it will be as for a [career demanding a] professional qualification", says a spokeswoman for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM).

A sellers' pack "dry run" will take place next July, with a number of estate agents and lenders invited to take part.

The packs' contents have yet to be finalised but they will probably include deeds, a "home condition report" (HCR) and details of local authority searches for planning applications.

With plenty of legal and survey information upfront, the ODPM hopes the pack will help speed up the average 12-week transaction time between agreement on the price and completion - in other words, the time in which things can go wrong. During this period, for example, buyers might be gazumped by rival, higher offers - and see hundreds of pounds wasted - or pull out after discovering structural problems.

Swift turnarounds could help prevent this and also give a leg-up to first-time buyers who won't have to pay survey or legal fees.

The pack will probably be stored with estate agents or the yet-to-be-formed "home inspection" companies; its anticipated £700 cost will be added to the estate agent's fee.

But critics, including many estate agents, point out that the HCR evaluates only the appearance of a house - the state of the stonework, windows or fittings. The pack scheme won't be successful, they say, unless it matches the current Homebuyer's Report, a structural assessment by a surveyor that usually costs around £300. Without this, critics add, buyers will be unwilling to put their faith in the seller and will pay out for their own valuation.

It's also unclear how lenders will deal with the HCR. An unsatisfactory report could lead them to carry out their own - a cost likely to be passed on.

However, proposals are still at a very flexible stage. In the autumn, Ms Cooper is to meet with solicitors, lenders and bodies representing estate agents.

One West Country estate agent has already backed the scheme. M Coleman gives vendors the option of a sellers' pack, at the cost of an extra 0.25 per cent on its usual commission.

Donna and Chris Bird sold their Georgian home using its pack two months ago - the cost was £770. "Selling an old house, it gave us peace of mind to have the survey already prepared," says Mrs Bird. "Prospective buyers could see what they were getting, so once a sale was agreed, there was less chance they would back out."

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