Buying? Let the seller prepare

A pilot house-purchase scheme putting the onus on the vendor is beginning to work well.
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The Independent Online

If there is any fun in house-hunting, it is in looking at glossy brochures and dreaming. As soon as the right property has been found, the stress kicks in as the stage between offer and exchange of contract looms like a minefield. To reduce the number of potential hazards - not least gazumping - the Government has been looking at ways of speeding the process, and key to this has been a pilot scheme in Bristol, introducing the seller's pack.

If there is any fun in house-hunting, it is in looking at glossy brochures and dreaming. As soon as the right property has been found, the stress kicks in as the stage between offer and exchange of contract looms like a minefield. To reduce the number of potential hazards - not least gazumping - the Government has been looking at ways of speeding the process, and key to this has been a pilot scheme in Bristol, introducing the seller's pack.

Participating vendors must provide all the information relating to their property when putting it on the market, shifting the onus from the buyer, whose solicitor normally starts gathering such documentation only after an offer has been accepted.

The pack, cost-free for the Bristol participants, runs to some 91 pages, including a legal section, fixtures and fittings, copies of any convenants, local and drainage searches, an inspection and condition report and even a home-energy report.

The scheme is half-way through its six-month trial run, and those participating are confident they are at the forefront of beneficial changes for the country as a whole. Buyers, particularly first-timers, are seeing real benefits but crucially, the solicitors find their working methods have changed for the better, cutting drastically the time it takes to complete routine jobs.

When a property chain comes to a sudden halt, the tendency is to point the finger of blame at the solicitor. How can they be so slow? But now both purchaser and seller can see the lawyer's efforts concentrated into the information pack, they are getting a clearer picture of all the strands that have to be pulled into place before contracts are exchanged.

David Brown, of Henrique Griffiths, one of the nine firms of solicitors in the Bristol pilot, says the benefits are enormous. "We are not holding up the conveyancing process with unnecessary tasks. We can now start on the jigsaw with all the pieces in place. It is important that people understand we are not diluting standards, the principle of caveat emptor (buyer beware) still applies, but the buyer has all the necessary information about the property before making an offer, rather than afterwards."

The condition report that the seller must produce has been met with some scepticism. Does it carry the status of a survey? Will a lender accept it? Can it be reassigned to the purchaser? Mr Brown is aware this is one of the areas to be addressed. "It's a big step in the right direction rather than a perfect answer. But it is clear to me that it is the way forward." One of the first volunteers in the scheme was Mark Dando, who is selling a terraced house in the Briarside area of Bristol.

After three months of no offers he took it off the market and prepared the seller's pack. The Government pays the costs, around £500. "I felt I had nothing to lose," he says. Within three weeks he had two offers, the second of which he accepted. "I felt it was fair since it was based on the survey. I wish a seller's pack came with the house I'm now buying."

This is an increasingly common view among those involved with the pilot scheme, says Tim Henry, of Halifax Property Services. "It takes the confrontation out of the process.

"We had a house on at £240,000 that the survey showed to be in need of a new roof. The vendor didn't know and was tempted to take it off the market. But the purchaser simply dropped his price by £10,000, which was far less than the seller feared."

Mr Henry believes the scheme must be made obligatory if is to really speed the deal. The factors causing a breakdown in the chain should be far fewer. Where he does have reservations, though, is the issue of short supply. "I worry that those who are unsure about selling but want to test the market will be scared off."

On the positive side, time-wasters may find themselves out in the cold. One of the most revolutionary changes in the conveyancing process in Bristol has been the advent of electronic searches. David Brown now finds the time cut from weeks to days.

"At the click of the mouse, we have everything we want," he says. "Local knowledge on a national basis." The ability to access the Land Registry, make specialist environmental searches and general enquiries eliminates to-ing and fro-ing. Government should soon decide who will operate the scheme nationwide.

As the buying and selling process casts off its archaic methods, solicitors are finding a different way of working, says Mr Brown, and getting the job done faster.

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