David Prosser: Don't panic over home sellers' packs

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The Independent Online

There's nothing like a housing market disaster to strike terror into homeowners' hearts. But don't worry: despite what the Conservative Party would have you believe, the Government's launch of home information packs next June is nothing like a housing market disaster.

Leaving aside the small-print of HIPs for a moment, let's just remember why so many people are keen to see the house purchase process reformed. The reason is that the current system works so badly. The period between making your offer for a property and completing the purchase can last months and there is a danger of the deal falling through at any time.

Even in a quiet housing market, issues related to surveys can put a purchase at risk, either because an unforeseen problem with a property is revealed or because it takes so long to compile all the information needed that either buyer or seller gets fed up and pulls out. In a busy market, such delays give opportunistic buyers and sellers a greater time window in which to pull a fast one: Lee Tillcockgazumping or gazundering.

With HIPs, by contrast, sellers are obliged to put together all the information that a buyer would normally have to compile in advance - surveys, local authority searches, energy efficiency data and so on. With buyers spared this task, the speed of the transaction should be improved, substantially reducing the number of deals that fall through.

It is for this reason that a significant majority of estate agents and mortgage lenders support the concept of HIPs. They may have quibbles about some of the detail, but any reform that promises to reduce the £1m a day wasted by consumers on aborted sales must be welcome.

The Tories' opposition to HIPs seems to be based on three factors. The first is that the packs could cost sellers as much as £1,000, though the Government puts the figure at closer to £650. I don't pretend to know which figure is more accurate. But it's a fatuous argument - all of the costs involved in HIPs are already being incurred during the house buying process; it's just that they are more evenly split between buyers and sellers. Loading the whole lot on to one side might seem unfair, but most people who sell a property are buying somewhere else. It's a zero-sum game.

The Tories' second argument is that HIPs will not be sufficiently comprehensive; that not all information buyers need - flood risk, for example - will be included. Supporters of HIPs say that's not right, but even if it is, we will be in a situation no different to today, where sensible buyers make extra checks in addition to the basic valuations conducted by their mortgage lender.

Argument number three is the most ridiculous of the lot. The Conservatives have recruited property expert Kirstie Allsopp to their cause. HIPs "threaten the stability and health of the housing market", she warns.

The argument seems to be that, faced with having to pay for an HIP, people will no longer be prepared to sell their homes. As if somehow the decision to move house, with all the stress and upheaval that involves, depends on whether or not you'll have to pay a fee for a HIP.

My fears about HIPs are more mundane. One is that there is every chance that there will not be sufficient numbers of surveyors to cope with the demand by next June; HIP providers will have to have a specific qualification to do the work and precious few have acquired it so far.

Second, and more potentially worrying, is that many estate agents will offer free HIPs to sellers prepared to sign up to other financial services. Tempting though this will be, it would leave people at the mercy of the commission-driven financial services arms of large estate agency firms.

These problems, however, are not insurmountable. We could delay the launch of HIPs, say, or introduce rules to prevent cross-selling. And in the context of the more serious difficulties that make buying and selling a house so stressful, such worries are small beer.