Overview: A voluntary seller's pack is the right step

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The Independent Online

As we all depart for our summer holidays, it is unlikely that the progress of the Government's proposed Home Information Pack scheme - believed to be the panacea for the tortuous house-buying process here - will be giving a great deal of pause for thought.

As we all depart for our summer holidays, it is unlikely that the progress of the Government's proposed Home Information Pack scheme - believed to be the panacea for the tortuous house-buying process here - will be giving a great deal of pause for thought. All the same, progress is being made, although how close the final version will resemble the original idea is another matter.

The whole purpose of the pack, should anyone have forgotten, is that sellers will not be able to market their properties unless they have prepared a wad of information about their home, which includes, controversially, a condition survey. Amendments just tabled in the House of Lords, however, would make the pack a voluntary scheme - to the approval of those who regard it as a costly burden.

Apart from an unsatisfactory and limited pilot scheme, which was free to the vendor, the best evidence of the pack's potential comes from those agents who have been operating some kind of seller's pack of their own, devised on a commercial and obviously voluntary basis.

One of these is Nicholas Zorab, who has an estate agency in Romsey, Hampshire. For the past year, he has been offering clients the choice of opting for a package called Open Book, which contains a legal pack and survey. About 30 per cent of the houses he sells now come to the market in this way - and the results have been impressive.

"In the last year, the sales fall-through has reduced from between 25 per cent and 30 per cent to under 10 per cent," he says. "Because most people are in a chain, it is not the speed that is affected, but the certainty."

The cost of this package to the vendor is, on average, half a per cent of the asking price, including conveyancing costs. The housebuyer's report in Open Book, as set out by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and provided by an independent surveyor, is far more thorough than the box-ticking exercise proposed by the Government. What's more, the issue of who actually owns the survey is resolved because it is Zorab himself who commissions the surveyor and it becomes the vendor's only once the sale is completed. On a few occasions, however, the survey is paid for by the buyer.

On the legal side, a solicitor pulls together the most important factors affecting a property such as covenants, rights of way and planning consents. An insurance policy covers the vendor for major risks, but there is a financial penalty for the sellers who simply have a change of heart - although they do at least get the survey.

Despite its growing popularity, Zorab is convinced the pack should not be forced on sellers. For instance, owners of new homes generally feel the Open Book to be unnecessary, and those trying to sell in order to buy a specific property (usually one special place they'd been waiting to come on to the market) fear they would have to foot the bill for the Open Book when they might well pull out of a sale if their dream home becomes unavailable.

"If the Government were involved, it would become far more complicated and less flexible," says Zorab. His Open Book runs parallel with the marketing, not as a prerequisite to going on the market. Under the current proposals, if you come across the property of your dreams by chance, you would not be able to start selling your own home the next day.

It is, indeed, curious that as the Government talks about giving people choice, it should be proposing to deny homeowners the right to decide how they should sell their largest financial asset.

If the Government wants to see the process speeded up, then on-line searches and electronic conveyancing will soon see to that. If it wants more transparency, then surely encouraging, rather than forcing, sellers to provide a package of information (and buyers to ask for it) would achieve that objective.

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