Property: Save the legwork when buying your property - dial a solicitor

You can pay over pounds 500 for a shabby conveyancing service. Or you can pay under pounds 250 for a direct-dial solicitor, and receive a first-rate telephone service. Robert Liebman listens in.

Some first-time buyers are braver than others. When Liz Sowden was negotiating to buy her flat in St Margarets, on the Thames opposite Richmond, she entrusted the conveyance to a solicitor whom she dealt with exclusively by phone and post. "My friend had used Cunnington's and recommended them so I rang for their brochure," says Ms Sowden, who is personal assistant to the managing director of shirtmakers Thomas Pink.

Ms Sowden was confident that the entire procedure could be handled by a combination of phone and fax, and that is indeed how it turned out, even including minor hitches. Of Cunnington's seven offices, three are in Essex, and none are remotely near central London, where she works, or west London, where she was then living in rented accommodation. Visiting their offices would have been extremely inconvenient.

"There were problems along the way, but they were sorted out. There were some grey areas in the lease, and my solicitor asked them for clarification. He was diligent in getting his letters satisfactorily answered. Another question involved maintenance and service charges. My solicitor chased them hard to make sure they were fully paid up.

"Some of my friends bought flats and got bills for things that surprised them. My solicitor brought up these issues himself and sent copies to me of his correspondence. He organised a reserve fund from the previous owner so I did not get stuck for the proportion of the service charge that the seller was responsible for." Her total legal bill was pounds 195 plus an additional pounds 29 for phone, fax, postage, photocopying and petty expenses. VAT had to be paid, and she was also responsible for stamp duty and the other disbursements applicable to all property transfers.

For others who might be similarly tempted, she has only one tentative warning. "In my case, there were no negatives. But if there is a drawback to this method, it's that the procedure is only as good as your solicitor. If I had been unhappy, driving all the way to Essex to discuss it would not have been pleasant."

Not all of Cunnington's conveyancing clients come away with rock-bottom legal costs. "We always give the client an estimate in writing and we like to see the documents first," says Cunnington's solicitor Stephen Kew. "If someone is subleasing part of a building, for example, a basement flat, the sublease can have two superior leases, and there could be 300 pages of documentation." Cunnington's charges pounds 70 per hour for additional legal work.

Copying letters to their clients is one way that Cunnington's conspires to keep costs down. "Informing clients keeps them happy. It is also cost- effective for us. They don't ring up. They know what is going on. They also see from the preliminary correspondence the kind of questions we are asking." Aware of outstanding questions, clients can then speak to the sellers themselves, which helps smooth out and speed the procedure.

Mr Kew says that his firm advises its clients to get a full structural survey, even for brand new properties. "One of our clients did this with a house under construction and they discovered subsidence. They backed away from the purchase. The client lost only the local search fee and partial legal fees."

Like all solicitors, direct-dial solicitors are members of the Law Society and, as such, are insured for claims against them. They can also carry out other legal work often connected to buying property, such as making a will. Electronic mail capability is coming soon to Cunnington's, "but we prefer fax. For legal documents, it's nice to get a signature," says Mr Kew.

The Law Society pamphlet "Working with your solicitor," while not specifically limited to conveyancing, contains much helpful information. The legal and linguistic intricacies of contracts and leases can not be easily summarised, but some books, such as the Which? Guide to Buying a Flat, admirably explain the basic terminology and principles.

As distance is no object to direct-dial conveyancing, several of them advertise in Yellow Pages throughout the country. The directory will be local to the reader if not to the solicitors themselves.

Cunnington's head office, Braintree, Essex, 01376 326868, Croydon, Surrey, 0181 688 8446, Solihull, West Midlands 0121 705 6868.

Royal Institution for Chartered Surveyors, 12 Great George Street, Parliament Square, London SW1P 3 AD, 0171 222 7000.

Law Society, 113 Chancery Lane, London WC2A ISX, 0171 242 1222.

LEAS - Leasehold Enfranchisement Advisory Service, 8 Maddox Street, London WIR 9PN, 0171 493 3116.