Property: Time to put our house in order?: Readers agree that the English system of buying and selling homes is by no means the best, says Anne Spackman

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Mention the Scottish system of house purchase to anyone active in the English system and they will tut and shake their heads. It might sound good, they say, but if you ask people who have been through it, they will tell you a very different story.

Well, we asked you, the readers, a fortnight ago, and you didn't. A number of people had had direct experience of both the Scottish and English systems, and all preferred the Scottish. For that matter, all who had bought houses elsewhere - in France, the United States and Northern Ireland - found their systems preferable to ours.

Almost every country apart from England has a system that involves both sides signing a contract when an offer is agreed. This means mortgages and surveys must be arranged before an offer is made, rather than after, and reduces the long period of uncertainty before contracts are exchanged. In Scotland, that contract is legally binding. Sylvia Platt from Oxford worked in a solicitor's office in Edinburgh for eight years. She said the major advantage of the Scottish system was that the buyer had someone to look after his or her interests from the start.

'In Scotland, the buyer's solicitor arranges the loan and the survey, makes the offer on the buyer's behalf and keeps him informed at every stage,' Mrs Platt wrote. 'In England, the buyer is forced into acting for himself, and it is nerve- racking. We found that clients coming from England were astonished at the service.

'The Scottish system, though not perfect, is reliable, quick and fair. I heartily recommend it and urge you to do what you can to introduce it here.'

The Le Cren family of Appleby, Cumbria, are also in a position to make comparisons. They wrote: 'Having bought four houses in England and sold three of them, and bought and sold a house in Scotland, we would strongly recommend the Scottish system in preference to the English.

'We were impressed by the straightforward efficiency of the Solicitors' Property Centres in Dumfries and Galloway, when compared with many English estate agents. They were able to provide full and accurate information about any property on their list quickly, and their offices have such information clearly displayed and classified. The staff also seemed to be helpful, intelligent and unbiased.'

Lesley Smith of Nottingham has a sister who started her career as a chartered surveyor in Scotland before moving to England 10 years ago. 'My sister refers to the English system as a pack of cards,' Ms Smith wrote. 'She says, however, that no one in England believes her when she tries to tell them how easy the Scottish system is.'

One weakness in the Scottish system is that some buyers end up wasting money on surveys for houses they do not subsequently buy. One way of overcoming this might be to get sellers to have a survey, which prospective buyers can see. The survey would then be sold on to the successful buyers.

A number of you supported this idea. Beth Hamid of Cirencester, Gloucestershire, said it would have saved her a lot of time and money on a house that she subsequently discovered needed substantial underpinning. She was particularly galled to be sent details of the same house a month later by a different set of agents, still with no reference to the structural problems. 'I would favour a move to the Scottish system and vendor surveys to tackle problems like those I've mentioned,' Mrs Hamid wrote.

The English might also like to consider the system used in Northern Ireland, suggested Harry Boyle of Limavady, Co Londonderry. There, too, buyers sign a contract earlier in the proceedings and pay a 10 per cent deposit at the same time.

The system is tighter than the English one but more flexible than the Scottish, as there is still some flexibility in the contract. 'I think the system over here has a lot to commend it,' Mr Boyle said.

Michael Jones of Byfield, Northamptonshire, wrote in praise of the US system of house purchase, and in particular the level of service given by agents. The agent spoke at length to him and his wife about their requirements, took them on a tour of San Diego, and on numerous house-hunting trips (paying for lunch on the way), and quickly found them what they wanted.

Now back in Britain, Mr Jones asked an agent if she would come to talk to him and his wife about the kind of house they wanted. Of course, she said. 'That was five weeks ago,' Mr Jones wrote. Since then he has seen nothing but three sets of particulars for houses that in no way match his requirements.

Mr Jones said he did not mind paying his San Diego agent 6 per cent of his sale price because she earned it. 'I would willingly pay a similar percentage here for such service,' he added.

No doubt estate agents reading that will be wishing more British customers took the same view. We are notorious for refusing to pay for professional services. The result is that costs are among the lowest in the world, but the quality of service is at best very patchy.

William Tanaka of north London suggested that the system of paying a percentage of the sale price was to blame. If the cost of an agent related to the service provided, people might be prepared to pay more and behave more sensibly, he wrote. 'As the system now stands, the customer gets no sense of paying for specific services, and competition relating to the quality of the services rendered is stifled,' he said. 'If quality of service was more clearly reflected in the charges paid by customers, we might, over time, get a better class of professional.'

Though there was some general dissatisfaction with estate agents, there were more specific complaints about the role of solicitors in buying and selling houses. Some readers alleged that conveyancing was a simple, straightforward task, which solicitors shrouded in mystery in order to justify their fees.

Helen Hogg of Bromley, Kent, decided to do the conveyancing herself. 'The only difficulty I encountered was the hostility and obstructiveness of the purchaser's solicitor,' she said. 'There was no reason why the transaction should not have been completed in about a fortnight, whereas it took approximately three months.'

Another reader, who felt her vendor's solicitors had behaved negligently, discovered she could only complain to the Law Society about her own solicitors. Rose Marie Madera, of The Coach House, 8 Maitland Road, Reading, Berkshire, would like to hear from anyone who has faced a similar problem.

Solicitors will say that it is their professionalism that protects your deal. If they get something wrong you have a right to sue them. But Michael Joseph, himself a solicitor and a thorn in the flesh of the legal establishment, wrote to point out that no one is willing to sue lawyers because it is too risky and time consuming.

Only one person wrote in defence of the status quo, and that was another solicitor, Robert Riddle of Deal, Kent. It was the market, not the system, that was to blame for the trauma of house sales, he said. No buyer was willing to buy a house before they had sold their own because the market was too unpredictable.

'How does the Scottish system get over this difficulty?' Mr Riddle asked. 'For that matter, why do the French and other countries apparently not have similar problems? This is where your article is superficial because you have not addressed the real problem.'

In fact, the Scots avoid the problem partly by co-ordinating their buying and selling as we do here, but also by including their completion date in their contract. If they are buying a house before selling their own, they will offer a completion date many weeks ahead. If they have already sold they will offer the completion date agreed with their own buyers.

Not all professionals are as happy with the status quo. Estate agents in particular are pushing for the introduction of a conditional contract and for minimum standards of professional competence to be enforced. The National Association of Estate Agents will be studying the response to our campaign at the next meeting of its own parliamentary committee.

Finally, spare a thought for Sue Caroline of Abingdon, Oxfordshire. She wrote: 'Having just been gazumped on the Tuesday prior to your article, I am really writing just to add one more voice to the demand for a better and fairer system to be introduced, preferably the same as in Scotland. The very best of luck.'

We will return to this subject on a regular basis.