Overview: Admit it: the stamp duty system stinks

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The Independent Online

It still comes as a nasty shock to buyers when stamp duty is added to their costs. We all know we've got to pay it, but it is only when looking in detail at our budgets do we realise that more than a few thousand pounds has to be set aside. The way in which the duty is structured also means that any property selling at just above the percentage cut-off point falls into a pricing limbo.

So it is good news that independent financial advisers recognise that stamp duty is the "biggest obstacle" to a smoother and cheaper house buying process, but baffling that only a third of the 200 who took part in a recent Mori poll chose not to suggest a radical overhaul.

Only the most wildly optimistic could hope for an end to the tax, but most of us would at least like to be able to make sense of it. Ray Boulger, senior technical manager at Charcol, believes that's pretty difficult as things stand and we only need look at the figure of £60,000, where the tax kicks in, to recognise that it no longer even excludes buyers who might be struggling at the bottom of the market.

"Presupposing that current cut-off points are right, they have not kept up with general inflation, let alone the house market," says Mr Boulger. "If we accept that a tax on buying a house is here to stay, then the starting point should be bumped up and the tax should be calculated on a sliding scale."

In research into 21st Century Housebuying by The One Account Ltd, IFAs overwhelmingly (80 per cent) felt that it was up to the Government to make the process easier and more affordable, urging it to outlaw gazumping and follow through on the home information pack (seller's pack as was) to make it "headache-free".

Ray Boulger, who was not polled, says he finds this surprising. "We all want to see an easier process but there is genuine disagreement about the best way of doing it. Even the Government recognises that gazumping only took place in two to three per cent of cases. But where it really has power and could do something is by requiring local authorities to automate search facilities."

He was even more inclined to take issue with the 10 per cent of his colleagues in the IFA industry who felt that "a confusing range of mortgage options adds to homebuying angst". Mr Boulger says that the huge competition and widest range of mortgages anywhere in the world has been of enormous benefit to consumers. "It is up to financial advisers to find the best deal for a buyer's circumstances. It is more than just taking an offer at face value."

* My column last week on swapping homes prompted one London estate agent to tell me the following story. He had arranged an exchange for two lots of friends. Both saved money on the deal, so they agreed to leave surprise presents behind. One side left an extravagant array of kitchen gadgets, but were miffed to find nothing in their new home. As the weeks went by, they waited in vain and mild resentment turned to cold anger. Then spring arrived and with it a garden full of flowers they had never seen before - the result of a massive, secret, bulb-planting spree.