Signed, sealed, delivered

Internet conveyancing services have led to cheaper rates - and can offer a more personal touch, says Stephen Pritchard
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Rising house prices over the last few years have led to big hikes in the sums buyers pay in stamp duty land tax and sellers pay in commissions. But legal fees are one of the home-buying expenses that have not kept up with house price inflation; in some cases, fees have even fallen.

Rising house prices over the last few years have led to big hikes in the sums buyers pay in stamp duty land tax and sellers pay in commissions. But legal fees are one of the home-buying expenses that have not kept up with house price inflation; in some cases, fees have even fallen.

The reason is the rapid growth in both fixed fee and online conveyancing services. Until the 1970s, lawyers charged according to nationally agreed rates, based either on the hours worked or on a percentage of the value of the property.

Many law firms maintained a percentage-based fee structure for conveyancing well into the 1990s, but the combination of the housing market recession of the 1990s, and reforms that allowed solicitors to advertise, led to what the Law Society calls a "hardening of fees".

According to Denis Cameron, a Blackpool-based solicitor who chairs the Law Society's conveyancing committee, fees for the average freehold property purchase are now between £400 and £800, with fees rising towards the upper end of the spectrum for the more expensive homes.

In most cases, lawyers should be quoting an inclusive price for their work, although complex cases might cost more. "The average conveyance takes six to eight hours," says Cameron. "I would find it very difficult to charge that out at £120 an hour, the rate in this area. Few solicitors are charging for conveyancing by the hour."

High street solicitors have been forced to cap their fees as they face competition from online and postal conveyancing services, which usually work to a fixed fee for freeholds, with an additional charge of £100 or so for a leasehold transaction. Moves by banks to provide free legal services, or cashback towards the lawyers' bills, have also made the market more competitive.

Yorkshire Building Society introduced free conveyancing for first-time buyers earlier this year. Its buying power lets it arrange legal work with local firms more cheaply than buyers could if they went to the solicitor directly. For home movers, the Yorkshire, along with a number of other lenders, offers cash back towards fees.

But some buyers - and solicitors - argue that these services can be impersonal, making it hard for buyers to contact their solicitor if they have a query. In some cases, the conveyancing firm might see the primary client as the lender, making communications all the more difficult.

Instructing a high-street solicitor remains the best way of ensuring a personal touch. Cameron also points out that there is a difference between sending legal documents to a client, and explaining their significance to them.

But not everyone has the time to meet face to face with their conveyancing solicitor, and a growing number of buyers prefer to use the internet. Local law firms might not have the expertise to offer online support, and this in part accounts for the growing popularity of services such as easier2move. co.uk and onlineconveyancing.co.uk. They are usually specialists in property law, and may well have more experience than a local solicitor.

Both operate as remote, fixed-fee legal services and, unlike most high street solicitors, there is no charge if the transaction fails to go through. Costs vary, but in both cases are at the lower end of the Law Society's £400-£800 range.

The service from onlineconveyancing.co.uk is operated by Drummonds, a law firm based in Chester that deals exclusively with property transactions. According to managing partner Elisabeth Bellamy, clients are allocated a solicitor who will look after their case for the entire transaction, and can be contacted to answer questions by phone or online. This goes some way to replicating the personal touch of the local lawyer, but without the need for face to face meetings and with the economies of scale of using a large, specialist firm.

Easier2move works as an introduction service, brokering deals with local legal firms, who then carry out the conveyancing. Sales and marketing director Karen Babington says that fees are lower than if clients approached the same legal firm directly for conveyancing. The company deals directly with clients through its website, and also has arrangements with estate agents such as Hamptons and online property sites such as Assertahome.

Unfortunately for home buyers, while conveyancing costs are becoming more competitive, other associated costs are rising.

Fees for searches and, in particular, leasehold queries are on the up, according to Denis Cameron. Because these fees are often paid initially by solicitors and added to the client's bills, they give the impression that conveyancing is becoming more expensive. But there is little either buyers, or their lawyers, can do except to grin and bear the costs - and to make sure they have allowed for them in the moving budget.

Comments