The house-buyers' supermarket is coming

A new one-stop property service that could cut delays and reduce gazumping may be with us soon. Richard Phillips investigates
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The Independent Online
A new initiative to ease the frustration and delays involved in buying a house may become reality later this year, in the form of Solicitors Property Centres (SPCs). Devised under the aegis of the Law Society, these would operate on the High Street.

The idea is to provide buyers - and sellers - with a complete one-stop shop. Each centre would provide a full legal service alongside details of local properties for sale and independent financial advice to arrange a mortgage. SPCs would also use the latest technology so that clients could view properties for sale on electronic screens which can be accessed through controls on the outside of the centre akin to a hole-in-the-wall machine, 24 hours a day.

Whether this new retailer ever sees the light of day, however, depends on the enthusiasm of the legal profession for the idea. To date it seems reasonably promising, with almost 300 solicitors having registered an interest. SPC says it will need 500 firms if the idea is to achieve critical mass. The first centre is planned to be open in January.

To translate the scheme into reality will be a lengthy process. The concept of SPCs was devised by Anthony Bogan, its director of operations and a conveyancing lawyer in private practice who sits on the Law Society conveyancing committee, and Richard Berenson, who is head of marketing for SPC.

Their most pressing task is to persuade estate agents that advertising properties in an SPC is a good idea. Inevitably estate agents have expressed concern that SPCs will eat into their grip on the market. Hugh Dunsmore- Hardy, chief executive of the National Association of Estate Agents (NAEA) says, "We have been down this road before, but not many survived the last recession." As to the latest challenge, he says that estate agents are by nature competitive, and "will, I'm sure, respond".

The NAEA had yet to be contacted by SPC, so he was not in a position to comment in detail on the proposals. In essence, though, a local estate agent would pay a fee to have the properties on its books advertised through an SPC.

The SPC is also in talks with banks and independent financial advisers. Anthony Bogan says that so far the response has been positive.

The Law Society hopes the centres will combine the professionalism of its members with high service standards to make home buying quicker and gazumping less likely. The project should also relieve pressure on solicitors, who have faced a loss of work and drastic cuts in income in recent years.

Rodger Pannone, a former Law Society president who is now heading SPC, said: "If solicitors don't embrace the new technology, if they don't get their act together, then they will, I am afraid, go to the wall.

"This is a must for local solicitors. It combines their professionalism with the need to come down from the first floor and deal with consumers."

People using an SPC will not pay more as the service will charge on the same basis as independent solicitors, estate agents and independent legal advisers.

But what, once the gloss of high technology and carefully designed formats is stripped out of the equation, will be new about all of this?

Mr Bogan says that the principal benefit will be one of time. "We will speed up a deal in two ways," he says. "For each individual transaction, it makes sense if everybody is ready at the marketing stage, not once an offer has been accepted. The three-week delay is when gazumping happens."

Mr Bogan says the main delay occurs when the seller's solicitor goes to obtain the title deeds to the property from the banks. He promises that houses on sale through an SPC will already have the title deeds available - eliminating at a stroke three weeks of delay.

The other crucial improvement will come through better use of new technology. As well as the 24-hour access to property details, SPCs want to have on-line access to the main lending institutions, which will, says Mr Bogan, "make a huge difference".

With better information, the delays associated with a chain can be substantially reduced, if they cannot be eliminated entirely. Consumers will also be able to plug in computers at home to gain information, both on properties advertised and details of their own deals.

Mr Bogan says proof of the potential value of SPCs comes from the Scottish model. There, Solicitors Property Centres have become an established feature of the property scene. In Glasgow almost a third of all property deals are conducted through the auspices of the Glasgow Solicitors Property Centre.

There are pitfalls, however. One is the quality of solicitors who will be employed by the SPCs, each of which will be run as an independent franchise. Claims against solicitors for poor or sloppy conveyancing are running at record levels, and the current boom in property is likely to lead to even more.

Some of these are the result of the growth of the new trend for cut- price conveyancing, where for a reduced fee solicitors offer a no-frills service. The problems with this approach have become evident in recent years. The Law Society has pounds 500m of liabilities for the Solicitors' Indemnity Fund, many of which are a result of poor conveyancing.

SPC says it will set high operating standards but it could easily attract the more financially hard pressed members of the legal community, who could tarnish the project's dealings with the public. As Mr Dunsmore- Hardy says: "Many professionals feel they should stick to their own area of expertise."