The low-down at your fingertips

The Net can save money and time but there's no substitute for personal advice, says Christopher Browne
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The Independent Online

Surfing the net is making the average property deal easier. We still have to heave those heavy boxes of books down from the attic or face breaking a vase or two during the actual moving process, but many of the paperwork tasks such as loan-arranging, legal work and lease extensions can now be done from the comfort of our home offices.

Surfing the net is making the average property deal easier. We still have to heave those heavy boxes of books down from the attic or face breaking a vase or two during the actual moving process, but many of the paperwork tasks such as loan-arranging, legal work and lease extensions can now be done from the comfort of our home offices.

Take firstrungnow.com, a one-stop buyers' guide. It tells you how to handle your estate agent, make an offer and find the most suitable insurance cover - as well as giving you useful tips about lenders, surveyors, solicitors, removal firms and power companies. The site even has an advice spot for the first-time buyer.

For a £21 fee, its "joint ownership guide" shows new buyers how to link up with a friend and pool their joint buying power, draw up cohabitation agreements, and who to approach for a joint mortgage. It will certainly save an expensive hour or two of legal advice.

For the low-down on a house you've just seen, go to www.landregisteronline.gov.uk. For £2, you can identify the owner, lender and even the price (if it was registered in the last four years). The service, which holds the title deeds of 18 million properties in England and Wales, can also show if the house you like has any restricted covenants, second charges, boundaries or rights of way.

Although you may not be able to e-buy or e-sell quite yet, you can certainly e-conveyance. A growing number of licensed conveyancers and solicitors have gone online, and some charge £225 to £250, compared with £350 if you go to a solicitor; goodconnections.co.uk has a list of them together with contact details and prices. "Doing your searching and legal work on the web obviously saves time, though sometimes there's no substitute for talking to a local solicitor and getting sound legal advice at the same time as you do your conveyancing," says David Hollingworth, of the brokers London and Country Mortgages.

If the pressure is on and you need a rapid search on a house or flat you are buying, you could visit a council site and get it online, as most local authorities now have their own webspace. These could also be handy reference points if you're about to move to a new area and need to know how much council tax you will face.

A new Home Office site, www.crimestatistics.org.uk, might help you work out how much your home insurance might be, too. It will tell you the number of burglaries, thefts, muggings, car and bicycle crimes in the last quarter in any given area. It will also say whether it's a high-risk crime area or a low one such as Kingston-upon-Thames in Surrey, which, according to the site, has one of the lowest burglary rates in the UK. You can then contact your insurance broker - who may also be online - and find out how much your home contents cover is likely to be and whether you need to fit a monitored alarm system.

Finally, visit upmystreet.com and download a map of the area and the housing equivalent of a Glass's Guide to its rail and Tube stations, bus routes, schools, doctors, dentists, fitness centres and supermarkets, as well as the local councillors, MPs and MEPs.

There's no doubt that the web can spare you costly phone calls and time-consuming appointments, but there are times when there is no substitute for experience or the personal touch. Says Hollingworth: "The internet really comes into its own when you want to research the market or look for new products and services such as mortgages, lenders and insurance companies. However, though it can suggest who to go to and what to buy, it cannot guarantee they are the best or most effective. When you need hard advice or inside knowledge, you should speak to a broker, adviser or property specialist."

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