'Why didn't they tell me the railway line was going to be built outside my front door?'

Your solicitor is supposed to find out about developments around your new home. Richard Phillips on how to avoid surprises
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As an illustration of what can go wrong with the conveyancing process, it is hard to find a worse tale than that of Tamara Burnell.

In January she bought her first home, a small flat on a newly built estate in Deptford, South London. To her astonishment, two months later she found bulldozers digging up the park seven metres from her windows.

Nor is the work a small matter. It is an extension to the Docklands Light Railway, which will run from Lewisham to the Isle of Dogs. Work is expected to continue until January 2000 at least, and then Ms Burnell and other residents will have to put up with the noise of regular trains.

Yet she claims her solicitor failed to report any planned building work when he did the conveyancing.

After discussions with her solicitors, she was told that the lawyer who had handled her purchase had been a temp at the firm.

Ms Burnell's solicitor was based in Barnes, the other end of London from Deptford.

The matter is now in the hands of the Solicitors Indemnity Fund, which provides victims of legal negligence with compensation. The flat is worth a fraction of what Ms Burnell paid and it is doubtful if it will ever recover its original value.

It may appear astonishing no one else told Ms Burnell what was about to happen. The estate agents she bought the flat through did not mention the construction work. Estate agents have a duty to purchasers - what the law would call a duty of care - not to conceal from buyers details of any major developments which might affect the value of a property they have on their books.

Mrs Heather Gilbert, who runs Rocodells, the estate agent Ms Burnell bought her flat through, said: "We telephoned the DLR to request information on the route the line would take, but no information was forthcoming." She added that the extension would also boost property values in the area, and the firm wanted to obtain details for that reason also.

A spokesman for the DLR said: "We could not have publicised the matter more widely if we tried." As well as consultation with local councils, the DLR leafletted local residents and produced a newsletter for residents and businesses.

Applying to the SIF is hardly ideal but it is the best option available to householders who find themselves in a similar boat. For the simplest of cases, or where the amount of money is small - similar to what the small claims court would consider - a claimant may be able to act in person. However, Andrew Sandford Smith of the SIF says that "in a complex claim it may be sensible for a claimant to seek legal advice".

While the simpler claims can be settled within six months, more complex cases, or where liability is disputed by the solicitor, can take up to four years. This may mean the claimant bringing a court action against the solicitor, with all the risks and costs that entails, although the SIF will pay "reasonable costs".

You will also probably have to provide evidence of the loss you have sustained, normally a chartered surveyor's report. If the claim is for a large amount, the SIF will also appoint its own surveyor to make a report. If the value of the claim is for about 30 per cent of the value of the property or more, then it may decide some of the money should go straight to the mortgage lender, as the value of its security will have been eroded.

In the meantime, it looks as if Ms Burnell will have to sit tight, and wait for her claim to wend its way through the system.

So what, if anything, can househunters do to protect against the most extreme forms of incompetency?

It is useful here to remember precisely what conveying a property sets out to achieve. Curiously, conveyancing is not about buying and selling a home. It is about transferring the title of a house from one party to another. Proof of title confers ownership.

It is to ensure that the title is properly passed - or conveyed - that the arcane solicitors' practices for conveyancing have built up over the years. To the beginner it often seems like a lot of unnecessary rigmarole and, compared to other countries - such as the US or Scotland - there is no question that in England and Wales the whole process of buying or selling a house can take a lot longer, even without the added problems of chains, themselves a by-product of the conveyancing system.

The Which? Way to buy, sell and move house offers some useful tips. Whatever you do, don't exchange contracts until all the preliminary enquiries and local searches are completed, a surveyor's report has been done and you agree with its findings, and all terms have been agreed between buyer and seller. If there are still matters which haven't been resolved, don't leave it up to chance or goodwill.

To ensure that these things are under control you must go in to see your solicitors and go through all the paperwork with them before completion. Read the searches to see what they say.

To ensure proof of title, a solicitor carries out a search with the National Land Registry. Subsequent searches, chiefly with the local authority, are to discover precisely the sort of facts that have affected Ms Burnell. Some local authorities have on-line access for solicitors to carry out a search. As a client, insist on seeing copies of the searches before you agree to any purchase.

There are some other things that can go wrong. The Land Registry search also has details of any mortgage secured on the property. If the current owner has more than one mortgage on the property - not uncommon - a solicitor can fail to spot the second one. That can cause huge problems, as the sale may not be notified to the second mortgage lender.

Secondly, a local search covers only the property itself. So if you are buying next to a park, check if any developments are planned for that green space - and that there isn't a thumping great rail-link planned.