For sale: a useful idea to speed up house-buying

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No one should expect buying a house to be easy or quick. These are the largest transactions most people make; property is difficult to value; the law is hideously complex, especially if leasehold is involved; and the number of parties involved, especially in a "chain" of simultaneous transactions, is daunting. But everyone has a right to expect that buying a house should be easier and quicker than the three-month-long stress-fest which is currently typical in England and Wales.

No one should expect buying a house to be easy or quick. These are the largest transactions most people make; property is difficult to value; the law is hideously complex, especially if leasehold is involved; and the number of parties involved, especially in a "chain" of simultaneous transactions, is daunting. But everyone has a right to expect that buying a house should be easier and quicker than the three-month-long stress-fest which is currently typical in England and Wales.

Nevertheless, there are problems with many of the pat "solutions" which are usually trotted out. The Scottish system of inviting sealed bids does not guarantee the best price to the seller. Various schemes have been proposed requiring prospective buyers and sellers to lodge deposits which they would forfeit if they pull out or try to change the price at the last minute. These are intended to prevent gazumping, which can be distressing and costly to the "gazumped", but, in the end, amount to an attempt to legislate against a free market.

If a deal takes a long time, there is always the possibility of a higher bid being made. There is no better solution to gazumping than speeding up the process.

The partial success of the Government's pilot scheme in Bristol, therefore, is welcome news.

The idea that the seller should bear more of the administrative burden is a good one, even if it is not a magic bullet. In Bristol, vendors produced a "seller's pack", including a basic survey and all that boring stuff about legal title, so that each prospective purchaser did not have to repeat everything.

The scheme should be extended (unfortunately, it will probably be "rolled out") to the whole country. It will help to encourage poorer purchasers in poorer areas, by standardising the process of buying and making it cheaper. But it must be feared that the Government is not going far enough in taking on the vested interests of the surveyors in particular. Surveyors like the seller's pack because it gives them more work: in return, the Government should insist that they insure the purchaser against any defects that they have missed.

However, the reforms are a step in the right direction, for which Nick Raynsford, the housing minister, deserves applause.

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