At the time of writing, the COVID-19 ban on property viewings and valuations has just been lifted. As the market picks up, sellers will need to do everything they can to secure an offer and avoid delays.
Legal problems are prime culprits causing delays in the sale process. Delays increase the chance of a buyer renegotiating, a chain collapsing, or the buyer pulling out. Yet the legal state of a property is often completely overlooked until the conveyancing process is well underway.
This article looks at what sellers can do proactively to improve the legal state of their property and prevent delays once they have an offer.
Give your property ‘legal kerb appeal’
There are well-established ways to make your home more desirable. Decluttering and investing in a bread maker (if you can find one) may positively impact a viewing, but it won’t speed up the sale after you accept an offer.
‘Legal kerb appeal’ refers to the saleability of a property when viewed from a legal perspective. Legal kerb appeal could also involve proactively addressing legal issues before a buyer is found.
Legal problems are usually uncovered when the seller’s solicitor reviews the legal paperwork collated at the start of the conveyancing process.
If the conveyancing process is started before a buyer is found, most legal delays can be averted.
When should you instruct a conveyancing solicitor?
Most sellers wait for an offer before instructing a conveyancing solicitor. Yet instructing a solicitor immediately after going on the market has advantages.
If your solicitor has more time to collate the legal documentation and review your sale, he can hit the ground running as soon as you accept an offer. If the solicitor spots any issues (there are always issues), these can be addressed and often resolved before the buyer’s solicitor frames them as problems.
Your solicitor can also issue the contract pack to the buyer within hours of the sale being agreed.
Key things to do before you find a buyer
A solicitor cannot legally act for you until you have completed the legally-required identity verification and money laundering checks. Thereafter you will need to read and sign their terms of engagement.
Social distancing has not frustrated this process. Solicitors can complete these steps, even if working from home, using third-party ID verification services and a video call. However, many firms still wait until they receive a hard copy of their terms and conditions before posting a pack of property information forms to the seller.
These forms are detailed questionnaires about your property and how you have used it. They include the Fittings and contents form (TA10), Property information form (TA6 ) and the Leasehold information form (TA7) - if you are selling a flat.
Even if you don’t leave them on the hall table for a week, these forms can still take considerable time to fill in. You will also need to look for supporting documents, such as building regs completion certificates and guarantees, and you may need to discuss elements of the form with your solicitor.
The key takeaway is to instruct a solicitor soon after putting your property on the market.
Preventing predictable delays
Many setbacks in the conveyancing process are both foreseeable and avoidable if a proactive approach is adopted.
A good example is the time needed to obtain management information when selling a flat. If you are selling a leasehold property, your solicitor will need to write to the landlord or managing agent to request a pack of information about the management of the property.
This pack will include insurance details, service charge and ground rent accounts, details of planned major works and other legal information.
Even before the recent market disruption, getting hold of this information usually took weeks. In the coming months, managing agents are expecting a surge in demand for information that could further delay sales.
Another example is when there is a dispute with a neighbour. As you are obliged to disclose the dispute on the TA6, there is no point burying your head. A forewarned solicitor can advise you on how to proactively address the dispute in advance of accepting an offer.
Once the forms have been returned, your solicitor will need to draft a contract of sale and send the whole pack of documents to the buyer’s solicitor. The buyer’s solicitor will, in turn, respond with a set of standard and bespoke enquiries (essentially legal questions) about the property.
Most of these enquiries will be part of a standard protocol. Most of the bespoke enquiries can also be easily predicted by your solicitor.
If the buyer’s solicitor thinks an answer is insufficient or leads to further questions, they will ask for clarification, backwards and forwards, until they are satisfied.
If you have detailed and complete answers ready at the outset, you will have a better chance of avoiding this legal ping pong between the solicitors.
Few property pundits are predicting a ‘V-shaped’ recovery. In a buyer’s market, making sure you do all you can to anticipate and avoid delays is critical.
Getting a solicitor on board before a buyer is found has always been the smart play. The fact that most sellers still don’t do this is likely a hangover from a time when conveyancing solicitors charged by the hour.
Now that most conveyancing solicitors work on a fixed fee basis, sellers can benefit from more of their time for the same fixed fee. As most firms also work on a ‘no move, no fee’ basis, there really is no reason to delay.
Chris Salmon - Author Bio
Chris Salmon is a co-founder and Director of Quittance Legal Services, a panel of Conveyancing Solicitors in the UK.