How do property conveyancers work?

picture of property solicitors

Once you have found your dream property and you’re ready to appoint a property conveyancer to help you buy it. From instructing a firm to getting the deeds, here’s what to expect along the way.

Now your offer has been accepted on the home you love, the next job is usually to instruct a conveyancer to deal with the purchase.

Most of the time, this will be a property solicitor, but you could equally opt for a licensed conveyancer or property lawyer. You could also use an online conveyancer. Either way, in England and Wales, they should be regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority or the Council for Licensed Conveyancers.

Step 1: Open the purchase file

The very first job for a conveyancer is to open the purchase file and send a letter out to you setting down the terms of business. The file will include an information form which asks for basic details, such as your contact information, date of birth and National Insurance number.

Your conveyancer will also ask for details of your estate agent, whether you need a mortgage for the purchase and – if you do – which lender you are using and where the deposit is coming from. You’ll also need to submit photo ID, such as your passport or driving licence.

At this point, many solicitors will provide you with a fixed fee estimate. But this is only based on the information you’ve provided them with and it could change if the legal work becomes more complex than they expected.

Your solicitor should always tell you in advance if you will incur extra fees for additional work that may be required.

Step 2: Request fees for searches

Local Authority searches uncover potential issues such as proposals for new roads or rail schemes, breaches of planning regulations, compulsory purchase orders and enforcement notices for the property. The government has a target for them to be returned within 10 working days, but in reality they can take weeks to process. So, it’s best to hand over the money for this to your solicitor early to get the ball rolling.

Budget for around £300 with the sum also covering the cost of the separate Environmental, and Water and Drainage searches.

Step 3: Get the lowdown on ‘the chain’ from the estate agent

Next, your solicitor will ask the estate agents marketing the home for a notification of sale (also known as a memorandum of sale) which contains the name and address of the buyer and the seller, the solicitors’ details for each party in the chain, and the agreed sale price.

Your solicitor will then contact the seller’s solicitors to let them know they’ve been instructed to act for you on the purchase of the property.

Step 4: Receive all paperwork from the seller’s solicitor

As soon as the seller’s solicitor has drawn up the draft contract, they will send it, together with a copy of the Title (or ‘Deeds’) for the property, to your solicitor.

Providing the home has been sold at least once since 1990, the Deeds will be electronically recorded with the Land Registry and are available online.

But if there have been no transactions since then, the property could be ‘unregistered’ which means ownership can only be proved with the original hard copy of the Title Deeds. These are usually held in Deeds storage by the bank that has/had the mortgage on the property, or by the seller themselves.

Along with the draft contract and Deeds, your solicitor will be sent the property’s ‘protocol documents’. These include:

A Seller’s Property Information Form, in which the seller must disclose everything from neighbour disputes to when the boiler was last serviced.
Fittings and Contents Form, which outlines what will be left and removed from the property as part of the sale.
Leasehold Information Form. If the property you are buying is leasehold (usually a flat or apartment) this will set out factors such as the amount of ground rent payable and contact details for the freeholders and/or management company.

Step 5: Raise queries and carry out checks (and more checks)

Your solicitor will now go through this paperwork – and every search as it comes back – with a fine-toothed comb. They’ll need to raise any questions and queries they have with the seller’s solicitor.

Getting to the bottom of issues like these can delay the process by weeks but it’s imperative it’s done correctly. Solicitors follow a code of conduct and must also comply with the mortgage lender’s requirements. If they don’t, they could be negligent.

Five reasons you may encounter delays in the conveyancing process

Management companies or managing agents being slow in returning information on leasehold properties.
Buyers failing to report the fact their deposit for a mortgage has been gifted (your solicitor has an obligation to tell the lender).
Delays from third parties in providing answers to outstanding enquiries and providing necessary documentation.
Local Authorities taking too long to return searches.
Old fashioned or under-resourced firms of solicitors used by other parties in the chain.

Step 6: Send watertight paperwork to you to sign

When every ‘i’ has been dotted and ‘t’ crossed, your solicitor will send you all the checked documents to sign and return.

These days, most can be emailed to you, although some are so extensive they have to be posted. For some documents, such as the Instruction Form and Seller’s Property Information Form, you’ll be able to sign, scan and email them back. But others, such as the Deeds, require an original signature.

Step 7: Request your initial deposit

Next, your solicitor will ask you for a deposit of 10% of the purchase price (unless you are taking out a 95% mortgage, in which case only 5% is due).

This payment can be made by online banking transfer – although bear in mind that some banks have a daily limit, which can be as low as £10,000. “If you have time, you could make several payments over several days,” says Kirk.

Unsure what your bank’s transaction limit is? Find out here.

Alternatively, you can make the payment through CHAPS, a high-value payment system overseen by the Bank of England. So long as you do it before 3pm, it will clear that day. The cost of a CHAPS transfer varies between banks, but between £25 and £35 is typical.

If the exchange date is likely to be very close to completion – ie, a matter of days – it can be cheaper and easier to pay all costs in one transfer.

Otherwise though, it’s a good idea to hang onto the bulk of your cash for as long as possible as funds held in your solicitor’s ‘client accountant’ are likely to earn little or no interest.

Step 8: Line up parties along the chain for exchange and completion

Your solicitor will now discuss with you a convenient date at which to move into your new home (known as completion). That date will then need to be agreed with the seller’s solicitor and those parties further along the chain.

Once a completion date is agreed, your solicitor will then work towards a date on which you can exchange contracts.

Don’t make moving arrangements until you have a definitive completion date. If you book in removal companies or deliveries which you are then forced to cancel, you could end up losing money.

Step 9: Exchange

The sellers at the bottom of the chain will need to be the first to have their contract released and ready for exchange.

Once the process starts, exchange will cascade up the chain and will be concluded within the timeframe set. Once the process has been completed, the completion date cannot then be changed.

The 10% (or 5%) deposit already cleared in your solicitor’s account will be paid to the seller on exchange of contracts and the date agreed for completion is fixed in the contract.

This is the point at which the purchase becomes legally binding. There are serious consequences. Not only will you lose the deposit, if you don’t complete on the fixed completion date stated in the contract, you’ll be in breach of contract too. And this means the seller could sue you for inconvenience and costs they’ve incurred as a result of your breach.”

Step 10: Completion

Your solicitor will then send you the final completion statement. Any outstanding balance due in order to complete is now payable.

This includes all disbursements (a term that refers to charges the solicitor pays to third parties on your behalf, such as Stamp Duty and management company fees) and the cost of the legal work itself.

Any money you’ve paid in advance, such as for searches, will be deducted from the balance due.

Your solicitor will also request the balance of the mortgage amount from your bank or building society.

Bear in mind, these funds will need to be cleared in your solicitor’s account before completion can take place.

On the day of completion, your solicitor will send this balance, along with any other fees payable (apportionments of ground rent and service charge on flats, for example), to the seller’s solicitors by same-day CHAPS transfer.

Once the cash has landed with the seller’s solicitors, they will telephone to confirm completion and authorise the estate agent to release the keys to you.

Step 11: Register change of ownership

Your solicitor’s job is not over quite yet. The change of ownership will need to be logged with the Land Registry.

Following completion, the seller’s solicitors will send the signed Deed – which now shows the transfer of property from the seller’s name to yours – to your solicitor. They will then submit it, together with the Mortgage Deed, to the Land Registry for registration.

Once the Land Registry has completed the registration, you’ll be sent an Office Copy, which is proof of your ownership (and Deeds where they exist) along with any guarantees for your new property.

They will also transfer any stamp duty you are liable for on the purchase to HM Revenue & Customs on your behalf.

If you have purchased a leasehold property, your solicitor will also notify the landlord or management company that the lease has been assigned to you. That way, they know who to send any service charges and ground rent bills to.