A Spanner in the Works

Ask anyone who is putting their property on the market about how long the legal side of things could take once they find a buyer and most will say about eleven weeks. Oh, would that it were only eleven weeks! Today the national average period taken to get from acceptance of an offer to exchange of contracts is almost double that. It is a national disgrace.

Time was that a property transaction would take about twenty-eight days to exchange and another twenty-eight to complete. That was with typewriters, the telephone and the Royal Mail. Today, with all our modern technology, it takes about a quarter of a year just to get to exchange – and that’s after a buyer has been found. Of course the longer it takes the more things can go wrong, so the rate of deals falling through is higher than ever. It all adds to the uncertainty about moving home and inevitably increases the cost.

Why does it take so long? Well, there is little money in conveyancing so fewer solicitors are taking on the job. Plus the checks and balances have become more and more time consuming and our litigious society means that everyone is scared of their own shadow and so tries to pass the onus onto someone else.

With more checks and fewer conveyancers it is hardly surprising that deals take longer than ever to go through. But it is not just the contract. In some parts of the country local authority searches can take up to ten weeks while in other areas they only take a week or so, and the national average is six to eight weeks. So there is a postcode lottery in searches that can hamper and even threaten proceedings.

The latest minister of housing is called James Brokenshire. I wonder if any of us will remember his name in a few years’ time, any more than we can remember the names of the fourteen housing ministers who have served under our last four serving prime ministers – that’s an average tenure in the housing post of about sixteen months. Mr Brokenshire has his time cut out with Grenfell Tower and building safety, planning and house building. But if the government wants a truly mobile and flexible workforce, who can adapt to and grasp new employment opportunities around the country, then bogging down house sellers in legal and local government bureaucracy for months on end is not going to help – especially as most are now paying the government sky high stamp duty for the pleasure.

If Mr Brokenshire wants to be remembered fondly or even at all then he could get to grips with the dire state of property transactions, speed them up and do us all a favour.