Part 1: How to choose the right property solicitor
This is the first in a series of blogs aimed at explaining the property purchasing process to first time buyers.
We know, when buying property, being a first time buyer can be an exciting yet daunting experience; a huge financial commitment often follows but on the plus side, if you are renting, you may finally get rid of a difficult landlord.
The Conveyancing Process – The Parties Involved
With so many different parties involved, it can be really confusing to know which one to follow and / or engage with. There’s the buyer, the buyer’s solicitors, the seller, the seller’s solicitors, the estate agent, mortgage lender and sometimes even a mortgage broker. It’s understandable why people often become nervous and sometimes, unclear on what to do.
The golden rule however is to always follow the advice of your property solicitor. Not only are you paying them, but the Solicitors’ Regulatory Authority (SRA) imposes strict rules on solicitors professional conduct. Among these rules is the absolute requirement to act in the best interests of a client.
A reputable conveyancing solicitor is critical to the process.
Conveyancing Quality Scheme (CQS)
Technical jargon, the fear of hidden fees, incompetent advice (…etc) are among common fears and not without reason. Solicitor complaints are ever increasing and the Law Society recognises this. To allay fears, in 2011 a conveyancing quality mark known as the Law Society Conveyancing Quality Scheme, or CQS for short, was introduced.
CQS helps to determine a good conveyancing solicitor from a bad one with members having to undergo annual audits and assessments.
It is advisable to use a property solicitor working for a firm accredited with CQS. This will give you the confidence to know that the conveyancing / property work will be conducted at a high standard, as set by the Law Society.
The Law Society recognises those firms that operate their management and operational systems at the highest possible level through the award known as Lexcel.
Lexcel firms are independently audited annually by Law Society approved bodies to ensure they operate excellent practice management standards.
Both Lexcel and the CQS accreditations are Law Society awards which recognise excellence in customer service and practice management. They are a quick and easy way for clients to decide whether or not to use a solicitor and can give you the confidence that you are making a good choice.
Once you have found a CQS and Lexcel accredited firm, check if there is a specialist who will be responsible for your matter. Whilst a multi skilled lawyer is good for general work, when it comes to spotting potential conveyancing issues select a specialist who will root out even the teeniest of problems.
Ask how many first time buyers they have dealt with in the last 6 months? A first time buyer solicitor will offer you the service you need.
Your advisor should provide a written report to you before requiring you to sign anything. Signing documents in a hurry without knowing what you are signing, without any proper report or feedback given the huge financial investment you are making is simply not professional and a disservice to you.
Never be afraid to ask your lawyer or licensed conveyance to explain matters where you do not understand them. You are paying for legal representation for a process that can be stressful and complicated. Ask…. ask again… and even ask again! Be sure you understand what you are doing before you sign the property contract.
Varsha Shah is a senior licensed conveyancer at Saracens Solicitors. Varsha says, “buying property is often the largest investment you will ever make – why would you economise or compromise on the legal process? I have had clients come to me for solutions after having been seriously professionally let down by their conveyancing solicitor. When I ask them why they didn’t choose a CQS or Lexcel accredited firm in the first place, they say they didn’t know about it, and thought all property lawyers did the same work. But the number one reason is that they offered a cheap service”.
With first time buyers, the reasoning understandably is to keep costs down. Whilst we urge clients to be sensible with costs, when it comes to professional service providers, bargain hunting is not the best approach. People often choose a lawyer they know personally or if they don’t know one, choose a specialist that is known to be good.
It’s highly unlikely that you’ll find a conveyancing solicitor that is very cheap and at the same time very good. Usually, if the fees are very low, the service level will be too. Remember the old adage:
“You get what you pay for”.
There are providers out there that offer very cheap conveyancing referred to as conveyor belt / factory / sweat shop, style conveyancing firms. Their business model essentially involves doing volume conveyancing at very low cost. In other words they make very small profit from each file resulting in the process becoming a numbers game on a ‘conveyor belt’.
Cost is the driving factor in these types of firms, not quality. This can mean that someone who is under-qualified, junior, and / or incompetent has the legal responsibility of buying your property for you! To make matters worse, the work is done under extreme pressure with the objective of achieving ‘sales targets’ so the propensity to make mistakes is generally much higher.
Whilst you think you may be bagging a bargain today, the true impact and any mistakes made during the conveyancing process may not be revealed until much later – perhaps not until such time as you yourself want to sell the property, by which time it may be too late for any serious problems to be rectified.
On average, a conveyance can take between 4-8 weeks to complete, with some 10-15 working hours on a file when done properly.
Personality, nominations and a good track record…
Your money and your stress levels will be in the hands of your chosen advisor for the time it takes for the purchase to be completed. Their personality and temperament is key. You must be comfortable to just pick up the phone when needed and express your concerns with confidence.
Test the water with them.
When speaking to them, do they communicate effectively?
Do they put you at ease and explain matters properly?
Are they patient? And do they understand your concerns?
On the subject of mortgages, ask your solicitor if the firm is a panel member for the particular lender you intend to use. A conveyancing solicitor will often be conducting work for both you and your lender. However, the work for the lender can only be done if the firm is a member of that panel. If not, you may find the solicitor will outsource the lenders work to another law firm which may result in you paying higher or two lots of fees.
Some law firms are not even owned by lawyers but by non-legally trained business people i.e. people who do not understand the law. It is therefore worthwhile enquiring about the level of indemnity insurance cover in place and how many years experience the person working on your matter has. Whilst most good property solicitors and conveyancers will act diligently from time to time mistakes do happen. If things go wrong, you will need the benefit of a law firm’s indemnity cover to protect you from any losses caused by the solicitor or the law failing to protect you.
Look at the firm’s website. It may tell you a lot about the firm itself and the quality of work and service it offers. Ensure that you look out for the firm’s testimonials as this will give you a good insight into the service provided as well as the experience of others who have previously gone through the process themselves. You could even conduct a Google search asking for ‘Reviews on XYZ law firm’ to see what results show.
Finally, look out for specific awards the firm has won or any that the firm may have been nominated for in addition to CQS and Lexcel. Most high profile / prestigious awards are only given following an audit process so an award winning firm or even one that has been nominated for an award will usually be a good indicator of the level of service on offer.
Buying a property is one of the most important decisions you will make in your life. However choosing your property solicitor wisely can be the difference between ‘make or break’ so choose wisely.