How to navigate the legal jungle (shortcuts included)

By Iona Bain

Understanding what’s going on will help cut down – though probably not eliminate – nasty surprises along the way.

Conveyancing is the process, sometimes tortuous, sometimes frustrating, of transferring legal ownership of a property.

It can’t be avoided, there are few shortcuts, and what you need is patience and someone working smartly on your behalf.

It starts when your offer for your new place is accepted and only finishes when you get your hands on those keys.

First stages

If like most people you are too daunted or time poor to take on the conveyancing yourself, the first step is to find a solicitor or conveyancer and “instruct them” to do it for you.

The estate agent is likely to have a business relationship with a solicitor or conveyance and ‘recommend’ them. It might be an expensive option.  Get a quote, and use it to shop around for the best price and service.                            

Your appointed solicitor (or conveyancer) will then draw up a draft contract or terms of engagement with you, setting out their charges and deposits required.

Your solicitor will write to your seller’s solicitor to confirm they are acting for you and request a copy of the draft contract and details such as the property’s title and the standard forms that will be needed.

Inquiries and searches

Your solicitor will examine the draft contract and supporting documents and raise enquiries with the seller’s solicitor. You will be expected to go through the forms the seller has completed and let the solicitor know if you have any queries or concerns. In particular, you will want to double check the tenure of your new home: is it leasehold or freehold? If leasehold, don’t rely on your solicitor to check for the length of the lease.

Leases below 80 years are a problem and cannot be extended until you have owned the property for at least two years – and then it could be costly. Leases under 60 years are best avoided.

There are things you may not know about the property just from viewing it with estate agents or even getting a survey.


The conveyancer will do a set of legal searches to ensure there are no other factors you should be aware of, such as:

- Local authority searches: are there plans for developments which could depress the value of your property?  Is there a history of radioactive gas on the site? The searches will add between £70 and £400 to your bill depending on the council.  They are supposed to take one to two weeks, but the bad news is they can sometimes take up to six weeks.

- Checking the ‘title register’ and ‘title plan’ at the Land Registry – these are the legal documents proving the seller’s ownership. The title register check costs £8 and the title plan check costs £4. Both are legally required in a sale.

- Checking flood risk. This is also done at the Land Registry and costs £12.

- Water authority searches.  This is to check how you get your water and whether any public drains on the property might affect extensions or building works.  Another £50 to £75. In rare cases an additional flood report may be required.

Here are some examples of location-specific searches;

- Tin searches in Cornwall

- Mining searches in Warwickshire

- Radon gas in Somerset

- An environmental search with the Environmental Agency, which costs £73.20, could be valuable even if there is no obvious history for the location. The plot your new house is on, for instance, might have once been a landfill site.

- Now comes the mortgage valuation and survey (see Guide 3A). Your lender will now require you to have buildings insurance in place for your new home. You are responsible for the property as soon as contracts have been exchanged so it is in your interests not to forget about this one.

Your lender will have sent a copy of the mortgage offer to your solicitor and detail all the conditions. Now you need to ensure you have the ready funds available for the deposit.

Final stages

Your solicitor will have kept you in the loop about what is covered, and what might be missing, in the proposed contract from the seller. Before signing the contract on your behalf, your solicitor will need to ensure:

Your solicitor will have kept you in the loop about what is covered, and what might be missing, in the proposed contract from the seller.  Before signing the contract on your behalf, your solicitor will need to ensure:

- That all enquiries have been returned and are satisfactory

- That fixtures and fittings included in the purchase are what you expected

- A completion date has been agreed between the two parties, which is at best four weeks after exchange of contracts – but if you are unlucky it could be as long as 12 weeks

- That you have made arrangements to transfer the deposit into your solicitor’s account so it is cleared in time for an exchange.

You may want to negotiate on the size of the deposit, which is normally 10 per cent of the value of the property. But whatever figure you agree, you are still liable for 10 per cent of the value if you later pull out of the agreement. So if you pay a 5 per cent deposit but pull out, you will not only lose your deposit but also legally owe another 5 per cent.

Go to the property with the estate agent, and go over the fixtures and fittings inventory list carefully to ensure that everything you paid for is still there and the house has not been damaged in any way

The exchange

You and the seller will have agreed a date and time for the final ceremony: the exchange of contracts.

Your solicitor will exchange contracts for you. This is usually done by both solicitors/conveyancers reading out the contracts in a phone call (which is recorded) to make sure the contracts are identical, and then immediately sending them to one another in the post

If you are in a chain your solicitor/conveyancer will do the same thing, but will only release the contract if the other people in the chain are all happy to go ahead. This means if one person pulls out or delays, then everyone in the chain gets held up.


Once you have exchanged contracts you will be in a legally binding contract to buy the property with a fixed date for moving. This means that:

- If you do not complete the purchase, you will lose your deposit and owe the seller more if the deposit was less than 10 percent

- The seller has to sell or you can sue them

- The seller can no longer accept another offer (you no longer need to worry about being gazumped)

*In Scotland, this is supposed to be activated as soon as you make an offer for the property, which is done in a blind auction among bidders.

Your solicitor will “lodge an interest” in the property. This means the deeds to the property are frozen for 30 working days, to allow you to pay the seller and lodge your application to the Land Registry to transfer the deeds into your name.

Follow up with your solicitor and the Land Registry to make sure this happens. In occasional horror cases, a seller has declared himself bankrupt soon after the ‘sale’, and a bankruptcy trustee has claimed ownership of the property before the deeds were transferred to the buyer.

Now the seller may move out – though beware they may leave this to the day of completion. Time to organise your removal. The solicitor will send you a statement of his final bill. Your payment will need to be cleared in his bank account at least one day before completion.

Getting the keys

Completion is normally set around midday on the specified date, although in practice the green light is given as soon as the seller’s solicitor confirms that they have received all the money that is due. Time at last for that magic moment: the estate agent will release the keys, and it’s yours.

Your solicitor will tie up some loose ends:

- Pay Stamp Duty Land Tax on your behalf.

- Pass on your legal documents about 20 days after completion, once he has put them through the Land Registry

- Send a copy of the title deeds to your mortgage lender, who will hold them until you pay your loan off

- Notify the freeholder if the property is leasehold

- Give you a bill for their payment

If you are lucky enough to pay off your mortgage but stay in the property, see if your lender has a ‘safe deeds’ facility so your title deeds can continue to be stored in a bank, not in your drawer.

Top takeaway

You will want to collect together all your paperwork from the whole saga of buying your new place, including the estate agent’s brochure. File it away and keep it safe – you’ll need it if you move again!

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