Confessions of a solicitor

Hiring a solicitor? Here’s what you need to know

When you’re buying or selling a home, what questions should you ask a solicitor to make sure all goes smoothly? Read our expert tips. 

Whether you’re selling your home or buying one, the legal transfer of ownership can be fraught with uncertainty – and, if it all goes wrong, your sale can fall through.

We’ve asked Richard Durrant, head of conveyancing at Boys & Maughan Solicitors, to share his top tips, so you’ll have fewer surprises along the way.

I’ve bought a house before, so I know the process. Do I even need a solicitor this time?

“Our advice is to engage the services of a conveyancer (residential property specialist) or solicitor, as they can help with the entire process of your move – unlike the mortgage provider or broker, as many people assume.

A solicitor arranges the exchange and completion dates, makes sure the house you buy meets all the requirements of your mortgage and arranges for the lender to release funds so you can complete. Buying or selling a property is a complex business, and you need professional experience to ensure nothing is missed.

There are also different stages to the transaction. If you’re getting a mortgage, a lender will not allow you to act for yourself. Similarly, at the end of the purchase, the Land Registry will not accept applications from the general public without certain ID requirements being met to combat fraud.”

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Solicitors are notoriously expensive. How do I know I’m getting value for money?

“The best way to establish that you’re getting value for money is to pick up the phone and speak with a solicitor – you’ll get a much better feel for different firms by talking to them, rather than just using email. Developing a good rapport with your solicitor is crucial. Your home move could prove challenging and you don’t want to deal with someone who’s awkward to talk to or who doesn’t return your calls.

You should always ask for a full breakdown of the fees1 and an explanation of each. Some add-ons can attract further charges – including standard requests like arranging a mortgage, wanting to complete within 7 days or arranging indemnity policies (insurance policies covering property defects). Many costs in a solicitor’s quote do not go to them. Land Registry fees, Stamp Duty and search fees are commonly viewed as solicitors’ fees, but these are passed on to a third party on your behalf.”

As well as the obvious questions about cost, you could also ask a potential solicitor what steps they take to reduce transaction failure and their average time between confirmation of instructions and exchange.

To find out more about our mortgage tariffs, call us on 0800 022 4022 to speak to a mortgage adviser, or read our leaflet [PDF, 265KB].

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My estate agent has recommended a solicitor. Should I go for them?

“Many local agents recommend clients to us but always check a solicitor’s credentials independently, do your own research and compare their fees with at least two others. It’s always best to use a solicitor local to the agent as they’ll probably have a good working relationship and knowledge of the area. While most firms are accessible by phone and email, it’s often useful to see people face to face.”

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My solicitor seems genuine, but how do I know I can trust them?

“You can check a solicitor on the Find A Solicitor page of The Law Society website2. This will tell you what their specialism is, and the size of the firm you are working with. The legal profession has moved away from a ‘jack of all trades’ approach to more specialised departments in firms, so make sure you choose the right person for the job. The best way to get recommendations for a solicitor or conveyancer is to ask local estate agents and mortgage brokers who will deal with certain firms every day.”

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Does ‘No Sale, No Fee’ really mean I will pay nothing?

“No, not necessarily. If a No Sale, No Fee deal is offered, you will not usually pay any legal fees. But remember, there are certain charges such as Land Registry fees and search fees that you will still have to pay. If you withdraw before exchange, these are likely to be no more than £200-£300 and you will have no obligation to take the matter further. If you wait until you have exchanged, that’s a whole different picture. If you have exchanged contracts and then change your mind, you are likely to lose your deposit, have to pay legal fees and could also face the seller pursuing you for further costs.”

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I’m considering buying a leasehold property. Do I need a specialist solicitor?

“No. Most firms will deal with leasehold properties. However, you do need someone that understands all of the relevant issues, such as insurance, rights, covenants and dealing with the management company. They would also need to ensure that the daily management of the property was in good hands and to be able to interpret all the accounts and information received from them.

Also, be aware of the extra costs involved in dealing with freeholders and management companies, as well as solicitors who have to handle a much larger and more detailed range of legal documents. With a freehold purchase, you’ll own the whole of the property and it is yours to deal with as you see fit. On a leasehold purchase, you will usually own a defined part of a larger building and will need to liaise with others to deal with insurance, maintenance and repairs of the building and its surrounding grounds.”

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The process seems to be taking ages. What can I do to hurry it up?

“A solicitor has to carry out various searches on the property, including local, water authority and environmental searches; deal with the reports when they arrive; and then advise clients on what they need to do. The process doesn’t have to be time consuming but it’s incredible how often the title documents and property information forms are not completely filled in. We need to check these thoroughly, and missing information means extra time. A solicitor should always be able to update you on your case and, if there are delays, explain why.”

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What’s the one thing home-buyers forget to ask you?

“Buyers and sellers have a habit of mentioning rather late in some transactions that they are off on holiday or changing jobs, and that therefore they need to get things done by a certain date. Giving your solicitor all the necessary information at the outset can avoid issues caused by rushing later on.”

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What if things go wrong?

“If you’ve established a rapport with your solicitor, it’s less likely you’ll have a problem. But if you feel dissatisfied with the service, we recommend you speak to a senior person at the firm first. Many problems can be addressed by them. If the complaint isn’t dealt with, there is a legal ombudsman3 you can go to. Each solicitor will have the details on their website.”

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A note of caution

Conveyancing fraud, a scam where one party – usually the solicitor – has their email system hijacked, could cost you thousands of pounds. If you’re buying or selling a property, you need to be on your guard. Watch this video to see ethical hacker Chris Underhill explain more about the scam, and hear his tips on how to help prevent it happening to you.

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At certain times throughout this article you may be linked to websites owned and operated by other organisations and will be subject to their terms and conditions. Barclays cannot take any responsibility for the content of these sites.

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