Given soaring property prices over the last few years, it’s natural to feel a sense of relief when your offer on a new home has been accepted.
However, that’s just the start of the process. It can take a frustratingly long time to get the keys to your new property in your hand, while you may well have to navigate several pitfalls along the way.
Conveyancing – the legal process behind transferring ownership of a property from one party to another – typically takes around two to three months, although it can take much longer.
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A recent government report into buying and selling homes recognises that the conveyancing period carries, “most of the stress, frustration and uncertainty for both buyers and sellers, with low levels of trust between all parties”. It found that one third of home buying transactions fail at an average cost of £700 for the buyer.
But understanding a process is the first step to keeping stress to a minimum, so this guide looks at the nuts and bolts around what conveyancing entails, as well as what to look for when choosing a conveyancer and steps you can take to ensure a smooth and successful purchase.
Note, that it refers to purchasing properties in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. There’s a different legal process for buying a property in Scotland.
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What does conveyancing involve?
In a nutshell, conveyancing is the legal work involved in buying a property and the transfer of ownership from the vendor – or seller – to the buyer.
It protects the buyer against nasty surprises in the future and ensures they’re aware of any potential issues with the property before they commit to the purchase.
See further down for a step-by-step guide to the conveyancing process.
What’s the difference between a conveyancer and a solicitor?
Either a solicitor or a licensed conveyancer can carry out the conveyancing process. So what’s the difference? Simply that a solicitor is also qualified to carry our other legal services in addition to conveyancing – they just tend to specialise in property.
But both are regulated by their respective professional bodies, carry their own insurance and will carry out the same conveyancing tasks. From here on, we’ll use the term ‘solicitor’ to cover both options.
How much does conveyancing cost?
Conveyancing fees are split into two parts:
- Legal fees charged by the solicitor. According to the HomeOwners Alliance (HOA), conveyancing fees typically vary from £850 to £1,500, although they can be higher for more complex transactions such as leasehold properties. You’ll usually have to pay conveyancing fees even if your purchase fails
- Disbursements charged by third parties for various searches and legal documentation. Examples include local authority searches (£250-450) and Land Registry transfer fees (£200-300).
You’ll also have to pay stamp duty to HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) on any property purchase over £125,000 in England and Northern Ireland, which you’ll need to pay via your solicitor who must transfer the funds within 14 days of completion.
Stamp duty is charged on a sliding scale from 2% to 15%, depending on the purchase price and factors such as whether you are a first-time buyer or own an additional property.
Buyers of properties in Wales are required to pay Land Transaction Tax of up to 15% to the Welsh Revenue Authority.
In addition, you may choose to take out home buyer protection insurance. This covers you if your purchase falls through for certain reasons, for example, if the vendor pulls out or your survey reveals major issues. It enables you to claim back some of your upfront costs, such as valuation, conveyancing and mortgage arrangement fees, subject to limits.
This insurance has to be bought before, or within a certain period (usually a week), of instructing a solicitor to act on your purchase. Basic policies cost around £50 although more comprehensive policies are likely to cost around £200.
What’s the best way to find a solicitor?
While it’s not a legal requirement to hire a solicitor, if you are buying with a mortgage, it will be required by the lender for its legal work.
However, a quarter of all complaints received by The Law Society relate to residential conveyancing – by far the highest. Complaints include delays, hidden costs and inadequate advice.
As a result, it’s worth taking the time to find a good solicitor, rather than just choosing the cheapest option. You may consider the following:
- Asking family and friends for a recommendation
- Using a comparison service to compare conveyancing firms
- Asking your mortgage lender, broker or estate agent for a recommendation (although this may be more expensive than finding one yourself)
- Checking reviews and ratings on sites such as Trustpilot and Review Solicitors
- Searching the list of Licensed Conveyancers or Solicitors Register.
How will I be charged?
Some solicitors will charge a flat fee – you can provisionally fix this amount upfront – while others charge an hourly rate based on the time they spend on your purchase. Even a fixed fee may change if the legal work becomes more complex than expected, but your solicitor should provide advance notice of this.
Some companies offer a ‘no purchase, no fee’ arrangement, where you’ll pay a small fee (typically up to £300) upfront, with the balance on completion. However, the overall conveyancing fee is generally higher than for a standard fee arrangement.
A step-by-step guide to the conveyancing process
Once you’ve appointed your solicitor, these are the steps that will take place before completion.
1. Open the purchase file
Your solicitor will open the purchase file and send you a draft contract which sets out their fees and deposit required. They will also ask you to provide your contact details, including proof of identity, together with details of your estate agent, mortgage provider and your proposed financing for the deposit.
They will ask the estate agent for a memorandum (or notification) of sale, with the name and address of the buyer, seller and their respective solicitors, together with the agreed sale price.
Your solicitor will also write to the vendor’s solicitor to inform them that they’ve been instructed to act on your behalf on the purchase. They will request a copy of the draft contract along with other documents such as the title documents.
Your solicitor will be in regular contact with you and the vendor’s solicitors throughout the conveyancing process. It’s rare for them to speak to your mortgage lender or the vendor’s estate agent. However, they will occasionally speak to estate agents where there’s a stumbling block, such as which fittings are being left, and the estate agent is willing to speak to the vendor to try to broker a solution.
2. Review legal documents
Once they’ve received the draft contract and other documents from the vendor’s solicitor, your solicitor will review these documents and raise queries with their counterpart.
The legal principle ‘caveat emptor’ (buyer beware) applies for property purchases. This places the onus on the buyer to find any physical defects or legal issues relating to the property. A good solicitor will help protect you against these risks.
You will be asked to review the following documents:
- Seller’s Property Information Form: the vendor is required to answer a comprehensive set of questions about their property. These may include any disputes with neighbours, responsibility for maintaining hedges and fences, planning constraints and permissions, rights of way, restrictive covenants (such as pets or house colour) and guarantees and insurance policies
- Fittings and Contents Form: this lists the items that will be left or removed from the property as part of the sale
- Energy performance certificate (EPC): this provides information about the energy efficiency of the property, and may be particularly relevant for buyers looking to let their property as a minimum EPC rating of C is required from 2025
- Leasehold Information Form (if applicable): this sets out the ground rent payable, together with the contact details for the freeholder(s) and or/management company.
The property information and contents form can generate a number of queries, which is likely to take the majority of the conveyancing time to resolve to your satisfaction.
However, there are occasions where the vendor is unable to provide necessary documentation. Examples include proof of planning permission, complying with building regulations and missing deeds.
If this occurs, buyers can take out indemnity insurance to cover them for future costs relating to a specific issue. Indemnity insurance starts from around £50 and is a one-off payment for indefinite cover, although it may be invalid in certain circumstances and ‘attaches’ to the property, not the buyer.
3. Carry out the property searches
The solicitor will carry out legal searches to ensure that you are aware of any factors that may affect the property’s value or restrict your use of it.
These searches include:
- Local authority searches: these should identify any planning proposals for new roads or railway, breaches of planning regulations or enforcement notices for your property and compulsory purchase orders (where a public body can force a homeowner to sell their property)
- The ‘Title Register’ and ‘Title Plan’ at the Land Registry, both of which are legally required to prove the vendor’s ownership. These are available electronically if the property has been sold since 1990. Otherwise, the vendor will have to produce the original hard copy which is usually held in storage by the mortgage provider or the vendor
- Environmental search: this report will provide information about any contaminated land, landfill sites, previous industrial use, flooding predictions and other information
- Water authority searches: this looks into the water supply and sewer connections, which can be useful if you are planning to extend the property
- Chancel repair search: this ensures there are no potential liabilities on the property owner to pay for church repairs, which were first introduced in medieval times. Alternatively, you can pay for chancel repair insurance for around £20.
When the solicitor carries out the searches, your property may be flagged as being in an area with additional specific risks. If this is the case, the solicitor may carry out extra searches such as a more detailed search into the risk of flooding or reviewing any previous mining activity.
4. Conveyancing for your mortgage
You will also need to get your mortgage in place, including any financing for the deposit. Your solicitor will review the terms of any mortgage offer and liaise with the mortgage provider for the transfer of funds.
The mortgage provider will want to ensure that the value of the mortgage is more than covered by the value of the property. It will carry out a mortgage valuation, either by desktop analysis or by visiting the property.
This valuation can cost between £150 and £1,500, depending on the value of the property, although some mortgage providers may not charge for this.
If your valuation is below the offer price this is known as a ‘down valuation’ and it can cause a major issue for your purchase.
For example, you are buying a £200,000 house, financed by a 90% mortgage for £180,000 and a £20,000 deposit. If the lender’s valuation shows the house is worth £180,000, you’ll be offered 90% of that amount, in other words, £162,000. This leaves you with a shortfall of £18,000 to try to cover.
Alternatively, lenders may withdraw their offer entirely, or increase the loan-to-value of the mortgage, e.g. from 90% to 95%, although this is likely to be at a higher interest rate.
However, a down valuation is usually a major stumbling block unless you’re able to cover a higher deposit or renegotiate the asking price. You are entitled to challenge the valuation but this is rarely successful.
One option is to apply for a mortgage with a different lender, but this may cause timing issues and there’s no guarantee that they’ll agree to a higher valuation. Mortgage lenders also often use the same valuers.
5. Arrange for exchange of contracts
Before you sign the contract exchange, your solicitor will check that:
- All enquiries have been answered to your satisfaction
- The Fixtures and Fittings List is agreed
- The exchange and completion dates have been agreed. This is typically between one to four weeks after exchange of contracts, although it’s possible to exchange and complete on the same day
- The deposit has been received in your solicitor’s account ready for payment on exchange. The deposit is normally 10% of the value of the property but could be less (for example, if you have a 95% mortgage).
You can sign, scan and email some documents, such as the Instruction Form and Seller’s Property Information Form. However, other documents, such as Title Deeds, require an original signature.
The payment for the deposit can be made by online banking transfer, although some banks have a daily limit which can be as low as £10,000. You can check your bank’s transaction limit on fasterpayments.org.uk.
One option is to make payments over several days or pay to send a CHAPS payment from your bank. The CHAPS fee is typically around £30 and, for payments before 3 pm, the payment will clear the same day.
You will also have to arrange buildings insurance as you are responsible for the building from the point of exchange.
6. Exchange of contracts
Your solicitor will liaise with the vendor’s solicitors to exchange contracts, including arranging to do the same with any other people in the chain.
The seller 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 moves up the chain and the deposit is paid to the vendor on exchange.
At this point, you are legally bound to purchase the property with a set date for completion. If you pull out after exchange, you will have to pay the seller 10% of the value of the property, even if the deposit was for a smaller amount.
By the same token, you have the option of suing the vendor if they do not sell their property to you. The seller is also unable to accept another offer, meaning that you can’t be gazumped (where a buyer comes in with a higher offer after yours has been accepted).
7. Completion and moving
Your solicitor will request the balance of the mortgage amount from your lender, ready for completion. Completion occurs when the seller’s solicitor confirms receipt of the funds and authorises the estate agent (or vendor) to release the keys to you. You are able to move in at this point.
On, or after, completion, your solicitor will:
- Pay any other fees, such as the ground rent and service charge on flats
- Pay the stamp duty or land transaction tax on your behalf
- Send the signed deed for the property transfer, together with the mortgage deed, to the Land Registry for registration, either electronically or by post. You will be sent a copy as proof of your ownership
- Send a copy of the title deeds to your mortgage provider
- Send you the final completion statement with their outstanding conveyancing fees and disbursements, less any payments you’ve already made.
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What can cause delays?
The conveyancing process generally takes around 8 to 12 weeks, depending on a number of factors. But common delays include:
- Long chains: the longer the chain, the higher the risk of delay, either due to issues found during conveyancing, a buyer or vendor pulling out of the transaction or disagreement over the completion date
- Mortgage issues: while most buyers require a mortgage, this can delay conveyancing. Mortgage lenders may be unhappy with the valuation of the property, or have reservations over the buyer’s ability to afford their mortgage payments
- Type of property: leasehold properties can be notoriously complicated from a legal perspective, particularly where the buyer wants to extend the lease (it can be difficult to obtain a mortgage for leases of under 80 years) or requires confirmation of any substantial works due. Similarly, listed, old or poorly-maintained houses tend to take longer to resolve issues identified in the survey
- Fixtures and fittings: vendors should leave fixtures (broadly speaking, anything that is permanently fixed so it wouldn’t fall down if you turned the house upside down). You may also negotiate for them to leave some of the fittings, such as curtains, furniture and garden ornaments. This negotiation can create a sticking point between the buyer and vendor
- The vendor’s solicitor: carrying out searches and raising queries with the vendor’s solicitors accounts for much of the time taken for conveyancing. The speed of this process depends on the length of time that solicitors take to respond to queries.
What steps can I take to avoid delays?
Are there any unexpected costs?
Can you withdraw from buying a property?
Can you do your own conveyancing?
Should you use the conveyancer’s app?
What are conveyancing platforms?