What’s the difference between solicitors and lawyers, and what kind do I need to help me when purchasing a house?
Lawyer is a general term for any law professional, and a solicitor is a subcategory of lawyer. In the UK, solicitors, who specialise in different areas of law, meet with and advise clients and are also responsible for representing their clients in the lower courts such as Magistrates Court.
They then employ another kind of legal professional, known as a barrister, to act as advocate for their clients at higher levels of court such as the Crown Court.
When looking for assistance in a property transaction there are two types of lawyer who can help you: a solicitor who specialises in property law, which may be commercial or residential; or a licensed conveyancer, which is a lawyer trained in property law but who is not qualified as a solicitor.
Much of the actual administrative work involved in the transfer of property deeds may be undertaken by someone without a license, referred to as a conveyancer, under the supervision of a solicitor or licensed conveyancer.
How can a lawyer assist me in buying a property?
The term conveyancing refers to the transfer of the legal title of a property from one person to another; the legal aspect of buying or selling a property. As it is crucial that the title being transferred is legitimate, a major part of conveyancing involves carrying out searches relating to the prospective property, such as checking that the site is occupied legally, that the property isn’t threatened by any redevelopments in the area or subject to a compulsory purchase order.
Conveyancing also involves duties such as drafting a contract to set out the terms of the purchase of the property, and the exchange of mortgage information. In England and Wales, property titles cannot be transferred until contracts have been exchanged, so this is an essential part of the process.
However, in Scotland, once an offer for the purchase of a property has been accepted, the agreement is legally binding, whereas in England and Wales this is not the case; consequently the contractual stage of the transaction is not so crucial in Scotland.
The Government has plans to introduce online conveyancing, which will involve the online registration of land to which the title is guaranteed by the state. This will ultimately dispose of the necessity for lengthy background searches and make purchasing property much easier and more secure for the buyer.
Won’t an estate agent take care of the legal side of things for me?
No. It is important to remember that an estate agent’s primary duty is to the seller of the property and not to you as the buyer. You won’t be paying the estate agent to sell you the house – their motivation is the fee they charge the seller for handling the transaction. Additionally, estate agents are not required to have any qualification or to belong to any professional body, and as a result, they are largely unregulated, with the result that the quality of service they provide varies widely between individuals and companies.
Do I really need a lawyer?
It is no longer essential that a lawyer be involved in a conveyancing transaction. Lawyers used to be the only people able to transfer property titles, which made it impossible to purchase a property without employing a legal professional. However, this is no longer the case, and it is now possible, in theory, to manage the legal side of things yourself.
There are a number of resources you can use if you opt to conduct the transaction independently, including websites and books, many written by lawyers who wish to make legal help more accessible to the general public.
However, the conveyancing process can be long-winded and complicated, and it may be worth employing a lawyer to avoid the risk of getting cheated or missing a vital detail. The seller could take you to court if you breach your contract, so it is essential that the terms of the contract are watertight.
Sellers are not legally obliged to inform the purchaser of any problems with the property, although they are required to answer truthfully any questions put to them by the buyer. (The buyer’s rights are protected by the Property Misdescriptions Act 1991). Therefore, it is important that all searches relating to potential problems with the site and building are exhaustive.
How much does it cost to employ a lawyer when purchasing a property?
Buying a lawyer’s time and services can be expensive; most of the people who choose to undertake the legal side of things themselves do so because of financial considerations. Although some lawyers might choose to charge you a percentage of the property value, like an estate agent, the majority will just charge you a fee which covers their time, plus administrative costs for drawing up contracts etc, and tax.
As a general rule, buying a property will cost you from £800 to £1200 in legal fees. This may seem like a lot of money, but it pales into insignificance when compared with the total amount of money you will be spending on a house.
Most people consider it money well spent, given the fact that you can then leave much of the hassle and legal jargon to the lawyers rather than having to tackle it yourself. Missing a vital detail in the legal process, such as the discovery of an in-valid leasehold or a problem with dry rot, could result in you losing much of the money that you invested in your property, and could potentially leave you homeless!
What about renting? How can a solicitor help me?
The majority of residential lettings take place without the involvement of a lawyer. However, you might wish to take legal advice if you are concerned about any of the terms of the contract or the state of the property.
If you are treated unfairly by a landlord or feel a contract has been breached then a lawyer can help you to determine what your rights are and to ensure that your landlord affords you those rights. Your local council and the Citizens Advice Bureau can also provide support and advice in relation to problems with a private landlord.
Where can I find a lawyer?
The Law Society, the body responsible for the regulation and representation of solicitors in the UK, can help you to find a lawyer online, or you use the The Government provided online guides to research the various aspects of the property market.
Case Study 1
Emma and Jerry bought a 3-bedroom terraced house in South London in summer 2006:
- House price: £495,000
- Did you use a lawyer? Yes, we chose to employ our family solicitor to assist us with buying the house. He’s very trustworthy and took care of everything.
- Did you consider doing your own legal work? No: buying a house is so stressful anyway, and some of the work solicitors undertake is quite complicated – all the background searches and so on.
- How much did you pay for legal services? 1200 pounds, which was worth it for the peace of mind
- Did you have any problems with the legal side of things? No, none at all.
- How long did the purchase take, from making an initial offer to finalizing the sale? About 6-7 weeks which was very quick.
Case Study 2
Ruth, age 23, recently bought a 2 bedroom flat in West Kensington.
- Did you use a lawyer? Yes, I went to my family solicitor for assistance in buying the house. I think it’s really important to use a trustworthy lawyer for your own peace of mind and because it’s in your own interests to have the sale conducted professionally.
- Did you consider doing your own legal work? No, definitely not: buying a house involves a significant time commitment as it is. You can’t make any errors with the legal side of things, and I think it’s really important to have someone with legal training looking out for you. Towards the end of the transaction I was speaking to my lawyer on the phone 2 or 3 times a day.
- How much did you pay for legal services? £950
- Did you have any problems with the legal side of things? Yes, the lawyer uncovered a problem with the leasehold on the property during the search, and that had to be sorted out before we could transfer the titles on the property.
- How long did the purchase take, from making an initial offer to finalizing the sale? It took 10 weeks – mostly because of the delay caused by the problem with the leasehold.