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First-time buyers – how agents can help them through the legal process

Conveyancing is the most complained about area of law in England and Wales – accounting, on average, for nearly a quarter of all the complaints we see here at the Legal Ombudsman each year. 

A failure to advise clients, delays, and poor cost information usually drive conveyancing-related complaints to our scheme.  

Sometimes, when things go wrong for home buyers, it can be a source of real frustration and even worry – no more so than when their conveyancing solicitor is at fault. Our research shows that the complaints we help resolve often involve first-time buyers. They are particularly at risk since they’re going through the process for the first time, and often don’t know what their lawyer has responsibility for. 

Earlier this year we reported on a first-time home buyer who had suffered sleepless nights after being asked to fork out £20,000 in outstanding repairs on a newly-bought flat. The conveyancing firm handling the sale had known about the costs before their client signed the contract, but failed to inform her. 

When the client complained to the firm, it accepted that it had made a mistake – having received a letter about the costs before she completed the sale – but offered just an £800 refund of its fees. We investigated the case, after she raised her complaint with us, and recommended that the firm pay a full reimbursement of the £20,000 plus compensation. 

On the back of this particularly shocking case, we decided to publish guidance for first-time buyers. It’s available for free on our website. Estate agents can help us to make first-time buyers aware of the guide, and can also play their part in sharing the guidance with their customers. 

Explaining who does what

Checking that the appropriate planning permissions are in place, advising on any ongoing financial obligations that come with the property, and raising enquiries with the seller about matters such as boundary responsibilities are in the remit of conveyancing solicitors, and clients can rightfully expect that these things are taken care of in exchange for their conveyancing fee. 

However, checking on building and structural issues generally isn't within the remit of lawyers. This is, of course, information that prospective buyers can obtain via a home buyers survey or a more detailed report from a structural surveyor. You can help your customer by explaining this to them. 

It will also help to be clear about your role in the house buying process. The Office of Fair Trading’s guidelines make it clear that prospective buyers should be given full and honest details about a property by an estate agent. 

For instance, any applications for planning permission or proposals for development or construction nearby should be revealed early on. Buyers should also be told if there’s a school next door or a nightclub nearby. And any public information about anti-social neighbours should be mentioned before a sale is complete. 

Greater transparency from all service providers involved in the house buying process will help us to reduce the number of complaints we receive at the Ombudsman. More importantly, it will make the experience a happier one for home buyers in what is one of the biggest transactions they will make in their life. 

Our guide, along with more information about the Legal Ombudsman, is available online here

*Kathryn Stone OBE is Chief Legal Ombudsman

The Legal Ombudsman is a free, independent service that helps to resolve disputes between legal service providers and their clients. Last year the scheme resolved 6,500 complaints, including thousands relating to house purchases.

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