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By Eddie Goldsmith

Managing Director, YouConvey


Insight - how do you solve a problem like conveyancing?

Those aficionados of the Sound of Music will recognise the tag line above. It came to my mind when thinking about how a billion pound industry can continue to survive and prosper when the satisfaction level recorded by consumers of the service is rock bottom, with talk of frustration, anger and high levels of stress from skirmishes with our 19th century process of buying and selling residential properties.

It is difficult to find anyone who talks positively about their own conveyancing experience - and those that do are either staff in conveyancing firms (who inevitably stand behind the conveyancer doing their work and chivvy them along) or those who have a good friend or close relative  doing their conveyancing for them.

The vast majority of conveyancing consumers who don't have that benefit find the whole process slow, painful and utterly demoralising. It is perhaps fortunate that there are around 10-12 years between house moves, and therefore the memory tends to fade. I am not sure we would have anyone in their right mind taking on another conveyancing epic otherwise.

So, how can this be? We are all used to buying our goods and services online. Our mobile is now a fundamental part of how we research, purchase and plot our goods delivery or a service bought. Consumers who don't know better (first-timers/homeowners who haven't moved for years) approach conveyancing in the same way.

They make certain assumptions. They assume that they can deal with everything online. They expect to be able to track the service, get regular updates and speak (or chat) to someone at any reasonable time of the day to get an informed and instructive update on progress.

That is not unreasonable for someone paying £750- £1,200 for a service?

Excluding that privileged minority of internal staff or family/close friends, the vast majority of people find the reality very different. Used to the digital world they enter the analogue when it comes to conveyancing. They find themselves facing an absolute barrage of unfamiliar papers, unintelligible forms to complete, hard copy questionnaires to print out, fill in and then post back, and then…silence.

They are now in the system and they soon realise that they are going to have to wait a long time - 16-18 weeks before they get a date to move into their new home. Even then, they won't know for certain if that is going to happen until potentially the actual day of completion.

In the meantime, their stress is exacerbated through what seems to be a wall of silence - built by their conveyancers who are difficult to get hold of. And, when they do manage to speak to them, are at best sympathetic but unable to help them, or at worst impossible to speak to and quite frankly unmoved by the emotional stress which the consumer is suffering.

Our consumer, who has fought tooth and nail with 20 other home buyers to secure their dream house, can literally spend weeks worrying that the seller will pull out and they will not only lose their hard-earned money already spent, but be back on the trail of house hunting again. 

It all boils down to a toxic mix and something that needs to be solved 

So, what's the solution?

Well, there is no point looking to the government. They have no appetite for a root and branch overhaul of the process. They are tinkering round the edges with much-needed reforms to leasehold abuse, but that's about it. If we are going to change, then it's going to have to come from the industry. 

And there is lots happening. We have first up the building momentum for upfront information. This is a no-brainer and, with Trading Standards imposing more and more responsibility for material information disclosure (heading our way from May), we are certainly going to have more informed buyers which should absolutely help to reduce abortives and save costs. 

We then have some sophisticated onboarding products out there now. Home movers can now routinely conduct online identification checks for their conveyancers and, if they are selling, they can complete the various property forms online at their leisure and at their pace, and not wait for their busy conveyancers to send them the forms. 

We also have the emergence of Property Log Books - it makes a lot of sense to blockchain static information on properties which can then be passed on to subsequent buyers without the same repetitive searches and costs being incurred time and time again. The promoters of these Log Books are offering sophisticated add-ons and, if you are a seller now and are happy to compile a Log Book, then you are definitely helping in the conveyancing process.

Finally, we have the likes of Coadjute who are making big advances and a lot of noise around the sharing of information between stakeholders, estate agents and conveyancers. They are to be applauded for engineering something which some (Land Registry and Law Society) have tried (and failed) to do before.

All of this is good stuff and it shows how creative and innovative our home moving industry is and can be. 

And what about conveyancers? Well, there are the big boys out there who have impressive systems and who offer a great deal of tech and online functionality. Then there are those operating on the other side of the spectrum - the high street, as we can conveniently call them, who may be doing a great job for the customers but who do not have the resources or appetite to upgrade their service to something to compete with the Big Boys. 

What we have in effect is an incumbent cottage industry - of around 5,000 conveyancers (solicitors and licensed conveyancers). The vast majority of them do not do conveyancing in such numbers to make it worthwhile to invest in the resources needed to compete in the 21st-century, online world - and why would they in reality? They do OK, and certainly in the last 18 months they have done very well. They have -been uber-busy and have put up their fees because they could. 

What is missing, however, in all these admirable initiatives is something to address the frustration and stress levels of the actual consumer - the one person who is at the heart and thoughts of all these forward-thinking companies and therein lies the dichotomy. Conveyancers are a bunch of really hard-working, good, principled professionals. I should know, having been one for the last 40 years.

We want to do our best for our clients, but we also need to be profitable and contribute to the wider earnings of our business. When we look at our fees, there is a limit over which we quickly become uncompetitive and pushing them too far leaves us out in the cold, with our panels or our introducers or competing online for business.

We are not good businesspeople and, ultimately, a lot of conveyancers compete on price and price alone. We all know that is a slippery slope and a race to the bottom. The result of all of this is that conveyancers take on too much work and that means they just do not have the time (even if they have the inclination) to provide the required level of customer service to each and every one of their clients. 

Some, like the Big Boys, have countered this by using cutting-edge technology and automated chat boxes. That is good, but when you are involved in the most expensive transaction of your life, you need more hand-holding than a reference to general FAQs. You need someone to manage your expectations - someone to help you understand how to answer a particular question in the property forms and someone who can tell you what (if anything) is going on.

My confirmed belief - borne out by 40 years dealing with conveyancing clients, countless interviews with scarred home movers and my deep knowledge of conveyancing is that we need to add something more to the pot than just the conventional, direct relationship between the client and the conveyancer. 

We need someone to take the time to work with the customer, to help and guide them. Someone to be with them from start to finish and work as part of their team. I am not talking here about customers doing their own conveyancing - far from it. I am talking about getting the customers more engaged, giving them the wherewithal to drive the transaction at their pace and to allow them to collaborate with their conveyancer as opposed to being a bystander waiting for something to happen .

So, who is going to make this happen ?

Well, surprisingly, I am up for the challenge. I know I am long in the tooth, but I am convinced that there is a solution to the dreadful home moving experience. This belief has prompted me to launch a service to do just that. YouConvey has been called a Premium Conveyancing service by one commentator. I prefer to call it Collaborative Conveyancing - but, whatever the name, I do think that this product is breaking new ground in the conveyancing secto.

And one final observation. Another commentator queried whether this wasn't something that the conveyancers should be doing already? Quite right, but what I know personally is that this is not happening for all reasons addressed above.

Will customers be happy to pay for this extra value-added service? So far, the answer is yes, but we are only at the start of this journey to improve the home buying conveyancing experience and if it does start to catch on then maybe it is possible (back to the Sound of Music) to catch a cloud and pin it down.

*Eddie Goldsmith is the managing director of YouConvey and a former chairman of the Conveyancing Associaton 


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