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Secrets of Conveyancing

07 Aug 2007

I remember once listening to a group of people who it seemed had all recently just moved house. They all seemed to have dealt with very fine estate agents who delivered an excellent service. When the conversation moved to solicitors I was confident that the discussion would follow suit. I couldn’t have been more wrong. One participant described her solicitors involvement as “getting me to sign a few documents and charging two fortunes for doing it”. I practically choked on my steak and Guinness pie when her friends all heartily agreed.

The lesson was pretty clear that even at the end of a conveyance most clients have no idea what the solicitor has actually done for them. In order to rectify that problem I would like to open a window on the average conveyance and introduce people to a little of what we all do.

The Law Societies General Conditions of Sale form the basis of each sale of a residential property. Even when a sale contract is called unconditional it is invariably subject to the General Conditions of Sale. Before entering into a contract the vendor will have also furnished replies to approximately 20 pre-contract enquiries. Taking into account the main clauses of the contract and pre-contract enquiries there are approximately 70 different matters to be checked by the solicitor before a purchase can go ahead and almost any one of them can give rise to trouble at some point. This list does not include the work involved in checking the title deeds themselves which may contain anything up to thirty individual documents.

The general conditions govern the provision of many of the documents that are accused of “holding things up”. These conditions are a balance of responsibilities between the vendor and purchaser. In general terms they require the vendor to produce proof of title together with property certificates and various searches and ultimately they require the purchaser to pay the purchase price on a certain date.
At this point it probably worthwhile giving a glossary of terms frequently used by solicitors to confuse the innocent.

These are the actual documents that prove ownership by the vendor of a property. Examination of title involves checking amongst other things that there has been an unbroken chain of ownership to the present vendor and that all previous mortgages or charges have been discharged. The defects and anomalies that can appear in a set of deeds are legion and any solicitor could write a book about them and in fact the Law Library already contains several.

Property certificates:
Property certificates are documents issued by the DOE, Local Council and NIHE.
They contain information concerning the history of the property and include such matters as planning, building control, smoke control, house numbering, adoption of roads and footpaths. They are issued within about two weeks of being applied for except when they are urgent in which case they take a month to be issued and then get lost in the post.

While a solicitor carrying out a search conjures up an image of the solicitor gently patting down a slightly shady client before a consultation the reality is more prosaic. A search is a document which examines either the financial history of the vendor (a bankruptcy or judgment search) or the history of the property
(Registry of Deeds, land registry search or a statutory charges search). Searches again have to be applied for and are usually carried out by an individual enigmatically known as a law searcher. When these searches are satisfactory they are called “clear”. When they disclose something such as a duty to repay a HE grant or an order for unpaid rates then they are unsatisfactory and things tend to become very unclear indeed.

When a solicitor is involved in a house purchase he or she has to ensure that not just some but all of the above are in place before the purchase can proceed. Next time a vendor or the vendors agent says that the solicitor is holding things up it might be due to some caprice on the solicitors part but I would hazard a guess that he or she is trying to sort out one of the 70 terms and conditions that are there for your protection.