How do I choose a property solicitor?


Key points:

  • Conveyancing refers to the official transfer of property ownership from a buyer to a seller
  • Conveyancing services are offered by licensed conveyancers as well as fully qualified solicitors
  • Buying a property requires a more diligent service and will cost more than selling
  • Costs consist of the legal professional's fee, together with costs known as disbursements for searches, bank transfers and so on
  • Beware low quotes, as there are likely to be hidden extra costs: make sure you check exactly what is included

Whether you are buying or selling a residential property, you will require the services of a legal professional to handle the conveyancing process: that is, the official transfer of ownership from vendor to purchaser.  This can be either a fully qualified solicitor, or a licensed conveyancer (it is not a legal requirement to use a qualified professional, but it is strongly recommended, as mistakes in a property transaction can be extremely costly). In the past, it was traditional to use a local firm of solicitors, often charging by the hour, but these days many solicitors offer a fixed-fee conveyancing service. In addition, there are numerous specialist firms, many of which offer fast online conveyancing quotes.

1. What is the difference between a solicitor and a conveyancer?

Solicitors are trained in a wide range of legal areas, although they may choose to specialise in a particular field. Conveyancers are not fully trained solicitors but are specifically qualified to handle property transactions. Conveyancers will generally charge less than the legal fees of solicitors, and for straightforward sales their services should be perfectly adequate. However solicitors' greater breadth of knowledge means that they are likely to be better equipped to handle more complex issues that arise, and offer legal advice.

All solicitors are required to be members of the Law Society and are regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, and all conveyancers must be members of and are regulated by the Council for Licensed Conveyancers. The Legal Ombudsman deals with customer complaints for both groups.

2. Does it matter if I am buying, selling or both?

When buying a property, it is more vital to have a diligent solicitor or conveyancer who will carry out the necessary checks and look out for potential problems. If you are buying a more unusual property, such as a large country house or farmland, it would be wise to look for a solicitor who specialises in this type of transaction.

If you are only concerned with selling a property quickly and smoothly, a basic conveyancing service is likely to be suitable, but you still need someone who will provide fast and efficient responses to the buyer's solicitor. The cheapest conveyancing quote is unlikely to be the best option, so take into account service as well as price.

3. Who should I ask for recommendations?

Personal experiences of friends and family are always worth taking notice of when finding a conveyancer or conveyancing solicitor, but your estate agent will also probably be able to suggest a firm that they trust and can recommend. The agent may well get a referral fee if they find solicitors for you, but don't let that put you off: remember that it is in the agent's best interest as well as yours for the sale to proceed quickly and smoothly, so they are only likely to recommend an efficient law firm.

4. What questions should I ask before choosing a conveyancing solicitor?

Find out who will be dealing with your transaction: will it be an individual, a small team, or somebody in a call centre? Cheaper conveyancing firms are often call-centre operations, so you could be dealing with a different person each time you call. If complications arise during the deal, this could lead to frustrations and delays. You should also ask how many other files the person or team will be handling. Some firms will offer different levels of service, from a highly personalised tier to a more basic service where the solicitors are working on many transactions at the same time.

Also make sure you confirm exactly what the quoted fee covers (see below).

5. How much will it cost?

The conveyancing fees you pay will depend on a number of factors, including whether you are buying or selling, whether the property is freehold or leasehold, whether there is a mortgage involved, and the level of conveyancing service you want. There may be a sliding scale based on the purchase price of the property.

The costs consist of the solicitor's or conveyancer's fees, together with the cost of the various payments (disbursements) that must be paid as part of the transaction. There will be more disbursements if you are buying a property, for example:

  • Search fees, such as local authority, water/drainage and environmental searches
  • Telegraphic transfer (TT) fees, payable for bank transfers of sums greater than the £60,000 BACS limit
  • ID checks, to satisfy money laundering regulations
  • Pre-completion searches
  • Land Registry fees
  • Stamp duty land tax is also payable in most cases when buying a property, and some conveyancers may charge for completing the stamp duty return.

When selling a property, disbursements will include:

  • TT fees
  • ID checks
  • Official copies of the title register and title plan from the Land Registry

As a rough guide, if you are just selling a property, the total cost could be about £800-£1,000 plus VAT; if you are buying, £1,000-£1,500 plus VAT (excluding stamp duty). Cash transactions (with no mortgage) could reduce these figures, while deals involving leaseholds will increase them. Fees will generally be higher for more expensive or unusual properties, or those that have not been registered with the Land Registry, or if additional legal advice is required.

In any case, make sure you check exactly what is included in the quote. Online quotes from “fixed-fee” conveyancing firms may offer temptingly low headline figures, but these often don’t include basic services that other firms include in their legal fees. If you see a quote offering conveyancing for £300, you can be fairly sure there will be plenty of hidden extras.

6. Are “no sale, no fee” conveyancing services worth it?

Some firms promise that you only pay in the event of a successful completion. This can be a useful insurance policy, but bear in mind that it may be more expensive than competing quotes, to cover the cost of transactions that fall through. You should also remember that it only applies to the legal firm’s own fees: you will still be liable for disbursements and other charges that are incurred before the transaction fails.

7. When should I instruct the conveyancer or solicitor?

The earlier the better! Many sellers don’t instruct a conveyancing solicitor until they have a buyer lined up, but to ensure a quick and smooth sale it is a good idea to do it before putting the property on the market. This means that much of the paperwork can be prepared in advance so that it is ready as soon as a potential buyer requires it. Instructing the conveyancer early is especially important for leasehold properties, which have more parties involved (freeholder, managing agent and so on) and more time-consuming red tape.

If you are selling a home, Movewise can help you sell faster and achieve a better price. For more information on choosing the right agent, preparing your hosue for sale, the best time to sell a propery and how to value one see our guide: How to sell a house.

We have a recommended conveyancing firm that offers a combination of fair fees and high-quality service. Our recommended firm gives us preferential treatment when handling transactions, allowing us to close your sale faster. Click here to get a quote.

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