Tim Blenkin, founder of Blenkin and Co. estate agents, York says lawyers were caught short during recent housing market revival.
“Recently, Tim Waring of Knight Frank wrote fluently about the problems associated with pushing through a sale, where it can all go wrong and how we can speed things up. Well, here is my take on the matter. In the great property boom of 2006/2007, residential conveyancing was fashionable. Legal firms beefed up their conveyancing departments and slashed fees to get their hands on the business. Conveyancing was lucrative in its own right, but was also the sprat set to catch a mackerel: wills, probate, commercial work, litigation – all can stem from a residential sale or purchase. The buyer or seller can become a client for life.
“In 2008 the market fell through the floor. Transaction levels plummeted, fees dried up and drastic measures were taken. Many law firms cut their conveyancing department to the bone. That made sense for a while; but in early 2013 the market recovered with surprising suddenness. The result was a crisis on a scale seldom seen. Buyers clamoured for action, sellers shouted at their agents – but the dear old legal profession couldn’t keep up.
“One well-known senior partner, who was being harassed by us for not sending out a sale contract after three weeks, said: ‘Sorry chaps, it’s all still in my desk drawer. I’m fire-fighting here’. He was not alone. As recently as September this year a partner in another firm apologised profusely for failing to despatch a sale contract on behalf of his vendor client four weeks after instruction.
“It is, simply, unforgiveable. And historic. In 1982 I can recall my then business partner uttering these immortal words to a Yorkshire-based solicitor: ‘We have fought and won the Falklands war since I wrote to you, and in that time you have failed to send out the contract.’
“And just one further story, quite possibly apocryphal. In the floods of the early nineties, the owner of a hotel had a sale agreed, and his buyer’s solicitor rang the vendor’s solicitor ready for exchange of contracts on a Friday afternoon. ‘I’ll get my client in on Monday to sign up’, said the vendor’s lawyer – no hurry, of course. Over the weekend, the town flooded to a depth of three feet.
“So this is my own elephant in the room, a topic no agent dares to air. I think the issue stems from fees. Competition was so strong in the boom years that the residential conveyancers cut fees too far. This arm of the law takes low priority. How many agents will nod with sympathy when I mention the lawyer looking after their sale who is “in court today” and unavailable. I think of a recent sale where the vendor was ready to exchange at 5pm but the “other side” had gone home. Gone home, for heaven’s sake. Most of our sales are agreed at weekends and after hours – from home.
“Houses are important and usually their owner’s greatest asset; should they not be treated as such at all levels of sale and purchase?”