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Conveyancing searches – can they still be done during the COVID-19 lockdown?

Property Searches are a critical part of most residential property transactions.  They can also be a key cause of delays. This article, produced specifically for Estate Agents, explains what property searches are, how they are ordered, why delays can occur and what agents can do to speed up the process.

Property Search providers continue to operate during lock-down

Joe Pepper, CEO of tmgroup, a leading provider of Property Searches said “On 20th March, our entire team moved to remote working.  We continue to service our clients, but we are experiencing delays in the return of some searches from Local Authorities and other third parties”

Businesses, like tmgroup, source information from over six hundred suppliers from Local Authorities (LAs) to Environmental Report providers. The supply chain for searches has undergone significant digital transformation in the last decade, but this hasn’t captured all suppliers with some LAs still operating wholly paper-based systems.  This has hampered the time it takes to supply searches, during lockdown.   

Many businesses in the Search industry will also have furloughed staff in line with a significant drop in search volumes.  However, a recent press release from The Council of Property Search Organisations (CoPSO) stated that of 343 local councils in England and Wales, Property Searches are only unavailable in 24.  The same release from CoPSO stated that in over 90% of cases CoPSO members are able to serve their customers without any problems.

What is a Property Search?

A property search pack contains three reports. An explanation of each component is provided, below.  The information contained in a search pack is assessed by the buyer’s solicitor to help them advise their clients and to ensure the property provides good security to lend against.   

A property search contains a:

Local Authority Search

Composed of two parts: the LLC1 and the CON29. These are normally submitted by a solicitor with a location plan. LLC1 is a search of the local land charges register and will show if, for example, the property is a listed building or in a conservation or smoke control zone. 

The CON29 search reports on restrictions or obligations related to the land a property is sited on, for example tree preservation orders, conservation areas and conditions imposed on planning permissions.

Drainage and Water Search

This confirms whether a property is connected to a public sewer, septic tank or other private disposal facility. It will also confirm if the property is connected to a public or private water supply and it provides details of how the property is billed for its water supply and wastewater disposal. Finally, the report will confirm if the property is close to or affected by water mains or public sewers.

Environmental Search

An environmental search is carried out by a specialist environmental search company and involves an examination of past land use records to check whether the land is likely to be contaminated as defined by the Environmental Protection Act 1990.  This is a desktop search and does not involve a physical inspection of the site.

The search results will often result in further queries and there may be a need to commission more detailed analysis and/or region-specific reports, for example, a coal mining report.  This is one of the reasons why delays can occur as a result of the production of property searches.

The process

Property Searches are typically ordered by the buyers’ solicitor after an offer has been accepted and once the purchaser has lodged money on account with their Solicitor.  There can be a significant time lapse between a property reaching Sold Subject to Contract and the Solicitor being in a position to order searches.  This is one of the key causes of delays in property transactions.  This is why it’s important that buyers appoint their solicitors and respond to requests for information and money on account as soon as possible. The sooner searches can be ordered, the better. 

Searches are usually ordered from a Property Search supplier.  There are over a hundred suppliers of Property Searches operating in the UK most of whom subscribe to the Search Code of Practice, operated by the Property Codes Compliance Board

Property Search suppliers collate information for a specific property from a range of sources.  This is increasingly done digitally with the solicitor providing the details of the property they require a search for, and digital results being returned  via a search providers platform or by email.      

Property Searches will cost the buyer between £200 and £350 depending on the location of the property and the nature of the risks it’s exposed to. If, for example, the property is in area that has historically been associated with mining, an additional report may be required resulting in further costs to the buyer.

The time it takes to complete a Property Search will vary significantly, throughout England and Wales. Property Search providers are heavily reliant on Local Authorities all of whom operate to different timelines with the worse performing LAs taking as long as 4 months to return search results. Further delays will often occur during peak holiday periods.  

Estate agents should stay up to date with Local Authority turn around times in their area so they can manage buyers and sellers expectations. Most Search Providers will be able to share information on Local Authority turn around times, upon request but Agents should also speak to local law firms for updates.

Further delays can also occur due to the time it takes to respond to queries on search results, for example a Buyer may be concerned about flood risk, rights of way or ground stability issues.   

Regulated (Personal) local authority searches vs council local authority search

A Regulated (Personal) Local Authority Search provides the same information as a Council (Official) Local Authority Search. It uses the same Local Authority data, but the report is compiled by a search agent rather than being supplied directly to the search provider by the Local Authority.

Some Lenders will only accept an official Local Authority Search but Personal Searches have become much more widely accepted over the past 10 years.  The ordering process, prices, turn around times and search providers’ insurance cover can vary significantly so it’s important to select the right provider for your business.

What can agents due to speed up the process?

Some estate agents order the searches when they start to market the property. This helps provide potential buyers with more detail on the property. It can reduce post search queries and the conveyancer, the buyer appoints, may be happy to work from the searches that have already been ordered which can reduce transactions time by weeks. 

Agents using this approach typically only apply it to higher value properties with the seller covering the cost of the searches. Some search providers will refund the cost of the searches if the sale does not proceed.

Most of those working in the residential property sector are very aware of the need to speed up transactions and reduce fall throughs. Ordering searches up front can speed up the process and it can also ensure that fall throughs are reduced by alerting buyers to an issue that could prevent a transaction progressing at a far earlier point in the process. 

Agents who are interested in ordering Searches up-front should be re-assured by the simplicity of the process with platforms such as that operated by tmgroup, mio’s parent company, being very simple to use. 

Work is required to ensure that solicitors will accept searches ordered by an estate agent and that work is being driven forward by a number of working parties, including the Home Buyers and Sellers Group.  In the meantime agents who want to order searches up front should contact Jon Horton at mio to discuss their requirements in more detail.   

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