Your offer has been accepted on a home you love.
Once your heart rate has returned to normal, the next job is to instruct a solicitor or conveyancer to help you with the purchase.
What do solicitors do?
A solicitor or conveyancer handles the legal side of buying a property and transferring home ownership.
They work on your behalf to find out everything you need to know about a home.
They run local searches, check boundaries, negotiate key dates and get the contract ready for you to sign.
With a solicitor or conveyancer on your side, you can feel confident you won’t get any nasty surprises down the line.
What’s the difference between a solicitor and a conveyancer?
Solicitors and conveyancers both do the same job in the purchase of a house. It’s up to you which one you choose.
The difference is that conveyancers are specialist property lawyers, so they mainly deal with buying and selling residential properties.
Solicitors offer a full range of legal services alongside the home buying process.
If you choose a solicitor, it’s worth checking that they are experienced in property. It may not be their specialist area.
Both solicitors and conveyancers are fully regulated and insured to handle your home purchase.
And both professions perform similar legal roles when helping you to buy and sell a house, so from here on in, we'll mainly use the term solicitors.
How much do solicitors' fees cost when buying a home?
Fees for the legal work around buying a home can cost between £850 and £2,000.
The cost depends on how complex the purchase of your new home is and if any extra legal work crops up.
Solicitors can sometimes be more expensive than conveyancers as they can offer a full range of legal services.
How long does the legal process take for buying a home?
Be prepared for the conveyancing process to take several weeks, depending on the complexity of the purchase.
Your solicitor should keep you in the loop the whole time.
“You are only ever as quick as the slowest firm in the chain,” says Linda Kirk, Director at Adkirk Law.
How can I find a good solicitor?
Shop around before you make a decision on which company you choose.
They’ll be responsible for the legal side of your property purchase, and any mistakes could be costly for you.
You want someone who will check every detail, get answers for you and keep the process moving.
Don’t necessarily go for the cheapest quote. It can be worth paying a bit more for good service and open communication.
You can find a good solicitor by:
asking friends and family for a recommendation
comparing solicitors'/conveyancing firms on a comparison website
asking your mortgage lender, broker or estate agent for a recommendation (but this may be more expensive than finding one yourself)
Checking reviews and ratings online
What is the role of a solicitor when buying a house?
A solicitor will handle all the legal aspects of buying a property for you.
From sorting the searches to arranging a completion date, here's what they do in more detail.
1. Open the purchase file
Your solicitor will open the purchase file and send you a letter setting down the terms of business.
This includes a fixed fee estimate for the work and the deposit you need to pay upfront.
Be aware that the fee is an estimate. It could change if the legal work becomes more complex than expected, but your solicitor should tell you in advance if this happens.
They’ll need to know:
your contact information
date of birth
National Insurance number
passport or driving license
details of your estate agent
whether you need a mortgage and which lender you’re using
where the deposit is coming from
2. Request fees for searches
Next, your solicitor will start to run searches on the property. They’ll ask you for payment to cover the cost of the searches, which is usually around £300.
Searches can take several weeks to process, so it’s good to get the ball rolling early on.
Local authority searches
Your solicitor will run searches with your local authority to find any:
planning proposals for new roads or rail schemes
breaches of planning regulations on the home you’re buying
enforcement notices for the property (when something has been built without planning permission and needs to be rectified)
compulsory purchase orders (when a public body can force a homeowner to sell up if their property obstructs a regeneration project or it's for the ‘greater public good’)
Environmental, water and drainage searches
A drainage and water search looks into the sewer connections and water supply to your property.
It also confirms if any water mains or sewers are located on the property itself. This is particularly useful if you're planning to extend, as you may not be able to build over them.
The environmental search looks into past uses of the land on and around the property to check if it’s contaminated.
3. Get the lowdown on ‘the chain’ from the estate agent
Next, your solicitor will ask the seller's estate agent for a notification of sale (also known as a memorandum of sale).
This contains the name and address of the buyer and the seller, the solicitors’ details for each party in the chain, and the agreed sale price.
Your solicitor will then contact the seller’s solicitor to let them know they’ve been instructed to act for you on the purchase of the property.
4. Receive all paperwork from the seller’s solicitor
As soon as the seller’s solicitor has drawn up the draft contract, they’ll send it to your solicitor.
They'll also send a copy of the Title (or ‘Deeds’) for the property.
Providing the home has been sold at least once since 1990, the Title will be electronically recorded with the Land Registry and available online.
If not, the property could be unregistered. This means ownership can only be proved with the original hard copy of the Title Deeds.
‘The original hard copy is usually held in Deeds storage by the bank that has/had the mortgage on the property, or by the seller themselves,’ says Kirk.
Along with the draft contract and Deeds, your solicitor will be sent the property's 'protocol documents'. These include:
A Seller’s Property Information Form, in which the seller must disclose everything they know about the home, from neighbour disputes to when the boiler was last serviced.
Fittings and Contents Form, which outlines what will be left and removed from the property as part of the sale.
Leasehold Information Form. If the property you’re buying is leasehold (usually a flat or apartment) this will set out factors such as the amount of ground rent payable and contact details for the freeholders and/or management company.
5. Raise queries and carry out checks (and more checks)
Your solicitor will now go through this paperwork – and every search as it comes back – with a fine-toothed comb.
They’ll raise any questions and queries they have with the seller’s solicitor.
“Queries could range from a discrepancy on the Deeds to the environmental search showing up potential flood risks,” says Kirk.
Getting to the bottom of any issues can delay the process by weeks but it’s imperative it’s done correctly.
Conveyancers and solicitors follow a code of conduct and they must also comply with your mortgage lender's requirements. If they don't, they could be negligent.
6. Send watertight paperwork for you to sign
When every 'i' has been dotted and 't' crossed, your solicitor will send you all the checked documents to sign and return.
They can usually be emailed to you, but some are so extensive they have to be posted.
You can sign, scan and email some documents, such as the Instruction Form and Seller’s Property Information Form.
But others documents, such as the Deeds, require an original signature.
7. Request your initial deposit
Next, your solicitor will ask you for a deposit of 10% of the purchase price (unless you are taking out a 95% mortgage, in which case only 5% is due).
This payment can be made by online banking transfer – although bear in mind that some banks have a daily limit, which can be as low as £10,000.
‘If you have time, you could make several payments over several days,’ says Kirk.
Alternatively, you can make the payment through your bank if they use CHAPS, a high-value payment system from the Bank of England.
As long as you make a CHAPS payment before 3pm, it will clear that day. The cost of a CHAPS transfer varies between banks, but it's usually between £25 and £35.
8. Line up parties along the chain for exchange and completion
Your solicitor will ask you for a date that's convenient for you to move into your new home. This move-in day is also called the completion date.
Your solicitor will try to agree this date with the seller’s solicitor and people further along the chain.
‘Sometimes the chain has difficulty agreeing a mutually convenient date,’ says Kirk. ‘But being willing to compromise is one of the best ways to avoid delays.’
Once you've agreed a completion date, your solicitor will work backwards to agree a date to exchange contracts.
Don’t make moving arrangements until you have a definitive completion date. If you book in removal companies or deliveries which you are then forced to cancel, you could end up losing money.
9. Exchange contracts
The seller at the bottom of the chain will need to be the first to have their contract released and ready for exchange.
Once the process starts, exchange will cascade up the chain and will be concluded within the timeframe set. Once the process has been completed, the completion date cannot then be changed.
The 10% (or 5%) deposit you paid into your solicitor's account will be paid to the seller on exchange of contracts. The date agreed for completion is then fixed in the contract.
Th exchange is the point at which the purchase becomes legally binding.
‘If you back out after exchanging signed contracts, there are serious consequences,’ says Kirk.
‘Not only will you lose the deposit, if you don’t complete on the fixed completion date stated in the contract, you’ll be in breach of contract too.'
‘This means the seller could sue you for inconvenience and costs they’ve incurred as a result of your breach.’
Your solicitor will then send you the final completion statement. Any outstanding balance due in order to complete is now payable.
This includes all disbursements, which are the charges the solicitor pays to third parties on your behalf, such as stamp duty. It also includes the cost of the legal work itself.
Any money you’ve paid in advance, such as for searches, will be deducted from the balance due.
Your solicitor will also request the balance of the mortgage amount from your bank or building society.
On the day of completion, your solicitor will send this balance, along with any other fees payable (ground rent and service charge on flats, for example), to the seller’s solicitor by same-day CHAPS transfer.
Once the cash has landed with the seller’s solicitor, they’ll telephone to confirm completion and authorise the estate agent to release the keys to you.
11. Register change of ownership
Your solicitor's job is not over quite yet.
They need to log the change of ownership with the Land Registry.
Following completion, the seller’s solicitor will send the signed Deed – which now shows the transfer of property from the seller’s name to yours – to your solicitor.
They will then submit it, together with the Mortgage Deed, to the Land Registry for registration.
'This is normally carried out electronically, although if it’s a new-build or first registration the application has to be posted,' says Kirk.
Once the Land Registry has completed the registration, you’ll be sent an Office Copy, which is proof of your ownership (and the Deeds where they exist) along with any guarantees for your new property.
They’ll also transfer any stamp duty you’re liable for on the purchase to HM Revenue & Customs on your behalf.
If you have purchased a leasehold property, your solicitor will notify the landlord or management company that the lease has been assigned to you. That way, they know who to send any service charges and ground rent bills to.