Advice to Property Sellers

Finally, finally after thirteen months, I’m a property owner again. For those of you who don’t know, the one I now own was property number four and it seems appropriate for me to offer some insight into why this has been such a difficult process. Considering the property press is quick to say it’s a buyers market, why exactly did I have such a hard time getting back on the property ladder?

Purely from my perspective, I think it’s to do with the fact that the media seems to focus on the buyer. It’s the buyer who has to have finance in place, the buyer who has to arrange for a survey – and any other reports that need to be done – the buyer who pays the stamp duty and who has the bargaining power of pulling out of the transaction if they’re unhappy. It’s the buyer, therefore who causes the problems. Or is it?

My finance was in place; I sold my house last June. I have a great surveyor in London who can turn his report around in five days, I have a great building contractor who comes to viewings with me to keep me focused and not let my heart pull the strings. I trust the advice of my solicitor and know that she acts in my best interests and then it all falls apart again. So where is the weak link?

Property Number One had two commercial units attached to the title and the vendors renegotiated the leases with the tenants during the time that the property was marketed for sale without consulting their solicitors.

Property Number Two had an incomplete lease lodged at the Land Registry (even though it was share of freehold) and the vendor wouldn’t take the responsibility to rectify it.

Property Number Three had a short lease which needed extending (and I agreed to do this as part of the purchase) but wouldn’t allow me to contact the freeholders or negotiate with them on my behalf unless I paid them a ‘consideration.’

Property Number Four was bought in shared ownership so the title was only 75% in their name and I was told when my offer was accepted that they were in the process of buying the final 25% so that I would own full title. The owners took five months to sort this out!

In every case the vendor wasn’t ready. Their paperwork hadn’t been run past a solicitor to check if there were any outstanding issues. They hadn’t considered the time that this would take nor even if this would hold up the sale. And this is all before the opposite side (the buyer) gets involved. Remember, this has to be done whoever you sell to, it can’t be bypassed – because solicitors are trained to look for irregularities. They’re risk averse, if they’re unhappy with something, they will tell you they think it’s unwise to proceed. The old caveat emptor (buyer beware) still holds true, so if you move forward against their advice, on your head be it. It pays to read everything in the solicitors report carefully because this tells you who the energy supplier is, who the local authority is, who the alarm is maintained by, who the tv service is supplied by, who your landlord is – if the property is leasehold. All the nuts and bolts in one big file; it’s the paper version of the property you are buying and it’s all information supplied by the seller.

As a seller the person you have most contact with in the early phase is the estate agent contracted to market your property. And of course you pay them a commission for this, so they are keen to demonstrate their skill. There’s often a lot of contact to keep you updated about viewings feedback, to keep your spirits up if progress is slow and to adjust expectations if the offers are not quite at the level you hoped for. But – and it’s a big but, their advice doesn’t form any part of the legal contract between you and the buyer. This is the role of the solicitors. The estate agent brokers the deal to act as the negotiator between seller and buyer and once an offer’s been accepted, they’re there to keep the lines of communication open. That’s it.

As a seller if you’ve told the estate agents anything about the property that you’re uncertain about; this is interesting to them but it isn’t directed at the right person because they can’t instruct any further action. The person you should be discussing this with is your solicitor. And as a general rule of thumb if anything was an issue when you purchased the property – and wasn’t resolved by your solicitor as part of the purchase – it will still be an issue when you sell. It won’t have sorted itself out while you get on with the business of living there – IT WILL STILL BE AN ISSUE WHEN YOU SELL.

Very often I’ve heard friends agonise over the buyers of their property and how they’re mucking them around; making so many demands and asking for all kinds of things to be included in the sale. There’s certainly room for good manners in this process, but for the most part when the finance is in place and the reports have all been read, there’s nothing much for a buyer to do but wait. If they wait too long, they get frustrated (and that’s when all the demands creep in; they feel they’re owed some special treatment for being patient.) Sellers have to ask themselves if they could have done anything to reduce this.

The estate agents have a part to play in this too. As I discovered when I collected the keys to my new flat, they hadn’t realised the owners had never sold a property before, so they really didn’t have any idea what was expected of them. This is the big divide – if you don’t know the paperwork needs to be ready for the solicitor before they can start the conveyancing – who is responsible?

In most cases to sell a property we have first to buy; it pays to remember the agony of trying to secure the property in the first place. In other words, remember what it feels like to be the buyer. Would you have liked the person you bought from to be more amenable? Perhaps the question sellers should be asking themselves is, ‘how can I help my buyer with this purchase?’ If you really want to sell – no, if you are committed to selling – you’ll need to do just that.