Customer Area

What is in the future for Conveyancing Searches?

Questions around the future shape of searches, the provision of information, and data standards are being hotly debated in the changing world of home buying and selling.

There are several issues at stake.

As a first step, it appears there will be an increasing demand for searches and/or data to be provided at the time of listing, or even before it is.

There are a number of factors to consider, however, so it is unclear how this would work. Estate agents who list a property for sale are required to disclose material information in three stages by the National Trading Standards Estate and Letting Agency Team (NTSELAT). Although search information does not appear to be part of the first stage of the planned implementation, it might be included in the second and almost certainly in the third.

The results of this search raise a number of questions – what information is relevant, how should it be presented, and what standards apply to its delivery?

In the event that only certain elements of searches are relevant under the definition of ‘material information’ (which is the term used in the third stage), what are the quality assurances that accompany its provision? HMLR and The Land Registry provide searches, but most of the latter companies are subscribers to Search Code. Currently, home buyers and sellers are protected by public sector organisations and by an independently regulated Code of Practice for the information they rely on. In order to produce subsets of search data electronically and with third-party oversight, it will be essential to establish meaningful standards. HBSG is working on this subject, but it is some way off being adopted and implemented.

Would it make more sense for the seller or their conveyancer to produce the search at the time of marketing, as some are currently advocating?

The inclusion of searches in Home Information Packs brings back a lot of old issues. Are searches obtained by the seller likely to be relied upon by the buyer’s conveyancer? Are sellers willing to purchase searches when listing their property? The transaction times are currently surpassing 150 days from instruction to completion; if the searches expire before a purchase is completed, will the provider refresh their search – or perhaps there will be a postcode lottery? Is this in line with the ‘caveat emptor’ principle? The marketplace is being asked to address a lot of issues without statutory intervention.

A move to source just some of the data routinely used in preparing searches for property listings raises questions about how the data will be defined and how long it will take to obtain the data. In spite of optimistic expectations, HMLR will take several more years to centralize all local land charges registers (the process has been painfully slow to date). Similarly, all the data used in the compilation of the CON29 is spread across more than 320 local authorities, who hold the data in various formats and can take anywhere from 1 to 150 days to provide it. When listing properties for sale, it makes no sense to have a postcode lottery.

Then of course there are all those conveyancers, particularly firms that provide conveyancing services as a non-mainstream activity, that will continue to operate in a more traditional way, procuring hard copy searches from local authorities and local search providers, and after they have been instructed by purchasers.

CoPSO, which represents private sector search providers in England and Wales, has an important role to play in helping to deliver solutions that enable the market to optimise opportunities to improve home buying and selling. Providing governance mechanisms to oversee search standards is one aspect of this – it could be extended to other agreed data standards as well, providing expertise in all things data to the HBSG forum and other bodies, supporting standards, and challenging accessibility of public sector data (and making it available electronically in a timely manner), and helping members of CoPSO meet changing customer demands.

It remains to be determined how to deliver more information earlier in the process in a way that speeds it up, reduces fall-through rates, and protects consumers (and practitioners) without adding unnecessary costs or liabilities to all parties. Searches, as we know them today, may undergo some fundamental changes. A well-trusted, recognised and resilient Search Code will ensure CoPSO members deliver the searches and information users need.