The House Sale Process in the United Kingdom
The UK House Sale Process
Why I Wrote This Article
As a first-time home seller, I found that the process of selling a flat in the UK is extremely complex. There are so many risks and delays associated with selling that inexperienced people might be unaware of. My learning curve was extremely steep and I had to do a lot of research to understand what goes on behind the scenes when you sell your first home.
The House Sale Process
When you bought your first property you gained some firsthand experience of dealing with solicitors and agents. When you sell your first property, you need to probably double the time and effort you spend on ensuring the sale goes through.
The basic elements of accepting an offer, preparing a draft contract, exchanging contracts and reaching completion are accompanied by a long series of steps you need to take, and preparation is key. In this article, the assumption is that you are selling a leasehold, not a freehold, property.
To answer the most pressing question, “How long does it take to sell a property?,” the timescale to completion depends on location, the state of the market in general and the availability of similar properties in your area. In London, for example, the average time it takes to sell a property is 5-8 weeks while in other parts of the UK it may take 10-14 weeks or more (data from Today’s Conveyancer; according to Business Insider, the average is 65 days). You then need to add to that another 6-8 weeks to complete the negotiation process to include any surveys and additional information requested by the buyer’s solicitor.
Price is the main factor to consider when selling your home: a higher asking price can cause your property listing to become stale on the market, while a lower asking price (compared to the rest of the market) may attract more buyers and more offers.
Homes in good condition are more likely to sell faster than those requiring modernising; furthermore, first time buyers are often looking for properties that are ready to move into.
A so-called “sellers’ market” is an ideal situation, because it means that there aren’t enough available properties on the market, so buyers will be fighting over them. If you are selling in a “buyers’ market”, your property will be competing with many similar ones and attracting the right buyer will be more challenging. This also means that your home will take longer to sell.
Throughout the house sale process your responsibility is to stay on top of things: you will need to call your estate agent and your solicitor every week to get a progress report. If you consider that both your agent and your solicitor are dealing with multiple clients at any one time, if you don’t look after your own case then nobody else will.
Appoint a Solicitor
I would recommend to appoint a solicitor even before choosing an estate agent. It takes a while to provide all the relevant paperwork to the solicitor, who needs to verify your identity, acquire information on your financial situation (for example, if there are any secured loans against your property) and perform all the relevant fraud and money laundering checks. During viewings, you may also want to ask potential buyers if they have already appointed their solicitors, as that will demonstrate they are serious buyers. If you are happy with the solicitor you appointed when you first bought your flat, then you can skip this section.
You can ask for a recommendation for a good solicitor or conveyance from friends or contacts; alternatively check the register of local licenced conveyancers or the Law Society for a list of solicitors.
Up until 1987 only solicitors could deal with buying and selling property in the UK; after that, licenced conveyancers were allowed to deal with property transactions. Conveyancers are specialist property lawyers and their services tend to be more cost-effective.
Choosing either the cheapest or the most expensive solicitor may not be the best option: in the first case, a cheap service will probably result in delays; in the latter case, you may simply pay a premium for the same service that another cheaper provider will offer. For a better chance of getting a smooth sale process, aim to spend slightly more on a conveyancer because they will be doing all the hard work. You can save some money by appointing someone who offers remote services rather than someone local. Small firms may be able to provide a more personalised service, however, at busy times you may end up at the bottom of the queue because they are too busy and your case may not be dealt with as speedily as you would hope. Also, smaller firms will not have enough staff to provide holiday cover and the whole office will be closed at Christmas, new year and other holidays. Large firms may assign your case to inexperienced practitioners: this can potentially delay processing the paperwork because they need to seek approval from senior members of staff for sign off.
Check online reviews of two or three conveyancers you received a quote from before making a final decision.
Choose an Estate Agent
You are probably thinking that you’d rather watch paint dry then spend your precious spare time interviewing estate agents and letting them through your door for a valuation, but as a first time seller you do need as much expert advice as possible. You can either show estate agents around your flat before it needs any redecoration and get them to advise you on what would appeal to buyers, or invite them after you have fixed any problems.
To give you a real-life example, when I wanted to refurbish my kitchen before putting my flat on the market, I got quotes from different builders who came to see what work needed to be done. The builder who was going to charge the most worked in partnership with estate agents (a smart business move on his part) and recommended having an estate agent view the property and then advise me on what type of refurbishment and finishes would get the maximum return on investment.
I ended up not taking that route (mainly because of the higher cost of the project) but I thought there was a good lesson to be learnt there: some types of refurbishment add value to a property, while others may simply be expensive exercises that drill a hole into your budget without affecting your asking price. You also need to consider that the new owner may not share your taste in decorating and may completely take the kitchen down and have it redone to their specification a few weeks after your refurbishment. In a nutshell, aim for minor cosmetic changes without breaking the bank. Moreover, when you speak to estate agents get as much feedback about the property as you can.
Instead of focusing on the highest valuation, it’s better to choose an agent on the basis of local knowledge and how motivated they are. It’s difficult to generalise but smaller local agents may be more driven than national agents.
The main reason to get an agent is to pre-quality buyers before they book an appointment to view your property. Screening the right candidate is a tedious and frustrating job and you have better things to do.
Look at online reviews (good luck!) and also check which properties have been sold: for example, you can look online and add a filter to include properties that are under offer and sold subject to contract. Can you spot which agencies appear in more of these results?
Be fussy when looking at online pictures taken by estate agents: do they look like they have been taken with a professional camera? Low quality pictures, or having only one picture in a listing, are absolute no-nos. You want a high conversion rate: in other words, you want people to click on the pictures for your listing and then make an appointment to view your property.
Traditional estate agents will charge between 1% and 2% of the sale value: remember that their price is negotiable. Their worth is tested to the maximum during a slow market so if they manage to get people through your door while other houses are struggling to sell, you are getting your investment back. Remember that, after an initial surge of enthusiasm, your listing is likely to become lukewarm and your estate agent’s attention will move on to newer listings. Your role in the sale process is key to keep the agent motivated.
Choose an Online Estate Agent
An alternative to traditional high street estate agents are online estate agents. Some of them provide accompanied viewings by paying a premium but the general rule is that you save money compared to traditional agents because you do the viewings with buyers yourself. While fees are considerably cheaper when you choose an online agent, you need to factor in the time and the stress it takes to conduct the viewings. If you feel confident of your ability to talk to complete strangers about why they should buy your property, then using an online agent will provide the best value for money.
You can choose between paying upfront or on completion. Normally, you save money by paying upfront, but if cashflow is a problem you can choose to pay on completion. In this latter option, you will pay more but you can use the proceeds from the sale to cover your costs.
The main advantage of using an online agent, apart from the saving, is that you are more in charge of the process and you get to ask questions of the potential buyers. The disadvantage is that you are still new to selling houses so mistakes are inevitable (for example, accidentally disclosing you have noisy neighbours). If you prepare before each viewing and have a well-rehearsed sales banter, you are more likely to feel at ease and less awkward when talking to buyers, but it will take a few viewings before you find your groove.
Some viewers may think you are an agent: by telling them you are the seller, they may feel more comfortable while others may feel less so (for example, they won’t tell you they hate your house, but then again, you really don’t need to know that). Some viewers may also feel too comfortable in your company if you make them feel too welcome, so it is up to you to appear as professional as possible and set a time limit for each viewing.
A service that is normally included with online agents, on top of arranging your diary, is doing the price negotiation on your behalf. By law, agents need to tell you about each offer they receive. If an offer is too low, you can come up with a counteroffer or reject it. It is better to have a third party deal with the negotiations, because if you deal with the buyer directly, they may use their influencing skills to get you to come down in price.
Online estate agents often suggest organising an open house, which gets as many potential buyers as possible through your doors during a few hours on a weekend day. Open days can either go very well and get you one or more offers, or be badly attended. It’s difficult to predict whether your property will attract enough viewers during an open day, so keep your diary open for more viewings during weekdays and weekends. If you watch property programmes on TV, you will likely have seen open days with exciting bidding wars from buyers over a property. These heavily scripted programmes are there to entertain you, but they are very far removed from reality. If you are lucky, you might get a couple of viewers on the day who may or may not put in an offer.
It is a good idea to organise more than one open-house event. As soon as you list the property, include the date of the next available open house with start and finish time. Limit the event to two hours. Experience with all-day events showed me it is really not worth being stuck at home waiting for buyers, especially when you have no-shows.
If your life is particularly busy, try to organise all your viewings during open house days during the weekend. It also makes sense from a time-management point of view, because you won’t need to clean and tidy your flat every day.
It may take three or four open-house days plus some more viewings during the week to get enough offers. When it comes to selling houses there are no hard and fast rules because each house sale is different.
Homework: The Paperwork
Your solicitor will ask you for copies of bills, plus documents to verify your identity.
This list summarises the types of documents you will be required to provide:
- Identity document (passport, driving licence etc)
- Block insurance copy
- Utility bills
- Service charge bills (3 years)
- Ground rent bills (3 years)
- Set of accounts of managing agents
- Share certificate, Articles of Association and Memorandum of Association of the Residents’ Management Company (Right to Manage Company)
- Documents relating to any alterations made to the property
- Copies of any certificates issued for works carried out such as damp proofing, rewiring etc
You will need to fill out a series of forms, from a list of those items that are included and those that are excluded from the sale, and forms to be sent to the Law Society. Your managing agents will charge you to reply to enquiries from the buyer’s solicitor (for example, if all leaseholders have paid their service charge on time) and, because at the time of writing this area is not regulated, each managing agent can charge any amount to provide this vital information. It may take 2 weeks to receive the information so you need to ensure you keep checking the progress of the enquiry.
Get All The Paperwork Ready
Be prepared to fill a number of forms, send copies of documents and answer queries from the buyer’s solicitor.
Make sure you take a full inventory and decide what is included in the sale and what isn’t. Are items like kitchen appliances and curtains included in the sale price? Is anything available for sale separately?
Typical questions you will need to answer are:
- Have there been any disputes or complaints?
- Have you caused disturbances to other residents?
- Are you aware of any breaches to the lease?
- Have you carried out any alterations requiring planning permission and/or the freeholder’s consent?
- Have there been any problems of subsidence, flooding, land slip, rot or infestation?
The buyer’s solicitor will need to receive a number of forms, including:
- Residents’ Association
- Licence to Assign the Lease
- LPE1 form
Your managing agent will need to complete the LPE1 form, which includes any issues with other leaseholders, payments into a common fund and more.
The Role of the Managing Agent
The cooperation of your managing agent is vital for the smooth processing of your paperwork and for a successful sale. Any delays in getting information from the managing agent will worry the buyer. Typically, managing agents provide information after 7-10 working days from receiving payment. If you require a faster turnaround, you will be required to pay a premium (for example, an extra £100). Having a good relationship with your managing agent will serve you well when you are selling your property. However, if you have been complaining to them about bad service or for overcharging, be prepared for a difficult road ahead. Luckily, if you didn’t see eye to eye with your managing agents in the past, now is a good opportunity to wipe the slate clean. Be neutral in your communications to the managing agents and ask your solicitor to speak to them on your behalf whenever possible.
Here are some typical questions from the buyer’s solicitor that will require an answer from your managing agent and freeholder.
- What is the fee for registration of Notice of Assignment & Charge?
- Who collects the ground rent, building’s insurance and the service charge?
- Are the ground rent, building’s insurance and service charge payments up to date?
- Are other leaseholders in the block in arrears?
- Are there any additional charges expected to be paid in the future (for example, for refurbishment)?
- When was the block last redecorated internally and externally?
- Was a fire assessment carried out?
- Were there any disputes about the property?
- Have there been any attempts to extend the lease or attempts for an enfranchisement (buying the freehold)?
- Is a Deed of Covenant required?
- Is a Licence to Assign Required?
In case something is not self-explanatory (it normally isn’t when it comes to legal documents), here are some definitions.
- Assignment means selling the remaining years of the lease to the buyer (the new leaseholder).
- Deed of Coventant is an agreement that the seller’s solicitor prepares for the buyer in which the buyer agrees to enter a contract with the managing agent and freeholder. This is to confirm that the new leaseholder (the buyer) will comply with the terms of the lease.
- The Licence to Assign is the permission given by the freeholder to sell the remaining years of the lease to a new leaseholder.
Selling Your Home?
Are you planning to sell your flat?
Conclusion: Being Prepared
Being prepared and having all the paperwork ready before you start selling your property will really serve you well in the long term and avoid delays later on. Also, don't forget there will be some expenses involved so make sure you budget for them. Best of luck selling your home!