Government’s suggestions for consumer awareness spark discussion in the industry
The Government’s ‘Call for Evidence’ has unsurprisingly sparked a variety of responses from across the conveyancing industry and beyond.
Aimed at both the public and property professionals, the Department for Communities and Local Government released the consultation last month to gather views and opinions on how the home moving process could be improved.
We recently hosted a webinar focusing on what the Call for Evidence could mean for conveyancers. You can watch it here.
Broken down into a number of sections, the consultation looks at a range of different areas of the process, highlighting the potential issues within each. At the close of each section, it also poses questions to the reader as well as possible suggestions for reform.
As well as looking at specific aspects of the home moving process, the consultation also looks at factors which could positively impact the whole experience – for both consumers and professionals.
Moving on from those who facilitate a property transaction, one of the consultation’s final sections focusses on those at the centre of the process – the consumers. It looks at the current level of understanding among consumers, highlighting that the key to ensuring the success of a transaction could be through improving the education around the process itself.
- The first point in this section looks at the Government’s own consumer research, drawing on the high level of unfamiliarity with the process. It found that of those buying or selling for the first time, a quarter of the former were unclear as to what the process involved, with the proportion of the latter falling only slightly to 20%. It stated that when this inexperience was paired with the pressure of making important decisions quickly, it can result in home movers making choices that they come to regret. In turn, this could lead to them pulling out of the transaction, an unfavourable outcome for all involved parties.
- Focussing on the importance of consumers being able to make informed decisions, the second point highlights the current availability of relevant data; whilst acknowledging that the internet has improved access to information, it stresses that it’s only of use to those who know to look for and act upon it. In light of this, it suggests the introduction of standardised guidance for those buying and selling for the first time, modelled on their existing “How to rent” guide.
Where consumers are concerned, a lack of process awareness seems to be the key issue, and that’s without drawing on other transparency issues such as service and price.
Whilst it’s clear that regulators are taking positive steps to improve the level of information provided on solicitor’s websites, the focus on making informed decisions seems to rest on transparency rather than clarity. In other words, perhaps in addition to the transparency proposals, education regarding the process could be introduced too.
However, problems with this approach have been highlighted within the industry by a number of prominent figures – one, in particular, being Paula Higgins. The chief executive of Homeowners Alliance drew attention to consumer trust, stating that even if the relevant information was provided, would the buyer or seller be able to place confidence in what they were reading?
“The biggest issue for consumers is that they don’t necessarily know who to trust when trying to access information. There is plenty of advice out there but not all of it is reliable. Everyone has an opinion and there is a distinct lack of transparency on offer. This coupled with weak regulation surrounding estate agents can result in a blame game over things like who or what is holding up the chain.”
The issue of consumer uncertainty in not knowing who to trust was also flagged by Simon Law. The Chairman of the Society of Licensed Conveyancers stated that whilst the internet may be saturated with information on purchasing property, they may feel reluctant to believe it.
“A quick online search about the buying and selling process will reveal countless results from a variety of sources including gov.uk, conveyancing search companies, lawyers and property search portals. The issue is that the consumer may treat information from individual companies (or industries/professions/sectors) as being slanted towards their own business interests and not be entirely trustful of it. They would be more inclined to trust the government website, but the problem is that this doesn’t sit at the top of the search results, and arguably doesn’t offer much helpful advice and detail anyway.”
Another issue highlighted was in relation to the point at which the education is provided; legal professionals seem to share the view that once the client comes to use their services, it will often be too late to provide the information needed.
This was the stance taken by Mike Bowen. The Head of Residential Property Services at Jevons Riley & Pope stated that when the time comes to deal with clients, the lack of data may already be a problem and it is therefore not one that lawyers alone can solve.
Also drawing on the need for information to be given at an earlier point in the process was Simon Law. He stated: “Simple process flows with an explanation of each stage could be issued by estate agents and/or financial advisors, as they are normally the first property professionals that the consumer will speak to when looking to buy or sell property. Most conveyancers already offer such documents, but are generally not engaged as the first port of call by the consumer.”
Paula Higgins also highlighted that information provided at too late a stage can render it useless for home movers, and the delay in consumers receiving the relevant information is something the Alliance is trying to rectify.
“Information often comes too late – buyers have already decided to buy that dream home despite incomplete sales particulars.”
“As an industry, we need to ensure buyers and sellers have access not just to information, but to trusted information that they can rely on. That continues to be our mission.”
Beyond trust, modernising the process to improve navigational simplicity for consumers was also seen as a step in the right direction. Stating that technology could be used as a way to achieve this was Simon Bath. The CEO of When You Move highlighted that whilst guidance does exist online, it needs to be tailored to suit the needs of the audience.
“Technology can help to provide guidance throughout the process, giving relevant, timely information at key milestones, in an accessible way. There is a huge amount of guidance online, but making it directly relevant and personalised is key.”
Simon also commented on the priorities of professionals, taking the view that if technology could work in harmony with conveyancers, more time could be spent on guiding the client through the process.
“Technology needs to work hand in hand with industry professionals. Conveyancers hold a great deal of invaluable knowledge about the buying and selling process. But by competing on price, we’re at risk of a ‘race to the bottom’, where the lowest priced get the work, and there isn’t time for guiding the home buyer/seller through the complex process. We need to empower the conveyancing profession, promoting service quality over cost, so that they can help clients to make informed decisions.”
Questioning whether consumers really need to understand the conveyancing process was Rob Hailstone. The founder and CEO of Bold Legal Group suggested that instead of focussing on the transaction itself, consumers should be made aware of the possible consequences of failing to obtain sufficient buying or selling guidance.
“The importance of the Dark Art of Conveyancing is not easy to explain to the general public. Many have tried to explain it (me included) but the information seems to, understandably, go in one ear and very quickly out of the other.
“Do clients really need to understand the process though? When I get my car fixed, I don’t really want to know the nuts and bolts (sorry!) of what the mechanic does but I do want to receive back a car that works safely and efficiently. I also want to know I haven’t been overcharged.
“It is probably the same with most clients – in most cases, they don’t want to know what goes on when they buy a home, they just want to end up with a home they can live in happily and sell, at a later date, without issue.
“The difference is that a car, badly repaired, could cost one dearly, even with the ultimate price, the loss of life. Whereas a poorly conveyed home would not seem to be such a serious matter.
“Maybe it isn’t the process that needs explaining but the possible issues that could arise if good guidance on buying and selling homes isn’t obtained: Neighbour disputes; Unwanted development nearby; Right of way issues; getting caught up in frauds and scams etc.
“How about a national campaign, Choose your Conveyancer Carefully, with a big skull and crossbones (or the grim reaper) to signify the importance of not doing so.
“Just a thought – Happy Christmas!”
Whilst it’s clear that the understanding of consumers could be of great benefit, how this education and awareness will be implemented is another matter. It will be interesting to see how the Government use the relating Call for Evidence feedback to address this.
There’s still time to respond to the Call for Evidence – it can be accessed here.