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Race against time: homebuyers scramble to save on stamp duty

Residential property searches by local councils have skyrocketed by as much as 1,400% as house hunters race to buy and beat the end of the stamp duty holiday.

Kate Bould, managing director of Index West Midlands Property Information, says the current situation is ‘without doubt, unprecedented’.

She fears the growing wait times for councils to process searches and information requests – circa 40 days – poses a ‘real threat that hundreds of homebuyers will miss out on saving as much as £15,000 on stamp duty’.

“Some councils had already positioned themselves very well and consequently have coped with the huge upturn in the market,” she explains. “Typically, those that have not digitised and rely on older paper-based processes are the councils that are struggling to cope, and this is causing major delays for the home-buying process.”

The latest figures show local councils are taking up to 42 days to return local searches on properties, but some are blaming intermediaries for the delays, which Bould says is simply untrue, arguing that intermediaries are ‘not cumbersome, but invaluable’.

“They deliver a good customer service that capitalises on their hard-earned good working relationships with councils. They also have the knowledge and expertise to anticipate and navigate the current issues – this is key to the processing. We are constantly shifting to adjust to the changes, and any hurdles arising from councils that all operate and hold their data differently.”

According to Bould, there are over 340 local authorities across the UK and searches are managed differently in each, so turnaround time usually takes anything from 48 hours to several weeks. “Many local authorities only have small teams working in the Land Charges departments, so during busy periods it can take longer for them to return search results – but volumes and days to process have never been like they are now,” she says.

“However, homebuyers already agreeing a sale are facing significant delays, with completion taking an average of 15 to 17 weeks to complete. This timeframe presents additional challenges if mortgage offers have been on the table for a while and are set to expire, but also clearly brings into doubt whether everything will complete on time for them to benefit from the stamp duty holiday.”

Bould says those beginning their property search should accept that it’s unlikely they will get the keys before the end of March – particularly with the Christmas holiday season on the horizon and the short supply of, and high demand for, conveyancing solicitors.

The volume of homes being listed for sale and the speed at which they are selling has reached record numbers since August. Based on figures from Rightmove, September saw the highest number of sales ever agreed in a month (up 70% on the same month last year), and the number of active buyers is 66% higher than a year ago, while sales agreed for October is up around 58% on the same period in 2019.

The portal also reports a national record in October, with the average asking price rising from £319,996 to £323,530 in October, a growth of 1.1%. Prices are now 5.5% (+£16,818) higher than a year ago, the biggest rate of increase for over four years, with Rightmove now forecasting annual growth rate to peak at around 7% by December.

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    Having been in this industry for over 30 years experiencing this age old subject of search delays whenever there is a spike in the market should, by now, be a thing of the past. Personal (Regulated) Searches were born out of the increase in demand for home ownership in the 1980's with the Local Authorities unable to cope with the unprecedented spike in demand for official local authority searches. Was it their fault? probably not because they had never experienced anything like it before. Then we had the birth of the internet and the creation of online portals to receive and deliver searches electronically from 2000 with quasi government initiatives promoting "the electronic search" Had they have seen this through to end, this age old subject of search delays and capacity would be a thing of the past. We made a set of recommendations back then on the digitisation programme of search. They were 1. Mandate the Local Authorities adoption of the facility that was being built 2. Provide Local Authorities with the funding and technical support to do this 3. standardise the pricing model (having various prices for the same information across the whole country didn't make sense) 4. Allow access to third parties allowing private enterprise to innovate. It didn't happen. Personal Searches continued to grow in a world where the electronic age was born - how crazy is that ? Land Registry have a project to digitise the local land charges data, which we support but its taking an age to get it done and its only one component part of the whole report. By now searches should be like typewriters - obsolete. As computers replaced typewriters, property data with analytics that can be manipulated to enhance the due diligence process must be the way forward. There must be a better way, actually there is a better way and it can be achieved if there is cohesion and commitment between all parties.

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