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Industry stakeholders call for digitisation to improve house buying and selling

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  • 14/05/2024
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Industry stakeholders call for digitisation to improve house buying and selling
Digitalised processes should be mandated in the property sector to improve the home buying and selling process, MPs have heard.

Maria Harris, chair of the Open Property Data Association (OPDA), said this should be implemented within three years when giving evidence to the Commons Select Committee yesterday as part of its inquiry into the transaction process. 

She said companies using OPDA’s data standard for digital property packs had seen a reduction in the length of time from offer accepted to the exchange of contracts to 15 days, “with zero fall-throughs, zero fraud, a much better customer experience and more certainty around the moving date.”

Harris added: “It is also taking hundreds of hours out of the process as that waste of time is not there. So, if we had widespread adoption of standards and we digitised the data at source, we would reform the [homemoving] process dramatically.” 

Referring to her previous career in the travel sector and the standardisation of practices there and in other industries, Harris said it was “staggering” that the same had not happened with property transactions. 

 

Moving collectively towards digitisation 

The panel, which also included Kate Faulkner, chair of the Home Buying and Selling Group and Paula Higgins, chief executive of HomeOwners Alliance, was asked why digitisation was taking so long to be adopted. 

Harris said none of the data needed for a transaction was in a digital format at source. 

“It’s not structured to a common standard. It’s not available over APIs, it’s not machine readable, it’s sitting in PDFs, reports, documents, pictures, drawings, contracts, paper, microfiche, everything you can imagine. The job to digitise that data hasn’t really started,” Harris added. 

She said the government promised to release public datasets as open data in 2018, including land registry searches, CON29, planning building regulations, “and we’re now in 2024 and none of that data is digital”. 

Harris added that there were many organisations whose practices did not support digitalisation, such as Land Registry and some lenders. 

Faulkner said it felt like an impossible task, but the resolution was clear and “with government help, we can deliver the best buying and selling process”. 

Harris said the industry also needed to “move collectively”. 

Higgins said similarly to viewing taxes, consumers should be able to go to Land Registry and see a property’s data. 

 

Cross-sector collaboration 

Faulkner said the homebuying and selling process was often compared to other transactions, but said “it’s nothing like anything else”. 

She said that, due to a shortage of homes, it was often not an enjoyable process. She said regardless of how much money a person had, there was no certainty they would get the home they wanted, if the marketed price was right, or if there would be future issues. 

Faulkner said it was incredibly complex, and even with simpler transactions, there were still at least 15 companies involved. 

She said there were great firms among those companies, adding it was “a miracle anybody ever moves”, but said this only happened because of the “work ethic and tenacity” of the sector. However, she said it only took one or two poor-quality services or a buyer or seller not playing their part for the whole thing to collapse. 

Higgins said other countries managed to handle this process well, but the lack of certainty was “one of the problems in this country”.

When asked how this could be fixed, Faulkner said one idea could be to have just one form of ID check instead of multiple. 

However, with a minimum of 180 members in the Home Buying and Selling Group and 35 in the steering group needed to represent the wider sector, it could be difficult to get everyone to agree that it was workable. 

“They’ve all got to say ‘yes, we can do that’. When you have a tremendous number of those transactions [that] are carried out by literally individuals who are also effectively running a company, but they’re legal experts and surveying experts… That’s a very difficult task if you want to change things,” Faulkner said. 

Higgins said without regulating this, consumers would be “shafted” as some people were charged by estate agents to accept an offer or make non-refundable reservation deposits. 

She said there should be stronger enforcement of existing regulations, particularly among rogue estate agents. 

Despite saying the National Trading Standards’ guidance on material property information was adequate, Higgins said there was not enough around new-build estate charges, service charge and management structures. 

Harris said the same could be said for shared ownership and social housing where there might be clauses or restrictions, such as the lender that could be used for a mortgage. 

She said this was important, because if the role of a mortgage lender was not fleshed out, “you start a mortgage application and then find that lender can’t even lend on that property. If you were going to take it to the thing that’s most useful for consumers, you would actually mandate a full digital property pack on every transaction”. 

Faulkner added that National Trading Standards’ guidance should be mandated, because if only a few firms were doing the work, “it makes no difference”. 

 

Putting the onus on sellers 

The panel was asked what impact there would be from shifting the responsibility of obtaining property information from the buyer and their conveyancer to the seller by requiring this to be provided upfront. 

Higgins said it would shorten transaction times and limit the number of “time wasters”, adding: “The person who’s most able to pay for that legal work should be the seller if they’re selling their home in the first place”. 

She said buyers already had many costs and said certain firms had “vested interests” as they got more money each time a transaction failed and had to be restarted. 

“Be wary of certain types in the industry that quite like the status quo at the moment,” Higgins added. 

Harris said most people selling their home were also buying and the proposed upfront information was just changing the point at which they paid, and would give them certainty that a transaction would go ahead, as well as give them more control which would make their own buying process go smoother. 

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