Friday, 12 December 2014

There is more to a joined up relationship between estate agents and conveyancers than better communication

It was interesting to see and read the Conveyancing Association’s Conveyancer/Estate Agent Practice Guide launched in the hope it might help to improve communication between conveyancers and estate agents, and in the process, provide clients with greater confidence in the conveyancing process.  I applaud the initiative and wish it well.

As to whether I consider it will succeed, I am I must say highly sceptical.  

The Guide makes some obvious recommendations such as agreed timings for regular phone calls and updates, giving estate agents access to online case tracking and monthly predicted exchanges dates.  Not rocket science, and for a well organised and paid businesses with time and resources to devote I can see practices of this type helping to ensure a transaction can proceed quickly and efficiently.

I question however whether with such a complete difference in culture between how a conveyancer and agent work it is in fact possible for these measures to  succeed.  

My business operates a sophisticated case management system which not only provides clients with 24/7 access to progress, but also, on sale transactions, the sale agent.  I say sophisticated because the agent does not need to sign in on each individual transaction, but has one log in which lists all transactions to which the agent is tagged.  Moreover, the access provides the agent with a full picture of all activity on the file, file notes, correspondence etc.  Despite having desktop access to progress, guess what, yes we still receive daily telephone calls from agents.

The reason for this is that most agents have a deep rooted obsession with using the telephone to seek updates and are not remotely interested in taking a few seconds to log in to find out what is happening.  Why is this?  My theory is that it has a connection with the constant pressure some agents are under to hit targets, and it seems to me that the use of the telephone in the office is how certain agents demonstrate to their superiors that they are working hard to ensure those targets are attained.   

This is also highlights a failing with some agents, that is the apparent reluctance to do anything to seek a better understanding of the conveyancing process. It’s all well and good setting time aside each week to talk and update, but if the agent in question, who can often be quite young and inexperienced, has no idea what you are talking about or the pressures you are under, it’s a complete waste of time and effort.   It’s clear that there can only be effective communication if there is a complete understanding of the process on both sides.

The concerning aspect is that there does not seem to be an appetite to learn and to obtain a better understanding.  It was not too long ago that we sent a circular out to local agents inviting them along to a free seminar designed to provide an overview of the conveyancing process and of the main reasons for delay.  It may not come as a surprise to learn that not one agent had the courtesy of replying let alone attending.

The difference in agendas between an agent and a conveyancer also present a hurdle for better communication.    The agent’s first objective is to find a buyer and once found to make sure the transaction proceeds quickly so there is no delay in collecting the agent’s large and not insignificant fee.  Some agents are more active than others and do assist in helping to obtain documents and to help with the fixing of completion dates.  The agenda even with the help some provide,  still remains the same, the transaction must complete as early as possible so that payment can be collected to enable a target to be reached.   I accept the bi-product of this is that the agent’s input helps the client to ensure the transaction is progressed quickly.  The sceptic I am suspects however this is a secondary rather than primary motive.

Compare this agenda with that of the conveyancer.  The conveyancer’s duty to the client on the sale is to make sure the contract is issued quickly and there is a prompt response to inquiries.  If there is a purchase the conveyancer is under a duty to the client and if there is a mortgage to the lender to ensure the title to the property is good and marketable.  Yes, it is also helpful to be paid for the service supplied, but unlike the agent this is a secondary and not primary objective and one that cannot always be achieved as quickly as some agents demand. 

I also believe there is some resentfulness between a conveyancer and agent due to the massive gulf between the fees each can charge.   If this gap could be bridged then this I am sure communication and cooperation would improve instantly. Most agents’ fees run into thousands whereas the average fee for a conveyancer could be around £500.  I wonder how many agents would refrain from chasing a conveyancer if their budget for the transaction was £500 and not £5000.  I also wonder how many agents actually realise and appreciate how much a call a day can eat into the profit margin of the conveyancer.    

So in conclusion I do support the idea of looking at measures for improving communication, but I do challenge the belief that this can be achieved without first bringing about a major shift of understanding on the part of the agent.    The agent needs to understand and acknowledge that agendas are different and that the time the agent expects the conveyancer to devote to the agent for updates is often difficult to justify in relation to the fee the conveyancer is able to charge.  Dare I suggest that if the agent was prepared to pay the conveyancer an extra fee for the updates and for collecting the agent’s fee whether this would be a step in the right direction?

David Pett  - Solicitor and Director with MJPConveyancing 

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