Either side can amend or withdraw from a sale at any time before the exchange of contracts – at which time a sale is legally binding – or a seller can accept a higher offer from another buyer (called gazumping). There are no preliminary contracts in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, where a purchase becomes legal only after the exchange of contracts when a 10 per cent deposit (negotiable) is payable.
Exchange of Contracts
The exchange of contracts is literally that – a contract with the buyer’s signature is sent to the vendor’s solicitor, while at the same time a contract bearing the signature of the vendor is sent to the buyer’s solicitor. Completion (see below) usually takes place around four weeks after the exchange of contracts, although it can be shorter or longer, as agreed between the parties.
Tip: Once you’ve exchanged contracts (or had an offer accepted in Scotland) you should take out buildings insurance on a property, which is mandatory if you have a mortgage.
A property can be owned by a number of joint-owners. Co-buyers don’t need to have equal shares and they can be proportionate to the deposit paid and the repayments made. The percentage owned by each co-buyer must be registered in the title deeds and all co-buyers registered as ‘tenants in common’ rather than ‘joint tenants’. You will also need a ‘declaration of trust’ so that if one person wants to sell, the others have the option of buying them out – if not the property would need to be sold.
If there are any conditions to a sale, these must usually be fulfilled before completion. If a condition of purchase is that certain work must be done or repairs carried out, a ‘specification of works’ must be drawn up by your solicitor detailing the work to be done before completion.
If it’s agreed that planning permission must be granted or certain work done between the exchange of contracts and completion, there’s usually an agreement to deposit a portion of the purchase price in a bonded (escrow) account. This money is held post-completion until the agreed work has been satisfactorily completed or planning permission obtained.
Completion (or closing) is the name for the final act of buying a property when the balance of the price is paid and the title deeds are handed over. The date of completion is specified at the exchange of contracts and is usually around four weeks (28 days) after the exchange, although it can be shorter or longer as agreed between the parties (if it’s longer it may be referred to as ‘delayed completion’). You should try to arrange the completion for early in the week in case there are any problems, which can usually be sorted out the next day (if you plan to complete on a Friday – the most popular day – you may need to wait until Monday to resolve any problems).
Note that completion delays are common and should be allowed for. Unlike other countries, it isn’t usual for the vendor or buyer to attend the completion unless they’re doing their own conveyancing. Your solicitor will give you a bill for stamp duty and Land Registry fees before completion, which must be paid by completion day.
Property is sold subject to the condition that it’s accepted in the state it’s in at the time of completion, therefore you should be aware of anything that may have occurred between the exchange of contracts and completion, e.g. storm damage. If you’re buying through an estate agent he should accompany you on this visit. You should also do a final inventory immediately before completion (the previous owner should have already vacated the property) to ensure that the vendor hasn’t absconded with anything which was included in the price.
You should have an inventory of the fixtures and fittings and anything that was included in the contract or purchased separately, e.g. carpets, light fittings, curtains or kitchen appliances, and check that they’re present and in good working order. This is particularly important if furniture and furnishings (and major appliances) were included in the price. You should also ensure that expensive items (such as kitchen apparatus) haven’t been substituted by inferior (possibly second-hand) items, and that all period features (such as fireplaces) are still intact and haven’t been ripped out or replaced when buying a period property.
Any fixtures and fittings (and garden plants and shrubs) present in a property when you viewed it should still be there when you take possession, unless otherwise stated in the contract.
Tip: If you find anything is missing or damaged or isn’t in working order, you should make a note and insist on immediate restitution such as an appropriate reduction in the amount to be paid. You should refuse to go through with the completion if you aren’t completely satisfied, as it will be difficult or impossible to obtain redress later.
If it isn’t possible to complete the sale, you should consult your solicitor about your rights and the return of your deposit.
The balance of the price (after the deposit and any mortgages are subtracted) must be paid by banker’s draft on the day of completion or transferred to your solicitor’s bank account before completion day (make sure that you allow sufficient time for the transfer to be made).
Tip: Paying by banker’s draft allows you to withhold payment if there’s a last minute problem that cannot be resolved.
If you’ve got a mortgage, the money will be paid to your solicitor by your lender before completion, and will be sent by him to the vendor’s solicitor by bank telegraphic transfer on completion day. When the final payment has been made, the deeds to the property are handed over to the buyer’s solicitor, including the conveyance or transfer of ownership. Your solicitor will also receive the keys.
- Have the conveyance stamped and pay the stamp duty on the property purchase to the Inland Revenue.
- Register the transfer of ownership with the Land Registry or register the land if it was previously unregistered (this can take several months).
- Notify your lender that the sale has been completed and inform the life insurance company (as applicable).
- Send the title deeds to your mortgage lender who holds them as security until the loan is paid off or the property is sold.
- Notify the leaseholder of the sale if the property is a leasehold apartment.
- Send you a completion statement listing all the transactions that have taken place, along with his final bill.
This article is an extract from Buying, selling & letting property (UK). Click here to get a copy now.