The legal process behind buying and selling a house

12 June 2013

Buying or selling a house is the most significant transaction most of us will make in our life. The legal processes involved can seem confusing and impenetrable, especially as they are mainly handled by property solicitors or conveyancers. Understandably, this can be trying and stressful for the buyer and seller. Below is some information to help you get a handle on the legal side of the process.

Initial negotiations
The buyer makes an offer to the seller’s estate agent, uaually below the advertised price. There are normally negotiations involving the price and fixtures and fittings included with the property before an agreement is reached.

At this stage, neither party is legally committed to the sale so it is common to make a “lockout” agreement whereby the seller agrees not to negotiate with anyone else for a set period. This is to protect the buyer from “gazumping” – the unsavoury practice where the buyer goes through the costly and time-consuming preliminary stages of the purchase only to find out that the seller has sold the property to someone else behind their back.


Once their offer is accepted the buyer will have to get their mortgage agreement finalised as soon as possible. In many cases they will have already have had a mortgage application approved before making the offer. The mortgage provider will confirm the loan, subject to certain conditions such as a satisfactory survey and legal checks being made on the property.

The buyer will commission a survey on the property to avoid any nasty surprises like poor drainage, damaged roofs, bad electrical wiring and structural problems. Checks range from a compulsory mortgage valuation (the minimum requirement for most mortgage providers) to a homebuyers survey or a full building survey.

Checks on title
The buyer’s solicitor will make a number of checks to ensure there are no problems with the property including that the seller has legal title free of any mortgages or restrictions, no planning applications for local roads etc have been submitted that would affect the property, there are no rights of way on the property and it is not subject to any legal disputes.


This is where the title (ownership) is transferred from buyer to seller. The contract for sale is signed by both parties and exchanged between their solicitors.The buyer pays the deposit at which point the sale becomes legally binding. A date will be set for completion, normally within a month of the exchange of contracts.

On the completion date, the balance of the purchase price is transferred to the seller. The buyer is now the owner of the property and receives the keys. The seller can bid a fond farewell to the property while the buyer gets ready to crack open the champagne in the comfort of their new home! The buyer’s solicitor will tie up loose ends including paying stamp duty and notifying the land registry of the new ownership.

The legal process involved in property transactions is complex and the costs of getting it wrong could be huge. Therefore, it is very strongly advisable for buyer and seller to take professional assistance from a solicitor or licensed conveyancer at all stages.

Dominic Higgins attended the University College London, graduating in 2005 with a degree in law. Dominic currently works for Contact Law as a contributing writer. Before working for Contact Law Dominic worked as a legal adviser in the South Africa and the United Kingdom; he has particular expertise in Property and Commercial law. Visit Contact Law to learn how our property lawyers can help you today.

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