Depending on where you live in the UK, the last few days have either been a long-awaited chance to see loved ones, eat in a restaurant, and engage in some retail therapy or the beginning of another long period inside. 

But while we’re all aware of the social and personal costs of the government’s new COVID-19 tier system, there’s been less written on its impact on individual sectors of the economy (outside of retail and hospitality). And you’ll find even less information on what it means for conveyancers.

We’ve discussed COVID-19’s likely effect on house prices and market activity in previous blogs. This is largely because it’s far easier to find data at the macro level of the market. A simple Google will tell you most of what you need to know. 

However, conveyancing has always been a business dependent on speed So, this week, we’re looking at the possible effect of the new tier system on turnaround times. And, because this can either mean the time local authorities and search providers take or transaction times themselves, we’ll take each in turn. 

Local Authority Turnaround Times

The speed local authorities can turn around official searches has always been highly variable. For example, if you’re moving within Boston Borough Council’s catchment, your local search can take up to 34 working days, whereas if you’re moving to York it’ll take just one day. 

Even within a single city, lead times can fluctuate wildly. If you’re moving to Hackney, it’ll take on average 141 working days to get a completed search. But if you’re heading west to Hammersmith it’ll take less than a tenth of the time.

While it might be frustrating for homebuyers and anyone involved in the conveyancing process, it’s sadly a natural part of working alongside public sector bodies. Local authorities have different levels of funding, workloads and staff numbers. Hackney Council could be dramatically slower than Hammersmith for any number of reasons. But it’s due in part to it being one of the largest London boroughs and the site of rapid redevelopment – stretching the staff at the local land charges. 

COVID-19 simply exacerbates the inequality between local authorities, many of whom will have had to furlough staff or adopt remote working, not ideal working conditions for any organisation. And things are even harder for those councils in tier 3 areas who are subject to tighter restrictions. 

Local authorities such as Liverpool, Leicester and West Lancashire that currently complete searches reasonable quickly are likely to see a slowdown while under restrictions. Again, this could be for several reasons. For instance: staff shortages due to furlough and sickness or attempting to fulfil their search obligations remotely with all the technical problems that entails.  

Personal or regulated search businesses may be able to pick up some of the slack. We’ve long been lauded for our ability to pull rabbits from hats and turn searches around faster than local authorities. What’s more, at least some of the information is held digitally by the Land Registry, removing some of the need to go to the local authority. 

Nevertheless, without proper access to local authorities’ CON29 data, it’s tricky. So, expect delays in some areas to worsen until early 2021. 

Search Providers

What about all the other searches that go into the conveyancing process? Water? Coal? Subsidence? 

Well, although we won’t name names, much like local authorities some of the businesses who produce these searches are struggling. Some are in areas with stricter lockdown measures preventing staff attending the office. Others have staff shortages due to furlough schemes or, in the worst cases, redundancies. 

Naturally, these conditions lead to slower services and delays. We’ve yet to encounter delays on the scale seen at local authorities, but it’s clear some businesses are having a tough time of it. 

Transaction Times

Finally, let’s take a look at overall transaction times. 

Interestingly, transaction times have been providing conveyancers with some all-too-rare good news during the pandemic. Lead times have slowed, Investec, HSBC and Santander have all reported delays. And, as a spokesperson for the Building Societies Association (BSA) told Today’s Conveyancer

“Clearly resource management amongst all parts of the chain has been key – particularly as everyone has been impacted by the number of staff who need either to self-isolate or who are unwell because of the virus. Buyers and sellers contracting the virus or needing to self-isolate have also been a factor.”

However, delays have been small, usually in the region of 1-4 days on average and the outlook is getting brighter by the day. Many of the same banks and building societies we mentioned earlier are now reporting improvements, with some even stating lead times are within the normal range. 

There are understandable concerns about the impact of the new tier system on lead times. Conveyancing has always been a bit of a postcode lottery, with the time it takes to complete heavily influenced by where you’re moving to. And the pandemic has indeed worsened some of the industry’s existing problems. 

But despite this, the industry has managed a once-in-a-generation disruption far better than many would have predicted. So, with a vaccine just around the corner, perhaps we should view the tier system as one last hurdle to clear before normality can resume. Of course, delays are inevitable and it may well take some local authorities until summer 2021 to clear their backlog, but the future suddenly looks much more hopeful.