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BLOG: The Simplify debacle highlights uncomfortable truths about referrals

The IT problems at the conveyancing giant have raised questions both about referrals and how conveyancing progress is communicated to customers.

Ed Mead

The Simplify Group conveyancing debacle finally reached the national press with a piece in The Times after one of its journalists was caught up in it.

For anyone who hasn’t read this, many hundreds if not thousands of people buying and selling property in the UK have been locked out after a central IT platform was hacked, in this instance ruining their Christmas.

Glad this is being aired nationally – hopefully, we can now see what’s happening and learn some lessons outside the closed industry loop.

Reading it made me despair for several reasons.

The stressful process of buying and selling property is simply not being managed sensitively.

At the moment, if a property is marked ‘under offer’ the assumption is it’s sold and the ensuing legal process is a foregone conclusion.

Heartbreaking

With circa 35% of deals falling through it’s clearly not, leading to heartbreak and monetary loss as people make offers and even buy ongoing properties before their own is legally sold.

Agents don’t help by plastering misleading ‘Sold’ signs with almost invisible caveats everywhere – especially on their boards when the property is merely under offer.

The entire business of referrals used to work because any estate agent with half a brain would usually recommend a local conveyancing solicitor with a good reputation – they want someone who can perform quickly and efficiently.

Expectations in return were no more than a lunch at Christmas or a bottle of something warming.

These days referrals are often only given where a significant payment is forthcoming and is particularly prevalent amongst lower priced chains who all but pressurise buyers and sellers into using their own conveyancers, chosen for how much income they’ll give away rather than their intrinsic level of expertise.

This can lead to substandard service, with local knowledge lacking, and risks the IT issues the article articulates, with potentially devastating effects. This makes my blood boil at a time when Gov’t is specifically investigating referrals in the property industry.

banned

Reckless money-first strategies make no sense against this backdrop and could lead to most sensible referrals being banned – which will help nobody.

If your agent refers you to someone, please check their reviews and do not, under any circumstances, make your decision based on price alone.

Communication is the key, yet most complaints to The Property Ombudsman – where I sit on their Industry Forum – are about exactly that. It’s now worse than ever despite instant messaging and data rooms available for private treaty as they are for auctions.

Agents must take some blame here as it’s part of their job to manage expectations.

They are not selling FMCGs and could be better informed and prepared to give the correct messages to both buyer and seller.

The expectation bosses have of their staff needs managing too, along with a deep knowledge of how this specific market works – seemingly lacking in some larger chains. Applying FMCG strategy to the property has repeatedly been shown not to work.

Steadily worse

Why, despite all the tech available and lessons learned, is the process of buying or selling getting steadily worse. Buying a property is NOT about cheap service.

The clue is that it now takes almost twice as long to get a sale from offer accepted to exchange as it did forty years ago.

Property is expensive and needs commensurate servicing – this entire money-grabbing mentality and consolidation of service businesses is apparently doing nothing to solve outstanding problems and is blinding Government to the real issues.

By the way, agents must stop putting SOLD in huge letters on their boards with ‘subject to contract’ – or worse ‘sstc’ in tiny letters underneath – when all that’s happened is that an offer has been agreed.

Revert to ‘Under Offer’ and the messaging is clear – it’s an easy starting point. The more members of the public are informed and ask questions, the better.

Ed Mead is the co-founder of outsourced viewings service Viewber and former senior London estate agency director.

December 13, 2021

2 comments

  1. A number of significant points raised here? Firstly IT systems must be robust, backed up and interchangeable at a moments notice so this sort of problem is not repeated. DLUHC, HBSG and the Residential Logbook Association are doing alot to collect and display more information about a property during its marketing phase. Sharing this information with a potential buyer will mean the buyer is better informed when they make an offer. This wl reduce fall throughs and speed up conveyancing. Ant infomation can be displayed today in a PIP Vault.

  2. Some great points Ed, my view is that when the legal sector actually gets its act together and allows digital transformation ‘in’ and replaces paper with software, the transfer of title can take place in two or three days. This ‘revolution’ may take a generation due to the stakeholders running mostly analogue businesses with zero capital to invest in digital, or worse have no intention.

    Simplify have problems, due to criminal intent, not due to the systems they run, robust cyber security is probably the problem. Referral fees are also not the problem, work is based on the concept of capital flowing, and rewarding a party for passing business exists across the globe in every vertical of commerce.

    The reason that buying property takes so long, is the amount of ‘paper’ in the system, and the fact solicitors/conveyancers work on the whole five days a week, with an hour for lunch, and the property industry is working 24/7/365 an obvious mismatch of resources.

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