The Grass Is Always Greener

‘It seems to me that if you ask anyone in England, they’d say they wish the Scottish system was the one they used’ Ben Pridden from FPDSavills in York says. He illustrates perfectly a suspicion held by many that the grass is greener on the other side of the border.

In interviews with agents all over the country, you come up against the fact that south of the border the system is bound to benefit the buyer, and in Scotland it benefits the vendor.

Traditionally in England gazumping has been a major problem, where a sale is agreed but a buyer with a higher offer comes along and the vendor changes his mind, and sells to the person offering more. In this way the English system benefits the buyer, because the ‘limbo’ period between the final agreement of sale is a window where they can come in to a sale nearly compete and offer more, or pullout altogether from something the vendor thought was agreed.

Also, usually in England a buyer will not get a survey done until their offer is accepted.

In Scotland, there has traditionally been more of an ethical slant to the procedure, in that once a sale is agreed, there is no going back on it. However, the system in Scotland generally favours the vendor, because of the offers over system, which encourages bidders to bid over the odds to secure the property, and they can end up with a higher price that expected.

There is also a tradition in Scotland of buyers getting surveys done on properties before they make a bid, which means many people pay for surveys to be done on houses which in the end they cannot afford. This is one of the main reasons cited in the Clydesdale report for wanting the English system adopted there.

So the recognised way is that in Scotland if you are selling your house you’re going to feel more confident than you would in England, wheras down south it is buyers who feel they have the upper hand.

But this is not necessarily always the case, and in addition to that, much may change in the coming months.

Firstly, governments in both Scotland and England are keen on the idea of seller’s packs, or at least the idea of the vendor getting a survey done prior to putting their property on the market, rather than the buyer commissioning their own survey.

Voluntary trials in England two to three years ago piloted this scheme, but take-up was slow. Nevertheless a Government Bill – the Housing Bill – is currently in the House of Lords, and may become law by the end of the year, making seller’s packs compulsory. It is not a popular move.

‘The aim of the exercise as I understand it is to speed up the process of housebuying, but the problem is, for the most part, not with a buyer who has had an offer accepted getting a survey done, but with the solicitors,’ says Andrew Black from Savills York office.

‘If the solicitor’s workload means both parties have to wait seven or eight weeks for the paperwork then there is very little one can do about it. Getting a survey done is much quicker, so I can’t see that any time is going to be saved by introducing seller’s packs at all.’

Another issue with the packs is one of trust. If a vendor has commissioned a surveyor to produce an opinion about his house, who is to say he has not gone to four or five different firms until he finds one which overlooks the flaw they want to disguise.

This seems to be what is happening in Scotland, where a trial scheme to give vendors the option of commissioning their own surveys has so far been very unpopular. And even when vendors do decide to commission a survey, buyers are getting their own ones done regardless, just to be sure. This is more likely to slow things down than speed them up, one would expect, but the Scottish Parliament may yet introduce it as law.

But more is afoot in Scotland than trial vendor’s surveys. Jamie McNabb, from Savills Edinburgh claims that, contrary to the popular beliefs of most Scots, gazumping and gazundering are not uncommon in Scotland, as English buyers with a less ethical take on house buying arrive on the scene in growing numbers.

Because as the law stands, if one party does renege on an agreement in Scotland, there is no legal recourse for the person left in the lurch. And this realisation is changing the way things are being done.

Mr McNabb says: ‘As an agent we are bound to let a vendor know if a higher offer than the one they agreed to comes onto the table and if they want to take that offer there is not much we can do.

‘More of a problem than gazumping though, is when a buyer – particularly from England – has a change of heart or a change of circumstances, and want to pull out. This is becoming more common by far than gazumping, by bringing English ethics into the marketplace, and this is obviously going to have knock-on effects,’ he continues.

So all is not as it seems in Scotland, and all may be about to change in England. Mr McNabb’s advice to buyers or sellers getting involved in the market at the moment is that you have to be ‘robust and worldly wise’ to do it, wherever you are. It may seem like the grass is always greener, but in reality it is a matter of taking a deep breath, using your judgement and going for it. Wherever you live.