Time for progress on digitising the home buying process

Paul Broadhead, Head of Mortgage & Housing Policy at the BSA, takes an in depth look at the progress made so far including the recent formation of the Digital Property Market Steering Group.

Next week (12 September) will see the first Digital Property Market Conference, organised by the Land Registry’s (HMLR) newly formed Digital Property Market Steering Group (DPMSG). The event will bring together all those involved in the process of buying, leasing and selling property, including government and key industry partners, with the aim of driving digital transformation that will create a simpler, faster and less stressful process for consumers and businesses.

It's a laudable ambition, and one that I think we can all agree is critical. The fact that buying a new home is up there with the most stressful events in life such as dealing with death and relationship breakdown demonstrates that the process needs fixing. 

It’s not however a new idea. I remember joining the original HMLR e-conveyancing steering group back in 2005, which had very similar ambitions. But in 18 years very little progress has been made. There have been some improvements, such as the centralised responsibility of local land searches in 2018, and the development of new case management systems that have been introduced by conveyancers and lenders, allowing the digital scanning of documents. But the overall house buying and selling process is still cumbersome, slow and generally very frustrating for all involved.

In addition to the DPMSG, there are other initiatives working towards the same overall goal of a simpler and quicker functioning property market. The BSA is a member of the Home Buying and Selling Group (HBSG), which was set up about 4 years ago. It has created a number of working groups to look at the different areas of the buying and selling process. These include the Upfront Information Group, which is looking at the development of the Buying and Selling Property Information (BSPI) document, with a further working group looking at how to digitise the BSPI. Another group is looking at digital identity, which is feeding into the government’s development of the Digital Identity Trust Framework, which is currently working its way through the legislative process as part of the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill.

I’m sure there are many other examples of groups of experts working together on how to simplify the home buying process through digitisation and innovation. However, in my view, the only way real transformational progress will be made is not just through collaboration and innovation of all those involved in the process, essential though that is, but with a real appetite from everyone to roll up their sleeves, get involved and have a willingness – no a desire – to make change happen. It will take many changes, but every small improvement will cumulatively lead to the big difference we want and need.
Getting to an efficient process that works for everyone doesn’t need to be over-complicated. We just need to get the right information, to the right person, at the right time. And if we can digitise the process along the way, even better.

Some very obvious improvements that are needed include the implementation of digital land searches. Since 2018 HMLR has been responsible for the local land registers of the 331 local authorities in England and Wales[1], but in 5 years, less than a quarter have migrated their data – we must find a way to speed up this move to a standardised, digital, central register. Transparency across the whole process is also essential. A chain matrix, that provides information at every point could do this, and reduce post-offer queries to conveyancers, valuers and lenders that currently slow the process down – so again we must find a way for this to be introduced.  There will be tasks that can be simplified and/or digitised at every step of the process, we need to identify them and take action to deliver the overall goal.  

At the DPMSG conference next week there will be a speaker from Norway’s equivalent government department to our Land Registry. She will talk about how they have moved from a buying and selling process similar to the one we currently have in the UK, to one where you can buy a property within 7 days. That should be a very motivational session that shows us the art of the possible and the confidence that it’s achievable. 

Hopefully, I won’t be back in 18 years talking about an ambition for a digitised home buying and selling process, where little real progress has been made.

[1] HM Land Registry: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/hm-land-registry-local-land-charges-programme/local-land-charges-programme#Our%20New%20Digital%20Local%20Land%20Charges%20Service

This article was first published in Mortgage Finance Gazette