Why do more than a quarter of property sales fall through and what can agents do to stop it?

Buying and selling property in England and Wales is a complex process that most homebuyers actually know very little about. Property investors with multiple assets may be more clued up, however the majority of residential buyers and sellers rely on the expertise of their estate agent and conveyancer to guide them safely through the transaction.

What’s more, moving home is reportedly one of the most stressful life events, right up there with getting divorced or losing a loved one. With emotions running high and huge financial commitments on the line, it is perhaps little wonder that property transactions don’t always go smoothly.

According to recent findings, around one in four residential property sales falls through every year before completion. In 2021, these figures may be nearer 40% as a direct result of the high-pressure property market we’ve been experiencing. With demand for properties to buy at an all-time high, there are plenty of things that can go wrong between an offer being accepted and contracts being exchanged.

About our guest blogger:
Dakota Murphey has experience in property management with her portfolio of properties expanding in the South of England. Her passion for renovation and home improvement projects is shared through her writing to help educate and inspire others.

A property sale or purchase falling through before the transaction becomes legally binding is not only inconvenient, it can involve substantial financial losses too. In general, it is useful to see if anything can be learnt that might help estate agents avoid sales falling through at all. Let’s, therefore, consider the main reasons for a failed property transaction.

Bad survey results

Once an offer has been accepted and the conveyancing process initiated, most prudent homebuyers will arrange for an independent home survey to be carried out. Having a RICS-accredited building professional inspect the property’s condition and provide valuable feedback is an important due diligence step. And while every buyer will obviously be hoping that the building will be given a clean bill of health, the news is not always good.

The survey report plays an important part in the purchasing process. Building defects and issues of varying degrees of severity may be identified, and while some of these can be easily rectified by the seller before exchange, or a price discount negotiated to cover the cost of repairs after completion, others may represent a deal breaker. The main culprits relate to structural issues such as subsidence and heave, damp issues, timber decay, roof defects, asbestos containing materials, outdated services and invasive garden species such as Japanese knotweed.

No funds available

The vast majority of residential property purchases are funded by way of a mortgage. In a competitive market, a buyer who has an agreement in principle in place is in a stronger position than one who doesn’t, and many estate agents won’t even put forward an offer unless it is backed by an AIP. However, a lender’s decision ‘in principle’ is just that. Before the funds can be released, mortgage companies carry out a variety of checks and obtain their own valuation to assess the risk. There are numerous reasons why a mortgage offer may not be approved after all. From problems with the building itself to irregularities in the application form, a recent job or other changes in the applicant’s personal circumstances, the buyer could unexpectedly find themselves without the funds to proceed.

A growing number of UK properties are bought without the help of a mortgage, which removes the uncertainties explained above and should reduce the chances of a sale falling through on the basis of no funding. However, cash buyers are just as likely to walk away from a poor survey result, or change their mind for all manner of reasons.

Property chain collapse

Property chains are commonplace in residential property transactions. Since most buyers require the proceeds from the sale of their current home in order to purchase their new home, a line of buyers and sellers are linked together in this way, all working towards exchanging contracts on the same day. The chain has a beginning (perhaps a first-time buyer with nothing to sell) and an end, someone who is selling but not buying.

It is the interdependence caused by the ‘linking’ of transactions that can be a problem. Effectively, the chain will only progress as fast as the slowest link in it, and any problems occurring anywhere along the chain will have a knock-on effect for everybody else. Clearly, the longer the property chain is, the higher the risk of something going wrong somewhere.

Property chains can collapse for all sorts of reasons, but there are warning signs that should alert you to urgent action, and plenty of things you can do to keep the chain moving.

Gazumping or gazundering

When buying and selling property in England and Wales, the signing and exchanging of contracts that gives the transaction legal status comes rather late in the conveyancing process. There is typically a delay of several weeks (or longer) between an offer being accepted and contracts being exchanged, during which period the property survey is conducted, local searches are carried out and mortgage offers are finalised. This can be a nail-biting time for buyers and sellers, and anything can still happen.

Unfortunately, gazumping (initiated by the seller) and gazundering (initiated by the buyer) are not illegal practices despite debates over the years arguing that they should be. As it stands, there is nothing to stop the seller from choosing a different buyer if contracts have not yet been exchanged, or to stop the buyer from suddenly dropping the offer price at the last minute. It goes without saying that these unscrupulous tactics go against any sense of fair play and carry a high risk of one or the other party pulling out from the deal.

Change of personal circumstances

Sometimes, there’s no other reason for a property transaction to be aborted than life happening and things changing. Perhaps the seller has good personal reasons for taking the house off the market, or maybe the buyer has found a better property somewhere else or has decided to stay put.

A change of heart could be the result of a job loss, family break-up, illness or countless other personal reasons that may never be fully explained. While it can be incredibly disappointing to lose a property because someone along the chain has simply changed their mind, there’s nothing much that can be done about it.

Can a fall-through be prevented?

Abortive transactions are always frustrating, especially when a failed mortgage application or a horrendous survey report makes any chances of rescuing the deal pretty much impossible. However, more than half of failed property sales are preventable and can be rescued. If delays or inactivity threaten to derail the sale, the key to keeping the momentum going is good communication.

This is where estate agents and conveyancers need to step up to do the best for their clients especially in a booming property market. Reputable agencies will appreciate that it is in their best commercial interest to bring the sale to a successful conclusion, and many have dedicated sales progressors to jolly everyone along and reduce the risk of feet getting cold or minds being changed. Solicitors will also recognise the need for steady progress towards an exchange of contracts within a reasonable timeframe, and should take responsibility for ensuring no undue delays in the conveyancing journey.

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By Dakota Murphey
17th November 2021

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