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Speeding up exchange of contracts on Country House Acquisitions

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Knight Frank
London and Country specialist property buying agents
09 Apr 2018  |   Bobby Hall

The acquisition of a country house can be considerably more complicated than a normal house purchase which is why we advise our clients to use highly experienced professionals to help.  Your solicitor is a key member of the purchasing team and we work closely with them throughout the purchasing process.

Salisbury-based solicitor Marcus Thorpe at Trethowans LLP is an expert in his field and has worked for a number of our clients for nigh on fifteen years. Here he explains how the process of exchanging on a country house can be made swifter and easier……

What’s the key message?

MT:  Be prepared! It really falls on the seller’s shoulders to be highly organised right from the outset. Their solicitor needs to have all the paperwork ready before the property is offered for sale, including the property information and fittings and contents forms, any planning documentation and a Local Authority Search.

If they believe the property could fall under mixed use Stamp Duty Land Tax, they may consider formalising in writing any grazing arrangements they have with a local farmer. In any event, this is good practice to ensure there is no possibility of a claim for an agricultural tenancy, which can give long term security of tenure.

Contents are of particular importance with the type of house that is typically transacted by The Buying Solution. I’ve seen many sales stumble – and good will evaporate between the parties – when items such as statues from the garden or finials from gates are removed on completion, when the buyer thought they were integral to the house.

I’d advise a seller to write a list of what they want to take with them early on and make sure the selling agent and buyer is aware of each and every item. If the equipment for the tennis court or pool, or a fountain set in the middle of a parterre is staying or going, that should be established early on. A classic internal item which causes issue is the hallway chandelier — and it’s worth establishing whether an Aga is staying or going.

What else causes problems?

MT: Country houses have often been family homes for several decades before sale, which means that saying goodbye can be very difficult. There might be various idiosyncratic issues to address: for example, much-loved pets buried in a corner of the garden. If it’s important to the vendor that these aren’t disturbed the best approach is to come to a gentlemen’s agreement with the buyer (to do anything legally is fiendishly complicated). Again, be upfront and honest about such matters. The more that is disclosed at the beginning, the more confidence the buyer will have that they are dealing with decent and reasonable people.

Another element to be honest about is any paranormal activity in the house. While it doesn’t form part of the standard buyer’s questionnaire, and perhaps it’s rather unique to country houses, a good solicitor might ask the question.

Any other tips for the vendors?

MT: Yes, if it’s critical that you want to spend one last summer or Christmas in the house, then declare that right from the outset. The period between exchange and completion should be well thought through as, again, there can be scope for arguments!

What does the buyer need to do?

MT: They need to instruct a solicitor who has enough time to dedicate to handling the case, especially if a quick exchange of contracts is part of the agreed terms of purchase.  So, ask the question: does the solicitor have the time to dedicate? Is he or she planning on going on holiday during the period leading up to exchange? Will they go and see the property? Again, country houses are, by their nature, much more complicated than a standard terraced house so I always like to do a site visit. Sometimes something that seems odd in the documents—an access route or boundary line—makes complete sense once you see it. It’s important.

When buying a country house with adjacent agricultural land, the buyer’s solicitor will also need to understand—and prepare the necessary documentation—to submit an application for mixed use Stamp Duty Land Tax to HMRC. These claims can be disputed by HMRC so, again, instruct a solicitor who has experience in this field.

Have you ever exchanged contracts in just one day?

MT: Yes. Not long ago, I had clients that were keen to buy a house in Devon. It was already under offer with another party so they needed to persuade the vendors that their gazumping-offer was serious. That meant promising to exchange in a day. I left home at 5am, did the site view and then was given a meeting room for the day at the offices of the seller’s lawyers. We went through the title documents, negotiated the contract and exchanged at 6pm that evening.  This is what is known as an attended exchange of contracts and proves that, if all the relevant information is available, transactions can be done quickly.

Marcus Thorpe is a Partner and Head of Agriculture and Rural Property at Trethowans LLP in Salisbury (01722 412 512; www.trethowans.com)

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