Why we think HMRC’s Calculator is Not Fit for Purpose

June 7, 2023


It may come as no surprise to learn that at Compass, we don’t have much time for HMRC’s online calculator, which they memorably once described to a national broadsheet as intended ‘as a guide’ rather than an accurate calculator. Some might indeed say that we have an obvious interest in denigrating a calculator available to anyone to use for free. But today I’d like to talk to you about specific examples which illustrate why the calculator is not just inferior to our own offering, but also potentially dangerous for both buyers and their solicitors.

When we initially began the development of Compass, we were aware that the existing calculator had limitations. SDLT is a complex, ever-shifting tax with legislation that gets updated constantly. Lawyers must be nimble indeed to stay on top of these, and the HMRC online calculator often misses the finer points. A rising number of claims against firms for ‘missed’ reliefs on SDLT on historical transactions says more about this than we needed to.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight and several years’ worth of programming and observation, those limitations start to look less like understandable difficulties in keeping a free, web-based system abreast of constant change and more like serious negligence.

To begin with an obvious, and high-profile instance, let’s look back at then-Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s now infamous ‘mini budget’ of September 2022. Among the many changes proposed in that announcement was a major change to the way SDLT was assessed, raising the ‘zero threshold’ from £125,000 to £250,000, and raising the zero threshold for first-time buyers to £425,000. This was a significant change and was stated to take immediate effect. You might be forgiven then for expecting HMRC’s own official calculator to have been updated in line with these changes that same day.

In fact, as we know, the calculator was not updated for around two weeks afterward, with a notice at the top of the relevant web page telling solicitors and members of the public not to rely on the calculator as it had yet to be updated. Famously, of course, people involved in property transactions are blessed with an abundance of time and patience, and the solicitor would therefore have had no concern at all with such a delay…

To be more current, let’s look at a particular technical deficiency recently discovered by our team in the calculator. You will doubtless be aware of the SDLT requirements for residential properties acquired by non-natural persons. In these cases, the 3% surcharge applies. However, above £500,000, this may jump to 15% in certain cases. Yet the HMRC calculator simply does not ask sufficiently detailed questions in order to distinguish this, merely asking if the buyer is an individual or not. Given that on a £550,000 purchase, this would be a difference of £82,500 (the 15% flat rate) or £31,500 (the surcharge-added rate), this seems like a more than slightly unfortunate oversight.

Nobody is expecting the HMRC calculator to be a complex tax computational device, but when it’s called a calculator and is recommended for use by not just solicitors but members of the public, one might reasonably expect slightly more than this.

Again, it may be easy to assume that given my position, my self-interest leads me to recommend my own product. But my motivation has always been, and remains, the betterment of a property industry that is desperately archaic. Part of that betterment must be aiding bring the conveyancing market into the digital age, and working to devise systems that prevent errors that can cost buyers money or even their dream home, as well as having potentially devastating consequences on lawyers.

It is our vision that, one day, Compass will be a standard in the industry rather than an outlier. Currently, firms using Compass are happier, more productive, and more efficient, and the waiting list is growing. I look forward to the time when firms are used to – indeed expect – the kind of service Compass provides

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