Standing Your Ground With SDLT

June 7, 2023


If your client told you that they didn’t think there were any hazards in the area of their proposed property purchase and therefore they didn’t see the point in paying for Environmental searches, you’d give them short shrift.

First off, they cannot possibly know whether there are old contaminations, landfills, or other hazards in the land beneath their new home. Second, and more importantly, their lender will almost certainly insist on such a search, and not carrying one out could leave them stranded with a home that is impossible to sell or even actively dangerous to their health, and they’re likely to want to know who they can blame.

So it blows my mind that firms don’t take the same position when it comes to SDLT.

If you get it wrong, they’re facing serious consequences. Too little and they’ll be liable for penalties and interest. Too much and they’ll be out of pocket. Either way, they’ll likely be feeling litigious when it comes out.

And yet, so often when I speak to firms about Compass, one of the first objections is the cost it will add to the client, and how they will object to this. You wouldn’t simply back down from a client who objected to the cost of searches, or tried to argue they weren’t necessary, yet apparently, so many firms see SDLT as so ‘straightforward’ that they think no more than a cursory glance is needed in its direction.

Consider the rise in claims against firms by clients in recent years, prompted in part by the proliferation of ‘Claims Farms’ who seem to think that SDLT overpayments are the new PPI. Dealing with these kinds of claims, even where unmerited, can be time-consuming and costly. Why not just make use of a solution that would head them off pre-emptively? Imagine being able to simply say to every such claim going forward ‘No sorry, we used Compass so I guarantee you’re wrong.’

Consider also the likelihood of clients and selling agents providing absolutely accurate information when it comes to SDLT calculation. So many factors exist that can impact the final assessment of liability, and these can often be overlooked by those who don’t know what to look for. Is the property mixed-use? Does it have a self-contained annex? Is it likely to be deemed uninhabitable? All these and more can make significant differences to the final bill, and it only takes one being missed to cause issues later down the line.

SDLT is one of the most complex and opaque elements of conveyancing with which firms are expected to deal. On one hand, you are not expected to provide tax advice to clients as a conveyancer. On the other, various pronouncements by the regulator make it clear that you are deemed –almost by default – responsible for the final number. A number that relates to a self-assessed tax. It’s an almost impossible line to walk, made more difficult by the requirements of the Conveyancing Code of Practice and the CQS.

In light of all this, why would any firm not want every possible assistance in their corner? And why would they not argue strongly with any client who thought the meager additional cost was not ‘worth it’, just as they would any client convinced theirs was the only property in the world built on absolute virgin land, untouched by hazard, flood or any other kind of limitation?

It’s clear to me that the inevitability with SDLT is that services like Compass will start to become the norm as time moves on. Just as with Searches, the ability to outsource a vital but time-consuming element in a transaction will prove irresistible in the end. What’s less clear to me is why firms continue to be resistant to a digital solution to a digital problem, preferring to stay analogue and risk the consequences of getting it wrong. You owe it to your clients, your firm, and your staff to make sure you stand your ground on this issue, and provide peace of mind to all concerned.

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