OFT lashes councils for cashing in on searches

The Office of Fair Trading has slammed local authorities for charging consumers too much for property searches, with costs ranging from 55 to 269.

With sellers having to provide Home Information Packs by 2007 the OFT has called on local authorities in England and Wales to make the property information they hold more readily available to buyers, sellers and estate agents.

Property information is obtained through three main routes. The first is via a direct request to the information holder. The second is through an electronic gateway that acts as a centralised point of contact between information holders and consumers and their conveyancers. The third way is through a property search company which co-ordinates searches to provide a single data package.

Local authorities hold most of the information needed to complete a property search. They provide information under a complex framework of legislation. Some local authorities restrict access by property buyers and their agents to the information they hold.

With prices ranging wildly from 55 to 269 the OFT says it’s likely many are overcharging. It recommends that local authorities make their property information available to third parties on non- discriminatory terms that do not advantage their own property search activities over competing search providers.

This should create greater consumer choice and more effective competition in the market for property information.

The OFT has also called for the electronic National Land Information Service software to be made more freely available.

It says local authorities should be encouraged to set up connections with retailers outside NLIS to create greater consumer choice.

Sir John Vickers, chairman of the OFT, says: “Property buyers must have all the relevant information that might affect their choice of property.

“Developing electronic provision and the introduction of Home Information Packs means there is an opportunity to set the conditions for a dynamic market that serves consumers well in the future.”

Paul Holden, sales director at MortgageStream Software, says: “This is great news. It effectively makes for a level playing field across the industry. It’s not a huge leap of the imagination to think that brokers will one day be able to upload information to a government website and do a property search from that data.”