With the conveyancer-broker relationship suffering from mutual misunderstanding, conveyancer My Home Move has recruited mortgage specialists, embraced technology and is training the next generation in its determination to drag the sector into the 21st century
If you were to walk into any broker’s office in the country and ask what frustrates them about the market, undoubtedly featuring high on most lists would be the conveyancing process. A deep mistrust has developed between brokers and conveyancers, with the latter often blamed for delays that occur during transactions.
There are many reasons for the service problems of recent years, of course. A chronic skills shortage and poor take-up of new technologies both play a part but, frankly, many solicitors view conveyancing as a necessary evil, not a priority.
However, Leicester-based conveyancer My Home Move aims to put an end to service delays and drag the sector into the 21st century.
The firm has grown rapidly since its launch in 2001 and last year completed more than 50,000 mover transactions, with the total predicted to hit 100,000 by next year. A big driver of that growth is former Personal Touch Financial Services duo Doug Crawford and Dev Malle – two well-known personalities in the mortgage market.
Crawford joined MHM as chief executive in 2012, having held the same role at network PTFS. Later in the year his PTFS sales director, Malle, followed him to MHM to assume the position of group sales director.
Crawford dipped into the mortgage market twice more in search of new colleagues: first for ex-Abbey for Intermediaries key accounts director Adrian Whittaker in 2013 and then in 2015 for Mark Snape, at the time managing director of mortgages at Secured Trust Bank, who is well known in the specialist lending market.
But why pursue mortgage specialists to run a conveyancing firm? “Historically, the firm had been a single channel where pretty much all of the business came from the estate agency sector,” says Crawford.
“We decided that our strategy would be more multi-channel, so we wanted to broaden the range of channels from which we received introductions.
“One part of that was the financial services sector – lenders and brokers. To do that it was important to have people who understood that sector, understood that market and had relationships in that market. Obviously Dev and Mark absolutely fall into that category.”
Prior to joining MHM, Malle had spent nine years in distribution and, before that, 13 years in lending. So what attracted him to the conveyancing sector?
“We were such a well-kept secret and so, from a distribution perspective, we had everything to go at. It was incredibly exciting,” he says. “The growth forecast and plans were in their infancy really but there was so much to aim at and some great people to work with. I was pretty lucky and had two or three offers but this one excited me the most.”
Similarly, Snape had spent most of his career in the mortgage market prior to his move to MHM, with his highest-profile role that of sales director at GE Money, then one of the biggest specialist lenders in the UK.
Snape says: “I wanted to do something really different. Like Dev, I had a few offers to do other things. I came across My Home Move about this time last year when I was at Secured Trust Bank.
“I chose MHM because of its reputation and brand. I was blown away by the presentation, the quality of it, the technology, the focus on people. I come from a background of rigour and discipline and this place has got it in abundance in terms of control and the way the business is run.”
MHM has experienced huge growth in the three years since Crawford’s arrival. It is now larger, in terms of completions, than its two biggest rivals, O’Neill Patient and Countrywide. Land Registry figures for February 2016 show it completed 1,905 mover transactions during the month – 100 more than the other two combined.
Malle says: “When I joined MHM just over three years ago, we used to check the Land Registry figures and we were pretty much neck and neck with Countrywide in terms of completions. Now, if you put second and third place together, that is roughly the size we are on our own. We have really taken off.
“This isn’t being complacent or arrogant but you’ve virtually got a Premiership and a First Division and, in the Premiership, we are almost on our own.”
But how does a firm grow so quickly in what is still a challenging market?
Crawford says: “At the core of this business, for me, is delivering a fantastic client experience – that is what the business is built on. That and the use of technology and fantastic people.”
Before the arrival of Crawford and Malle, MHM had relied heavily on the estate agency sector for leads. It has since branched out into the mortgage market and new-build, and has set up affinity schemes with organisations such as the British Medical Association.
“Pretty much any channel where there is an opportunity we have got a foothold, working with the key players,” says Malle.
“And one of the strongest-growing areas at the moment is online estate agents. Because of our proposition and service, we have pretty much captured that market. There aren’t many players in that online space that aren’t operating with us.”
The conveyancing market is very much a cottage industry, which means technology take-up tends to be poor.
However, MHM has made a deliberate move towards developing new technologies to speed up processing.
The firm describes its online conveyancing platform, eWay – the second iteration of which was launched at the end of last year – as a service akin to online banking. It enables customers to complete forms online and track their case, and it informs them when MHM needs more information.
“It’s also giving consumers a choice,” says Snape. “They can use technology but they can also speak to the expert if they want.
“Interestingly, the highest level of take-up is between 7.30pm and 9.30pm, which proves the world is changing and people want to do things at their own convenience.”
The conveyancer has also upgraded its back-office system within the past three months.
Malle says: “Infrastructure-wise, it was a good move because it allows us to carry on accelerating the innovation and the technology changes that we want to make.”
However, the rest of the sector has not been as quick to adopt new technology, the trio says. “The legal sector would still be operating with quill pens if it had half the chance,” says Malle. “We don’t think people are aware of the pace at which consumer behaviour is changing. You have to have the human, personal, service-oriented side of things but anything you can do to speed that up is vital.”
In the wake of the financial crisis a lot of conveyancers left the market, creating a skills shortage that has been one of the main causes of service delays over the past few years.
“Has there been a market capacity issue? Absolutely – people have really struggled,” says Malle. “One of the reasons we were able to grow in the way we have is that we launched our learning and development academy. We take about 85 to 90 people a year and it is just getting stronger.”
The MHM academy was set up in 2013 to train the next generation of conveyancers. To date it has trained more than 300 people.
As a big player in the market, MHM has deeper pockets than most. But how do smaller firms manage to recruit?
Could MHM simply be training recruits for the industry?
“The academy does do that,” says Crawford. “It is understandable and we are comfortable to be a bit of a training ground for the industry.”
At the heart of the deteriorating relationship between the mortgage and conveyancing communities is misunderstanding. Snape admits that, when previously running lenders, he did not understand the conveyancing sector as much as he ought to have.
He says: “I think lenders need to understand the process better. The reason I should have known more when I was running lenders is because conveyancing is so key to the process. If you get it right, it can speed up the process; if you get it wrong, it can delay it.
“Brokers probably need to engage more with the process and understand the customer journey along the way.”
One of the ways the firm has tried to solve this problem is through the launch of Introducer eWay, an online system for brokers that gives progress updates for their submitted cases.
Malle says: “When the introducer is submitting a case to us, [the system] gives them the opportunity to track the case, and get a quote there and then. We can then issue a starter pack to a client within two hours. Once we have a starter pack sent back, we’ll issue a contract within 24 hours. In the high street, you’re normally looking at about seven to 10 days.”
He adds: “It also gives brokers real-time information so they can see how many contracts they have at pre-exchange stage, how many where they’re waiting for a mortgage offer, how many that have completed and what referral fees are due. That is all there 24/7 at their fingertips.”
While lenders have made a conscious and determined effort to weed out and prevent fraud, the conveyancing sector seems way behind.
“Despite the fact it is high on lenders’ and the regulator’s agenda, we are still surprised that we are the only law firm integrated with CIFAS [the national fraud register],” Malle says.
“The Conveyancing Quality Scheme came into the market as the regulatory body; we see that as the lowest possible benchmark and it needs to go beyond that.”
Malle explains: “A lot of the big players do take it seriously; they have to. But if you think of a law firm in the high street – and I’m not knocking them because they do a good job – whether they admit it or not, conveyancing is the poor relation.
“The cost of PI cover increased; wage inflation increased because of the shortage. So many in the industry saw conveyancing as a necessary evil rather than something where they wanted to be market-leading and to invest significant amounts. Unfortunately, when you have that approach to a particular sector, it withers.”
So what does the trio think of the state of the lending sector?
Until the end of last year, Snape was heavily involved in the specialist market. While some in the sector are optimistic about its prospects, he is not.
Snape says: “When I left the market, I made it clear that I’d left because I had concerns.
“I’ve been at the forefront of it for a long time. There is definitely a place for it; we know that. But for me the brokers have moved away from it and into buy-to-let – the more mainstream-type products. There is still a stigma about sub-prime and I don’t think that selfcert.co.uk coming into the market recently has helped.
“I have concerns as to whether specialist lending will come back to what it was. That is one of the reasons why I wanted to do something different.”
With MHM looking to exceed 100,000 transactions a year in 2017, are the bosses worried that the Chancellor’s attack on buy-to-let through the tax relief cut and increased stamp duty will dampen activity?
“The market is very robust,” says Snape. “You’ll see lenders switch more to first-time buyers with their products. Buy-to-let volumes may reduce but the overall transaction numbers will stay the same. In fact, you may even see them increase.
“You’ve also got the remortgage market, which will slowly start to grow again. That is what the Government is trying to do with its changes. But the market is very robust and so are the brokers – so we don’t foresee that much change.”
The fragmented nature of the market means the conveyancing sector will continue to face many challenges. Service issues undoubtedly are likely to remain.
However, with their experience and thorough understanding of both conveyancing and mortgages, hopefully Crawford, Malle and Snape can demonstrate to the industry that such problems can be overcome.
Dev Malle – CV
Born/education 1968/Universities – London and Coventry, and Henley Management College
- 1990–2003 Nationwide BS & UCBHL
- 2003–06 Operations director, then sales director, Pink
- 2006–12 Sales & marketing director, Personal Touch FS
- 2012–present Group distribution director, My Home Move
Hobbies Running, cycling, eating, drinking and laughing
Favourite film Dead Poets Society
Favourite book MHM Superhero Annual
Favourite band Red Hot Chilli Peppers
Most significant achievement
Being comfortable in life so that I can start to give something back – namely, sitting on two charity boards and being deputy chair of a fostering panel
Mark Snape – CV
Born/education 1963/Harborne Hill School, Birmingham
- 1983–97 AVCO Trust; Beneficial Bank
- 1997–2001 FIRSTPLUS
- 2001–03 Citigroup
- 2003–05 COO/Executive director, Compass Financial Group
- 2005–07 Business consultant
- 2007–13 Sales director, GE Money
- 2013–15 Managing director of mortgages at Magellan and then at Secured Trust Bank
- 2015–present Corporate distribution director, My Home Move
Hobbies Golf, cycling and reading
Favourite film The Godfather
Favourite book Angels and Demons
Favourite band Queen
Most significant achievement
Helping my children to graduate and progress to careers of their choice
Doug Crawford – CV
Born/education 1961/Royal Belfast Academical Institution
- 1980–85 Auditor and business analyst, Northern Ireland Civil Service
- 1985–93 Sales manager and regional manager, Nilfisk
- 1993–95 General manager Scotland (gas sales), Mobil
- 1995–97 Group sales & marketing director, Fishers
- 1997–2000 Regional & area director, Aviva
- 2000–09 CEO, Absolute Invoice Finance
- 2010–12 CEO, Personal Touch FS
- 2012–present CEO, My Home Move
Hobbies Watching rugby, keeping fit
Favourite film The Quiet Man
Favourite band Green Day
Most significant achievement
Turned around a loss-making business: grew it dramatically and sold it for £75m (sadly, as an employee rather than as a shareholder)