Conveyancers saw their first annual drop in workload since 2011 last year, with volumes down 12% to under a million transactions, according to new research.
It also found that the number of conveyancing firms has dropped by 28% over the past decade.
Search Acumen’s conveyancing market tracker – which uses HM Land Registry data – said volumes fell from 1,077,959 in 2016 to 952,966 in 2017 “as the stagnant UK property market weighed down on conveyancers”.
With the number of active firms in the market falling only slightly in 2017, this meant the average firm completed 171 transactions in 2017, down 11% on 2016 (193).
The figure is at the level of 2007, when conveyancing firms averaged 173 cases per year, but it then fell to just 102 in 2008 in the heat of the financial crash.
However, over the decade, the number of firms active in conveyancing has dropped 28% – from 7,733 to 5,559 – “as fewer conveyancers deal with a higher volume of transactions over the past decade”.
Search Acumen said the decrease in conveyancing volumes was felt across a majority of the market – but most notably among those that handle 100-200 transactions a month – but it was slightly less pronounced at the top five firms, which suffered a 9% drop in average monthly volumes from 1,005 to 918.
The only category that saw a rise in volumes was occasional conveyancers – those completing between one and ten transactions per month.
The top five kept 6% of the market, in percentage terms double since 2007 (3%). The top 1,000 firms between them completed 72% of all transactions in 2017. The share for those outside the top 1,000 has dropped from 43% in 2007 to 28%.
Among different types of transactions, dispositionary first lease transactions saw the highest increase in volumes for the second year running, rising by 29% over the year from 2,208 to 2,857. Meanwhile, dealings and transfer of part transactions saw a 13% and 6% annual drop respectively.
Search Acumen managing director Andrew Lloyd said: “Conveyancers are feeling the impact of a housing sector in need of a jumpstart…
“At the beginning of the year, the Prime Minister vowed that UK housing was to be an area of absolute focus for the current government, and policies like the abolishment of SDLT for first-time buyers will undoubtedly reduce the chasm between young market hopefuls and established homeowners.
“However, housebuilding activity fell last month for the first time since the EU referendum. The property industry continues to be frustrated with the inertia it finds itself in, fuelled by bureaucracy, politicking and set-backs.
“The next 12 months will be full of challenges for conveyancers while the housing market tries find its feet again. We must operate with absolute efficiency to ensure we are prepared for a recovery in property transactions, embracing technology to create a transparent, productive offering which works for everyone.
“This is the only way we can ensure the conveyancing market effectively adapts to whatever the property market feeds it.”
Meanwhile, the number of remortgages has risen 41% year-on-year from 28,400 in December 2016 to 39,943 in December 2017, according to conveyancing service provider LMS.
It said that following the increase in the base rate to 0.5% in November last year, the majority of lenders passed on the full 0.25% rise and also increased their standard variable rates.
“Around 8.1 million UK households have a mortgage, and of those almost half are on either a standard variable rate or a tracker rate. In the current climate, borrowers’ motivation to remortgage has hit its highest level since the financial crisis.”