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A House Buyer's Right to Know

Jonny

Guest post from our series on Property Futures, by Barry Bridges at Property Detective:

When it comes to the biggest financial transaction of your life, isn’t it about time we enshrined the ‘right to know’?

Barry Bridges

As a failed and frustrated lawyer, one of the things I love to get passionate about is data protection. Granted, it’s not the sexiest pillow talk imaginable, but just trust me: when it comes to data, transparency and access to information, nothing sets my heart more aflutter than a good old argument about what I like to refer to as the ‘right to know’.

What am I talking about, you might ask? Well, let me put it simply: I believe that the current data protection framework fails to protect homebuyers during the conveyancing process, with the result that people buying property are subject to the most terrible information asymmetry that exists, particularly considering the financial impact of a purchase gone wrong.

First off though, let me explain the argument more thoroughly.

When you buy a house, your vendors’ conveyancer issues them with the Sellers Property Information Form, also known as the SPIF, asking the vendor to answer a range of questions about the property, ranging from the banal (who provides your broadband) right through to the serious (have there been any disputes about neighbouring properties).

As a buyer, there are several major issues with this process, made worse by the fact that you have no right to access critical local information that might help you make a better decision about the property you’re thinking of buying.

To start with, it makes absolutely zero sense that it is the vendors’ solicitor that issues the SPIF. An analogy might be one whereby we allow the pupils to set the exam questions; if there’s something to be covered up, isn’t it more appropriate for the buyers’ solicitor to be issuing the SPIF, with any additional questions contained therein?

More importantly though, if a buyer wants to raise legitimate queries about data appertaining to that property, where the data is held by a local authority, existing data protection legislation creates a barrier to them accessing the insight they need.

A good example would be ‘complaints about neighbours’, which is something that vendors’ are obliged to disclose on the SPIF. Let’s say you didn’t trust the vendors very much, and you wanted to verify the absence of any issues yourself. Well, an FOI request to the local authority and district council would be a great starting point. Except the Data Protection Act provides an exemption for ‘personal information’ to be disclosed, meaning that most district councils will refuse to disclose any correspondence relating to nuisance neighbours, environmental health issues, dangerous dogs, antisocial behaviour…and so on.

I would like to argue that we need to do more to relax data protection issues where there exists a direct financial and personal interest for the benefit of the person making the data request. Specifically, if you’re buying a house, you should be able to ask a local authority for any and all information about the properties that fall within its jurisdiction, even if you’re not the owner or occupier.

Someone moving home needs to get into the data held by a local authority that might influence a decision whether to buy or rent. I’m not talking about open data, or a broad dataset under the Open Government Licence; rather, I’m arguing for the expansion of the Subject Access Request to encompass situations where you have a direct, financial, transactional relationship with the Subject.

Like buying a home.

 

Company bio: Property Detective

Property Detective an online tool that helps consumers save time, money and effort by equipping them with all the insight they need to rationally evaluate a property, street, neighbourhood or locality more effectively.

Author bio: Barry Bridges

CEO and Founder of several successful businesses, including my current startup PropertyDetective.com Guest lecturer, public speaker and consultant to startups; when I'm not working I'm spending time with my wife and two young children, or running, cycling or paragliding when time permits!

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