How to find the right legal expert, get the most out of them and resolve issues that may arise.

Buying a house is a big investment, and there is a lot that can go wrong. A lawyer or conveyancer will be the number one professional in your house-buying journey. They make sense of the process and make sure you understand what you're agreeing to.

Do not sign a sale and purchase agreement without getting legal help first.

Lawyer or conveyancer — which to use

You need a lawyer or conveyancer when buying a house. Which you choose depends largely on how complex your situation is.

Conveyancers and lawyers are both qualified to help with property transactions. The difference is:

  • Lawyers and law firms have a broader range of expertise and can help when things are more complicated, eg selling after a relationship breaks down, or complex finances.
  • Conveyancers specialise in property transactions only.

Find a lawyer(external link) — Property Lawyers

Find a conveyancer(external link)  — NZ Society of Conveyancers

Questions to ask

When you think you know whether you want a lawyer or a conveyancer, narrow your search with a few simple questions to make sure they are a good fit for you.

  • Are they a property specialist? If they're a conveyancer, property is their main focus. But if they are a lawyer, you want to be sure they are very familiar with property transactions.
  • Do they have a lot of experience?
  • Does the company or firm have a good name and reputation? Some firms have been around for over 100 years. Others may be smaller or newer. Newer doesn't equal bad, but try and find out what customers think of them.
  • Can they explain things in simple terms?
  • Do they have time to do the job?
  • How much do they charge? Some have a fixed fee, while others charge by the hour. Ask them to explain their fee. If it's a fixed fee, find out how many offers you can make within that fee, eg you may have a number of unsuccessful offers the lawyer works with you on before you succeed in buying a house. This helps you make the most of your time with them and avoid surprise bills.It's important to be aware buying a property is a big investment. The cheapest operator will probably not do the best job.

What they do

Property lawyers and conveyancers are the experts in house buying. Unlike the real estate agent, they work for you. They act as your translator and adviser throughout the complex process.

Here are examples of how your lawyer or conveyancer can help:

  • Sale and purchase agreement: They should review the agreement before it is signed. They will want to make sure it contains standard terms, make sure there isn't anything unusual, explain key risks, and make sure the deal is documented correctly.
  • Record of title: Do a title search and advise you on any information which affects you as the buyer, including easements, convenants, consent notices and other matters.
  • LIM report and council files: If there is a LIM condition ( and even sometimes when there is not) the lawyer or conveyancer should help you order a LIM, and help you review building permits, code compliance, utilities, supply, and other issues.
  • Conditions: Most sale and purchase agreements include conditions around a building report, LIM, and sometimes other matters. A lawyer or conveyancer can help with these conditions.
  • Kiwisaver: A lawyer or conveyancer can help you with both withdrawing Kiwisaver funds and Homestart Grants.
  • Transfer and mortgage documents: Most property deals include mortgage and loan documents. There are also documents to sign to become owner of the property. Your lawyer or conveyancer should talk you through these in language you can understand.
  • Settlement day: Ensure the purchase price ends up in the right place.

Your lawyer can help you through every stage of the home-buying process, from before you sign the sale and purchase agreement to settlement.

Your rights in these stages are different depending on if you bought the house privately or through a real estate agent.

Solving issues with the owner or real estate agent

Get the most out of your lawyer/conveyancer

To make sure you're getting the most out of your lawyer or conveyancer:

  • Engage them early — find and sign up with your lawyer before you sign any agreement.
  • Give them all the documents — give them copies of anything provided by the agent — a draft agreement, advertising brochure, building reports, LIM report, council files. The more information they have, the better. A lawyer can also advise on further information you should obtain.
  • Come prepared to meetings — bring a list of questions with you, and take notes so you don't forget anything.
  • If you don't understand, ask again — make sure you understand what they're telling you. They're the experts. If something is unclear, get them to explain it again.
  • Tell them what you want — if you have deadlines to meet or expectations around what they will do, tell your lawyer. This way you can avoid issues.

Example — Early help

Cathy is thinking about buying a house. She finds a conveyancer, and has an initial visit with him where he explains the process. Three months after meeting her conveyancer, she finds a house she loves, but the offer deadline is in just a few days. She calls her conveyancer and he is ready to help her with her offer.

If things go wrong with your lawyer/conveyancer

Most lawyers and conveyancers do a good job. But if you're having problems with your lawyer or conveyancer, eg your lawyer didn't follow your instructions, or has charged fees higher than expected, follow these steps.

  1. Contact your lawyer or conveyancer: Many issues can be solved at this step.
  2. Dispute resolution: With either the NZ Law Society or the NZ Society of Conveyancers.

You might not need both steps, many issues are resolved by simply contacting your lawyer or conveyancer.

1. Contact your lawyer or conveyancer

Before you do, read our information on:

  • your rights
  • how to complain.

Your rights

Lawyers and conveyancers have rules they must follow when they work with you, based on the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006.

Your lawyer or conveyancer must:

  • do their job well, on time, and follow your instructions
  • put your needs first
  • tell you what they will do and how this will happen
  • charge you a fair amount, and tell you how and when they will charge you
  • give you clear information and advice
  • protect your privacy
  • treat you with respect and without discrimination
  • keep you up to date on what work is being done and when it is finished
  • tell you how to make a complaint about them, and deal with any complaints quickly and fairly.

If your lawyer or conveyancer has not followed these rules, you might be able to complain.

Example — Unfair fees

Emma hires a property lawyer to help her with her first home purchase. She isn't given any information beforehand about how much it will cost. The house Emma buys requires a number of extra checks by the lawyer. She is sent a bill she thinks is too high, with no break down of hours or tasks. She asks the lawyer to explain the charges. He sends a detailed invoice with hourly amounts and what was done during the time.

How to complain

Every lawyer and conveyancer must have a complaints process. If they haven't made this clear to you, ask them what their process is.

Before you complain:

  • Gather proof, eg emails and letters, dates and details of conversations, invoices.
  • Think about what you will say, eg take notes with dates and what happened to make your situation clear.
  • Decide your ideal outcome, eg a refund or reduction in your bill, an apology, financial compensation for any losses.

When you complain:

  • Put it in writing — either by email or letter, including the date. Keep a copy yourself in case you need evidence of your complaint.
  • Stick to the facts — explain the problem in detail and provide any evidence you have.
  • Take time out, if needed — if the conversation gets heated, or you need time to consider their response, arrange a time to call, email or message back. Explain you need to time out to digest the conversation.

Making a complaint

2. Dispute resolution

If you can't agree on a solution, you can complain to one of two separate regulation bodies:

Lawyers complaints service(external link) — NZ Law Society

Complaints(external link) — NZ Society of Conveyancers

Grounds for complaint

If you are concerned about any of your rights (see Contact your lawyer or conveyancer above) you can contact NZ Law Society and NZ Society of Conveyancers for guidance.

They hear complaints on issues including:

  • Lawyer/conveyancer behaviour, eg treating you unfairly, or conflict of interest.
  • Bad service, eg delays, not doing what they said they would, not responding to calls or emails, giving you incomplete or wrong information.
  • Fees, but only if your bill is for more than $2,000 (for lawyers) or $500 (for conveyancers) and under two years old.
  • Failing to follow your orders, eg going against what you told them you wanted.

What you can expect

After you fill in a complaint form, a Standards Committee will look at your case.

The Committee will recommend a dispute resolution process after making sure your complaint has already been made to the lawyer/conveyancer. Dispute resolution options include:

  • Mediation/negotiation — this avoids a hearing and can be a faster, simpler process. The NZ Law Society lets you choose to have mediation/negotiation by filling in one of their concerns forms.

Raise a concern(external link) — NZ Law Society

  • Formal inquiry — if the committee doesn't think mediation or negotiation is an option, your case might be settled by the Standards Committee after an inquiry.

Orders they can make

If the Standards Committee thinks the lawyer/conveyancer has done something wrong, it can:

  • decide what the lawyer/conveyancer must do to put it right
  • send the case to the NZ Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal if it is very serious.

If your complaint stays with the committee, they can order the lawyer/conveyancer to:

  • apologise to you
  • pay you compensation for losses (up to $25,000)
  • reduce, cancel or refund your legal fees
  • fix any mistakes at their own cost
  • pay a fine up to $15,000
  • pay your costs in making the complaint.

How your complaint is processed(external link) — NZ Law Society

Complaints(external link)  — NZ Society of Conveyancers

More help

Get support at any point from:

  • Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) — a free, independent service, run by volunteers. CAB can advise you on your consumer rights and obligations, in person, by phone, or online.

Find a CAB near you(external link)  — Citizens Advice Bureau

  • Community Law Centre: Free one-on-one legal advice to people with limited finances. The organisation has 24 community law centres throughout the country. You can find legal information and other resources on its website.

Our law centres(external link) — Community Law Centre