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Touching pens and relying on the postal service are becoming a thing of the past, as digital signatures infiltrate every part of the property process.
Hidden away in our new Covid-saturated world was a piece of property news that could revolutionise the buying and selling process. On 27th July 2020, HM Land Registry started to accept ‘witnessed electronic signatures’. The move allows an individual to sign deed transfer documents without a pen, paper or the postal service, although the digital signature still requires a witness, who must be present at the time to also sign the documents electronically.
To illustrate the benefits, The Partnership - in conjunction with InfoTrack - successfully achieved what it claimed to be the first completely electronic property transfer shortly after HM Land Registry’s announcement, with the client signing the transfer form on their mobile phone. This was followed, almost instantly, by a witness signing on their phone before the signed document was electronically submitted to and accepted by HM Land Registry. The whole process took minutes – not hours, days or weeks – with text messages sent after to confirm acceptance and provide assurance.
There was a precursor to this, born out of the social distancing and travel restrictions introduced during lockdown. In May 2020, HM Land Registry started accepting property deeds that had been signed using the ‘Mercury signing approach’. In layman’s terms, this meant a witnessed ‘wet’ signature made with a pen could be scanned or photographed, before being sent as a digital file by email to the conveyancers involved in the property transaction.
Physically visiting an agents’ office to sign on the dotted before paper copies were sent to the legal teams and HM Land Registry used to be milestone moving events, but we shouldn’t feel nostalgic about transitioning away from pen and paper.
Digital signatures are designed to make property transactions more secure and speedier. Eliminating the laborious paperwork pile that needed to be sent from an agent to a buyer, seller or tenant, back again or on to a solicitor will potentially shave weeks off the moving process.
For those not familiar, the ‘front end’ of buying, selling and renting a property has embraced digital signatures for some time. It has been possible for movers to sign contracts and lettings documents, including tenancy agreements, inventories and terms of business, without human contact or pen sharing thanks to companies like Yoti Sign, DocuSign and Adobe Sign, but the adoption stopped short when it came to title transfers and deeds
Encouragingly, Yoti Sign has found 85% of contacts signed electronically are done so within the first 24 hours - 40% signed within the first 60 minutes - so transactions are quicker. Now it is hoped the same sense of speed will carry over to the ‘back end’ of property transactions in the HM Land Registry deed department.
Proptech companies are already looking to join the dots, including Offr – a buying and selling digitalization platform that has secured £3.6million in funding. It already claims to have enabled the world’s first fully remote end-to-end digital property transaction, encompassing aspects such as booking viewings, making offers, signing contracts, verifying ID and proof of funds, and paying a deposit.
If you are interested in further reading and official guidance on using digital signatures in your business, the Government has produced an official document: Electronic signatures: guide.