When Selling a House Who Signs the Contract First?

Selling a house in the UK is a complex process that involves multiple stages, each requiring careful attention to detail. One of the crucial stages in this process is the signing of the contract. This step formalizes the agreement between the buyer and the seller, making it legally binding. Understanding who signs the contract first, the implications of this action, and the overall process involved is essential for both parties. This comprehensive guide will explore in-depth who signs the contract first when selling a house in the UK, the legal context, and the step-by-step procedure from offer to completion.

Overview of the House Selling Process

Before diving into the specifics of contract signing, it’s important to understand the broader process of selling a house in the UK:

  1. Valuation and Marketing: The seller gets the property valued and lists it on the market.
  2. Viewings and Offers: Potential buyers view the property and submit offers.
  3. Acceptance of Offer: The seller accepts an offer, and the process of conveyancing begins.
  4. Drafting Contracts: Solicitors for both the buyer and the seller draft and review the contract.
  5. Signing the Contract: Both parties sign the contract, making the agreement legally binding.
  6. Exchange of Contracts: The signed contracts are exchanged, and a deposit is paid.
  7. Completion: The sale is finalized, and ownership is transferred to the buyer.

The Role of the Contract in Property Transactions

The contract of sale is a critical document in property transactions. It outlines the terms and conditions agreed upon by both parties, including:

  • The agreed sale price
  • The completion date
  • Any special conditions or contingencies
  • Details of what is included in the sale (fixtures and fittings)

The Signing Sequence: Who Signs First?

Traditional Practices and Legal Context

In the UK, the sequence of who signs the contract first can vary depending on the specific practices of the solicitors and the circumstances of the sale. However, traditionally, the seller typically signs the contract first. This practice stems from the fact that the seller’s solicitor usually prepares the initial draft of the contract.

  1. Preparation and Approval of the Draft Contract:
    • The seller’s solicitor prepares the draft contract and sends it to the buyer’s solicitor for review.
    • The buyer’s solicitor reviews the contract, raises any queries or issues, and negotiates any amendments with the seller’s solicitor.
  2. Signing by the Seller:
    • Once both parties agree on the terms, the seller signs the contract. This initial signing does not make the contract legally binding yet; it’s merely a confirmation that the seller agrees to the terms.
  3. Signing by the Buyer:
    • After the seller has signed the contract, it is sent to the buyer. The buyer signs the contract, thereby indicating their agreement to the terms.
    • The contract is now signed by both parties, but it is still not legally binding until the next step.
  4. Exchange of Contracts:
    • The signed contracts are exchanged between the solicitors. This is the critical step that makes the contract legally binding.
    • At the exchange of contracts, the buyer also pays a deposit (usually 10% of the purchase price).

The Exchange of Contracts

The exchange of contracts is a pivotal moment in the property transaction process. It involves the solicitors of both parties swapping the signed contracts. Here’s a detailed look at what happens during this stage:

  1. Final Checks and Agreement:
    • Before exchanging contracts, final checks are performed. This includes ensuring that all conditions are met, finance is in place, and both parties are ready to proceed.
  2. Exchange Process:
    • The solicitors agree on a date and time for the exchange of contracts.
    • They usually conduct the exchange over the phone, confirming that they each hold the signed contract from their respective clients.
  3. Deposit Payment:
    • The buyer pays the deposit to the seller’s solicitor. This deposit is typically held in escrow until completion.
  4. Legal Binding:
    • Once the contracts are exchanged, the agreement becomes legally binding. Both parties are now committed to completing the transaction on the agreed completion date.

Post-Exchange Procedures

After the exchange of contracts, several steps need to be taken before the transaction can be completed:

  1. Preparation for Completion:
    • The buyer arranges for the transfer of the remaining purchase funds.
    • The seller arranges to move out and prepares for the handover of keys.
  2. Completion:
    • On the agreed completion date, the buyer’s solicitor transfers the remaining funds to the seller’s solicitor.
    • Once the funds are received, the transaction is complete. The keys are handed over to the buyer, and the property’s ownership is officially transferred.

Common Issues and How to Handle Them

Delays and Extensions

Delays can occur at various stages of the transaction. It’s crucial to communicate promptly with your solicitor and the other party to address any issues that arise. Sometimes, an extension to the completion date may be necessary. Both parties must agree to this in writing.

Survey and Valuation Issues

The buyer’s mortgage lender will usually require a survey and valuation of the property. If issues are identified, these need to be resolved before the exchange of contracts. This could involve renegotiating the price or agreeing on repairs.

Legal and Title Issues

Occasionally, legal or title issues may arise, such as disputes over boundaries or unresolved planning permissions. These need to be resolved by the solicitors before proceeding to the exchange of contracts.

Tips for a Smooth Contract Signing Process

  1. Choose Experienced Solicitors:
    • An experienced solicitor can efficiently manage the contract process and handle any issues that arise.
  2. Thoroughly Review the Contract:
    • Both parties should carefully review the contract and ensure they understand all the terms and conditions before signing.
  3. Maintain Open Communication:
    • Regular communication between the buyer, seller, and their solicitors can prevent misunderstandings and delays.
  4. Be Prepared for Negotiations:
    • Be ready to negotiate and compromise on certain terms to reach an agreement that satisfies both parties.
  5. Stay Organized:
    • Keep all relevant documents organized and readily accessible. This includes identification, financial statements, and any correspondence related to the sale.


The process of selling a house in the UK involves several critical stages, with the signing and exchange of contracts being among the most important. Typically, the seller signs the contract first, followed by the buyer, before the exchange of contracts makes the agreement legally binding. Understanding this process, the roles of the involved parties, and the potential challenges can help ensure a smooth and successful property transaction.

By asking the right questions, maintaining clear communication, and working with experienced professionals, both sellers and buyers can navigate the complexities of the house selling process with confidence. Whether you are selling your first home or your tenth, being well-informed about the contract signing process is key to achieving a successful sale.

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