Next year we are going to witness a revolution in the way we buy houses - so how come the people who stand to benefit don't know anything about it?
The process of buying a home in England is the most stressful experience we will encounter in our lives, after death and divorce.
When the market is relatively slack, as it is now, the problems are less evident. But once the market picks up again, as it will in the next few years, the media will once again be full of horror stories - if nothing is done to improve the process in the meantime.
The problem is with the curious doctrine of caveat emptor, or buyer beware. This applies uniquely to English home purchases and is completely at odds with the principles that govern the purchase of any other commodity. To suggest that someone buying a washing machine should have no protection if the goods are defective would be laughed out of court.
Of course, buyers of new houses do get the benefit of a warranty, but this covers only a small proportion of the total number of transactions. Most of us buy second-hand properties, and the only way to guard against risk is to commission a survey. But as, the seller can withdraw from the transaction at any point up to exchange of contracts, the cost of the survey may be entirely lost. Not surprisingly, the majority of homebuyers don't commission their own, even though they are committing themselves to what will probably be the largest purchase of their lives.
This is the background to the reforms to be introduced in 2007. These will require sellers to prepare a home information pack before putting a property on the market. This long-overdue reform will ensure that prospective buyers have the main information they need about the property before they make an offer so the need for searches and surveys between offer and exchange is removed. Not only should this speed up the process but it will reduce the scope for disagreement and frustration when unforeseen complications arise at a late stage.
There are many other benefits of the new arrangements, not least in acting as a spur to improvements in house conditions. When sellers know that prospective buyers will be better informed about their houses, they are much more likely to ensure that their property is well maintained and has a good energy rating. This could drive up the energy efficiency standards in the existing housing stock.
The ODPM must counter the misinformation that will be put about by those who are resisting the scheme
I well remember making the case for these changes when I was minister for housing five years ago. Indeed, legislation to bring in the reform was introduced before the 2001 general election. So why has it all taken so long to come into effect?
Apart from the delays inherent in the parliamentary legislative process - the bill failed to get through before the election - there are two other principal reasons. One was the long rearguard action put up by those with a vested interest in the status quo. The other was the need to ensure that there were sufficient professionals available by 2007 to do the home inspections that would provide the core element in the home information packs.
It has been estimated that at least 7000-8000 will be needed to cope with demand. They are likely to come from a range of professions, and so a certification framework has had to be set up involving the RICS, the Construction Industry Council and other bodies to oversee the training and licensing of the inspectors. This is now getting under way, but will need to be pushed energetically if the necessary numbers are to be there by summer 2007.
In the meantime there is also a need for more public information about the implications and the benefits of the scheme. The ODPM must get onto the front foot to counter the complaints and misinformation that will be put about by those resisting it.
At a time when there is much concern about the difficulties facing first-time buyers trying to get onto the first rung of the housing ladder, there is an overwhelmingly powerful argument for the information packs. Not only will they bring cost savings to first-time buyers - vital when people are buying on the margins - but they will also remove many of the complexities and delaying factors that produce the stress. There is an important message here, but sadly most prospective first-time buyers are entirely unaware of it.
Nick Raynsford is a former construction minister and deputy chairman of the Construction Industry Council