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Registering land: a guide to the process

In order to make sure your property and land is registered, it is compulsory to inform the Land Registry. The Land Registry, set up in 1862, is a government department responsible for maintaining the central register of property ownership in England and Wales. However, even now not all properties are registered. This article will consider why this is, as well as letting you know the process of registering land and how to avoid encountering any issues.

Unregistered land – what is it and when did registration become compulsory?

For hundreds of years, property ownership in England and Wales was recorded in deeds, which were often hand-written. When a party came to sell their property, they would produce their deeds for the buyer who would examine them. A further deed (known as a conveyance) would then be produced to record the transfer of the property to the new owner.

There were various issues with this system, primarily that deeds could be lost, stolen or damaged. This would result in a property owner having difficulty in proving their ownership when they came to sell. To combat this, legislation was introduced in 1862 to create a central register of land ownership – although only some dealings in London required registration.

Then, in 1925, the Land Registration Action Act 1925 was introduced. This piece of legislation brought into place ‘compulsory registration’ – an obligation to register property dealings at the Land Registry. However, the date for compulsory registration was staggered across the country and, unbelievably, it wasn’t until 1st December 1990 that registration was compulsory for all of England and Wales. As a result, if a property has not changed ownership or no mortgage has been granted over the property since 1st December 1990, it is possible that it’s not registered at the Land Registry. Such land is commonly referred to as ‘unregistered land’.

What to do if a property is unregistered

If a property you own is unregistered, don’t panic. If you’ve owned the property for a very long time and haven’t entered into any mortgages, it is possible that you have never needed to register the property.

If you should have registered the property and haven’t, again, don’t panic, it’s not a criminal offence. However, it is certainly worth instructing a solicitor to ensure that the property is registered as, until you do, you may not be regarded as the legal owner of the property. Not being the legal owner could delay future sales and/or mortgages, as future buyers and/or mortgage lenders will require you to ensure the property is registered before proceeding.

You don’t have to wait until you take a mortgage or sell the property to register it with the Land Registry. You can apply voluntarily to formally register at any point, which has the added bonus of speeding up the process of any sale or mortgage further down the line.

Registering land for the first time

Registering land for the first time at the Land Registry is known as ‘first registration’. The first step is to provide the solicitor dealing with the registration with all of the relevant property deeds you hold. The solicitor will then need to locate the deed which transferred the ownership of the property into your name.

If this deed is more than 15 years old (and it was not a gift into your name), then this is the starting point for the registration and is known as a ‘good root of title’. All deeds pre-dating the root of title can be discarded, unless the root of title refers to any rights or covenants contained in them.

If the transfer of the property into your name is less than 15 years old, or it was a gift, then it cannot be used as a good root of title and the solicitor will need to find the deed transferring the property into the previous owner's name. The process is repeated until a good root of title is located.

If there have been any changes in circumstances since the transfer of property into your name, such as a marriage or a death, or any documents have been entered into that relate to the property (such as granting of rights of way or mortgages), then evidence of these should also be supplied to the solicitor.

The solicitor will then be required to carry out a ‘land charges search’, which involves searching the Land Registry against all previous owners, to ensure that no matters are registered against previous owners that may still affect the property.

The solicitor will then make an application to the Land Registry for first registration of the land accompanied by:

  • the good root of title;
  • any documents referred to in the root of title;
  • any relevant marriage or death certificates, mortgage or other legal documents relating to the property; and
  • land charges search.

If the deeds do not clearly identify the property, then a plan will also need to be prepared and sent to the Land Registry as part of the application.

The solicitor will also need to know the approximate value of the property, as the Land Registry’s fee for dealing with the application will be determined by it. It’s worth noting that the Land Registry do charge a lower fee if you are voluntarily making an application for first registration.

Registering land without deeds

If land is unregistered and you do not hold the deeds, then the first step is to pull together all information you hold in relation to the land that may support your ownership claim. This could be documents such as:

  • Rent receipts
  • Letters from your solicitor at the time
  • Any general correspondence relating to your acquisition of the land

Your solicitor will then draft a statutory declaration on your behalf, outlining the history of the ownership of the property and providing as much detail as possible to evidence your claim to ownership.

You will then be required to take the statutory declaration to an independent solicitor to complete, which has a small fee attached to it (£5 plus £2 for every exhibit attached to the declaration). The declaration will then be submitted to the Land Registry, and they will then consider the merit of the application and the evidence provided to them as to whether to register the property in your name, or to reject the application.

Registering a change of ownership

When a property is transferred to a new owner, the parties sign a Land Registry-compliant transfer deed form. If the transfer is of a piece of land owned by a seller, the form of the transfer deed used will be a ‘TR1’ and if it is of part of a piece of land, it will be a ‘TP1’.

Immediately before completion of the transfer, the buyer’s solicitor will undertake a search at the Land Registry to ensure that the title register is not different from the copy they have been given. This search result will trigger the beginning of a ‘priority period’, which means the title is essentially locked at the Land Registry for six weeks, and any other dealings with it have been prevented.

During the priority period, it is necessary for the buyer to register the transfer of the property, ensuring that they can do so without being subject to any matters that may have arisen after the purchase.

How long does it take to register with the Land Registry?

The time it takes the Land Registry to deal with applications varies greatly depending on the type of application. If the application is for a simple transfer from one party to another, then it could be resolved in a matter of days or even hours.

However, where more complicated applications are involved, such as an application for first registration or an adverse possession application, it can take many months for the Land Registry to process.

Registering land with adverse possession

'Adverse possession' is the legal term for what is commonly known as ‘squatters’ rights’. This allows someone to claim ownership of land that has never been transferred to them on the basis that they have occupied it and looked after it for a long period of time.

To register land with adverse possession, the occupier must take possession of the property without the consent of the owner. It must be made clear, by the erection of a boundary around the land, that they intend to take ownership and possession of the property to the exclusion of others.

If the land is unregistered, the occupier must have occupied the land for a minimum of 12 years before being able to make an application to the Land Registry to register the land in their own name. For registered land the minimum is 10 years.

When a party seeks to make a claim for adverse possession of registered land, the Land Registry will notify the registered owner. They may then object to the application and a dispute process will begin, or if no response is received by the Land Registry, they will proceed to register the application.

In order to make the application, much the same process is followed as when registering a land without deeds. In order to evidence the party’s claim, a statutory declaration is prepared providing as much detail as possible about the history of the ownership of the property. In particular, photographs of boundary structures and the property itself dating back as far as possible are particularly helpful towards a successful claim.

If a claim is successful, the Land Registry will register the land with ‘Possessory Title’. This is a record that the title is not guaranteed and could be challenged at some point in the future. Once a title has been registered as possessory title for 12 years, a further application can be made to the Land Registry to request that it is upgraded to ‘Absolute Title’, which is the best form of title available.


What next?

If you need legal advice on registering land for the first time, our commercial property solicitors can help.

Call us on 0800 689 1700, or fill out the short form and we’ll contact you to discuss your situation and legal requirements. There’s no charge for your initial consultation, and no obligation to instruct us. We aim to respond to all messages received within 24 hours.

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