The Summer of 2012 saw my first glimpse of interest in buying a property, it happened to be in Margate, a seaside town in the Southeast of UK. The wife and I saw a one bedroom flat which we deemed a good start, in terms of location, size and price, and marched on to contact the estate agent who was advertising it.
After a couple (really, a couple) of questions, the estate agent told us the house had an offer already put in, and that we should keep in touch if we were still interested after a few days, and no, he wouldn’t call us with any news because, frankly, for the amount of the operation, he was not going to waste his time with us.
That was our first contact with an estate agent, which confirmed what we had heard about what a curious zoological fauna they were, and how proud of it they are. I haven’t yet found a estate agent really interested in selling or renting a property to a potential client. What they normally do at the most is graciously and patronisingly send you to see a house with the latest recruit of the company, who usually is a teenager, a foreign national o somebody who relies 100 percent on their sat-nav to take you to the viewing place. Sometimes you even have to open the door to the property yourself because the agent is unable to, or wouldn’t bother in trying if the lock is a bit dodgy. And I’m talking about top agencies in Hampstead, London NW3, for those in the know.
The wife and I decided to take the matter seriously, so we planned our research online, made contacts throughout a couple of months, and started viewing properties and considering the market and our options.
For a total newbie, as we were, this is roughly the purchase procedure, including personal learning and findings, outside the London area, since the London market can be quite different to the rest of the UK, due to the levels of demand and asking price, leading to the self-selection of potential buyers. We’re talking about a difference of 8 to 10 times more in London than, say, Liverpool, which is the area we chose to benchmark our research.
Liverpool is two hours by train from London, and we found out that that distance can plot a circle towards the North of similar asking prices and size of properties (2 to 3 bedrooms). At the time of writing, a property from 2 to 3 beds in Liverpool is about £60,000; below that price the property is usually uninhabitable, or unmortgageable, so don’t waste your time unless you buy cash or are a builder or plan to buy to rent.
Bookmark your research in Zoopla or Rightmove, compare 4 to 6 properties in the same area, and start contacting the estate agents for an appointment for a view. Consider they are not really interested in transactions at so little price, so they will not return your calls or emails, will not have extra information about the property, and will send the least able representative to barely show you the house in about five minutes, with a smartphone screen to light the dark corners such as cellar stairs or access to lofts.
Once you’ve since a fair number of properties, you’ll have an idea of the kind of properties you may find in the area and the prices and kind of neighbourhood. Forget about checking the property at different times of the day, with different light and different sounds/noise, forget about knocking at a neighbour’s door to ask about how quiet/noisy/criminal/floodable is the area. That won’t happen, if you value your wellbeing.
Once you have decided for an area, and probably for a property, try to spend a night in a hotel in that city and walk around the hood at different times, feeling the pulse, looking at how the neighbours keep their street/pavement, take a bus and travel around to get in touch with who could be your fellow citizens soon. Get into the local shops, cafes, local library and community centre and see people for yourself.
If you’re lucky, you can get a second view on the property before going back home, take pictures and a few notes about the house. On a positive note, usually agents don’t pester you with offers to buy immediately, you may just get a phone call asking for feedback, but you don’t feel pressure, as they have probably called you out of boredom. So you can go home and decide for one property in the comfort and intimacy of your kitchen, over a coffee and with all the pictures and numbers in your laptop.
My personal experience
The wife, who hadn’t actually seen the property, put in an offer on the phone to the estate agent, who after a bit of bargaining rang us back and accepted it. That was on a Saturday morning. On Sunday morning, we didn’t go to church and she called her mortgage lender, again on the phone, to ask for instructions and feedback on the purchase. After two hours of questions and re-questions of the same questions, and filling of imaginary and never seen virtual forms, the mortgage advisor approved in principle our request of a loan for 70% of the property price. After lunch, we contracted an Insurance policy as requested and went for a drink at the local pub and complete our food shopping for the week (just in time before the super closed at 5PM). Not bad for a weekend’s work.
It took a month of overlookings, mistakes correction, and first class/registered delivery postal sending and receiving, signatures and photocopying, but in four weeks we had the keys to the property. Contrary to a judgemental belief I had, I found that solicitors, who act as conveyancers (the legal people who intermediate between seller and buyer, who look after deposits while the reserve, confirmation and completion period takes place), can be quite nice and reliable, even friendly, even when you never actually meet them, since the whole operation can be done by email and phone. We knew that our mortgage lender, in partnership with our bank, was also keeping an eye on the operation, and wouldn’t let something legally untoward happen to our/their money.
I had read a lot online about the complications of the purchase process, and books about how to, and who to, and when and where to. It’s not that messy, really. You need to have a lot of talk and planning and commitment at home about the money available for the deposit, how you are going to honour the debt commitments once you’re approved the loan, how you’re going to pay the bills and extras, and how decided you are to invest your money in that part of the country where you’ve never set foot before and have only heard of through the news.
My suggestion is to begin with an objective chat about what you want to do with your money, at home, with the ‘significant other’ owners of the savings account. Do you want to buy to rent, buy to enjoy ownership, buy to learn the process, buy to keep yourself busy? Write a contract dated and signed, about why and what, where and how. Use it as a reference when you get confused through the search process, and to avoid separation or divorce before even putting in the offer.
Usually houses are all alike in the same area, so, once you’ve seen a few, you get a picture of what you can find; never listen to the estate agent, but estimate you’ll have to repaint, repair, refurbish, redistribute, rethink, and everything ‘re’ means money off your savings account. I estimate that if a property is valued at 60k, you have to offer 45 to 50k tops, because as soon as you get into the house, that’s the money you’ll have to coff up to make it fully inhabitable. If you’ve been lucky enough for your mortgage lender to approve your loan, you’ll probably have to do some rewiring, replumbing, replastering and reflooring, and even repainting, although this you can DIY for fun or inspiration. Be serious when putting in the offer, meaning, don’t haggle: if we all shared the same strategy, house prices would go down, as opposed to go up because we’re too shy or too proud to put our conditions. Let the agent know you have a fair idea of the houses in the area, and the potential, and you consider your offer is the actual value of the house. Then shut up, and let the negotiation begin between the agent and the owner. Come back to him/her only after a week or two if they haven’t come back to you with an answer. Make the agent earn his money.
Searching, viewing, choosing and mortgaging a property may be a complex, but not necessarily complicated, process; after you’ve done the first purchase, and the stress has worn out, you’ll be craving to go through it all over again. Trust me. It can be addictive.