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The Newbie’s Guide to Buying a House - a Case Study!

Seven months ago my boyfriend and I were finally able to start looking for a house. This was no mean feat and the result of years of saving (which involved moving back to my childhood home to save on private rental costs, as is quite common now), generous parental help towards a 10% deposit and generally playing the long-game. The process of finding and buying a property was a steep learning curve for us both; from March to May 2018, we saw 41 houses over 12 days. Below are some of the highlights, lowlights and shades in between, in the hope it could help others as they embark on this journey.

Get friendly with estate agents

The first hurdle I encountered was dealing with estate agents to arrange viewings. It isn’t a simple matter of phoning up and asking to see a house. You must tell them your: full name, date of birth, marital status, and that of your co-purchaser. Are you a cash buyer or will you need a mortgage? Any dependents? Property to sell or chain-free? Of course, none of these are difficult questions to answer, but being a little meek I resented the intrusion when I just wanted to make a simple appointment. I can see now that this was all for the greater good. Gathering these details allowed the agents to build up a picture of you as a prospective buyer, and ultimately use this to bring you details of suitable properties before or soon after they hit the market. Plus, they don’t risk wasting their or your time in viewing wholly unsuitable houses.

Sometimes, when a unique property hit the market, setting up a viewing was a task of Sisyphean proportions. Sometimes an ‘Open House’ event would take place, which was deliberately overbooked such that dozens of potential buyers were viewing the property at the same time, eyeing up the house and the sizing up the competition at the same time. On other occasions, we were told all viewing slots had been fully booked within hours of a property coming to market (presumably familiar buyers had been tipped-off first and snapped up the viewing slots). But then wait…a gap had opened up and we could see the house for 10 minutes! Only then we had the conundrum of whether to miss seeing another property in order to get a glimpse of something hot?

As well as making sure the estate agents got to know us, the other issue we had was getting to know them. All it took was a quick chat to friends and colleagues and good old word-of-mouth told us who the most competitive agent was, which was notorious for pitting buyers against one another in a bidding war and which ones genuinely help you get what you want as a first-time buyer.  One local firm was especially competitive, so my timidity made every dealing with them a little anxiety-provoking: “Why didn’t you want to offer on that house? What was wrong with it?”, “The property on X Road is still for sale, don’t you think it’s worth an offer?”, “I know it’s not got any parking but really it’s a huge house for your budget…”. All this came alongside a near constant string of emails and text messages (yes, text messages) with details of properties, many of which you’d already viewed and disregarded for one reason or another, requesting you call their office to discuss ASAP. This left me feeling harangued, but I felt vindicated our mortgage advisor about our experiences before we signed the deeds, he referred to that particular firm as “the Del Boy and Rodney of estate agents”. Clearly it wasn’t just me!

About 2 months into our search and dealings with estate agents, we perceived ourselves to have reached the rank of ‘serious buyers they want to help’. By this stage, the agents knew we were really, really wanting to buy a house and they knew exactly which areas and what type of property we were going for, and they were active in helping us find it. In one case, when we couldn’t get time to see a house on the first day of viewings, the agents negotiated with the vendor and got us in to see it ahead of it hitting the market, so it was well worth us carving out the relationship with the agents

First time buyers guide
First time buyers guide

More is more: put in the effort to view as many properties that meet your criteria as you can

One thing I’m confident we did right was the time and effort we committed to viewing a wide range of properties. This was in no way down to us, but parents who advised us that the more we saw the more we would know what we were looking for and the easier it would be to spot a gem; it in no way related to wasting our time viewing houses that were massively over budget, too small, in the wrong location or otherwise out with our criteria. We had to be selective but were also open to seeing properties that we wouldn’t have initially considered.

It was tiring to say the least and by week three or four it felt like properties were starting to blend in with one another (luckily, we were keeping a log!). Yet it took this conveyor-belt approach to narrow our search. We began on the basis that we only wanted a small garden (neither of us are experienced gardeners), with no real preference for layout or which suburb. However, after a string of properties spanning 20- year old homes with tiny patches of fluorescent-green artificial lawn to a 110-year-old property with a similarly sized patch of fence-to-fence paving, we realised how important a good amount of outdoor space was to us. Similarly, I realised that the properties that stood out to me were those with the kitchen towards to rear, overlooking the garden; the ones that stood out for my boyfriend were those with a garden or shed, providing workshop space. So the groundwork paid off in terms of whittling down to what it is we really wanted, and what we really didn’t.

Keep a log

So, we had weekends filled with viewings. I had created a checklist of things to look for (subdivided into internal and external ‘things to look for’ such as: known structural issues, extension/conservatory (or do any neighbours have one), especially light or dark rooms, damp, cracks, state of repair, age of fixtures and fittings. My boyfriend made a spreadsheet to log the price and square-footage of each property. Both were abandoned after the first day of viewings, but it was a systematic way to start our search when we had never viewed properties before.

Our very first day of viewings served as a kind of talisman of the spontaneity of the property market and the ups and downs ahead: the Victorian townhouse we were desperate to see, complete with large garden, plentiful parking and mere minutes walk to the town centre and train station we were was now suddenly under offer, after having sat on the market for more than 9 months. This was a most apt introduction to our property search, as we would go on to encounter so many situations in which our expectations were raised or dashed at a moment’s notice.

Most common of these was a house under offer before a scheduled viewing. Sometimes we were actively put off viewing a property by the agent themselves, which led us to ask all sorts of questions. Do they have an interested party already? Is the vendor is blowing hot and cold with them and they are getting fed up?  Of course, the agent may have just known us well enough, the houses we had liked and gone on to offer on and didn’t want to waste our time. The truth is, we’d never know, and a nugget of advice offered me by a colleague helped in forestalling any attempts to second-guess agents or vendors: “Never trust what anyone is saying to you at any stage. You have no idea what is really going on and you just have to hope for the best.”

If proof of this were needed, on one occasion, a viewing was cancelled 10 minutes prior to the appointment because the vendor changed his mind. We loved the location of this property and so made a point of following this up later…it transpired that the vendor had had an offer that morning, but it was £10K less than he needed. He insisted all other viewings cease until he could ‘freshen it up’ and try again with a higher asking price. Shortly after, he was approached privately and offered the additional money he needed for the house, so desperate was the buyer to get a hold of it. All a bit cloak and dagger.

First time buyers - Case study
First time buyers - Case study

Get as many eyes on a property as you can

Another thing that served us well in the house search was getting as many eyes on the properties we were viewing as we could. Primarily, we involved our parents as much as possible, for their experience in buying property and in living in one as homeowners! My boyfriend’s mother was on the case on our behalf, checking Right Move several times a day, keeping us informed of new properties to the market. His parents accompanied us on countless viewings, and afterwards asked the right questions that led us to form, justify and/or amend our feelings about a property. In this way were extremely fortunate. Allied to this, on several occasions when my boyfriend was away I roped in a friend to join me at viewings; he was well experienced in buying property, having bought two apartments himself, and been entrusted to buy a house in trust for a family member.

The more people see the house with you, the more chance you have to spot the advantages and potential in a property, as well as any issues that may otherwise slip under the radar.  Without the involvement of friends and family, we wouldn’t have noticed a range of problems, from a damp patch in the corner of one garden, to the fact that every other house in a terrace has had a new roof. Arriving at one property with parents in tow, we found it impossible to park; the streets were lined with residents’ cars parked toe-to-tail and a bus was weaving in and out of them, slowly juddering past each one with inches of clearance. The signage on the bus reassured us that one passes “every 10 minutes”, which told us all we needed to know.

My boyfriend’s parents were a keen advisory when it came to the pitfalls of viewing houses and reminded us not to be taken in by fixtures and fittings, those things that cost next to nothing to install but can make a house seem worth more than it is and/or cover a multitude of sins. First case in point: two ‘project’ properties, bought in ruin by talented local builders and beautifully renovated. Every room had nice touches such as a retractable extractor fan, LED strip lighting illuminating our way up the stairs and making a beautifully lit garden decking area, a ‘bar shed’…They looked stunning and it felt like you could move in and not have to lift a finger, home-maintenance-wise, for years. However, in an undesirable neighbourhood or with no parking, we had to look past these properties. 

Second case in point: an older property that I viewed with a friend, which had a fantastic loft conversion giving us, in the words of the agent, “a lot of house for our money”. We stepped into the top-floor master bedroom to find a gorgeous freestanding bath right in the middle of the ensuite. After circling around the feature for a good few minutes, my friend pulled me aside and told me to stop smiling so much. Look at the flat roof on this loft conversion, he said, look at the tiny garden backing onto one of the busiest roads in the town. I later joked that I didn’t know I wanted a luxurious feature like that until I stood in that room, but everything else was going against it (least of all that it was in a flood risk zone). Sometimes it’s best to look at the big picture!

Meet the vendors

Lastly, it’s worth noting the different viewing experiences we had depending on who was showing us around. As mentioned before, estate agents varied enormously in their approach: some went for the hard sell; some escorted us around each room, announced its title on entry and pointed out the most obvious of features; some left us to it and were merely available for questions. One agent arrived at the viewing, having been allocated the appointment at short notice, without keys and without realising that the property was empty. What really made for a different viewing experience, however, was when the vendor was present. It provided an opportunity for each party to scope out the other. First-time buyers with no-chain? Perfect. Was the seller relocating locally, or making a bigger move (and why, in either case)? Where were we moving from? And, of course, have we seen many houses today?”. Some were defensive, some overly protective and private, but most were simply inquisitive. During one viewing, the vendors were sitting in their lounge watching the Royal Wedding on TV.  We were able to witness Prince Harry and Meghan Markle saying their wedding vows. All in all, these viewings provided an ideal opportunity to find out the seller’s situation, from the horse’s mouth, which is as close to the truth we were likely to get in this process.

To summarize, the key things we learnt when looking at houses were:

  1. Get on good terms with local estate agents, even if some get your goat or leave you chasing your tail. The more you talk to them, the more they will get to know you and take you for serious buyers. Cordiality and persistence will pay dividends in the long run.
  2. Keep a log of the properties you see. When you’ve seen 10 houses, you run the risk of forgetting the finer points of a property, muddling one with another or simply recalling things incorrectly. Write brief notes of any significant points. 
  3. More is more: put in the effort to view as many properties that meet your criteria as you can. You’ll get to the crux of what you really want and need from a property, and quickly identify deal-breakers.
  4. Get as many eyes on a property as you can. Family, friends, colleagues can all help. Their observations will help inform your decision, or at least push you to justify your own feelings, perceptions or reasoning on different aspects of each property.
  5. Meet the vendors if you can and make your chain-free situation known. It could make a huge difference if they go on to consider your offer.