Guest Blog – John Lucas – Buying my first home
Guest blogger John Lucas is the author of TURF, a novel set on the streets of his hometown Hackney. His long overdue follow-up is almost finished and is set mainly in Los Angeles, some distance from his new home in Hertfordshire. He shares the house with his wife, one toddler and two rabbits.
It’s been said to the point of cliché that buying a house is one of the most stressful things you can go through in life – right up there with bereavement and divorce. I’ve just experienced it for the first time and can vouch for how gruelling the process is. But in the end, if you manage to get the home you want, it’s most definitely worth it!
I learned a lot over the course of the journey, which will hopefully help if I have to go through it again (I just hope that’s not for a while!).
Be wary of estate agents
This might sound obvious. Estate agents don’t have the best of reputations. Often with good reason. It’s important to keep your wits about you and be clear about what it is you want. They’re just doing their job at the end of the day, and their job is to sell, sell, sell! So the clearer you are about what you want to buy, the less you’ll be given the run around.
A lot of the time estate agents need to be seen by their vendors to be getting in the viewings, so chances are they’ll want to show you a whole bunch of places – and a fair number of those may not fit your remit. If you’ve got the inclination, then they may well broaden your horizons and show you properties you might not have considered otherwise, but if you’re busy and you know what you want, then be firm and don’t let them waste your valuable time.
Once you’ve had an offer accepted the agent will want you to complete as soon as you can. Don’t be pushed around. Moving house is a huge undertaking, so do it in a way that works for you. My wife and I completed pretty quickly in the grand scheme of things, but the agent still hassled us about how slow the process was going, even though our paperwork was up to date with our solicitor. This brings me to point two:
Leave it to the experts
As much as you can anyway. I’d never seen so much paperwork or been hit with such a huge amount of jargon and legalese. It was exhausting – not only trying to understand it, but trying to care about understanding it too. And you have to care because it’s important. You’ll have a solicitor whose job it is to make sure all the necessary forms are completed correctly (ours was suggested by our estate agent and was great). If you’re unsure of anything run it past them and get their opinion – this is their job after all. Be honest about it being your first time – usually people are glad to help. When we had the survey done on the place we wanted to buy, there were plenty of things I didn’t understand in the final document. The surveyor was more than happy to go through it all with me over the phone and make suggestions about our next course of action. When your head’s swimming in certificates and clauses, contracts and covenants, it’s extremely reassuring to get a human being to explain it all.
Property money is not real money
A friend of mine told me that when my wife and I were considering how big an offer to make on the house we wanted. It really helped take a lot of the stress out of it. No other time in life will you spend so much money in one go. And in no other transaction (unless you’re buying a premier league footballer) do the sums involved seem so arbitrary. Five minutes’ walk closer to a tube station and properties can go up by 25K. Identical places next door to each other might have a 50K difference in their final selling price. One of the houses we viewed sold for nearly 400K less than it had originally been put on the market for! So many different factors come into play – and they’re not always relevant to the property itself. It could be the current political climate; it could be just the luck of the draw. Find a property being sold by a divorcing couple for example and you might pick yourself up a bargain (although this perhaps isn’t the most morally-scrupulous method of house-hunting).
The great thing about sites like Rightmove and Zoopla is you can get a grip on the market yourself. Transport links, quality of the local schools, square-footage, outside space, general upkeep – they all add up to a ball-park figure which you can quite quickly develop a nose for. If you like a property but its price seems over the odds, don’t be afraid to come up with your own offer. Neither the vendors nor the agents know exactly what a place is worth. As big as the sums involved are, it’s still pretty much guesswork. As I heard one agent say: a property is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it.
Be ready to compromise
I’m a Londoner through and through and would have stayed if I could. We just didn’t want to pay too much for the privilege, especially not with a baby and another one on the way. When it came down to it, a good-sized house and garden was more important. It was a tough decision to make – I always felt more suited to the urban life than the suburban one (I can still be in central London in half an hour on the train, it just takes a bit more planning than it used to).
House prices the way they are, it’s unlikely you’re going to be able to get your dream home in your dream area. Something’s going to have to give. One thing my wife and I found helpful was to play a kind of property top trumps. We had a list of the factors that were most important to us and each time we viewed a house we marked it out of ten on the list and totalled up the scores. It can be less tangible than that. It could be a gut-feeling; how you feel when you walk through the door. At the end of the day, can you call the place home? And are you excited at the prospect?