First-time buyer guide #6: finding your home

First-time buyer guide #6: finding your home

Finding the one is very exciting but the process of getting there can be a tearful, exhausting experience for some…

...on the other hand, it can sometimes be a breeze. Let’s be prepared for either.

#6 - Finding your home

Hi everyone, it’s Dan here.  I’m not saying he’s getting old, but I think Peter’s needed a break from writing and to be honest I’ve got more recent experience of finding a home. This article could be huge, so I’m going to cover the beginning part of the process and leave the actual viewing for another day.  

So, you have your deposit in place, or nearly at least? Well done, that can be hard going. Anyway, now comes the fun but sometimes frustrating part - the property hunt.

Like any treasure hunt, preparation is king. The more prepared you are, the easier the hunt, although beware that the rarer the prize, the harder the hunt, or basically if your property really does need 7 bathrooms, your options are going to be limited somewhat.

In our post about the homebuying process, we highlighted it’s key to know what you want and don’t want from a property. This can help you drill down to only the properties which cover your non-negotiable needs. We also established in the Setting your Target article the need to be realistic, but now it’s time to put this to the test.

Where does the search begin?

I remember the days of walking around to each of the estate agents in town and heading home with an exciting pile of paper with lots of property details on. It was always interesting to do your property search via the interpretations of an estate agent.

These days have largely gone, as nowadays most estate agents post their properties on websites such as Rightmove and Zoopla, meaning you can see all of the properties in one place. It also means you can properly exclude those 2 bedroom homes with larger cupboards!! If you’ve done your planning now you can easily focus your search on exactly what you want. Let’s be honest, there’s a chance you’ve been spending countless hours on these websites before you started even saving.

Quick tip for you: be aware that some of the smaller estate agents may not advertise on Rightmove and Zoopla, but they will have their own websites. Also, if you’re thinking of buying a new build (maybe to take advantage of any government scheme), it might be worth visiting the building sites of the areas you’re interested in. Most new builds do not appear on the property websites as they are often purchased off plan which means they’re sold before they’re even built.

Location, location, location

The right location is different for everyone. Some may know the exact road they want to move to, others could still be umming and ahhing over which county.

Hopefully if you’ve already worked out your ‘must haves’, you’ll be part way there, but it’s worth covering off some of the factors that help you decide the location;

  • Distance to family/friends
  • Distance to work
  • Transport links
  • Schools
  • Crime rate of the area
  • Social life
  • Budget

It’s a long way to…

Moving 200 miles away from family and friends may be perfect for some of us, for others, being more than a few miles away would be unbearable. I can tell you from personal experience, if you’re planning to start a family then a whole bunch of babysitters nearby can be very useful.

Unfortunately, when my wife and I had our daughter, we were over 140 miles away from my family and 5,500 miles from hers; Not many nights out were had for a number of years.

With the rise of working from home, commuting distances are becoming less of an issue. That being said, many people like working in an office and even if you are working from home in the future you may still have to go into the office once in a while. Just make sure you are aware of your working situation and whether it is likely to change.

If you’re a commuter, make sure the transport links between where you’re buying and work are good and there’s a backup plan.Property websites will generally show you the distance to your nearest train/tube station and some googling will help with bus routes. Of course other good search engines are available!

Even if you won't be commuting for work make sure the transport links support your lifestyle. I know where Peter lives, he only gets three buses a day each way and less on the weekend.

We do need some education

If you’re young, free and single, you’re probably not too concerned about the quality of the local schools. Although even a young, free and single person who works night shifts might care about getting some sleep if they lived next to a noisy school.

For those who have a young family or are planning on having one, the quality of the schools might be the most important thing. Planning ahead makes sense but be aware that schools change. A school might be rated ‘excellent’ when you move in with your newborn, but it doesn’t mean it will be when your child is ready for school.

Try and have a backup plan; I moved to an area with two great local grammar schools, with the non grammar schools appearing somewhat poor. I had no backup plan if my daughter failed to get into a grammar school and I should have known better. You don’t put all of your eggs in one basket - this is financial advice 101.

Finally if you’re basing your decision on Ofsted scores, don’t just look at the most recent. A history of good Ofsted scores shows consistency.

“Lies, damned lies, and statistics"

So often we see statistics used to support weak arguments and another re-watch of The Wire will have you viewing policing statistics with a weary eye but hopefully, these numbers don’t lie.

If you’re moving within your local area, you’ll probably have a good feel for how safe an area is or at least your perception of it. If you’re moving to a new area, you may have no idea. The website above is a useful starting point to get an idea of the crime levels in the area you’re thinking of moving to.

Obviously these statistics won’t tell you the whole story but it can be useful to know because even if you’re happy to live in a Mad Max hellscape, insurance providers may be less thrilled and you might see a jump in your premiums.

If you’re moving to a new build within a significant development, take any figures with ‘a pinch of salt’. There may simply be no crime showing because it’s currently just a field, surrounded by other fields.

There ain't no party…

You like hitting the town at the weekend? Painting the town red? Just make sure there is a town.

If you want a lively scene, that quaint cottage in the middle of nowhere with no transport links might not be the one. If you think a three person dinner party is a rager and you like to be tucked up by 9pm, living next to a nightclub is going to cause problems.

These may sound really obvious, but I’ve seen people make mistakes because they haven’t done their homework.  You may love a good night out just as much as a quiet walk in the hills. You just need to be clear on what you want day-in day-out. So ask yourself: are you happy to take a short drive out into the country to get your quiet walk in the hills? Or can you accept the odd taxi ride into town to have the hills on your doorstep?

Also, make sure the area has what you want from a lifestyle point of view. For example, when I last moved, a local rugby club and a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu gym were very important to me.

There are no rights or wrongs, you just need to weigh up what you want.

Found the right place? Now find the right place

So, we’ve buttoned down the location and now we need to drill down to the property itself.

If you are buying a new build it’s fairly easy - go to the building site and look at the show homes. If the property that you want to purchase is not one of the show homes on that site, find out if there is a show home at another site and travel to have a proper view (if current restrictions allow). If it is not possible, make sure you are googling to find out as much as you can about the developer and get to proper grips with the property information sheet that will be available.

However, a quick tip - insider information suggests developers might spend more time and effort on building the show-homes. Dare we say it, the build quality may be slightly higher or may have a slightly higher spec to help sell the houses. Plus, they are usually furnished.

If you’re not buying a new build, we’re still searching online, but at least we have the location locked in. Using the list of ‘wants and don’t wants’, you should be able to bring up a list of potential properties to buy, But what do you do next?

Let’s talk floor plans

Man, do I love a floor plan. I’ve looked for properties abroad and most websites don’t seem to have floor plans which makes no sense to me. Why would you not have a floor plan? It's essential to that online search. Alongside the photos, it helps give you a much better idea of the property.

A good plan should have measurements, but not all do. Some estate agents are also a bit too clever with their camera work. There is nothing more infuriating than finding that ideal home, going for a viewing (simpler times) and realising that the master suite you loved the look of is a generous box room at most.  Measurements on floor plans can help you visualise better and to work out whether your super king size bed will fit in or whether you are going to have to downsize.

Remember, estate agents take pictures in such a way to sell the property. They act on behalf of the seller - not the buyer!

Whilst a plan with measurements can help visualise the size of a place, how do you figure out how bright the house may be. Well, find the property on a map (the websites will probably show it), then visualise the sun rising in the east travelling via the south across sky to eventually set in the west.

New build vs period

Sparkling new or brimming with character? Whether to purchase a newer or older property will be a personal choice. Some people only buy new, whilst even the idea of a new build is awful to others.

Some people’s choices are steered by the available government schemes. The biggest home buying scheme offered by the government currently is the Help to Buy equity loan which is only available for new builds.

Under this scheme,  the government lends you up to 20% of the property price (or 40% if in London) and you need at least a 5% deposit. You will then need to get a mortgage for the remaining 75% (or 55% in London). Another option is shared ownership.

Shared Ownership gives you the opportunity to buy a share of a property (between 25% and 75% of the home’s value) and pay rent on the remaining share. It allows you to buy bigger shares when you can afford to.

If you’re not relying on any government schemes, you have more choices. But be aware that if you buy an older property, all of that charm and character might come at a price. Maintaining an older home generally costs more than you’d spend on a new one.

You should also think about energy efficiency. For example, does the property have double glazing or might it all a bit draughty in there? You can make older properties more energy efficient, but be aware of building regulations, especially if it’s a listed property where it can be difficult and more expensive to make changes.

That said, you won’t suffer from the immediate house price drop usually associated with purchasing a new build. Just like buying a new car, expect to suffer some depreciation. Even in a rising property market, you may not be able to sell without making a loss in the first couple of years.

The premium you pay for a new build does mean you get a 10 year warranty which should mean that you don’t have any big unexpected bills. As Peter highlighted in a previous article, when he purchased his home, the boiler broke almost immediately. If he’d bought a new build, this cost would have been covered by the warranty.

I’m sorry, how much?

Finding your dream home is all well and good, but it needs to be within your budget.  As I’ve said before, perfect is the enemy of good and the reality is that ticking all of the boxes on what you want from a location perspective may mean prices are simply out of your reach.

Time for tough decisions: location over property or most likely a mixture of both. Are you willing to forego the garden to be in the right location? Can you push out your distance to work by 5 miles? Do you really like your friends and family, or maybe being 50 miles away is a good thing? :)

It’s your decision, so just make sure you understand what’s most important to you. All the areas in this article add up to help you choose a location and give you a feel for a place before you decide whether or not to request a viewing.

In the next article, I’ll probably be handing back to Peter to discuss Mortgage Applications and Viewing Properties. Thanks for your time!

Adviser Top Picks

  1. Plan your location first, then look at the properties themselves. If your budget doesn’t stretch, you can always revisit the location.
  2. An estate agent is legally acting on behalf of the seller - not the buyer.
  3. If buying a new build, expect to suffer some price depreciation in the first couple of years.