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10 things I learned buying a house AT 28
By Emily Parker

19.05.21

Does the home-ownership outlook have to be so bleak and confusing for 20-somethings today? Here's a 10-step idiot's guide to getting on the property ladder.

Young people today will never own a home. That’s what we’ve been told pretty steadily since the financial crisis we plummeted into in 2008 and never seemed to come back from. If we swallowed every bitter pill the media attempted to push down our throats without water, we’d believe the following: as young people, we waste our deposit money on avocados and expensive coffee; the job market is fucked and we’ll never be the exec in a suit with elbow patches and padded shoulders or the bedroom tycoon making millions in our pjs; we are offended by everything anyone says and we need to grow a thicker skin and stop cancelling all songs from the 70s, films from the 50s and Disney Princesses; the world will explode or flood before we reach our fifties, and, to top it all off; we will face all the above in a place we don’t truly call home.

 

According to the headlines of some totally reputable tabloids that are the beacons of good, honest journalism, like The Daily Mirror, you will be “locked out” of the homeowning market if you reach 39 without getting a mortgage. (Read the small print and you’ll discover the statistic simply shows there are more people buying their first homes in their 20s and 30s than in their 40s, but what’s the small print when you can have BIG print?!).

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I was one of the statistics that did the “unthinkable” at an “unthinkable” time and bought my first home with my boyfriend last year during Covid.

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Every 20-something has their own set of circumstances to contend with, but there are two things that make my particular house-buying experience potentially useful to my fellow quarterlifers: 1) I am a great test case because I am terrible with money - logistics, scenario-planning, financial affairs, laws that actually affect me - anything that requires rational thought and a subscription to The Economist and/or The Financial Times, and; 2) I knew absolutely nothing about buying a house before January 2020.

 

Think of the list of ten top tips that follows as an idiot’s guide to buying a house in your 20s, because, whilst I can’t speak for my boyfriend, that’s exactly what I was for pretty much the entirety of this notoriously stressful, mystifying, complicated, frustrating, eat-your-own-hair punch-your-partner-in-the-face slam-your-head-into-your-laptop nut-an-estate-agent-in-the-face process. 

 

As it turns out, I think buying a property is actually a pretty good idea, so these will be words of encouragement. Having said that, it goes without saying you should make the choice that is right for you when it comes to getting on the housing ladder. All I’m trying to do is provide an alternative, more positive and hopeful narrative to the one that says we’ll all die in a rented flat being scratched by kittens, and say, you - yes you - too, can own your own home.

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1.  Dive straight in. Now.

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Don’t be put off by not “getting” the housing market or telling yourself you don’t have the money for a deposit yet, or that your salary is too low to even start thinking about saving. Even if all that’s true, browsing the market on Zoopla or Rightmove or even booking a few viewings can get the ball rolling and make things seem real. In my experience, once you start seeing places within your potential budget, the incentive to save becomes much greater.

 

I think a lot of people are put off the idea of home owning because it feels inherently “expensive”. And whilst the upfront costs do require saving over a number of years and some forethought, your monthly mortgage repayments don’t need to be any more than your rent costs, and swapping monthly rent payments for mortgage repayments is like taking money you normally burn each month and putting it instead into a very high interest savings account for your future self. And whilst you may want to spend every last penny you have as a homeowner on cushions and prints and houseplants, the mortgage commitment and its impact on your lifestyle is definitely made out to be scarier than it actually is.

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2.  Make your money plan.

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Having a plan can be the most freeing thing in the world, so why wait til you’re a millionaire to work it all out (which you’ll definitely hopefully be at some vague point in the future, right?). Do your calculations now - work out where you pitch yourself financially. The fundamentals are: you’re going to be borrowing a lot of money from a bank and paying it back on a monthly basis. You can fiddle around with how much you pay back each month by playing around with the variables below.
 

Whether you’re going into this alone, or with a friend, family member or partner, there are three basic things to understand when buying a house:
 

  1. Deposit - your hard-earned savings. What’s the lump sum you can put down? 5k?  10k? 30k? 50k? Deposit proportions range from 5 percent to as much as you can afford.

  2. Mortgage rate - the cost of your property after paying the deposit, which you’ll pay back to the bank you borrow it from in monthly installments. The more you borrow to buy your place, the higher the interest rate you’ll pay on your monthly repayments.

  3. Mortgage terms - this is the number of years you’ll agree to pay back your total mortgage cost across - the longer the time-frame, the smaller the monthly repayments. Younger buyers can max out and get lower rates with lengthy mortgages.


(Sorry if this is spoon-feeding the painfully obvious and I’m beginning to sound like an unsexy version of Margot Robbie in the bathtub in The Big Short - like I said, it's an idiot’s guide, and this is genuinely stuff I hadn’t given a single thought to 12 months ago.)

There are tonnes of financial calculators online to help you work out what you could afford within a few minutes, or to shop around for hypothetical mortgages and play around with getting the best interest rates. It’s worth keeping an eye on interest rate trends on websites like Habito and, if possible, being strategic about when you take the plunge - we secured our mortgage at a 1.89 percent interest rate and the week after, rates jumped to 2.8 percent, so we got in in the nick of time and saved ourselves a few hundred quid a month.

My boyfriend and I were advised to reach for the most valuable property we could afford without stretching ourselves, because the hope is that your earnings will generally go up across your lifetime. You might decide to drop for a less expensive property to increase your deposit-mortgage ratio and decrease your monthly repayments and interest. Or you might decide to max yourself out. Whatever works best for you. Once you get your head around this stuff, a loose plan may even start to lay itself out for you.

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3.  Pick a few postcodes.

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Begin your search with a general area or two that includes several postcodes. Do your research to get to that point and find where might work for you before booking any viewings. This will give you a broad enough set of options, but also won’t overwhelm you with the never-ending possibility, particularly in big cities where each area has its own mini market bubble to get to grips with. Narrowing your search from the get-go means you also limit the amount of schlepping to pointless viewings in areas or on streets that were never going to work for you anyway - areas you would have ruled out with a little pre-Googling. You'll make your own rules once you get started. For us, we decided we couldn't be on a main road, and that automatically narrowed down our search for us in a helpful way.
 

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4.  Book viewings close together.

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An obvious one, but check the properties you’re viewing are close-ish together. We would often cram our Saturdays with up to eight viewings without doing the due diligence of making sure we could actually get from A to B quick enough. Block out your whole Saturday (there are generally no viewings on Sundays, and weeknight viewings are a bit of a downer, especially in the winter months when it’s pitch black and usually raining/hailing/snowing). With your Saturday, pick off a small catchment area and see all the houses that fit your bill; then you can really get a feel for that area, rather than diluting properties and places in your memory by trying to cover too much ground in the same day.

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5.  Be cool.

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Looking at flats and houses is very exciting, especially if like me you have an overactive imagination. Take your game-face or resting-bitch face to these viewings, and as excited as you might be at the mental picture of you arranging fresh daffodils into a ceramic vase over there in that very spot in the corner of the kitchen where the sun is pouring through the window, do not act like you want the place in front of the estate agents. Be polite, ask lots of questions about the property; about the people selling, whether there have been any offers, how many viewings and how much buyer interest, what the market is like at the moment in their opinion etc. Get a feel for the estate agency you’re dealing with (see point 6), but do not act like a kid twirling around in a 1950s sweet shop, or a chorus member in a climactic full-cast number in a Sondheim musical. If you really do like the place, you’re going to want to negotiate on the price, and estate agents are master manipulators (no offence estate agents) - if they smell a weakness they’ll feed off it and you won’t end up getting what you want.
 

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6.  Suss out the people you're dealing with.

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Asking questions about the market during the viewing is a good place to start with estate agents - it gets them talking so you can sniff them out and try to work out if they’re being disingenuous or straight-up. We found some estate agents incredibly pushy, trying to stimulate false demand by working up desperate buyers and creating panic and urgency. Don’t let this irritate you - that is their job - but also don’t let it phase or fluster you. Also expect that sometimes the market in a particular area will be completely bonkers - we saw houses that had gone on the market that morning and had asking-price offers on them by the evening, with the buyers willing to pay in cash. Another great lesson - there are some buyers out there you just won’t compete with, and some properties that aren’t meant to be, even if they seemed perfect.

The best way to get what you want is to throw as many hats into the ring as possible by doing as many viewings as possible. We probably viewed over 100 properties in four months and I'm sure that's why we found our place within the first year of looking, despite Covid restrictions. Keeping a level head, staying out of all of the panic-offering silliness and not feeling rushed by anything or anyone, is crucial to getting the best property for you, at the best price. Decide what you would happily pay for any property you like - a price above which you’d feel uncertain or begrudging and not as excited to get your offer accepted - and do not budge above that figure. Be willing to let any property go to avoid being fleeced. This is crucial. In fact, start with an offer that is ten percent lower than your maximum figure. You can work out what a property is technically worth by getting to know an area, comparing your property of interest against other similar properties that have just sold and then looking at value predictions for the property on Zoopla and Rightmove. The estate agents may try to tell you what a property is worth - don’t take their word for it.

 

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7.  Don't look at the paint job.

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Some people want to buy properties that are pretty much perfect and need very little doing. In my experience, even the perfect houses and flats end up getting a little facelift because everyone wants to put their own stamp on their own space. When we first started doing viewings we were dazzled by fresh paint jobs, fancy furniture, edgy prints. It is important to develop blinkers to that stuff as soon as possible - chances are they’re taking their furniture and art with them. Equally you’ll accrue a collection of your own stuff, that is perfectly your taste. Look at fundamentals of a space, like how much natural light the rooms get, and whether the layout and floor-plan feels intuitively functional and right for you. If not, are the walls you’d want to knock down to create open-plan spaces thick and hard, or thin and hollow-sounding when you pat them? If it’s the latter, it’s probably a stud-partition wall so easy to knock down.

Learn to see the potential in things, and empower yourself with everything you could do yourself - we were so excited to be in the house we painted four rooms within a month, and whilst painting is exhausting and time-consuming and you will listen to a hell of a lot of Heart 80s in the process, you’ll always reap back from your space the energy you put into it. You can get a pack of ten great laminate bathroom tiles on Amazon for £15, and more often than not, it takes little more than a £20 print, a £50 rug and a £30 houseplant to transform a room. Renovating your home doesn’t have to break the bank, but paying a premium for a previous owner’s quick and easy cosmetic touches may do.

 

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8.  Do look for the boring stuff.

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Having said all the above - interrogate the properties you’re serious about and come up with a figure for what you think needs to be spent on them. Is the property livable? If not, how much money would make it livable? Do you have that money on top of a deposit? If it is livable, what would make it perfect, and how much would that cost? Random invisible costs, particularly in older buildings, include: damp in the walls, old boilers, old single-glazed windows, old radiators or inefficient heating and old electrics.

 

Once you make an offer and have that offer accepted, you will be able to get a structural survey done which will indicate any serious issues that might give you pause for thought before proceeding (we almost bought a terraced house with a huge crack down the front, and discovered next door was falling down), but some of this stuff you only see by going around each room with an eagle eye. This is why a second and even a third viewing is important - the first viewing is with your rose-tinted, musical theatre glasses on. At subsequent viewings you’ll naturally be less dazzled and more picky.

 

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9.  Prepare for the process of getting the keys.

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The process from making an offer to moving in can take longer than you think, but once someone tells you what to expect, it becomes less daunting. Once you make an offer, you must wait to have it accepted. Top tip - as soon as the seller accepts your offer, ensure they mark the property as 'under offer' on the estate agent's website and the sign out front to avoid them continuing to show people around while waiting for a better offer. If you progress with a purchase you will begin to spend money on solicitor and survey fees, so this step is crucial. We dealt with one dodgy vendor who had instructed two different estate agencies, and we got friends to call up for us to try to book fake viewings once our offer had been accepted. When one estate agency agreed to a viewing with our friend after the other one had accepted our offer, we knew we were in danger of being gazumped and losing money, so we walked away.

Assuming your offer is genuinely accepted, next thing you'll need is a solicitor. Don't feel like you need someone based near you. We used a great solicitor in Liverpool who was far cheaper than the London ones, and he'd dealt with plenty of London property. The following steps will then happen, across a time period that will likely take between one and three months, depending on paperwork delays and the findings from the searches and survey:

- Your solicitor will begin legal searches on the property and report their findings.

- You will find a surveyor to do a survey of your property for damages.

- Assuming the above is all acceptable to you, your solicitor will exchange contracts with the vendor's solicitor.

- Both parties will sign the documentation and a date will be agreed for completion.

- On the completion date, your deposit money will go to your solicitor to handle, and signed contracts will be exchanged. From this date you can collect your keys.

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10.  There's always another house.

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Finding a house can feel a bit like dating. You will see a lot of stuff you know isn’t for you, and a lot of stuff you’ll be so convinced is destined to be your future home. But there’s always another house, always another flat or maisonette or house boat or mobile home or caravan. There’s no one property for you, so don’t get too attached to anything until the date you complete when you'll pop open the cheap prosecco, eat takeaway pizza on the floor, look back at all the twists and turns in the house-buying journey and laugh heartily. Once you’ve moved in, you’ll know why it all happened the way it did, and you’ll be sure it worked out for the best, and more than happy to wave those ‘ones that got away’ a sweet, sweet goodbye.

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The whole process was the biggest, steepest learning curve of my life, and no 10-point article could prepare you for your individual journey through it, but I hope this article has broken it down a little for you.

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I hope at least I’ve pulled back the curtain a crack and shown you that house-buying isn’t something to be mystified or scared or panicked or cynical or down about - not something to write off or put off. It’s really a case of making the numbers add up in the right way for you and then seeing what’s out there. And knowing that as much as you’ll want to get out there and find the right house, the right house often has its way of finding you. 

Image from State Lets Flats on Channel 4

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