We left London in 2015 because getting on the housing ladder seemed impossible. Our landlord in our small 1-bedroom flat in zone 3 offered us “first refusal” on the place he was kicking us out of to sell – £370k. We refused.
Birmingham was a place that seemed on the up: interesting job prospects, a large, diverse city with a good food/arts scene, and close to all the places our friends/families lived. We moved and began saving in earnest.
Two years later we were in a good position to buy a house. This post summarises what we learned along the way.
1. House-hunting takes ages
We spent 2-3 months doing house viewings, which quickly became exhausting as we spent entire weekends trooping around Birmingham on public transport, or leaving work early trying to squeeze in a 2 bed in Kings Heath before 5.30pm. Maddy liked the very first place we saw (located on the street we already lived on) but I felt like we needed to see quite a few so that the novelty wore off and we got a bit more discerning.
Trying to get a feel for a place you’ll spend a significant chunk of your life (and income) in/on is quite difficult when you only have fifteen minutes and there’s three other couples wandering around and examining the boiler. I knocked on walls and switched on taps, uncertain what I was meant to be looking for, but conscious that I might miss something obvious.
Some estate agents left us to it, while others followed us round pointing out obvious things. Some were rude (one openly laughed in my face when I asked if he thought the house would go for the asking price). Some were sick of trying to sell impossible places (one house we viewed was filled with cabinets of the current owner’s collection of little statues of dogs dressed up as historical figures) and looked unsurprised when we left quickly.
Soon it became a case of making a booking to view a place on-the-spot because they were being snapped up so quickly, and Rightmove alerts became our friend. You know within seconds of walking in whether the place is right for you, but after a while the process deadens you to the reality.
2. Making an offer is rubbish
Once the mystery of trooping around someone else’s home and trying to imagine it as yours is over, you’ll be faced with the poker-like scenario of making an offer on the place. Better experts than me have written about the tactics and techniques to master this. All I can say is that it’s rubbish. As a first-timer, you probably have no idea what everyone else is bidding (and estate agents will say anything they can to stoke the fires), and likely won’t have enough experience to really sense when you should—or shouldn’t—improve your offer.
One viewing we did surprised me when the agent told us exactly how many offers they’d had and what the highest one was. Nobody else had ever been as upfront as this – every other agent was very cagey about this (“can’t tell you” was a common refrain). In the end we had to just work out what we could afford and take a gamble on how close we could get to/from the asking price for the seller to accept.
3. Chains are as frustrating as everyone says they are
We lost six months waiting for a chain to resolve before we found a better house and pulled out. It was massively frustrating (not least for the sellers, who lost their onward purchase almost immediately after accepting our offer) as we just felt time ticking away. Not all chains take this long but the lack of updates made things difficult to bear, and the sense that the sellers didn’t seem to be doing much to find their next place or keep us happy (though this is difficult to blame them for – their place was lovely and would be quickly snapped up again if it went back on the market). We asked if they’d consider moving out and renting, but no dice.
In the end a bigger place came up for a good price which was chain-free and we jumped at it – after waiting half a year in the previous chain to progress little further than surveys/searches, we progressed from viewing to completion within two months on the second house (which included Christmas/New Year).
If you’re like we were and first-time buyers, consider holding out until you find a chain-free place. Otherwise be prepared to wait. Indefinitely.
4. The entire process is stacked against the buyer
I was surprised at the amount of things we had to pay for that seemed like they should be the seller’s responsibility. I understand that a survey on a house is in my interest as the buyer, but it seems bizarre that if we decided not to purchase based on its results, someone else might come along, commission a similar survey, and make the same decision. Is it not possible for the seller to commission a single, independent survey, and provide this to (serious) buyers? We lost hundreds of pounds when we pulled out of the first purchase on the various searches and surveys that were completed – all of which would presumably be paid for again (returning the same information) by whoever ultimately purchased the house. I guess this kind of thing keeps the property industry going.
Likewise at the offer stage, we were being asked to make “blind” or “best and final” offers against others with no context or knowledge of their circumstances. This can result in nervous one-upmanship where there might not even be any counter-bids (for all you know). Many estate agents asked to see proof of our funds, which handily meant they could make reasonable guesses at our total budget (and therefore encourage us to increase our bids).
5. Nobody tells you about the guilt
Compared to my friends where I grew up in Nottingham, we’ve purchased a house quite late (at 30/31). But other groups of friends (eg. most of my London mates) aren’t in our position due to the costs there, and I feel a quite strong sense of guilt for our privilege despite buying our home with our own money and savings.
On the day I went to pay the deposit for the mortgage I was waiting outside the bank when two homeless men stopped me to ask me what day it was (for real). After they left I reflected about how I was about to go and transfer tens of thousands of pounds for a house, while they didn’t even know it was Friday. As soon as we moved in I set up a regular donation to Shelter, but even then I felt like a middle class wanker.
We also benefitted from some Conservative government policies – a couple of weeks before we exchanged contracts the Tories axed Stamp Duty for first-time buyers, which saved us a couple of grand. This was great news and basically bought us some furniture, but we didn’t need the policy change – we were planning to buy anyway and had budgeted for paying it. Criticism of that policy suggested it wouldn’t help the people who really need it (what’s £1300 or so when you have to find £20k?) and we certainly felt like it.
Similarly, we both had Help To Buy ISAs which earned us about £2.5k in bonuses. Again, we were just using the system as intended and saving money for several years, but I still feel somehow complicit with the Tories by benefitting financially from policies that shouldn’t be helping fortunate people like me. I still don’t really know how to feel about this.
So, with all of that said, was there anything good about the experience? Well, getting the keys to our own home that nobody (well, besides the mortgage provider) can kick us out of was fantastic. Not having to put up with someone else’s bizarro decorating choices is awesome. And feeling like I’ve levelled up as an adult was pretty cool too. But I don’t want to do it again for quite a long time.