What it’s really like to be a first-time buyer in London

Today is our LAST Sunday in our rental flat. In fact, it’s our last Sunday as renters in London! Our home is filled with boxes (which our two cats adore – what is it with cats and boxes?), and our walls are looking more empty by the hour. We don’t officially move til Thursday, but will be in doing a lot of quick DIY before we have furniture and these little mischief-makers to deal with.

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We’ve been through a bit of a ridiculous house-buying journey, which I thought I would take a break from packing to share. With the announcement that the new government ‘Help to Buy’ scheme is launching even earlier, I thought maybe some other soon-to-be first-time buyers would like to hear an honest account of how unpredictable, hard and stressful the process can be. Especially if you’re doing it on your own, like Liam and I are.

It all started in February, when we had an offer accepted on a two bed flat in Hither Green. We’d already been watching the market, working out areas we liked, and viewing places for about four months. Excited and hopeful that everything would go to plan, we gave our notice on our flat in Earlsfield and started all the paperwork. Unfortunately, we ended up having to walk away six weeks later, thanks to some dodgy leasehold clauses in the contract. Grateful for our amazing solicitor, we took up a six month rental in Brockley (the area we wanted to buy in) and started the process all over again. But finding a rental was stressful in itself, as was moving, knowing that we would do it all again soon. We were optimistic though – at least we would be getting to know the area better. And we’d learned a lot of lessons from our first property mistake – namely, to wait as long as possible to give notice on our rental flat.

Meanwhile, the property market in London started heating up. Especially in Brockley – great news for those who already owned in the area, but bad news for our budget which suddenly grew smaller by the week. We cut back on EVERYTHING to save hard and give ourselves a better deposit. Competition grew fierce, and we were often one of fifty other couples viewing a property on a Saturday. We put offers on six different places, only to loose out each time to closed bids, or cash buyers. Homes were no longer going for the asking price; they were going for 10% to 20% more. We were growing pretty hopeless. And very fed up with estate agents, who we felt were fuelling the rapid increase in prices.

We chatted with our landlord, and offered to buy the flat we’re currently living in. He was interested, and had an agent come to value the property. A year ago, it would have been worth 275k max. They valued it at 350k – a gross exaggeration in our opinion, given the amount of work that needs doing. We walked away again, only to learn that our landlord decided to put our home on the market. So not only were we out of luck, we were going to be homeless as well unless we found somewhere soon. A high pressure situation became even more so.

After a few weeks of panicked looking and a very quiet market (no one wants to leave Brockley, it seems) we finally went to see a place that I had discounted because of what appeared to be a small second bedroom. Liam pushed me to view it, as it was well within our budget and in an area that we loved. I’m so glad he convinced me, because as soon as we walked in we knew it was right. As it turns out, the photos of the place and the way the tenants had positioned the furniture made everything look much smaller than it actually is. The property was being shown by the vendor herself, which was also a nice bonus. She’d bought it when she was 19 and lived there for almost 15 years. She wanted to know it would go to good people, and not just a developer or landlord. Luckily she liked us, and our offer was the best of the five others that were made. We had a home.

In London, the legal side of buying is a long and complex one, and overwhelming without a good solicitor or a mortgage broker. Even once an offer has been accepted, either party can pull out until contracts have been exchanged. Exchange happens literally weeks (or in our case, days) before completion and the keys are handed over. But the entire process of surveys, mortgage paperwork, etc takes a minimum of 12 weeks. So for 12 weeks we were pushing ahead, knowing that we might still end up homeless at the end of the process. Luckily I had built up a decent relationship with the vendor, and she was honest. This helped us navigate a few tricky negotiations, and keep things running smoothly. No gazumping. No last minute negotiations from either of us.

Coming out the other side, I’m so ready to put the whole experience behind us and settle in to our new place, but I wish someone had warned me about how stressful it all would be. So for those who are thinking about buying, be prepared. It isn’t easy, or fun like one might expect. But it is absolutely worth it.

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