The UK housing market is in something of a frenzy. The average house price increased 10.9 per cent in the year to May, according to Nationwide, which was the fastest growth for nearly seven years. Estate agents everywhere are reporting how homes have been flying off the shelves as buyers rush to beat the stamp duty holiday, which is due to end at the end of the month.
But, just because you think prices are going to soar further doesn’t mean you should compromise on your requirements.
In my experience, buyers often look for the wrong things when considering a purchase. Estate agents’ blurbs don’t help — theirs is a dialect resolutely stuck in the past: often banging on about light and airy space, or the wonderful aspect, but not telling you about the hidden features that will add value or cost you money.
Of course, you’ll need to know the style of the house, how many bedrooms it has and whether there’s a garden, pool or driveway. But an estate agent is working for the seller, not you. Their job is to sell you the “lifestyle”, rather than the practical aspects you’ll be lumbered with should you become the owner.
Before you set foot in the property, review the language in the description. If the street is described as “popular”, does that mean it’s a rat run? If it’s in “proximity to great schools”, will you hear screaming children during their break time? If there are “fantastic amenities nearby”, is the street a shopper’s car park? And if it’s “architect designed”, does that mean it’s ugly or expensive for what it is?
Before you do anything else, power up the internet and get on Google Earth. Check what’s next door, down the road and nearby.
When I trained as a surveyor, my mentor taught me to start at the top of a building and work down. How often does a set of particulars reference the roof? Years ago, I bought my first proper house. A week after moving in there was a storm. Water poured down the walls in the master bedroom. A roofer was booked and, a few thousand pounds later, my house was watertight.
The upside was an excuse to justify repainting the rather ghastly magnolia the previous owner considered inoffensive. And, before you ask, the survey could not be relied on because a catch-all statement in the report said the roof was of an unknown condition and access had not been possible. I won’t make that mistake again.
A set of particulars will highlight a fireplace but it will rarely mention the chimney. When was it last repointed? Or swept? Do birds regularly nest in it? You may think these are trivial matters, but if your bedroom has an existing or old fireplace, the noise from cooing birds that don’t realise it’s the weekend will be unbearable. The mess from an unswept chimney can be considerable.
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I had a swarm of bees turn up once. Apparently, if they’ve been before and the sweep hasn’t been done, they’ll return. And if that chimney hasn’t been repointed in the past 15 years? Expect a big bill when you get it done. Fireplaces may be nice architectural features, but chimneys can be an expensive albatross.
Lighting is one of the most important aspects of a home. Many get it wrong — they have so many ceiling lights the home looks like a runway landing strip. More important, but rarely discussed, is when the lighting was installed. How recently was the house rewired?
Rewiring is one of the most disruptive and expensive things in a home. Floorboards must come up, ceilings replaced, walls chiselled out. Always check how old the fuse boxes are. Older than 10 years, take note! If the recessed lights are round and the bulbs are halogen, you may have a big bill heading your way because these systems are going out of date. Replacement will be expensive.
Buyers often get distracted by the colour of the carpet or curtains. This is irrelevant. The most important thing about any room is how big it is, and whether it is the right shape or size for what you are going to use it for. Everything else can be changed with a makeover that will take a week. Painting a room is not a big job; moving a wall is.
There’s no polite way to say this. When it comes to bathrooms and kitchens, very often other people have no taste. From taps to loos, baths to shower hoses, you’ll probably want to change them, so why pay a premium for someone else’s hideous choices?
Make sure the room is in the right place in the property, sinks are where you want them, doors are convenient and there is an aspect you can work with. It’s surprisingly easy to change a bath, sink or toilet if the plumbing is all in the right place. Anyway, who wants to use someone else’s toilet?
Sales particulars never reference light switches, plug sockets or door furniture. These things make a huge difference to the look and feel of a home. For one house I bought, to complete the works to remove all the hideous plastic sockets and mass-produced door handles ended up costing about £20,000. And that was before the house had to be repainted.
Housing ads are unlikely to mention windows or home security. I am generally not a fan of modern windows, unless you live in a modern house. Wooden window frames are preferable but likely to cost a lot of money to maintain. Every five years they need a coat of paint. Every 15 years, they’ll need heavy surgery.
Beware windows that have been botched and stuffed with filler. That will be an expensive fix, and this is rarely picked up on in the buyer’s report. Similarly, window locks are important. Insurance companies will often insist on them but if they haven’t been fitted, that’s another big number to put right. As for home security systems, unless it’s monitored and wireless, preferably with cameras, you’ll need to upgrade.
By all means, fall in love with your “forever” home but take time to read between the agent’s lines. Inspect a property physically on more than one occasion and at different times of day. If you get it right, you’ll be happier and less poor when you move. If you can’t because there is some government-enabled frenzy going on, and this home is absolutely right for you, then get your finances arranged before you offer. And ensure you set some money aside because unexpected works should be expected.
James Max is a radio presenter and property expert. The views expressed are personal. Twitter: @thejamesmax