According to the Money Advice Service, house buyers usually spend an average of just eight to fifteen minutes viewing a property they’re interested in. Not very long, is it? You’ve probably spent longer than that in the changing room when clothes shopping. And considering you’ll probably live in your first home for at least a few years, it’s wise to spend plenty of time checking it out thoroughly, but if it’s your first home it can be difficult to know what warning signs to look out for when viewing potential properties.
You’re answering two main questions when you look at a house or flat: can I live here, and do I want to? The answer to the first question depends on whether the house is in a decent state of repair. But buying a home is about much more than how much your energy bills will be or the condition of the windows: it’s about what your daily life there will be like.
Size matters – in more ways than one.
How spacious a property is isn’t the only important thing – how spacious it feels is important too. A Victorian or Edwardian building with high ceilings and huge windows will feel more spacious and light than an apartment of the same size with lower ceilings and smaller windows, which can make a property feel quite claustrophobic. Basement flats will never feel really light and airy even on a sunny day and will probably always be cold, too. Consider how you might fit into the property – quite literally. If you’re tall, low sloping ceilings and timber beams might look cute at first, but the charm will wear off round about the tenth time that you bang your head on them.
The property will have floor plans which will show the dimensions of each room, so you can work out if your furniture (if you already have furniture) will fit. In new show homes, cunning trick sellers sometimes use is displaying furniture that’s on the small side to maximise the feeling of space. Be aware of this and try to imagine your furniture and possessions in the rooms instead. Don’t be put off by the décor: look past jazzy 70s carpets and lurid wallpaper, which can easily be changed, to the home you will create.
A design for life.
Some people love the spacious feel of a big open-plan living and cooking area; others prefer the kitchen and the lounge to be separate. One person’s cosy studio gives another person cabin fever. Some people don’t like front doors that open directly into the living room or straight onto the street, which can be noisy and diminish your sense of privacy.
Sure, furniture is widely available to purchase, but built-in storage is really useful as it effectively gives you more space. Modern properties tend to have more of it; in an older property, you might be lucky to get any. Remember that people tend to increase the possessions they have over time and that if your house is already quite small for all your stuff when you move in, it is not going to get bigger to accommodate new clothes, shoes, books, DVDs and furniture. As a wise homeowner once put it: “Consider where you’re going to store your Christmas decorations.” Also, think about who the property might need to accommodate long-term. A one-bedroom flat which is just right for one person can suddenly feel very small if your partner, their DVD collection.
Check the internet connection and mobile phone reception. These days most people will need both these things to be reliable – many of us rely on the internet for our work. If you’re a frequent user of streaming services such as BBC iPlayer or Netflix, you’ll need a decent broadband speed. Which? says 2Mbps is enough for standard-definition viewing on iPlayer, increasing to 3Mbps for high definition; the minimum recommended broadband speed for Netflix is 1.5 Mbps. If you rely on your mobile phone, you’ll want your reception to be impeccable – when you’re in the house, check to see whether you have a signal. You can check a property’s broadband speed on the Ofcom website, and refer to this phone coverage map to see which networks have the best phone signal.
Socket to ‘em!
An older property may need rewiring to bring it in line with current regulations. If it hasn’t been rewired in the past 30 years, some work at least is likely to be necessary. According to the website householdquotes.co.uk, rewiring a two-bedroom terraced house is likely to cost between £2,000 and £3,000, with plastering and decorating costs on top.
Nice and toasty?
Find out what kind of boiler the property has and how old it is. An old and inefficient boiler means expensive energy bills, a greater likelihood of breakdowns, and general inconvenience if you have to wait a long time for the water to warm up. If the current boiler isn’t functioning properly, repairs could cost you £200 or more. If you want to replace it altogether, the cost of a boiler can be anywhere from £650 to £6,000. Ask what fuel the boiler runs on – gas, oil and electricity all have their advantages and disadvantages – and whether it provides both heating and hot water. If it’s a gas boiler, make sure it has been serviced in the last 12 months – ask to see the gas safety certificate.
Garden of Eden?
A garden is invaluable if you love being outdoors or have children, and the bigger the better. But if gardening doesn’t appeal to you, consider how you’ll manage the maintenance – the lawn won’t mow itself and the weeds won’t uproot and leave of their own accord. In blocks of flats the gardens may be communal – how would you feel about this? Be clear on whether anyone else has access to a supposedly private garden – your neighbours may be allowed to use it to get to their house or it may even be part of a public right of way. Even if it’s yours and yours alone, what level of privacy does it offer you – can nosy neighbours observe your every move?
The seller may take absolutely everything with them (stories abound of people who have even unscrewed the light bulbs), but they may well leave carpets, curtains, the cooker and even the white goods. The seller normally has the right to take fittings (items which aren’t an integral part of the property) but not fixtures (permanently fitted items), but in any case, you should be shown a list of what’s staying before you exchange contracts.
It’s my property and I’ll do what I like!
Not always, unfortunately. You’ll need planning permission for things like extensions and conservatories – and if your new home is in a conservation area or is a listed building, even seemingly minor changes like new windows might require permission from the council.
Leasehold properties (which includes most flats) may well have restrictions on things like pet ownership, laying wooden flooring, having a satellite dish and even hanging washing out of the windows. You might be quite far into the buying process before you come across these covenants, so if you are buying a leasehold property and, for example, you want to have pets, you should ask about any restrictions early on.
Bring a plus – one.
Take someone to viewings with you – preferably someone who has bought or even sold a few properties themselves, as they will have experience of what to look for and will probably notice things you don’t. Write down a list of questions that you want to ask, take it with you and write down the answers. As well as being invaluable for you, it shows the seller and agent you are on the ball. If the estate agent is stumped by anything, make sure that they get back to you as soon as possible with the answer. Any agent worth their salt should be prepared for all sorts of questions. If you would like to take photos on your phone, ask the seller or agent if it’s okay. These can really help when it comes to making your mind up after the visit.
How do you feel about the house?
This, ultimately, is the question you really have to answer. Do you want to live there? A property is like a boyfriend or a girlfriend: there has to be a connection. Sometimes you can walk into a place and love it instantly – it just has that feeling about it. Other times, there might be nothing technically wrong with a property, but somehow it just doesn’t feel right for you. Always visit a property you like more than once: the first visit is with your heart, the second is with your head. And always listen to your instinct, whether it’s telling you yes or no: as with everything in life, your instinct is usually right.