The carpets were brown – possibly not by design – and threadbare. The bathroom was mildewed, the kitchen so small that a washing machine had been prioritised over an oven, with drawers hanging free from their runners or missing altogether. The dingy walls were covered in woodchip wallpaper, the paintwork everywhere was yellowed and chipped. It was perfect. And three months later, in February 2006, it was mine. Despite (or perhaps because of) all the scraping, borrowing and form-filling bureaucracy it takes to get on that first rung, there are few rites of passage more exciting than buying property, and few more rewarding than making it into a home. Here’s what I learned on the way.
1. Save, save and save some more
These days, it may be an oat milk latte habit that you need to break, and now’s the time to comb through your direct debits and phone subscriptions and cancel as many as you can. Can you ditch the weekly personal trainer and work out with friends instead? Can you live without Apple Arcade? Do you really need Netflix and Now TV and Disney Plus? Be honest: when was the last time you actually booted up Headspace? One app you do need is the Virgin Money Home Buying Coach Link opens in a new window.
2. Be the dream buyer
Since lenders typically want to see the past three months’ worth of bank statements, if you lower outgoings ahead of that they’ll be more likely to look at you favourably than if you swear to cut costs in future. Particular alarm bells for lenders? Premium supermarket visits, late night cash withdrawals and even the tiniest of bets.
3. Ask “stupid” questions
As well as being the biggest financial transaction you’ll ever make, buying your first property will also be wildly confusing, full of jargon from “loan to value” (the ratio of the size of mortgage a lender will give you to the value of the property) to the archaic-sounding “gazumping” (when a seller accepts a higher offer - after previously accepting yours). There may currently be a stamp duty holiday up to £500,000 in England and Northern Ireland (and on the equivalent taxes in Scotland and Wales up to £250,000) until 31 March 2021, but if you’ll go over that sum or are unlikely to be able to make that deadline, be sure you know exactly what you’ll owe, and keep that money aside – don’t get caught out like friends who had to borrow thousands from family on the day of their transaction. (See also: ground rent and buildings insurance.) Don’t be afraid to ask what feel like stupid questions of your mortgage broker or solicitor. Do take notes, and keep them accessible: as well as making spreadsheets and timelines, I filled an entire notebook during the process, from my favourite streets to washing machine best buys.
4. Don’t start house hunting until you’re really, truly ready
Would you install Tinder before you were single, just to see what’s out there? You would not. While it can be tempting to start registering with estate agents and nosing around other people’s kitchens to see what you can afford, if you don’t have an agreement in principle from your lender, resist the temptation. You’ll only fall in love with a property that gets snapped up and forever becomes The One That Got Away. Nothing will ever live up to it, and you will be thinking about that place with the apple tree and the huge sash windows that was precisely six minutes’ walk from the tube for years to come. Ahem.
5. Listen to the professionals
If you’re a risk-averse type (insert hand-up emoji here), your instinct may be to go for the safest option, like a fixed-rate mortgage versus a variable-rate. But a persuasive broker talked me into the latter, and it proved to be the best decision I ever didn’t want to make, ultimately saving me thousands of pounds. What’s right for you and what’s the right decision in today’s market are big questions no one can entirely answer for you, which is why you need expert advice: not just from a broker but possibly an independent financial adviser, who will help you with the really big picture stuff – what you want from your future and how best to get there.
6. Become a hoarder
From applying for a mortgage to (when the time comes) selling up, err on the side of caution with paperwork. Yes, we should all aspire to save trees and yes, postmen already have back pain now that we’re all shopping online more than ever, but printouts of online statements will often not be accepted, leading to costly reissues and delays. Personally, I’ve rarely felt more smug than when I came to sell up and there in my dusty box file were faded certificates proving that I had indeed paid for a damp proof course, and a yellowed “completion statement” that made my tax return infinitely more straightforward. Cue geekiest air punch ever.
7. Found a good builder? Treat them as well as you would your mum
I’ve been lucky. The worst that has happened to me are no-shows and a builder unilaterally ripping out the original Victorian fireplace tiles and ceiling rose. But I have friends, family and colleagues who have been swindled, overcharged and threatened by dodgy tradespeople. Yes, you should check references and get quotes in writing, but it’s also worth checking with the trade bodies they claim to be members of. (A cousin learned that lesson the hard way, and ended up with a fire hazard of a loft extension that had to be rebuilt from scratch.) Above all, go with your gut: don’t like them? Don’t hire them. And when you do find a keeper, be their best client: make proper coffee, buy the good biscuits and try not to change your mind about where you want the light switches too many times.
8. Three new-owner buys you won’t regret
An electric screwdriver with Allen key bits (I have this one Link opens in a new window) will make assembling flatpack furniture quick and possibly even enjoyable. Opt for a Henry Hoover over an expensive cordless, bagless number: they aren’t just cheap, they’re brilliant - especially with plaster dust and the detritus even the tidiest builders leave behind. Pinterest board packed with upscale paints? Get colours matched by midrange stalwart Johnstone’s Paint, not the bargain trade brand at your local hardware store - it will look infinitely better, and you will be looking at those walls for many years to come. And then comes the part you’ve really been waiting for: the Instagram reveal. Enjoy every “like” – you’ve earned them.
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