This is not a comprehensive or legal guide, and some of the aspects of this are just generally not a good idea. This is how we did it, though:
1: Raising a Deposit or, Tragic Luck
A couple of years ago, my last remaining grandparent died. As a result of this, I could afford a deposit.
That’s the single biggest thing that propelled this process. I’m an IT worker on significantly above the UK average wage, my partner is also employed, and without this kick-start we would be renting for the rest of our lives no question. “Relief” for first time buyers saved us ~£5k on a £70,000 investment. Sure, the numbers would be a lot different if we weren’t buying in one of the most expensive areas of the country (Oxford is, on a house-price to average-salary ratio, more expensive than London, though that’s partially due to demographics); but people have to live here too.
2: Very Large Nets or, House Hunting
So June happened, and with it a large amount of money arrived. I paid off all debts, set a budget for Shiny Things from it, spent that, and realised that if I didn’t start this house-buying process now, I was going to gradually chip away at my inheritance on a “well, it’s only” and “I’ll put it back in next month” basis until I’d fucked everything up.
Just down the road from us was a brand new development – rare in Oxford, whose surrounding Green Belt constricts new housing development a lot of the time – called Barton Park, announced to great fanfare as having 40% affordable housing. All of that, however, appears to have been allocated to Oxford’s massively underserved Social Housing system, which I entirely support as a concept, but in this case means that none of the affordable housing is actually buy-able, and the non-affordable housing is… well, not affordable. 3 bedroom places were going from £580,000. My budget was – with a 60k deposit and a rough and ready mortgage calculation – £350,000. (I could have gone higher, but I wanted to keep monthly rates down. Plus every year I’ve not been able to do this is a year I’ve put over £12,000 into a landlord’s pocket instead of a house, and correspondingly reduced the time I can spend paying off a mortgage before I – hah – retire. I’m 38).
So, budget set, area set (within commute distance for my partner’s work. I’m remote, so it matters less to me), I hit my preferred house-hunting tool, Nestopia. There wasn’t much there. Apparently the housing market goes quiet between June and August – a fact that boggles my mind – but we had a couple of available options.
The first was a home that had been until quiet recently the Forever Home of an elderly couple for most of last century. Small rooms, a desperate need for redecorating and dodgy wiring aside, it had a nice garden and an external garage. It was going to take a certain amount of fixing up, but it was a nice option. We dithered for a bit, and a buy-to-let landlord scooped it.
The second place we saw was an end of terrace 3 bedroom with good transport links, an even nicer garden, a less nice but still great shed, decent sized rooms fairly recently redecorated. The floorboards felt a bit weird, and the religious iconography in every room was certainly a design choice, but it felt like a nice place. We were viewing it at the same time as another mid-30s couple, and as we left we decided it was worth a punt.
3: The Punt or, An Offer They Certainly Could Refuse
I told the seller’s Estate Agent, and they recommended a third party insurance broker. I booked an appointment with her the following morning, and we went though various options and what the next steps were. She put all our data into her system, and it spat out several options on mortgages, and I selected one based on her recommendation and terms. I could have done a lot of this online, but the deals I could get myself weren’t anywhere near as good as the broker’s. There are very few companies who come out of this process without complaint, but our mortgage brokers are one of them, they’ve been great though the rest of this torturous process. Let me know if you’re looking nearby, and I’ll put you in touch.
Mortgage offer in hand, I went back to the Estate Agents and put in an offer at the asking price. I probably could have gone slightly lower, but the other couple did that, and our offer was accepted.
(This is the point where I found out who the mortgage was with – it didn’t really matter as much as the numbers to me – and found it was a company whose Mortgage Application Tracking software I was working on 15 years ago, and nearly got fired for complaining about in a blog post where I (stupidly) didn’t redact my employer’s name)
That was June 21st, and was the last time we’d be in that house until October.
4: Due Process or, Solicitation or Bust.
Here’s a mistake we made: After the excellent advice of the Mortgage Advisor I forgot the central rule of dealing with Estate Agents which is: They work for the Vendor. When they suggested a Conveyancer I said “Yes, put them in touch with me”. Shortly afterwards I got a bill for searches and some other documentation saying “Thank you for retaining us”. When I asked on whose instruction they were working on, they said “Your estate agent”. Then their quote got the Stamp Duty wrong by ten grand. Then they said they couldn’t represent me because the vendors were also with them, but they would transfer me to their Nottingham office because “It’s technically another law firm”.
Reader: I fired them.
I took a couple more recommendations, and then went with the time honoured tradition of picking the one which actually answered and got back to me within a week. They did… fine, I guess. They’re not getting named here, because I’m going to whinge about them later.
They started doing searches for things like flood plain information, building land rights, sorting out contracts, that kind of thing. I wound up their clockwork with some starting cash, and they skittered away like a tin soldier.
That was 25th June.
5: Not-So-Easi-Form or, It’s Coming From Inside The Walls
Between 1920 and 1960, but mostly in the years following the World Wars, it became necessary to put up houses cheap and fast, thereby unticking the classic checkbox “good” of that trilogy. Laing came up with a thing called “Easi-Form”, where the foundations and walls are (as I understand it) cast in place with rebar for reinforcement. This is great, but that was ~70 years ago and there are a few cracks in the walls where it’s settled over the years, and sometimes those cracks leave the rebar open to the elements, at which point it rusts, dissolves and becomes less reinforcement, more liability.
The above took me around 4 months to learn. Here’s why:
Because the floorboards felt slightly weird – as mentioned above – when we went for the building report we got a full “Homeowners Report” instead of the basic level. This report is everything you ever wished to know about a place you were moving into, from which bits have been bodged with plaster and hope, through to what the walls are made out of and what’s going to need to be fixed in the next few years. Our report came back slightly before the mortgage one did, which is why we weren’t surprised when the mortgage company’s structural engineer’s report also came back – in part – with “this is a non-standard build, I’m not qualified to say if it’ll stand upright for the length of the mortgage”, which is when I learnt about Easi-Form.
At which point we needed to hire a Structural Engineer who could give a professional opinion on Easi-Form structures, which proved difficult. Every Structural Engineer our original building inspectors knew were either busy, skiing over the summer, or not willing to stake their liability insurance no-claims on Easi-Form. Eventually we found one, sent out another pile of money, and got back a report saying “Seems fine”, which took a few weeks, by which point it’s August 13th.
Then we sent it on to the mortgage company, who took a couple of weeks, and said “Why is only one of your names on this? There are two of you.” Which had been true of every report so far, but we got the Structural Engineer to add my partner’s name to it anyway, and sent it back. It’s September now.
A couple of weeks later, the mortgage company’s structural engineers came back and said “… we need more specifics about where it is and isn’t fine, and how much it might cost”.
The Structural Engineers bumped this up the chain until it got to the guy whose name is on the masthead, who added a basic cost for refacing all the walls in the next ten years or so and sent it back to us, and I sent it to the mortgage company, who sent it to their structural engineers.
Who, after a couple of weeks, came back with “Seems fine”.
By this point, it’s September 24th.
7: The Cult in Arboriculturalism or, Attack of the killer trees
While this is going on, the mortgage valuation report also came back with a request that we get an Arboriculturist to examine the various trees around the property to which, right, fine. It turns out Structural Engineers and Arboriculturists take their holidays at the same time, and finding a single one in Oxfordshire willing to look at a happy apple tree in the back garden and some distressed lime trees in the neighbour’s was more complicated than we really needed. Eventually I sent an email to everyone within 50 miles on the Arboriculturist Association website – the slightly easier to spell trees.org.uk – and got a reply and, eventually, a report.
That one was £540.
It said “Seems fine”.
8: Horse Dentistry or, A Gift Freely Given
Because I’d not had the money in my account for very long, and it had appeared very suddenly, I of course had to go through proof this wasn’t money laundering. The Conveyancers sent – by post, how quaint – a request for my parents to sign effectively an affidavit that they didn’t expect a financial return on the money and it was a gift. Sadly the bit of paper my parents received was to prove someone *else’s* financial situation.
Second time lucky, the Conveyancers sent the right letter next day.
9: Contractual Obligations, or An Avalanche of Paperwork
I have so many bits of paper at this point. Most of them in both PDF and wood-pulp form. I have reports of the flooding in the area (Seems fine), the original land reservations and boundaries (Seems fine), reports on freehold limitations (an Oxford College has Views on what we do with the externalities of our property, but that’s pretty normal for Oxford) and potential forced-purchase reservations (If Churchill Hospital needs to expand, it can go through us). I have Land Registry forms, mortgage insurance forms, life insurance forms, loss of income insurance forms.
The Estate Agents start to worry. Someone up the chain is trying to leave the country and needs to get their affairs sorted before October 14th (This is, I later learn, a Brexit thing). They might pull out if we don’t get this sorted, and suddenly everything shifts into high gear.
10: Numerically Conflicted or, Your Exchange Service Has Crashed
The Conveyancers and the mortgage company work out their differences, and we get the contract packs in order. They send out the documents on Monday to arrive Tuesday, be signed and returned Wednesday, ready for checking and Exchange on Friday. Tuesday arrives and the documents don’t. Post to this house has never worked especially reliably, which is why I suggest they send me the documents to print out and sign. They say no, it has to be paper. Okay then. The Estate Agents phone me every couple of hours to see if the post has been yet. It has not.
Wednesday dawns, and the post arrives mid-morning. The document pack isn’t in it. The Estate Agents are slowly turning purple, which is actually pretty on-brand for them, and remembering the events of Horse Dentistry above – though it was nearly three months prior – I phoned to ask exactly what address they’d sent it to, betting dollars to donuts they’d sent it to the new flat.
Nope. They’d invented a new address out of the house number of our destination with the street and postcode for our current place. I called upon my Boy Scout Training of ringing complete strangers doorbells and asking them for things (the 90s were a hell of a time) and rescued the documents complete with “Not At This Address” label ready to be given back to the postman.
This is the point I also realised that the bottom of my conveyancers’ emails had changed, advertising their brand new office with a brand new address. This, I realised, may have an effect on where I should send the damn documents. So I phoned their reception and asked, and got a brand new address I’d never seen before as the contact address.
We got them signed and witnessed thanks to a nearby friend, Kay, who helped at short notice, then I got them to the Actual Post Office and sent them posted – registered, signed for, next day or I’ll flay you alive service.
I also transferred 10% of the total cost of the house – just over half my deposit – by tapping at my phone for a bit, because the future is terrifying occasionally.
The next day the Estate Agents stopped asking if the documents had arrived with us, and instead phoned every hour to see if our Conveyancers had. They were also phoning the Conveyancers every hour. And the mortgage broker. And I assume – and kind of hope – each other. Eventually the conveyancers admitted that yes, they had arrived.
Also arriving that day: The second set of documents the conveyancers had now sent to the right address.
Friday they started phoning and telling me that the conveyancers hadn’t validated them yet! They were very insistent that this could take ages, and one single mistake could invalidate this whole process and give us no time to exchange or complete! THIS WAS A DISASTER.
We completed on Friday. It was fine.
11: Domino Rally or, Running In The Shadows
We were, as first-time buyers, at the bottom of a chain. At the top was someone trying to just liquidise their assets who was, as mentioned, in a tearing rush. In between was a series of people who needed to, in sequence, get the stuff out of their old house, hand over the keys, receive the money for their old house and then pay for the new house. A lot of this happens on trust – we’re already contracted to do this – but with the twitchy guy at the top of the chain the person managing the chain was in turn very twitchy. During the week between Exchange and Completion everything went very quiet as the conveyancers shuffled paperwork in the background.
I transferred the rest of the deposit, asked if I needed to do anything else (“No”, they said) then popped the remains of the inheritance into a savings account (by, again, tapping on my phone. This time sitting by the Thames). This was also a mistake.
Friday, 16:45, I got an email from the conveyancers titled “COMPLETION STATEMENT SENT” with a bill of nearly £4,000, which needed to be paid in cleared funds before completion could happen on Monday.
I had forgotten about the Conveyancer’s fees and also Stamp Duty (Which doesn’t apply to First Time Buyers for the first £300,000 of your purchase, but did for the remaining £50k). Because my savings account is a “Next working day” for transfers, I was mildly screwed. Eventually I took out an instant £5k loan though Monzo, used it to pay the fees, and then paid it back in full from my savings account on Monday.
12: Our House or, Our Castle and Our Keep
Monday was still tense. Nationwide took their time releasing the funds, and the Estate Agents were on their anxiety symptoms again at the point where we both got a message at the same time.
In fact, the Agent was on the phone to me to see if I had a better number for the Conveyancers when he got a call on the other line which he thought might be them. Putting me on hold, he answered them and then after a short while phoned me on another line (while I was still on hold) to tell me the good news.
It was a confusing day.
I finished up my meetings for the day, and then me and fyr took the bus to the Estate Agents to pick up the keys, and from there to our new house. We took with us the traditional kettle, teapot and the mugs I’d bought for this purpose back in 2012 two moves ago, and we sat in the new house and had a nice cup of tea while finding out what keys went in what things.
Then I wrote on the wall.
Appendix: Where Does All The Money Go?
Okay, I’ve been in two minds about doing this, but I think it might be useful for people, so here we go. There might be cheaper or more expensive ways of doing all these things, prices are a guide only:
- House (3 Bedrooms, North Oxford): £350,000.00
- Stamp Duty: £2,500 (First Time Buyers rate)
- Land/Water/Utilities Searches (performed by Conveyancer): £192
- Land Registry Fee: £135
- Conveyancer Fees: £952.00 (That’s hiring fee plus various expenses)
- Arboricultural Report: £540 (Required by Mortgage)
- Mortgage Broker: £500
- Mortgage Fees: £999 (Was added on to, and then garnished directly off, the mortgage payment without me ever seeing it)
- RICS Building Survey £550 (Mortgage included a cheaper survey, but I doubled up because I was – rightly, it turns out – paranoid)
- Structural Engineer Survey £510 (Required by Mortgage)
Costs coming up:
- Full service moving (Pack & Move): £900
- Getting a sparky to check the house isn’t going to burn down: £500
- Replacing the locks on the doors whose keys no longer work: £60-200 (Should have checked this one)
- Wiring the place for network (because better now than later): £550.
More New House Adventures – the new series from the writers of New Flat Adventures – coming soon.