House-hunting can be an exhausting business.
You may like the look of a property on paper, but estate agents’ particulars and brochures don’t tell the full story. Even online virtual tours won’t give an honest ‘warts and all’ picture, so it’s essential to discover what a place is like in the flesh.
There’s no substitute for seeing it with your own eyes.
Unless you’re a serial nosy-parker, a lot of time can be wasted viewing unsuitable properties. The trick is to manage your time by ruling out the inappropriate ones before arranging viewings. The majority can be crossed off your list simply by taking a quick preliminary drive-past.
If you think agents’ descriptions are wide of the mark, their photography sometimes deserves awards for creativity. Images are often professionally enhanced thanks to the use of wide-angle lenses and coloured filters.
It’s rumoured that some agents even go so far as to ‘photoshop out’ inconvenient electrical substations and telegraph poles!
Even glorious blue skies may have been digitally reproduced. So the impression of charming bucolic open space worthy of Constable’s brush may lack something in gritty realism, perhaps having chosen to exclude the bus depot next door. The properties you like the look of may turn out to be massively over-hyped as well as overpriced, shattering carefully raised expectations.
If at this stage your present home is already under offer, you’re likely to be under pressure to find the best available property within the space of a few short weeks.
In a strong market you’ll need to get in before rival house-hunters, so it can pay to start early in the day.
However, with the best will in the world you’re unlikely to manage more than about five viewings in a day before collapsing from exhaustion, even if they’re all conveniently located in the same area. Most people view properties at weekends or in the evening after work.
Unless the sellers have chosen to sell privately, appointments to view are usually made via the estate agent. However, that doesn’t mean the agent will be present when you turn up.
Some home owners prefer to show you round personally. This may be a blessing in disguise as at least you’ll be spared the incessant stream of sales banter!
Alternatively, if times are hard a junior negotiator may be volunteered to drive you round a number of properties. But watch out for ‘tactical viewing’ where you’re deliberately shown some overpriced dumps before being shown around the place they really want to shift, so that it appears more desirable.
Less common are group viewings, where agents book all interested parties to look round together, perhaps on a Saturday morning. This makes life considerably easier for the agent and minimises periods of disturbance for sellers.
The idea behind such mass viewings (or ‘open house events’ as they are sometimes grandly billed) is to play one buyer off against another by creating the impression of demand.
The hope is for a competitive frenzy to develop, eliciting ever-higher offers from rival buyers. But in a quiet market the opposite can happen as embarrassed strangers stand around looking awkwardly at each other, wondering why there is so little interest.
If the seller is particularly difficult about agreeing times of viewings, it’s not usually a good sign. Uncompromising people can be hard to do business with, or they may be strategically timing appointments to spare your ears from next door’s drum rehearsals.
How to view
Most of us have a gut instinct whether a place is the right one for us within a few minutes of walking through the front door. But leaving your biggest investment purely down to instinct isn’t always wise, plus there’s an awful lot of information to take in, so it’s always best to bring someone with you for a second opinion.
It’s sometimes easy to get carried away during viewings, so a friend or partner can help you remain objective, perhaps stopping you making a wild offer in the heat of the moment.
They may also see problems where you don’t or see opportunities that you’ve missed. Having a comrade at hand is also important for personal safety reasons. However, kids and dogs tend to get in the way and distract you, so if possible leave them at home.
Don’t let the home owner or agent rush you. You’re entitled to take all the time you need to make a major decision involving enormous sums of money.
Even so, on your first viewing all you can realistically expect to achieve is to get an overall feel for the property.
It’s totally impossible to take everything in all in one go – deciding which rooms would suit whom, sizing up where your furniture could go and judging the colour of the decorations – whilst trying to make small talk and simultaneously surveying the condition of the building.
Try to look beyond the surface. By relying on first impressions you could end up rejecting an otherwise sound property at a bargain price, purely on the basis of off-putting woodchip wallpaper and malodorous doggy smells.
You may have to use your imagination to see beyond the encrusted shag pile carpets and avocado bathroom suite. Try to visualise the potential for rooms to be enlarged or subdivided to suit your requirements.
During viewings it’s best not to say too much. Laughing openly at the sellers’ appalling taste in wallpaper and furnishings could antagonise them, so they make a mental note not to sell to you.
Alternatively, appearing obviously super-keen at this stage could weaken your negotiating position if you later come to make an offer.
To properly assess a house, take a list of important points to check. A camera, a tape measure and binoculars can come in very useful, along with a notebook to jot down details so at the end of the day you’ll have something tangible to jog the memory.
There’s a lot you can check before even going inside. Just observing the immediate environment can reveal a lot of important stuff. For example:
- How safe does the street appear, and is it OK for children?
- Are the neighbouring flats or houses well cared for?
- Do the neighbours run a business with vans parked outside?
- Are there any electric pylons or mobile phone masts nearby?
- What are the parking arrangements?
- Is there much road noise?
It’s worth noting whether any big-ticket items are getting on a bit and likely to need expensive replacing in the near future. So if possible take a quick butchers at the outside of the property and note the general condition of the brickwork, roof tiles, paintwork and windows.
Internally, things like kitchen and bathroom fittings, the electrics and the heating system may be crying out for expensive replacement. Spotting any obvious defects can help you justify a lower price if it later comes to making an offer.
Obvious issues to look for include signs of damp such as bubbling paint or peeling wallpaper, and musty smells. Fresh paint may have been applied to hide a damp patch. Look for evidence of leaks, especially to ceilings below bathrooms.
It’s worth bearing in mind that no property is going to be 100 per cent right, but many will have the scope to be adapted to your requirements. So once inside, look for potential to extend or convert the loft. There may be outbuildings with potential for conversion into office space, or a surplus utility room that could be knocked-through to create an attractive kitchen/diner.
If you like a property, you’ll probably want to arrange a second viewing. If the market’s slow you can afford the luxury of taking your time, even going back a third or fourth time.
You don’t want to rush such an important decision, but neither do you want to dither while someone else snatches the prize from under your nose.
Having toured a fair number of properties by now, the reality of what’s available on the market means you may have to compromise on some of your original ideals. At least a quarter of buyers admit to having changed their minds about what they wanted once they started viewing seriously.
On second viewings you notice a lot more. If you haven’t yet seen the place in daylight, it will now be clear how much, or how little, light gets in. Hallways can sometimes appear depressingly gloomy, and dining rooms may suffer from being marooned in semi-darkness where a rear extension has been added.
Having seen the place before, you’ll have a list of points you want to clarify – the size of the third bedroom, whether the kitchen had a gas cooker, was there a shed in the garden?
Now you can really get busy taking snaps or videos to study later at your leisure. You can also check that basics such as taps, showers and light switches are all in working order, and find out when boilers and the electrics/consumer units were last tested.
A lot of owners and agents feel obliged to stick to you like glue, droning on and pointing out the bleedin’ obvious. This is usually down to nerves on their part, but can distract you from the important things that need to be checked.
If the running commentary begins to sap your will to live you might want to make a suggestion ‘Would it be OK if we just had a couple of minutes to discuss it between ourselves and to get a feel for the place?’
To see more of the neighbourhood, park some distance away and take a good walk around. If there are lots of giant aerials and dishes sprouting everywhere it may be a clue to the quality of TV reception in the area.
It’s always wise to make additional visits to the immediate area at different times of day to nose out potential issues in the locality – the usual suspects are listed below. But even the most innocent looking green field could morph into a rock festival for a couple of weeks a year or play host to the occasional Civil War re-enactment.
Noise from main roads can mean having to keep windows closed in summer, and can be a worry if you have children and pets. Even tranquil backwaters may become congested ‘rat runs’ at peak times. So be sure to visit during the morning and evening rush hours.
School traffic can transform an otherwise lazy lane into congested double-parked gridlock. Busy periods are 8:30–9:15am and 3:00–3:45pm. This may not be an issue for those who are out at work every day, but bear in mind that schools occasionally host weekend events too. Also, playground noise can travel a surprising distance.
Railway lines and stations
Early morning commuters like to save on car parking charges by parking down the road from the station and in side roads. If the house is near the railway line, it’s obviously worth checking how frequent and noisy the trains are, especially at night. Likewise flight paths.
Shops and parks
Open-all-hours corner shops may have a loyal teenage following, perhaps congregating en masse and alarming the gentle citizens of the borough with exuberant booze-fuelled antics. Local parks may provide a haven for connoisseurs of Special Brew and full strength scrumpy.
What could be more enticing than a charming ‘Inspector Morse’ country retreat within walking distance? A positive boon to the thirsty lady or gent. But pubs can be a mixed blessing.
A local 24-hour hard-drinking establishment with a profitable sideline in drug dealing may not be such good news. Pubs and nightclubs tend to show their true colours come ‘chucking-out time’.
Even quaint village pubs might hold the occasional event enticing swarms of balding, paunchy Harley-Davidson riders to descend and devour pig roasts. Lock up your daughters.
We ask the questions
Sooner or later you will find a property that appears to fit the bill. A second viewing confirms that it does indeed tick all the right boxes, perhaps subject to a spot of updating here and there.
But before making an offer there are a number of key questions that need to be asked, some of which can be casually dropped into the conversation as you tour the property. Some of this information may already have been volunteered by the owner or the agent, and most should in any case be covered by your solicitor or surveyor.
But it makes sense to satisfy yourself now, rather than find out in a couple of months that the house is prone to flooding every spring. Or perhaps that the present owner originally picked it up cheap on account of its gruesome history linked to suicides or murders.
So before going any further, look the seller in the eye and politely ask the following:
How long have you lived here?
This is an easy, icebreaker question. But if the answer is in months rather than years, perhaps it’s because buying the property turned out to be a major blunder.
Why are you moving?
They may have a young family who have outgrown the available space. Or perhaps they need to relocate for their work, or urgently desire a lifestyle change by moving to the mountains of Patagonia.
The one thing you can certain about is that they won’t tell you it’s because they’ve got neighbours from hell, or that the local school is Britain’s worst.
Play detective to see if you think their reason is genuine.
How long has the property been on the market?
This will normally depend on the state of the property market. If it’s been on for ages, it may be that the sellers have been let down or had sales fall through due to problems elsewhere in the chain.
Perhaps their previous buyer panicked and pulled out because of matters raised in the survey or the searches. The good news is that you should be able to drive a hard bargain if the owners are fed up to the back teeth and just want to get on with their move.
Think carefully about buying a quirky property, as you may experience the same difficulties when you come to sell.
Have you had many viewings/offers?
If the answer’s ‘No’ then it may be down to a duff estate agent, or overpricing. Watch out for agents who exaggerate interest or invent other offers to panic you into buying.
Are you in a chain?
Most sellers will be simultaneously buying another house to move to. The longer the chain the more chance there will be of a problem with another property causing it to break.
What’s included in the sale?
Many sellers can’t face the hassle of removing all the old carpets and curtains, which in any case probably won’t be the right size for their new house. But it’s important to be clear about what is and isn’t included, to avoid silly disputes arising later.
What are the neighbours like?
If you can’t hear their reply because of the deafening argument raging next door, it might not be worth pursuing this line of questioning.
No one wants to live next to a Fred West, so it’s worth asking for a few details about the neighbours.
Do they sound like your kind of people? Do they work unsocial hours? Your solicitor will later ask for confirmation that there have been no disputes or complaints made about neighbours).
Where’s the nearest shops, schools, surgery etc?
You probably already have a pretty fair idea about the local amenities, but the sellers may well be able to offer some handy tips about what’s hot and what’s not.
Have there been any burglaries or car break-ins or thefts?
A tough question to which, regrettably, a lot of us would have to hold our hand up. But this should be considered in perspective – in many cases it will have been a one-off isolated incident.
What are the parking arrangements?
This should be fairly be obvious, but sometimes there’s a separate garage or some longstanding unofficial arrangement. If there is no off-street parking you may have to pay for resident parking permits.
Have any improvements been carried out?
This is important, as extensions and structural works normally require planning or building regulations consent. There may be guarantees for timber, damp & beetle treatment works, and for double glazing or refitted kitchens and bathrooms. Mention these to your solicitor, so they can request the relevant warranties.
Is the property on mains drainage?
In rural areas you may have a private drainage system shared with neighbours, which will have cost and access implications. Ask when any cesspits or septic tanks were last emptied.
Does anyone else have rights over the property?
Rights of way across gardens and through shared passageways aren’t as unusual as you might think, and are not always obvious on site.
Does anyone else live here?
In other words, does anyone have a legal right to remain in occupation after you’ve moved in, such as a former partner?
Is there any history of flooding, or are you on a flood plain?
If, in response to a direct question, the sellers mumble something vague and stare at their Wellingtons, or you notice that your feet are starting to feel a trifle damp, be sure to check online at the environment agency as well as via your solicitor.
Has the property been underpinned?
Subsidence and a history of underpinning are the property world’s equivalent of syphilis. The ailment may have been cured but it can leave a stigma. Insurers and mortgage lenders usually worry if there is any history of underpinning, and may raise last-minute problems, so tackle this early.
How much are utility bills and what is the Council Tax band?
You can check Council Tax on the local authority’s website.
For flats it’s worth asking how long the remaining lease term is, and whether the seller has a copy of the most recent service charge and ground rent invoice.
Who are you dealing with?
By now you may have a shortlist of two or three suitable properties, although there is probably one that you like best. But before plunging in and making an offer it helps to figure out what sort of person you’ll be dealing with.
It’s almost as important to suss out the people selling as it is to weigh up the pros and cons of the property. Should your offer be accepted, then over the next few weeks and months these people will come to dominate your life.
This is where a large helping of luck enters the equation. Dealing with an honest, reliable seller can save months of tearing your hair out, and is probably worth a few grand on the purchase price.
So you need to consider whether you trust them, and whether their plans and timescales are likely fit with yours.
Sadly, whether your sellers turn out to be paragons of virtue or not, they will still be at the mercy of everyone else in the chain. So it’s important to ask them or their agent about the length of the chain before making an offer.
The longer it is, the more chance there is that someone totally unknown to you could subsequently torpedo not just your purchase but also your sale (usually just when you’re about to exchange).
One thing you need to be very wary of is sellers who are divorcing. If they’re each moving to a separate new property, the chance of the chain collapsing can be multiplied by two (unless they’re renting).
And the bitterness of divorce means that every decision they make may be challenged and contested as each seeks to sabotage the other. Not the perfect backdrop for a swift and painless move.
The BIG decision
You’ve done your homework. You’ve physically walked around, measured and checked everything until you’re blue in the face. But don’t disregard your ‘intuition’ – it’s just as important to be able to imagine yourself happily living there. If you strongly feel a place is right, it probably is.
On the other hand, falling instantly in love with a property, can make it hard to keep the good news to yourself. However, it’s best to contain your glee if at all possible. This is where being on good terms with the agent can lull you into a false sense of security. If you reveal your hand by showing them how thrilled you are, they and their client will feel better placed to drive a hard bargain.
So by curbing your enthusiasm you should be able to save some serious money with some well judged haggling. By adopting a friendly approach, sellers are more likely to accept a lower offer because you’ve built a rapport with them.
Next we look at making an offer, eeep!
It’s about to get REAL.