Comfort is a wonderful thing but there comes a point when we all need something more. Independence. Our own space. A blank canvas. Add appropriate cliche here… I'm a restless soul; always have been. At home in the family house, the university diggs, the flatshare. Too much living squashed into too small a space. A bedroom. A suitcase. A dream. Forget peer pressure or convention. For my own sanity I simply had to make a home – room by room, piece by piece. I've been trying for a while but with very little luck. And I'm one of the more fortunate ones – I have a budget. So how much of this grief is self-inflicted and how much of it is down to the market?
According to the last census, home ownership has fallen by 4 per cent the UK. In London, the ladder to climb is even more daunting. Take Hackney borough for example. Only 26.1 per cent of residents live in their own property, compared to a national average of 64 per cent, says the Office for National Statistics. And the London borough with the highest percentage price increase over the past year? You've guessed it. Hackney again. Bottom line: the rich get richer, the poor get poorer and the rest tread water somewhere in the middle. Does taste even come into it these days? The mad scramble for London.
Meanwhile the BBC reports that opportunists from abroad have driven up prices even further, thus freezing out first-time buyers. The government has tried to alleviate pressure on UK buyers by offering two help-to-buy schemes, which will reportedly benefit 200,000 people a year as they will be able to buy homes up to a value of £600,000 with only a 5 per cent deposit. However critics fear that this will create an even bigger housing bubble and achieve no long-lasting positive impact.
No wonder first-time buyers – either in an act of disillusionment or defiance, probably both – are unwilling to make compromises with their chosen property or rein in their spending habits, according to recent research by the Post Office. Many of us feel that it's never going to happen, right. So eat, drink and be merry for…
The only way that many young adults can become homeowners is with the help of their parents. Who else? My mum and dad bought their home in a quaint residential part of Brighton in the late eighties, at a snip of the current cost. They made a few shrewd modifications – extension, extra bedroom, patio, two-tier garden – and they toiled in the newsagency business for more than 20 years, at great personal cost, in order to secure a bright future for myself and my brother.
Unfortunately my mum passed away a few years ago before we could all enjoy post-retirement family life together. That house was then put on the market, with my father and I destined for Crawley and London respectively. We've yet to find a buyer. Someone that sees the tremendous opportunity in front of them – a great plot of land, glorious views, great accessibility and the bare bones of a home requiring only minimal refurbishment. And this is Brighton we're talking about: a quality of life survey topper with its bohemian beach vibe, countless foodie hangouts and picture-postcard Regency splendour. While that house remains we are anchored in the past.
We are a family of grafters and are not the best at living in the moment. Finding my own home, one that was more than a functional piece of proeprty at the bottom rung of the market, would go some way towards bucking that trend. It's that acute awareness of the fragility of human life that comes with the passing of a loved one. You realise that abstinence and sacrifice, as important as they are, pale in comparison to the pursuit of pleasure.
London is the place for me, not only because it is the centre of media and commerce in this country but also because it has a bristling energy that puts a spring in my step. Finding the right place is a very subjective thing. We each have our own criteria, the top of which could be anything from size of property to proximity to work. Obviously budget is a primary consideration for all but the most privileged. I have tried to work within mine – around £300,000 for a (share of) freehold two-bedroom conversion with good transport links – but I have also held out for a period property with the kind of character that would lift my spirits as I walk up to the front door after a hard day at work. Imposing architecture, buildings that age gracefully, that sort of thing.
I have viewed almost 200 homes in London over the past two years. It's a depressing statistic, one that causes countless estate agents to recoil with a mixture of trepidation and disbelief. So why the fuss? Well, high standards – pickiness, basically – is a charge I can't deny. A sense of entitlement? Understandable when you work overtime. But it's more than that. Over this two-year period there have been a few near misses, unhelpful estate agents and so forth. There was also the ephemeral notion of feel – in the house, the street, the borough.
The are two schools of thought when it comes to buying your first property: the first emphasises the importance of investment potential, the other prioritises character and homeliness. Of course there is overlap but most buyers will fit into one of these two. After mum's passing I thought long and hard about the kind of life I wanted to live. I'd travelled the world, had a first-class education, worn nice clothes and eaten well … but something was missing. Somewhere to belong, shape and then share with others.
It's been a long road and there have been more than a few moments of frustration and self-loathing. Character? Period? Oh get over yourself. But I have finally found a flat. Lease complications aside, it's third time lucky and I will become a Penge resident in modest two-bedroom flat by March. This quiet village is a long way from where I first started my search, but isn't that the way it usually goes? The flat is that blank canvas I mentioned earlier. But it's also a starting block from which to push off into the next stage of life. Less stress, more adventure, and the freedom to take chances. Like starting my own business.
As with parenting, so I'm told, personal experience is invaluable when you buy your first home. The mistakes, the strokes of luck, the tips and tricks. Much of this is common sense but here's what I've learned:
- Repeat after me – compromise. Whether you have a gift from your parents or you are dependent on the unholy alliance of the banks and government, you can improve your chances of success – while minimising the wear and tear of the search – by being brutally honest with yourself. What can you afford and what's the one thing that your first home must have? Do you really need that private parking space or roof terrace?
- Give yourself as much wriggle room as possible, especially if you are trying to buy in London. I'd suggest concentrating your search on properties that are £10,000-£20,000 below your maximum budget as everything is selling well above asking price at the moment.
- Be adventurous about your next neighbourhood. Step out. Find a town or borough that offers good transport links – an hour's commute to work is fair – but don't be beholden to your current employer. You won't be working there forever. I stumbled upon Penge just before the Evening Standard applied the kiss of death by running a double-page spread last month. Be ahead of the curve.
- Select an area that is on the up. This means one that will soon benefit from investment in infrastructure, housing, amenities and green spaces. Keep an eye on the local news or property sections of papers (again, the Evening Standard is a useful gauge of hotspots in London for example). Move along a station or two from your chosen hotspot to make your money stretch a little bit further.
- Research each area on the internet and find the names of a few suitable streets depending on your needs (proximity to the nearest station, style of property etc). Then take a walk around two or three of your favourites after checking them out on Google Street View. If crime is a concern, see how safe the area is by using this.
- Some people have tasted success from dropping letters of interest around their favourite neighbourhoods. You might get lucky and find a vendor that's looking to move on and who may swayed by a private sale that saves them the commission.
- Note down the names of the main estate agents using a mixture of Right Move, Adzuna and streetwalking, and then pay a visit to each for a face-to-face meeting. Make your interest known, demonstrate that your a serious and trustworthy buyer. Contrary to popular belief, some estate agents are human beings and will appreciate the personal touch.
- Use Mouseprice to get a sense of the local market and how much particular properties have sold for the the past.
- Strike first. Get on the phone as soon as you see something you like that's arrived in your inbox from an estate agent. Don't rely on emails. And remember, Right Move is a fantastic resource but often out of date.
- Be friendly and courteous at all times. Speak to others at open days. Share stories. Meet the owner of the flat beneath you and be willing to make friends. Always be calm and measured with estate agents, surveyors and others. It's tough out there and as tensions run high it's all too easy to feel injustice and strike out. To your disadvantage. Be a little more Buddha about it and remember – "Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die."
On that upbeat note, the best of luck.