Where to start when searching for a property
When you're hoping to buy a house or flat, the first thing you'll need to decide is which area (or areas) you want to look in.
It costs an awful lot of money to buy a property, and if you're a first-time buyer you'll only get your stamp duty discount or exemption once, so it's worth buying somewhere you could realistically stay for a good few years.
This means you need to think about your future needs as well as your current ones. Are you likely to have children, or start commuting to a different workplace? These kinds of questions could all impact the type and location of property you go for.
Our guide on finding the best places to live has tips on choosing an area and a tool that will let you check key stats for the place you're thinking of buying in.
Using online property portals
Once you've settled on an area, it's time to start house-hunting.
Most people start their hunt on online property portals such as Rightmove, Zoopla and OnTheMarket, which list properties being sold by estate agents and developers who advertise on these sites. Rightmove usually has the most comprehensive listings so is a good place to start.
You can filter your search to only include properties matching your budget and minimum number of bedrooms. (Tip: it can be worth setting the maximum price a little higher than your actual budget as sellers will often end up accepting less than the original asking price.)
As well as browsing the portals' websites and apps, you can set up alerts so that you know as soon as a property matching your criteria becomes available.
Online listings will usually include photos, floorplans, descriptions and key stats such as nearby schools, and they can give you a good flavour of the types of properties available for your budget.
However, it's really important to get out and view properties in person, as they'll often be very different in the flesh. Read on to find out how to actually set up a viewing.
Registering with estate agents
People nearly always sell their homes through estate agents, and this means you'll need to register with agencies to be able to go on viewings.
When you start your property search, register your interest with estate agents in your desired areas. This won’t cost you anything or create any obligation on your part – it just lets agents know that you’re looking.
If you can, visit the estate agents’ offices and register in person. Being able to put a face to a name can work wonders in building up rapport. And don’t restrict yourself to one agent - the more you register with, the more likely you are to be called when your dream home goes up for sale.
It’s worth sharing your back story when you register, as it can help the agent understand your needs - for example, if you want to move ASAP to start a new job, or if you’re willing to compromise on size to live near a popular school.
Keep in touch
Estate agents often call registered buyers about new properties before listing them online, and in a thriving market, the best places can get snapped up before even making it onto Rightmove.
This means it's worth keeping in regular contact with agents, so you’re front of mind when new properties hit their books market.
Video: making friends with estate agents (and why it matters)
Estate agent tactics
No matter how friendly they are, estate agents are there to represent the person selling the property - not buying it.
However, some operate more ethically than others. Tactics employed by the less scrupulous companies can include:
- Pressuring you into making an offer before you’re ready, perhaps by implying that there are other interested parties
- Getting friends or family to attend auctions or viewings to make the property seem more in demand than it really is
- Downplaying defects (although they are legally obliged to tell you about any problems they’re aware of)
- Encouraging you to make more compromises than you'd originally planned
- Pushing you to increase the size of your offer before actually passing it onto the seller
Remember that an asking price is just that. Most estate agents are paid on a commission basis, meaning the more they sell the property for, the more they'll earn - but they are legally obliged to pass on all offers to the seller, no matter how low.
Do your own research into what the property is actually worth (our sellers' guide, how much is your house worth?, has pointers on this) - and don’t exceed your top budget, no matter what the agent says.
- Find out more: making an offer on a house or flat
Your rights when buying through an estate agent
Most of the legislation in this area aims to protect the seller against dishonest practice, meaning there's limited protection for buyers.
However, estate agents are obliged to:
- Use clear contract terms
- Pass on your offer promptly – they can’t hold it back simply because you don’t want to use their other facilities, such as their recommended mortgage broker or solicitor
- Reveal any financial interest they have in the property that you’re looking at
- Answer direct questions accurately and reveal defects in the property that could affect a buyer's decision.
If you’re given false information, you might have a claim against the agent under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations (CPRs).
If you suspect that an agent has acted in breach of these regulations, you should contact the local authority’s trading standards department.
To avoid disputes over whether things have been verbally agreed, record details of any conversations you have, including who you spoke to, on what date and what was said.
Some agents are also members of the NAEA Propertymark, which has a code of conduct that agents are obliged to follow.
Other ways to find a property: auctions
Property auctions can be a quick way to buy a home, as you'll generally get the keys within 28 days of the auction.
But auctions aren’t for everyone. They'll often offer properties in poor condition that sellers have struggled to shift on the open market, and successful bidders have to sign and pay a deposit (usually 10% of the purchase price) straight after the auction.
- Find out more: property auctions.
Leafleting to find a property
If there’s a particular area or building you want to buy in but nothing suitable for sale, you could try dropping leaflets into any properties you think might work. Be sure to include:
- A brief explanation of the type of property you're looking for (e.g. at least three bedrooms and a garden)
- Anything that makes you sound like an appealing buyer (e.g. no chain, finances in place)
- Your contact details.
Hiring a buyers’ agent
Buyers’ agents will search for a property on your behalf, using their contacts to find out about properties that haven't yet hit the open market.
They're particularly useful in the prime market, where some properties aren't publicly listed at all.
A buyers' agent will also offer on your behalf. This can give you an edge over other buyers as agents are experienced in negotiating and securing properties in competitive situations.
Buying agents' fees can either be fixed, a percentage of the purchase price, or the saving you make between the asking and purchase price.
Make sure they’re not going to benefit from any commissions or kickbacks if you buy a property they recommend – ideally, their only payments would come from you, so you know they’re acting in your best interests.
If you’re looking to buy a new-build property, developers’ websites can be a good place to look.
Buying in a new development might involve buying a property before it’s been built, which has its pros and cons.
- Find out more: buying off-plan
Private house sales
Some people choose to sell their homes privately, rather than through an estate agent.
Private sellers might advertise their property in local newspapers, or on classified advertising websites such as Gumtree.
Find out more: private house sales