Process of buying a house: step-by-step guide
Buying a house is a complex and often lengthy process - but if you can get your head around the basics of how it works, you’re less likely to be taken by surprise along the way and your home-buying experience will undoubtedly be easier.
This page takes you briefly through each step you’re likely to take during the home-buying process, and you can find more details by following the links within each section.
If you want a bit of inspiration, download our guide below, print it out and tick off each milestone as you move towards becoming a homeowner.
1. Save for a mortgage deposit
You’ll usually need to build up a deposit of at least 5% of the price of the property you want to buy. However, it’s often worth saving more if you can bear to wait longer, as a bigger deposit means access to better mortgage deals.
If you're a first-time buyer hoping to buy a property costing up to £450,000, saving into a lifetime Isas will entitle you to a 25% top-up from the government. Help to Buy Isas also offer this, although people buying outside London will be limited to a maximum property price of £250,000. This isn't the only difference between the two account types - check out our Help to Buy Isa vs lifetime Isa guide to learn more.
If you’re keen to buy sooner rather than later, you could consider the following options:
- Help to Buy equity loan - you save a 5% deposit and the government loans you between 15% and 40% of the property price, depending on where you want to buy, for a new-build home.
- Shared ownership - you buy a 25%-75% share in a property and pay rent on the rest.
- Help from parents - even if your family can’t provide cash towards your deposit, some mortgage lenders will take parents’ incomes or assets into account, making it easier for you to borrow.
Find out more: how to save for a mortgage deposit
Call Which? Mortgage Advisers for expert guidance through every step of the mortgage process.
2. Find out how much mortgage you can borrow
The amount a mortgage provider will lend you will depend on the size of your deposit, your income and your credit score. If you’re buying a property with other people, the lender will also take their finances into account.
Remember to budget for the additional costs of buying a property, including conveyancing, surveys and - depending on the cost of the property and whether you’re a first-time buyer - stamp duty.
A mortgage broker will be able to advise you on how much you’re likely to be able to borrow.
- Find out more: how much can I borrow? mortgage calculator
3. Research your chosen area
Even if you’ve lived there all your life, it’s important to do some digging on the area you want to buy in before signing on the dotted line. Look into:
- Any regeneration projects or transport links being planned for the area
- School catchment areas and Ofsted ratings if you have (or are planning to have) children
- Crime rates and flood risks
- Traffic and noise at different times of day
If you’re exploring towns or neighbourhoods you haven’t lived in before, it can also be worth spending a night or two in a local B&B to check out the commute, shops, restaurants, and general atmosphere.
- Find out more, including key information about the specific area you’re looking at in our guide on finding the best places to live
4. Apply for a mortgage agreement in principle
Also known as a decision in principle (DIP) or agreement in principle (AIP), this is a confirmation from a mortgage lender that they would, in principle, be willing to lend you a certain amount.
Having an AIP can make you a more attractive buyer as it shows the seller and their estate agent that you will be able to secure the amount of money you need to buy the property.
Applying for a mortgage in principle can involve either a soft or hard credit check. A soft credit check won’t affect your credit rating, but multiple hard credit checks within a short period of time can impact your credit score, which can in turn reduce your chances of being accepted for a mortgage. It’s therefore important to seek advice before applying for an AIP.
Which? Mortgage Advisers can explain how AIPs work and help you get one.
- Find out more: Which? Mortgage Advisers' guide to agreements in principle (AIPs)
5. Register with estate agents
Once you’ve chosen the area (or areas) where you’re interested in buying a home, register with local estate agents in the area. Registering is free and won’t create any obligation on your part.
Keeping in touch with local estate agents could increase your chances of finding your dream home, as agents sometimes contact registered buyers before listing a property online.
- Find out more: registering with estate agents
6. View properties in person
While you’ll inevitably spend plenty of time browsing Rightmove and Zoopla, it’s important to view properties in person as well as online. Viewing homes in real life will give you a deeper understanding of their potential - or lack of it - plus you’ll be able to gauge whether they give you that indescribable ‘feeling’, which simply can’t be conveyed via a screen.
When you find somewhere you like, it’s worth viewing it more than once and at different times of day, as you’re more likely to notice potential problems.
- Find out more: property-viewing guide and checklist - and, if you’re considering buying a home that hasn’t been built yet, viewing a show home
7. Make an offer on a house or flat
It’s quite common to offer less than the asking price. However, if other people are interested in the property, you may need to offer the asking price or more.
Looking at how much other, similar properties in the same neighbourhood have recently sold for will help you work out how much the property is worth. You can find this info on websites such as Zoopla and the Land Registry.
Once you’ve decided how much to offer, you can tell the estate agent on the phone or in person, but it’s worth putting it in writing too. Mention any points that stand in your favour - eg if you’re a chain-free first-time buyer - and say that your offer is subject to a survey and the property being taken off the market, as this lessens the chances of you being gazumped.
- Find out more: making an offer on a house or flat
8. Apply for a mortgage
You’ll need to think about what type of mortgage you want to apply for - for example, a fixed-rate mortgage or a tracker - and how long you want to spend paying your mortgage off, known as the mortgage term (25 years is the norm).
You can see how much your monthly payments would cost based on different interest rates, loan amounts and mortgage terms using our mortgage repayments calculator.
If you’re self-employed, have a bad credit score or just want an expert to do the hard work for you, it’s well worth talking to an impartial mortgage broker such as Which? Mortgage Advisers.
Call Which? Mortgage Advisers to find and arrange the right mortgage for you.
- Find out more: applying for a mortgage
9. Find a conveyancer or property solicitor
Conveyancing is the legal process that takes place after your offer is accepted. In England and Wales, this includes:
- Conducting searches
- Liaising with the seller’s conveyancer, their estate agent and your mortgage lender
- Checking the documents provided by the seller, including the lease if you’re buying a leasehold property
- Drawing up and checking contracts
- Dealing with the Land Registry
- Paying any stamp duty owed
- Transferring money from you to the seller
Buying a house in Scotland works in a slightly different way.
You can either use a conveyancer, who might not be a qualified solicitor but will definitely specialise in property, or a regular solicitor, who you should check has recent experience in property law.
Conveyancing fees can range from around £500 to £1,500 depending on the cost of the property and the complexity of the transaction (you’ll usually pay more if it’s a leasehold property). Look for a firm offering a fixed-fee service - if you agree to an hourly rate, costs could quickly spiral.
- Find out more: conveyancing
10. Get a property survey
Property surveys help to assess the condition of the building and detect structural problems. Although a survey is optional, it’s better to be aware of any issues before buying so you can make an informed decision on how much to offer and budget for any repair work required. A survey could also enable you to either negotiate the purchase price down, or ask the seller to fix any problems.
Most surveyors provide three ‘levels’ of survey - a condition report, a HomeBuyer’s report and a building survey. The cost will depend on the location, size and type of property.
Don’t confuse the valuation survey conducted by your mortgage lender with a house survey - they are two different things and you should always have your own survey done independently.
11. Research removal companies
If you don’t have a lot of furniture to move into your new property, you could hire a removal van yourself. But if you have a lot to move, removal companies can help make the process easier - Which? Trusted Traders can help you find a reliable firm near you.
Removal company costs will depend on the amount of items you need to move and the distance to your new property, among other things.
Once you’ve found one or two firms you like, check their availability before agreeing a completion date with the seller (see below) so you're able to move on the date you agree.
- Find out more: choosing a removals company
12. Arrange home insurance
It’s vital that you have buildings insurance in place on your new home from the day you exchange contracts - in fact, most mortgage providers will make this a condition of lending.
This is because you are legally bound to buy the property from the moment contracts are exchanged, so if the building were to be flooded or burn down before the day of completion (see below) and you weren’t insured, you wouldn’t be covered.
If you’re buying a new-build property, the insurance doesn’t need to come into effect until the day of completion.
- Find out more: buildings insurance explained
13. Exchange contracts
The exchange of contracts happens when the buyer and seller’s legal representatives swap signed contracts, and the buyer pays the deposit.
Before the exchange of contracts, you’ll need:
- A written mortgage offer
- Property information and fixtures and fittings forms from your seller
- Results of local searches for any planning or environmental issues from your conveyancer
- For prospective leaseholders, any key information about the lease, such as ground rent increases and special clauses prohibiting pets and subletting (your conveyancer should help with this)
- An agreed completion date
- Buildings insurance in place from the day of exchange, or from completion if you’re buying a new-build (see above)
Once you’ve exchanged contracts you can breathe a sigh of relief, as the agreement for you to buy the property is now legally binding and so the chances of anything falling through from this moment are extremely low.
Your conveyancer will lodge an interest in the property, enabling you to pay the seller, and apply to the Land Registry to transfer the deeds to your name.
- Find out more: exchange and completion
14. Complete and move in!
Completion often takes place around two weeks after exchange, although this is flexible and you can agree a convenient date with the seller.
On completion day, the money will be transferred to the seller and you can then collect the keys from the estate agent and move into your new home.
Next comes the much more enjoyable task of starting to furnish and decorate the property to your taste - and maybe even taking a moment to simply relax. You’ll have earned it!
- Find out more: moving house checklist
Video: the steps to buying a house
In this short video, property TV presenter Jonnie Irwin runs through the steps you'll need to take when buying your first home.
Get personal advice on your mortgage options
Whether you're in the initial stages of saving for a deposit or you're further on in the process and want advice on finding a mortgage, it can be helpful to talk to an impartial financial expert for advice.