Expert tips on property hunting

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An award-winning estate agent and a chartered surveyor share their insights on getting the most from viewings

What advice would you give people who are viewing a property for the first time?

Estate agent: "Check the property is reasonably priced. Don't just blunder in and fall in love. Do some homework – if it's a flat, have a look at any others also for sale in the block to compare condition and price. If the price is too high, the seller might not be serious about selling. Have a good look around outside and use your common sense."

Chartered surveyor: "You should look at the property from the top down. Check the roof, walls and windows; check for any cracks or anything that might be in need of repair. Internally, consider if any modernisation is required, but do not be put off by décor. The cost of any cosmetic work can be taken into account when you make your offer. For some people, it's all about gut instinct, though, so make sure you get the right 'feeling' for a property."

What key questions should people ask the vendor or estate agent?

Estate agent: "You should ask how long the property has been on the market for. Has it been under offer before? Has anyone else had a survey done? Have there been any disputes with neighbours? If it's a flat, check what the service charge is and whether there are any upcoming works."

Chartered surveyor: "If you see any obvious cracks, flood damage or stains from leaks, make sure you ask about them. If you are buying in a block of flats, you need to ask how long the leasehold is. If it is 75 years or less, it will most likely need extending, which may affect the value. Ask about services, rights of way, restrictive covenants and any other issues that could affect the value. There is no point agreeing a sale and instructing solicitors to then find out that there is a restrictive covenant saying you can't keep pets at the property when you have two dogs and three cats! A good firm of estate agents should provide detailed particulars to alert you of any issues, but many do not, so you may have to ask."

Are there any defects that could put people off completely?

Estate agent: "My general advice would be that first-time buyers should look for something that is basically done and doesn't need much work. There can be so many hidden costs otherwise – just putting in a new boiler can cost £3,000 and many first-time buyers have no idea how much things such as rewiring or replacing windows will amount to. If in doubt, get a reputable tradesperson to quote."

Chartered surveyor: "You may choose to avoid properties with subsidence, although this can be remedied. The best advice is to get an independent survey from a chartered surveyor. Defects don't always mean you shouldn't buy, more that the price you pay should reflect the risk and work required. Every case is treated individually, but you should be aware that some lenders may not be willing to lend against properties with defects, depending on the extent of the problem. Some may also place a 'retention' on the property, dependent on the default. Also, any right-of-way or access issues need to be carefully considered."

When people find a property they really like, what additional research should they do on the area?

Estate agent: "Go and see the street and local neighbourhood at different times of day – weekends, evenings and so on. This is extra legwork but it can highlight issues that you might not have witnessed at first viewing, such as noisy parties, traffic congestion or parking problems. You should also knock on the doors of close neighbours, especially in terraces or flats. You can make an excuse, such as 'I was wondering if you get sun in your garden' – even a brief chat will let you get a feel for whether you could get on with them in close proximity."

Chartered surveyor: "Explore the area and look at the local amenities, such as shops, schools and transport links. Look out for any developments nearby that could create a positive or negative impact in the future. Research flooding histories in the area and check if there have been any planning applications on the property, or easement or right-of-way issues."

What tips do you have for negotiating a good price?

Estate agent: "Never go in with your highest offer as you will be expected to negotiate – £10,000 below the asking price is normally a good starting point and will give both parties the opportunity to haggle. If you get into a bidding war with another buyer, be careful not to get carried away, though. Some people win and then think, 'What have I done? I didn't want to pay that much, I just wanted to beat the
other person.'"

Chartered surveyor: "Be fair and reasonable. Everybody wants a good deal, but offer too low and you run the risk of annoying the seller; too high and you might be paying more than you originally set out to do. Suggest a figure that you are comfortable with, but leave room to negotiate higher. Demand for houses is higher in the spring and summer months, when rooms are brighter and gardens are bathed in sunlight, so if you can look past the grey skies and dreariness, winter could be the ideal time to snap up a bargain."

How can people increase the chances of their offer being accepted?

Estate agent: "Get your finances in order. If an agent has two offers, they will consider who is the better bet: which buyer has a mortgage decision in principle, and which has the larger deposit? Once you've got an offer accepted, make sure the property is showing as 'under offer' on the web and on the for-sale sign. If it's with multiple agencies, your agent should ask the seller to get the keys back from other estate agents. You can ring the other agencies and ask them for a viewing, just to test if it really has been taken off the market."

Chartered surveyor: "If you are a first-time buyer, you are in a good position as you will not be in a property chain, so the sales process is usually quicker and more straightforward. It's likely that there'll be more flexibility in when you have to move, so you can work around the vendor's schedule. This may give you an advantage over other purchasers if you offer an identical bid."

What happens if someone's sale falls through before exchange?

Estate agent: "Gazumping is quite common in England and Wales – this is when the seller accepts an offer from one potential buyer, but then accepts a higher one from someone else – and there is little you can do to stop it. The problem is that until contracts have been exchanged, the sale agreement is not legally binding. If you are gazumped, you should emphasise to the agent and seller how keen you are on the property. Then, if the buyer whose offer has been accepted pulls out, they may get back in touch to ask if you are still interested. Gazumping cannot happen in Scotland, as once your offer is accepted, it is legally binding."

Chartered surveyor: "The sale will not proceed and, unfortunately, you will lose any legal and survey costs you may have already paid. There can be a number of reasons why this can happen and, although it is unusual for a vendor to pull out of a sale, there is a new trend emerging called 'gazanging', which is when the seller gets cold feet and leaves the buyer hanging. It can be very upsetting when you've got your heart set on your dream home and it's then snatched away from you, but you should try to remain positive, as there are lots of good properties on the market at the moment and you never know what might be waiting for you round the corner."

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Everyone's circumstances are different and what applies to one person may not be right for someone else. The suggestions above are based on a general assumption of each circumstance and they are not intended to provide advice or recommendation.