It’s shorter than queuing at the latest no-booking burger bar, quicker than the average blow-drying session, and about the same waiting time as for a Circle line train — yet 33 minutes is how long Londoners ponder the most expensive purchase of their life: whether to buy a house.
Fuelled by London’s unbalanced housing market, purchasers are being forced to make “snap decisions” in 33 minutes, according to insurer Aviva. One in four buyers now attends just one viewing before putting in an offer.
But a quick glance around a pad that’s going to swallow all of your savings and most of your future wages can be dangerous. So if you’ve got just 33 minutes to find a new home, ignore the amazing sofa (it’ll be whipped away with the removals man-and-van) and focus on the roof (itwon’t). Here London’s housing market experts explain how to scrutinise a house in half an hour.
1 Dim the lights. “The first thing estate agents do is switch all the lights on, but you won’t live in the house like that so turn them off,” says Guy Meacock of buying agency Prime Purchase.
2 Turn off any music. “You want to hear the Tube rattling underground or plane overhead,” says Meacock.
3 Don’t smell the coffee. “Don’t get distracted by baking scones but look at the bricks and mortar,” adds Meacock. Other sellers’ tricks include freshly made coffee and borrowing neighbours’ pets.
4 Size up the rooms. Do the bedrooms contain tiny beds, making them look larger? Will you have to buy new furniture because your stuff is too big?
5 Does the layout match your interests? “Top of the viewing check list is living and entertaining space, followed by the master bedroom and bathroom,” says Robin Chatwin, head of Savills in south-west London. If you’re a “come dine with me” type, make sure there’s enough cooking and table space. If you’ve more clothes than Kim Kardashian, are there enough wardrobes?
6 Scrutinise the ceilings, windows and walls. Is there any damp staining or discolouration on the ceiling — that could indicate leaks. Any signs of damp or mould on the walls? Do the windows’ timber frames show signs of rotting or leaking?
7 Run a finger down the window. Any condensation? That could be poor insulation. On PVC windows, look out for cracking sealant around the frame.
8 Does your phone work? Nearly half of 18- to 35-year-olds rank mobile as the key consideration when buying a new property. Try to make a call in spots around the house, or use Root Metrics’ free app for house-hunters to test phone signal and mobile internet service.
9 Turn on a tap. Check whether the hot water is working. “This could indicate the condition of the boiler and also how strong the water pressure is,” says Zoopla’s Lawrence Hall.
10 Check for cracks. “Minor hairline cracks are a common characteristic of any Victorian property, however larger cracks should be investigated more thoroughly,” says Dan Davidson of Build Team.
11 Are the walls flat? Any “ripples” in the wallpaper should also be flagged — Aviva’s surveyors warn they could mean damp, or even signs of movement in the property.
12 Go outside and look up. “Do the gutters and downpipes appear old or show signs they have leaked?,” says north London chartered surveyor Ian Hyman. Along with missing roof tiles this could cost you money.
13 Check the brickwork. Is the chimney leaning or bulging; is there any deterioration in the grouting? All these factors could push up maintenance costs (or help you barter on price).
14 Look for paint jobs. “Check for redecoration out of context with the condition of the general décor of the rest of the property,” adds Davidson. Sniff for paint and look for any discolouration or recent patch redecoration — it could be an attempt to hide damp.
15 Gaze out of the windows. Any strange structures or construction sites? “How busy is the road?” asks Meacock. “Try to work out where the light falls — in the morning you really want it in the kitchen or bedroom.”
16 How leafy? “A tree-lined street may be appealing but could cause structural issues,” says Meacock. “Trees also steal a lot of light.” And they are expensive to remove.
17 If there’s a garden, where’s it facing? If there’s a lawn and flower beds, are you up for mowing and maintaining them? If it’s concrete, is that OK for you and any kids?
18 Watch for weeds: hunt for Japanese knotweed in particular. This nightmare plant can stop you getting a mortgage and cost £20,000 to remove.
19 Pop your head in the roof void. “They are often neglected and frequently contain considerable rubbish,” says Hyman. Best to know what’s there now — then you can insist on any contents’ removal later down the line.
20 How much storage space does the house have?
21 What’s included? Some vendors will leave their washing machine, fridge, etc if they’re moving to a pad with a fitted kitchen.
22 Grill the agent face-to-face. Ask how many viewings they’ve done, if there are other offers and if the price is “moveable”. Is the property leasehold or freehold — and how much is left on the lease, if there is one. Is the building listed? Any flood warnings? What are council tax costs?
23 Use your ears. “If a railway is close, consider noise levels,” says Vincent Wong of investment firm Wealth Dragons. The same is true of schools and big workplaces. “Go into each room and see how much you can hear from neighbours or within the home itself.”
24 And use your nose, recommends Hyman. “A good nose may be able to detect damp, condensation and fungal activity,” he says. These are all expensive to repair — so could be a factor in chipping the asking price.
25 Check the central heating. If it’s on, are all the radiators hot? How old is the boiler?
26 If it’s a flat you’re viewing, what are the common parts like? And the service charge? “Check out the condition of neighbouring flats,” adds Hyman. “Can the tenants afford service charges for maintenance? Is there emergency lighting/smoke detection and/or a fire-alarm system in common parts?”
27 Can the property be extended? An extension can boost the value of a property, or simply ensure it’s big enough for the whole family.
28 Can the loft be converted? Looking at what neighbours have done is a useful indication of whether you’re likely to get planning permission.
29 If the seller is around, pin them down. “Ask vendors why are they leaving,” suggests Mark Hayward, managing director at the National Association of Estate Agents. “When was the house last re-wired? When were the gas and electric systems last serviced?
30 Meet the neighbours. Ask them if anyone recently died or was murdered in the house. Have there been any neighbourly disputes? Ask too about any works the current owners have carried out.
31 Take a walk. What’s the condition of other properties in the street? Where could you pick up a pint of milk? Where are the nearest schools, transport routes, pubs and restaurants? Are there any parking issues? What’s the drainage like in the area? Has there been any recent flooding?
32 Check the chain. Find out if your vendor is in a complicated buying and selling situation. This could lower the price they accept.
33 Listen to your gut. If you hate the house, don’t buy it.
And if you’re ready to put in an offer — get a full survey and look forward to battles with solicitors and agents, all of which takes longer than 33 minutes.
Lucy Tobin 06.10.14 www.standard.co.uk