How to buy your first home in 10 steps

August 4, 2021 Icon 20 mins read
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Photo by ian dooley on Unsplash

Buying a home for the first time can be stressful. It’s a critical time in your life and everything you need to know can seem overwhelming. Not to worry! In this blog, we’ll walk you through a step-by-step journey to make the process easy. We’ll demystify the jargon and cut through the confusion to give you the confidence you need to buy a home.

Am I a First-Time Buyer?

First things first: Who counts as a first-time buyer?

The Government defines a first-time buyer as: ‘A person who does not own and has never owned any interest in land, either in the United Kingdom or elsewhere’.

In short, if you’ve never owned a house anywhere in the world, you’re probably a first-time buyer.

This is not restricted by age. Whether you’re 18 or 81, if you have never owned a house and are looking to buy one, you’re probably a first-time buyer.

However, you should be sure to check with your lender that you fit their definition of “first-time buyer”. If you are buying a home with somebody else who already owns a house, you’ve ever inherited a house, or someone else has ever bought a house for you, you might not be counted as a first-time buyer.

Step 1: Register with Credibble

The first thing we suggest is to register with Credibble. This will help you to work out your budget, get a feel for where you stand moneywise, and help you prepare to get mortgage ready.

Simply visit credibble.home and click on the “Sign Up” link. You will be shown a series of screens that ask you to put in your information. You’ll need to have information like your estimated property price, your deposit saved, your annual income and your monthly savings to hand.

We’ll then give you our take on what we think your target house price should be.

Step 2: Get Mortgage Ready

Once you’ve put all your information in, Credibble will ask you to check your credit score.

Credibble works with Equifax, one of the UK’s three Credit Reference Agencies. Your credit score is a gauge of your “creditworthiness”. Put simply, this is how risky it would be to lend to you. Certain actions you can take may help to reassure lenders that you are likely to be able to pay back what you owe after borrowing.

Once we know your credit score, Credibble automated service will coach you, giving you guidance on getting mortgage ready. This could include suggestions to change your saving habits, ways to improve your credit, and ideas on how to improve your affordability.

Once you’ve got yourself in a position where you’re mortgage ready, you can then start getting your documentation ready to get a decision in principle.

You’ll need proof of your identity, such as a passport, as well as proof of your personal details like utility bills and bank statements. You’ll also need to provide information about your income and your expenditure, including existing credit agreements.

If you are a foreign national, you may also need to prove you have indefinite leave to remain or right of abode.

Step 3: Get a Mortgage Decision in Principle

There are two types of mortgage lender you can work with at this stage:

  • Direct lenders are financial institutions like banks, credit unions and mortgage companies. Direct lenders originate, process and fund loans on their own. If you take out a loan with a direct lender, you’ll be working with them all the way. You might not get the best deal if you go this route.
  • Mortgage brokers are middle-men who will find the best loan for you. Unlike direct lenders, they do not sell mortgage products first-hand, but instead seek out mortgage products that suit your needs. Brokers are especially useful for first-time buyers because they can help you figure out your options.

Both direct lenders and brokers can give you a decision in principle.

Getting a mortgage decision in principle can give estate agents an idea of how much you can borrow without affecting your credit score.

First-time buyers enjoy a few benefits, including more generous mortgages other buyers may not be allowed to take out. It’s worth looking at what mortgages you can get.

Mortgage decisions in principle give a very good idea of what you can borrow. This makes searching for a house easier, as you have an idea of which homes you can afford. A decision in principle shows estate agents that you are serious about buying a house.

It is not an offer to lend, nor does it indicate that you are committed to borrowing from a particular lender. Decisions in principle are not legally binding and do not constitute a guarantee. Usually, decisions in principle are valid for up to 90 days, but always make sure to check with your lender!

Sometimes, decisions in principle are called “agreements in principle,” “mortgages in principle,” or “mortgage promises”. Don’t be confused, it’s all the same thing!

Step 4: Start House Hunting

Once you’ve got your decision in principle, you can start hunting for your new home. Use websites like Zoopla.co.uk and rightmove.co.uk to find homes in your price range, or visit a brick-and-mortar estate agent if you want to go old-school!

You might want to wait a while to shop around a bit. Just remember that your decision in principle won’t last forever.

Here are some things to consider when looking at homes online:

  • How far from your current location are you willing to move?
  • What are you looking for in a home?
  • Do you have, or are you planning to have children?
  • How close do you want to be to public transportation?

All of these things can affect house price and quality of housing. The same type of house could be drastically different in price due to one or more of these factors. In some parts of London, Ofsted “Outstanding” school catchment areas can raise house prices to as much as £1.7m!

When you have a set of homes you’re interested in, it’s time to arrange a viewing with the estate agents.

While viewing a house, never appear enthusiastic, even if you really like the place. An overexcited buyer is music to an estate agent’s ears!

When viewing you should instead be actively examining the house for potential problems like damp, faulty wiring and damaged brickwork.

Which? has a free property-viewing checklist that indicates what you should be looking out for in a house viewing, inside and out. What seems to be your “dream home” could have hidden problems that prove unpleasant or expensive later on, so stay sharp!

Buying a home works differently in Scotland to England and Wales. If you are buying a home in Scotland, you must involve a property solicitor or conveyancer at this point in the process (see Step 7). Once you’ve found a house and you intend to make an offer, they will help you to put together your offer.

Step 5: Make An Offer

When you’ve found a home that seems right for you, it’s time to make an offer. The price given by the seller is what is known as an “asking price”. This means that the price is not set in stone – it’s the ideal price for which the homeowner would like to sell their house. Here are a couple of tips for negotiating with the seller:

  • Play your cards close to your chest. Don’t show too much excitement for the house, even if you love it.
  • Keep your budget to yourself. Remember, the seller and the estate agent are in it to make money, and they are not above swindling you into making you pay more than you should!

Look around at other houses in the area. If you do a bit of sleuthing you may be able to find lower house prices on similar homes, which can support you in making a lower offer.

In some circumstances you can bring the price down, for example, if a similar house nearby recently sold for less than the asking price, or if the house needs repairs and renovations.

Don’t be afraid to haggle! If your offer is rejected, you can always try bringing it up to less than the asking price but more than your original offer.

You’ll need to be quick on the draw and ready to buy. In especially competitive markets, such as desirable neighbourhoods or housing near good schools, estate agents might take multiple offers on one house and then accept the best one. You could be locked out even after your offer has been accepted.

This is called “gazumping” and it is currently legal in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

There are several ways of avoiding gazumping which we’ll outline in the steps below. The main point is this: If you’re looking to buy a home in an area that you know to be competitive, you’ll need to be ready to get a shift on from the word “go”. Once you’ve put in an offer, you can’t just rest on your laurels!

Remember: The house isn’t yours until you’ve exchanged contracts.

Step 6: Make a Full Mortgage Application

If you want to avoid gazumping, you need to act quickly. By this stage you should know who your lender is going to be, so you’ll need to put in a full application with them.

You’ll need the same documents from Step 2, but lenders may also wish to see:

  • utility bills
  • proof of benefits received
  • a P60 form from your employer
  • your last three months of payslips
  • a passport or driving license
  • bank statements from your current account for up to six months
  • statement of two to three years’ accounts from an accountant if self-employed
  • tax return form SA302 if self-employed
  • corroborating documents to support claims on tax form SA302 if self-employed

If you are a foreign national given indefinite leave to remain your lender may also ask for:

  • a current valid passport showing a visa stamp
  • a certificate of entitlement
  • a UK residency permit
  • a letter from the Border and Immigration Agency or the Home Office confirming permanent residency or right to abode.

A mortgage application can take 4-6 weeks to be approved. However, having a decision in principle could reduce the waiting time to a matter of days or even hours for approval.

Once you’ve got your mortgage approved, your lender will make you an offer. If you are happy with the offer, you can accept it and sign it either in person or electronically.

You must then let the estate agent know that you’re ready to buy. This will get the ball rolling for you to exchange contracts with the seller and may discourage gazumping.

There are three bodies that accredit chartered surveyors. Check that your surveyor is a member of Rics (the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors), Sava or the RPSA (Residential Property Surveyors Association).

There are three levels of survey available from accredited surveyors associated with these institutions. They get more expensive as you go up:

  • Rics Condition Reports are Level One.
    • They are priced at about £400-950.
    • These surveys are meant for standard homes, especially new builds in relatively good nick. They are not appropriate for older buildings.
    • They look at what condition the house is in, what legal issues may arise, and any defect in construction that needs fixing urgently.
    • Many first-time buyers will only need this.
  • Rics Homebuyer Reports or Sava Home Condition Surveys are Level Two.
    • They are priced at about £450-£1000.
    • These surveys are meant for a standard house in reasonably good condition.
    • Level Two surveys offer much the same detail as a Condition Report, but also feature advice on repairing and maintaining the building.
    • Some will also feature market valuations and how much it would cost to rebuild the house. They also flag up legal issues that you may need to mention to your solicitor (see Step 7).
    • Some first-time buyers will need this.
  • Rics Building Surveys are Level Three.
    • They are priced at around £600-£1500.
    • These surveys are meant for older buildings, more unusual buildings (such as buildings with thatched roofs or timber frames), buildings that need renovating (“fixer-uppers”) and derelict or potentially dangerous buildings.
    • These surveys go into greater depth than the previous two surveys, giving the potential homebuyer a complete picture of the building’s condition and what work needs doing to repair and maintain the building.
    • Very few first-time buyers will need this.

Most of the time you’ll only need a Level One or Level Two survey, so you know what you’re getting into. Some buildings come with hidden costs – construction defects that need addressing, or repairs that need doing. It’s best to catch them now so you aren’t caught on the back foot after exchanging contracts!

Step 7: Get a Solicitor

A solicitor that specialises in sorting out the legal side of buying a home is also known as a “conveyancer”. “Property solicitor” and “conveyancer” both mean the same thing in this context.

Conveyancing is the process of preparing legal documents for the sale of property. In essence, they save you the hassle of having to know all the ins and outs of property law.

A conveyancer will prepare your legal documents and transfer legal ownership of the building to you. They are will also deal with HM Land Registry in England and Wales and land registries in other UK territories. They will be the ones who draft and finalise your contract, and they will pass the money from you to the seller.

Note that in Scotland you need a conveyancer involved a lot earlier in the process, when you’ve found a home you’re interested in buying. The conveyancer will help prepare your offer for you. If you are a Scottish first-time buyer or you are looking to move to Scotland, be sure to contact a conveyancer when you’re preparing to make an offer.

Some people choose to get a conveyancer involved as early as before making their offer, but this guide suggests getting them involved after surveying. This way you have all the necessary documentation prepared so you can instruct the solicitor on what you need.

You are allowed to use the same conveyancer as the seller, and in some cases this can be easier and quicker, but bear in mind that you may not get the same level of support and care as with an independent conveyancer due to potential conflicts of interest.

Step 8: Exchange Contracts

The conveyancer will write to the seller’s conveyancer to negotiate the transfer of legal ownership.

They will request a draft of the contract and other relevant documents. If you have not yet organised a survey, your conveyancer may ask you to do this at this stage.

You must also take out buildings insurance while this is underway (see Step 9).

Once you’ve received the contract from the seller, you and the seller will sign it. You will agree to a completion date, which is the day the legal ownership of the home is transferred to you.

In Scotland, your solicitor can be authorised to sign the contract on your behalf. This is known as “concluding the missives”.

Once the contract is exchanged, it is legally binding. After the completion date, ownership transfers to you. You must have buildings insurance in place by this point.

If you are in England and Wales, your conveyancer will lodge an interest with the Land Registry at this point. In simple terms, this means the conveyancer will tell the Government that the house will soon change hands and to update their records.

After this, the Land Registry will provide you with a land title – essentially a document certifying your house is yours and a document explaining where the boundary of your land begins and ends.

In Scotland, this job is done instead by the Registers of Scotland. In Northern Ireland, it’s Land and Property Services. It works in much the same way.

Step 9: Buy Insurance

Buildings insurance is insurance of the actual structure of the building against things like fire, floods and storms, vandalism, and other things that could damage the structure of the building itself.

It is different from home insurance in that it does not also insure anything actually contained within the house (“contents insurance”), only the house itself. Once you’ve moved in, you may wish to add a contents insurance policy.

There are two kinds of buildings insurance:

  • Sum insured is worked out by calculating how much it would cost to rebuild your home from scratch if the absolute worst were to happen. Sum insured is beneficial because it means you only pay for the cover that is absolutely necessary, with the downside being that calculating this is quite difficult and could require involving actuarial services as well as more expensive surveying.
  • Bedroom rated uses the number of bedrooms your home has as a flat rate for calculating the cost of rebuilding your home. This means that instead of doing difficult calculations, you simply go by how many bedrooms your home has. The downside of this type is that you could end up paying more for cover you don’t need.

You must have buildings insurance by the time you exchange contracts. In fact, your mortgage lender will probably insist you get it. This is because the lender needs security on their loan – if you buy a house and something happens to make your home uninhabitable, the lender will want to make up their losses through your insurance!

Shop around for which policies are best for you. Some mortgage brokers include buildings insurance as part of their mortgage packages, which can be handy, but you are by no means obligated to take it. Look for what works best for you.

Make sure to get the right level of cover for your home, and always read your policy’s terms carefully.

In addition to home insurance, you may also want think about taking out a life insurance policy. This is especially true if you are buying a home with someone else and you are the breadwinner.

In the event of your death, a life insurance policy can help the person you are living with to pay off your outstanding mortgage. Consider speaking to an accredited life insurance broker as to which policy works best for you.

Step 10: Completion!

“Completion” is the point at which your home becomes legally yours. At long last! But it’s not time to open the champers just yet. There’s still a few more hurdles to get over.

Firstly, remember that completion can take time. It can be anywhere from instant to taking weeks depending on how much red tape your new home is tied up in, and it can take a while to iron things out.

So, while your home may be legally “yours”, it may be a while before you can actually start living in it, as odd as it may seem. Keep in touch with your estate agent and your conveyancer to stay on top of things and get updates.

You’ll need to arrange to collect keys from the previous owner, and arrange removal services to move your personal belongings into the new house.

When you’re able to get into the new house, walk through the inside to get a feel for the space. Make sure you check:

  • that any repairs you’ve arranged have been performed
  • that everything you’ve paid for is present and that there’s been no damage to the interior
  • that every light switch, plug, and faucet runs as it should

…then you can start worrying about where to put the furniture!

What next?

Once you’re all moved in, here’s ten tips for what to do next:

  1. Change your locks. It sounds silly, but it’s not. The previous owner could have made a copy of their old house key. The previous owner is a stranger. If you wouldn’t hand a stranger the keys to your house, then you wouldn’t want a stranger to have a copy of your house key either. Call a locksmith.
  2. If you’re in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, use a price comparison site to help you save on utility bills. (Fun fact: In Scotland, you pay for unmetered water as part of your council tax bill. If you have a water meter, you will pay a bill monthly or quarterly to Scottish Water, the publicly-owned Scottish water board, based on your usage.)
  3. Find out how much council tax you’ll need to pay. This can vary by authority. You can check your council tax band on the Government’s official website.
  4. If you or anyone you live with is eligible, consider registering to vote. Not only is participating in democracy good for the country, opting to appear on the Open Register is also good for your credit score! It also stops the local council sending you letters asking who in the house is able to vote.
  5. Change your address everywhere, starting with important places like your bank. You might also want to pay the Post Office up to £66.99 to redirect your important post to your new address, although some online moving services will let you do this for free.
  6. Register with the local doctor’s surgery and other medical services. If you find yourself unwell, you don’t want to be stuck filling in a form. If you are an NHS patient, use the NHS’s “Find a GP” service to look for a doctor close by.
  7. Consider having an alarm system fitted if you haven’t got one with the house. This will offer some additional peace of mind when you’re out of the house. In England and Wales there are more than 250,000 burglaries a year, and contrary to what you might think, most happen in broad daylight, particularly in the afternoon when the occupants are most likely to be out of doors.
  8. Get to know your neighbours. Obviously, if you’re going to be living alongside others, you’ll want to be friendly with them. Your neighbours can also give you an idea of what things there are to do and see in your local area.
  9. Look over your financials. Buying and then moving into a new home is costly. Once all that is out of the way, you need to look at what you have leftover. Don’t go rushing out and spending willy-nilly. Now’s the time to save and tighten your purse strings, at least until you’ve recovered a bit from the financial hit.
  10. Relax! You’ve made it through a stressful time in your life. Put your feet up and congratulate yourself on a job well done. Maybe you’ll want to invite people around for a housewarming, maybe you’ll want to rest for a day or two. Whatever you do, from all of us at Credibble, we hope you enjoy your new home!

Happy house-hunting!

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Robert Edwards

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