House-hunters Int’l, Billfold-Edition: What I Wish I’d Known

by Jessica Furseth

Telling people you are buying your own place tends to trigger two kinds of reactions. The renters will have a more or less neutral expression, coupled with something upbeat like, “Ah that’ll be nice, you can paint the walls!” The people who have already gone through the purchase process will have a different reaction: they will look at you with a wide-eyed grin, attempting to mask the flashbacks to the horror of it all.

Even the most mild-mannered people will tell you stories of what madness house-hunting inspired in them. “I yelled at my mortgage broker who had cancer,” a normally sage friend told me. “I still think about that sometimes, seven years later. But she was dragging her feet!”

Another stiff-upper-lip friend said: “The seller was being evasive, so I marched down to the estate agent and refused to leave until they sorted it out.”

Then there are my own moments of shame: I snapped at a financial advisor who had kept me far past lunch with his Excelsheets, and I bribed the seller to leave the flat early after the process had dragged on for months past my breaking point.

Here are some things I wish I had known before venturing out to buy a place to live:

A credit score is a fine thing.
I have been fortunate enough not to need a credit card, so I never saw the point of getting one. I use my Visa debit card, which also has an overdraft facility, and it’s never been a problem. But then I started applying for a mortgage, and discovered that a *lack* of credit is basically the same as having *bad* credit. Getting a credit card in advance of this process would have been a very simple fix.

This process will change your relationship with money.
The numbers involved in buying property are so big they soon stop making sense. My husband and I tried to save money by moving our stuff out of the old flat and into storage, but that was so exhausting that, when it was time to move into the new flat, we were very happy to spend on movers. We also chose to pay for a mortgage broker, which ended up feeling like an outright bargain considering how complicated the process was for us freelancers.

Essentially, the process will wear you down to the point where you may feel downright grateful to be able to spend your way out of it.

You will need a financial buffer.
Having some extra cash to cover unforeseen expenses will make things a lot easier, but it may also save you from losing the whole deal. Probably the most upsetting thing that happened to us was how, very late in the process, the bank decided to cut its loan amount by an eye-watering sum. Being forced to raise the difference wasn’t impossible, but it was brutal, and it left us far more broke than any freelancer should ever be if they want to sleep at night. But at least we didn’t lose the flat.

The paperless office is not your friend.
I lost count of how many times I had to produce evidence of my past addresses, the movements of my bank account, my tax returns, and so on. All of this had to be ordered from the various authorities who issued them, as I had kept everything “paperless” and had no proof of anything. I spent hours on the phone ordering various documents, some of which took weeks to arrive.

While keeping bank statements piled in your house may seem a waste of paper, a bureaucratic process like house-hunting, or applying for a visa, will reward you if you do.

Independence will get you nowhere.
This one was a surprise to me, considering how buying your own place is considered a very “adult” thing to do. But unless you are lucky enough to be, well, loaded, you may well find yourself relying on other people to a surprising extent during the process.

The post-recession lending climate means you need a giant deposit [down payment], and after paying London rents for a decade, that came from my parents. So did the money to buy a new sofa after the furnishing budget disappeared, thanks to the bank cutting its lending amount.

Almost everything about the paperwork means waiting passively for other people to do things, and if you’re an independent soul, that may be the hardest part of all.

I was going to add something about how I wish I had known how much work the whole thing would be: the hours and days spent searching for properties, waiting on hold, visiting financial advisors, organising everything, and general grumbling and wailing. But I was told about that before going in and it still made no difference to my experience of actually having to go through it — even though my husband probably did most of legwork. Maybe it’s better to live in hope?

At least that seems to be the case for a friend, who was starting the buying process as I was finishing. He had only been at it a few weeks when he said something about how he didn’t have time for all this mindless bureaucracy: “I have a job, you know!” I looked at him with that wide-eyed grin attempting to mask the flashbacks to the horror. I spent four solid months waiting for the completion of my purchase.

Then I remembered something that made me feel a lot better: I’m living in my new place right now. It’s okay. I made it through.

Jessica Furseth is a freelance journalist living in London. She loves the Internet but has too many tabs open. Read her stuff on Tumblr or come say hello on Twitter.