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Home-hunters secrets: how to get your dream property

1 Work the estate agent (Phase one)


Instead of treating estate agents as foes, make them your friends. Get them on your side. “If you’re buying a cup of coffee on the way to a viewing, why not get one for the agent, as well?” suggests television property guru, Kirstie Allsopp. She also recommends taking a dog along as a conversation piece (a border terrier works well, apparently).


Her colleague Phil Spencer advises not just schmoozing the agents, but impressing them, by submitting your requirements and mortgage arrangements in writing. “To estate agents marketing a decent property, prospective buyers are a dime a dozen,” he says. “You need to stand head and shoulders above the other buyers.”


Estate agent David Pollock, author of 101 Things Your Estate Agent Should Tell You, agrees. “Keep their business card and write down some personal facts about them, such as whether they’re married, or have children. If they like you they are more likely to find out what you want.”


2 Work the estate agent (Phase two)


Once you have wormed your way into your agent’s confidence, through copious cappuccinos and enquiries about their children, put this intimacy to practical use.


Squeeze them for information. Why are the vendors moving (death, debt or divorce)? How long has their property been on the market? How many offers have been made? What’s the lowest price they would accept? You’ll be surprised how readily an agent will respond, provided you’ve put in enough phase one spadework.


3 Plan co-ordinated raids


“Viewing properties in a piecemeal fashion just doesn’t work,” says Pollock. “If you take too long over your viewings, there’s a risk that you decide you want the first house you saw. By which time it has been sold.”


Put aside a whole day, and do a number of viewings (six is the absolute maximum, according to the Allsopp-Spencer partnership). Also, go on a weekday. Estate agents will give you more time than at the weekend, when the world and his wife wants to view.


4 Get visual evidence


Take your own pictures. These are much more useful than glossy agents’ shots. Film your visits on your phone, too. That way, you have something to refer to when the properties start to blur in your brain.


5 Think outside the box


“We must be the only nation in Europe which still refers to the size of house by the number of bedrooms it has,” says Grand Designs presenter Kevin McCloud. “Everywhere else, it is expressed in square metres. That’s how we ought to think. Envisage the potential of a property, not being limited by the present configuration of the walls.” Equally, don’t immediately dismiss a striking interior. Sometimes a feature wall or an unusual colour scheme just needs a little time to show its brilliance. If the house has already been well designed, buying it off the peg can save you from an expensive, disruptive renovation project later.


6 Gather clues


Once you’re inside the front door, it is your big opportunity. Don’t just waft around admiring the soft furnishings, make a detailed forensic examination.


Use all of your senses. First your nose: can you smell damp, or mustiness? Then take a closer look around: are there any patches of coloured wallpaper or paintwork. Ask to see the damp-course guarantee, if there is one.


Look for telltale signs of why the vendors are moving, such as a baby scan on the fridge, or piles of letters from the estate agent or bank. These may contain pointers as to how long the place has been on the market, and what price the agents actually think the place will fetch.


Then put your hands to work. “Check out the hot-water system,” says TV homebuying expert Sarah Beeny. “If the property has more than one bathroom, it should have a better system than a combination boiler. Turn the shower on and check the pressure.” Don’t be shy.


7 Radio back to base


Switch on your mobile phone and check there’s a signal in the house. You don’t want to live in a communications black spot.


8 Night-time stakeouts


If you like a house, don’t just visit it during the day. Come back at night, when noisy neighbours might be around, or that quiet pub nearby might get rowdy. Find out when bin-collection day is too. And check if the locals leave out neatly tied-up recycling sacks, or strew black bags all over the place for the foxes to feast from.


9 Play the vendors


Be charming rather than aggressive. Try to winkle out exactly why they are leaving (i.e. how urgent is their need to sell). Ask what the neighbours are like, and watch closely for any signs of winces or knowing glances. Tell them you’re going to go around and talk to the neighbours anyway, to get a feel for the area (subtext, better tell me the truth, or I’ll find out myself).


Find out if there are competitors on the case, too. Say you can’t imagine you’re the first people to have made an offer on such a lovely house, then start talking about having a survey done, to elicit if a rival buyer has sent a surveyor in.


Then, just before leaving, Pollock suggests you ask this question: “Is there anything else – even the tiniest thing – that I should know about the property? I’d feel terrible if I had to pull out of the deal at a later date, and let everyone down.”


It’s then they tell you about the high-speed rail line that’s going to cut through the garden.


10 Good cop/bad cop


If you don’t get the answers you want through being nice to the vendors, put the thumbscrews on their agents. Ask them direct questions: are other buyers interested, have any offers been rejected, have sales fallen through, and if so, why?


11 Turn up the heat


If you decide to put in a bid, do it in writing. It formalises your arrangement. If your bid is accepted, ask the estate agent and vendors to take the property off the market – and ensure they have done this. The best way to check, is to get a friend to ring up, posing as a potential purchaser, and ask if the place is still for sale.


Or, for an extreme alternative, hire someone to sit across the road and watch the house to see if eager buyers are still being shown around.


12 Trust your hunches


In order to get a result, you’ve got to go with your gut feeling. “You can be equipped with all the facts, floor plans and flow charts,” says Allsopp, “but in my experience, the clinching factor in any property purchase is human instinct”.


13 Follow that Ocado van


If you’re trying to find an up-and-coming property area, put a tail on what Waitrose are up to. They specialise in sniffing out places that are on the rise.


“We look at areas undergoing regeneration, and if major businesses are moving in, or new housing developments are being planned,” says a spokesperson.


“The opening of our Bracknell supermarket last year is seen as kick-starting the town’s wider regeneration programme. In Ipswich this year, we will open a new supermarket alongside a John Lewis at Home store.”


Openings this year also include Bedford, Alton, Market Harborough and Cowbridge, with Aylesbury, Helensburgh and Wells to follow in 2013. Still in the planning stages are North Walsham, Chester, Chipping Sodbury, Egham, Hereford, Northwich, Shrewsbury, Oundle and Milngavie.


14 Build a case


If you want evidence of an area’s upwardly-mobile-ness, find out if any new housing developments are planned. The big firms don’t send in the diggers unless they’re certain they are going to strike gold (well, at least find ready buyers). Look at the list of factors that Barratt Homes took into account before deciding to build 144 new homes in Basildon, Essex: demographics, employment levels, transport links, local schools, shops, local housing trends and levels of council spending in the area.


It’s an even better sign when developers get together. This is happening at the 405-acre site at Cranbrook, near Exeter, where Taylor Wimpey, Persimmon, Bovis and Charles Church are all involved. They are building a new community, with schools, parkland and accompanying bypass. Ditto a 3,300-home development at Great Western Park, Didcot.


Also look out for skips in the road. They are a sure sign that the renovation teams are in, and the area is on the up. Coffee shops such as Starbucks are another reliable indicator of gentrification.


On the other hand, if an area seems a bit shabby, or you don’t like the feel of the street, it might be worth investigating further. Some areas will come up, but others will take years.


15 Tread the corridors of the Town Hall


Your local authority planning department can give you the inside track (online, as well as in person) on any planning applications that have been approved, rejected, or are still pending, for your chosen postcode. Make sure you have been warned in advance about the proposed smelting works down the road.


16 Don’t believe the “maybes”


A common mistake is to ignore the word “proposed” that sometimes comes in front of “housing development” or “retail complex”. Don’t believe it’s going to happen, and definitely don’t


buy a property, until the building work has begun (or ideally finished).


17 Worst-case scenario


That little cottage might look charming on a bright, sunny day, but it won’t look so appealing under 3ft of water. Check on the likelihood of flooding, by looking at maps on the Environment Agency website (environment-agency.gov.uk). For other risks (subsidence, industrial pollution, even Radon gas), visit homecheck.co.uk.


18 Work out a getaway plan


Find out about any proposed new roads, tram or train routes that will boost an area’s accessibility or commutability. When the new Crossrail, being built under central London opens, it will be possible to travel directly to Tottenham Court Road, from either Maidenhead or Brentwood. And the new owners of Battersea Power Station have plans to add a tube station.


19 Embrace technology


A lot of estate agents now use QR (Quick Response) technology. You hold your smartphone up to a square bar code on the signboard (or newspaper advertisement), and it links you straight to the sales brochure for that property. If you pass a home you like the look of, you can examine it there and then.


20 Put word out on the streets


Sign up for online alerts letting you know about properties that are for sale in the streets and postcodes where you would like to buy. Good websites to hook up to include zoopla.co.uk, rightmove.co.uk and hometrack.co.uk.


They not only keep you up to date with what’s for sale, but list the prices fetched by properties in your target streets, over a number of years.


At the same time, visit the offices of estate agents in the areas you have chosen. After all, in the end house-hunting is about dealing with people, not just bricks and mortar.


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