House Buying / House Hunting Tips
Buying a house is a difficult business. Mistakes can so easily be made
as what initially impresses may not be the best choice. I've done this
a few times now and I can offer some
guidance along the lines of
what we used to find our current home.
Most of my
are from the UK, and some of the advice is specific to just Cambridge
in the UK.
However, most of it applies anywhere in the world. Note that
reading this in the Southern Hemisphere you will want to swap
around North and South.
It is a good idea to take a notebook and a digital camera with you on
house hunting trips so that you can more easily remember what you saw
and make more objective comparisons.
Location and orientation
It is often said that location is the most important thing to consider
when buying a home. It is worth bearing in mind that while many things
can be done to improve the average house once you've bought it, moving
it elsewhere is not often an option. You also need to bear in mind the
orientation of the house. You can't turn it around at a later date,
out for South, South West, South East facing rear gardens. A North,
North West, or North East facing garden will see very little sunlight.
Very little will grow and it will rarely be pleasant to sit in your
garden. This is especially the case if you are looking at a very small
garden which could be entirely in the shadow of your own home.
- It is worthwhile to take a compass on house viewing
trips so that you can be sure of orientation as this can be especially
difficult to work out on an overcast day. Remember that the sun rises
in the east, moves across the south,
and sets in the west. It's arc is quite low in the sky during the
- Also look out for other people's homes shadowing
your garden. You may view in the middle of the summer when
the sun is
high in the sky, but think about what will happen at other times of
year when it is quite likely that you will suffer from
shadows due to other buildings or tall trees near your
- Shadowed gardens tend to also be damp gardens.
that a house with a south facing rear garden will have a north facing
front garden. Estate agent photographs tend to be less flattering for
- If you have children, how close are schools,
areas, swimming pools etc ? Is there a lot of traffic outside the house
- Look at the the other houses around your house. For
you really want the only detached house in a street of mainly terraced
or semi-detached houses ?
- Do houses in the street you're
looking at have adequate garages or off road parking or is it a street
which is littered with everyone else's cars ? Disputes due to parking
problems are quite common in such areas. Some streets in Cambridge now
allow parking on the pavement directly outside the doors of houses.
- Shared driveways are another potential problem
well worth avoiding.
- If you're buying in a terrace then do they all match or
have some been painted odd colours ? The same is true for semi-detached
houses. If the other half looks odd then that will devalue your home.
- Before committing yourself, take your time and
visit a few times so that you experience what your possible new home is
different times of the day / week. Some locations seem otherwise OK but
are marred by rush hour traffic, late night revellers, next door
neighbours with noisy car stereos etc.
- It's also worth knowing what was on the land before the
are considering was built. You can find out by looking at old maps.
Some homes are built on top of previously industrial land which can be
contaminated. For instance, there are new homes in Cambridge built on
top of the gasworks. Land used for gasworks tends to be contaminated
with, amongst other things, cyanide. Dreadful things have happened in
the past due to contamination. While you'd be very unlucky to
see effects as bad as this, surely we've all heard of Love
Canal (if you haven't, here's an article
on wikipedia about Love Canal).
- Much the same goes for electricity pylons, mobile telephone
etc. You may be skeptical of whether these things are dangerous, but
when you go to sell your home at a later date your buyer may not share
your skepticism. So it's worth avoiding these things whatever your own
- Proximity of shops might be a benefit. However, being next
to a contentious shop might not. For instance, the 10% (and growing)
proportion of the UK population who are vegetarian may well not see
having a butcher shop next door as a benefit, so expect this to make
the house more difficult to sell in the future.
The second thing to consider is the house itself. You can't do much to
change this either, and some houses offer far more potential than
- We started in a terraced house, and they can be made very
However, if you've ever had problem neighbours in
a terraced or semi-detached house, it should be quite obvious what an
advantage it is to be detached (I should note here that I'm happy to
say that our current neighbours are wonderful).
- If you have children or
pets who can be noisy, or if you like loud music or movies, or if you
will be decorating
a lot when you move in to your new home then you could become a problem
neighbour yourself. It's not the ideal way to meet your new
neighbour. Detached houses avoid these issues and give you more
freedom to do what you want when you want. Having a detached house is
my personal top priority.
- Party walls between terraced and semi-detached houses vary
their construction. The best are surely block or brick walls with a
cavity between them. These should approach the isolation of a detached
house from its neighbour. Most such houses in the UK have either a
single or double
brick wall without a gap. In the case of recent and current
construction you may find just a wooden frame with plasterboard and
rockwool between homes. I'm staying well clear of such construction.
- Some semi-detached houses have entrances apart and the
living rooms together while some have the entrances in the centre with
the living rooms apart. The latter have far lower chance of being a
problem so far as neighbour noise is concerned.
- A house which has scope for improvement is a great
opportunity. Even if you don't immediately intend to extend the house
yourself, you might find later that you need the extra space and
extending may well be cheaper than moving. If you decide to sell
it could also be a big attraction for your buyer. If you're moving into
somewhere which already is extended then you don't have this potential.
older terraces and modern houses built on 3 floors have no
potential for extension
- Tired looking decor
isn't really important. Paint is a very cheap thing to buy in
comparison with the price of a house. There is a reason why "do up your
house to sell" TV programmes emphasize doing these cheap things instead
of expensive things and that's because it can fool the buyer.
- Beware of flashy decor as it can cover a multitude of sins.
new and trendy will probably look old fashioned rather more quickly
than simpler decor.
- Houses which need a little maintainance may look a bit less
attractive but at least they are not covering up their problems (true
"renovation projects" are a different thing, though, and will cost a
lot of money and time).
- In my opinion a survey isn't really worth much. I've seen
quickly they are done and how apparently objective figures for such as
energy consumption are actually made up on the spot without referring
to any measurements or bills. I've seen a "damp expert" completely miss
a leaking pipe (which was fixed at my expense later on).
- The mortgage company will insist on a survey (which might
days be part of a Home Information Pack) but really it is you who needs
to check actual bills, and have a good look around to make sure that
you can see no faults. After all, you are the one who needs to live
there. Climb in the loft with a torch, look for damage, ask about
anything which looks like a leak.
- Smells of smoke, other people's cooking, pets etc. will go
quite quickly. You may find a bargain that others have ignored if
you're willing to overlook these things.
- Do you want a better bathroom or kitchen ? It's not
change. £3000 buys a nice kitchen and £1500 buys a
bathroom. Offer the seller £5000 less than the asking price
pocket the difference.
- Is the property leasehold ? If so, how long does the lease
last ? Your property will decline in value over time due to the lease
getting shorter, or maybe you could buy the lease - but that could be
- Is the property a "stable house" or "coach house" built
above other people's car parking spaces ? This is a modern trick to
sell land which on more spacious and older developments used to be
committed to garages, but they're trying to sell it to you. What
happens if one of the neighbours regularly returns late at night with
his car stereo turned up loud ? Or if one of the neighbours does his
own car maintenance ?
- What's at the bottom of the garden ? The neighbours on both
might be fine, but you need to check on all boundaries.
- Cavity walls are important. Take a look at the brickwork. If the
bricks are in a regular pattern, all looking the same size, then you
probably have cavity walls. If they are in an irregular pattern, some
narrow ones (you're looking a the ends of bricks) then you probably do
not have a cavity wall. Cavity walls were introduced in order to avoid
damp problems in houses. They also lend themselves to being fitted with
cavity wall insulation. If you buy a house without cavity walls you
have a much higher chance of damp inside the building and you also
can't lower your heating bills by fitting insulation in the cavity.
Cavity wall insulation is extremely effective, and also very cheap to
install in the UK due to generous grants. I like low fuel bills and I'd
not consider a house without cavity walls. One of the big differences
between 1930s and 1950s houses can be the heating bill, with the latter
much lower if they've been insulated.
- A house without cavity walls may also not have a proper damp
course. This is a strip of impermeable material in the brickwork a
little above ground level. You can have a chemical damp course fitted,
but this is potential trouble again.
There are many things that add a little to house that depend on how you
live. You also have to think about what will appeal if
eventually you want to sell your house.
- Are you a gardener, or do you enjoy sitting outside ? Note
the orientation of the garden as covered in the first section.
- A large garden is an obvious feature in itself. Size is
more important than current condition. Even
quite fancy looking landscaping is relatively inexpensive. You can
never make a small garden bigger, but you can easily make a large
- It takes a long time for fruit trees to establish
themselves. If you would like your own (organic if you want) fruit then
it's valuable to move into a home which already has them.
may think that not having a garage is unimportant if you're intending
to cycle or walk to work. Remember that some day you may well need to
sell the house, and in any case garages offer very useful storage space
- even for your bike.
- If you have, or want, children then an enclosed,
large enough for play equipment is
probably a good idea.
- Some designs of home are much more spacious and allow in
more natural light than others. If you like a bright and spacious look,
keep this in mind. Windows are more expensive than bricks, so many
houses do not have adequate natural light.
House Selling Tricks
There are many tricks used to present a house as being nicer than it
actually is. You need to make sure you see through these tricks.
- If lights are
switched on in the house you are viewing, try turning them off. Many
houses have small windows and need lights on, or have many rooms with
north facing windows which rarely get any natural light. They will
always be gloomy unless you have lights on in the day-time.
- Remember that impressive furniture will not be left in the
house and that even the nicest kitchen or bathroom won't last forever.
Especially with new houses, it's much cheaper for the seller to provide
such things than to provide a larger house. Don't be distracted by
them. New houses are especially likely to skimp on
expensive features such as garages, parking spaces and
gardens while misleading you with "eye-candy".
- If you find yourself in a house which has been obviously
furniture in order to appeal to a buyer, think about how large the
rooms will look when you move in with your furniture. Houses which are
being lived in will tend to have a more realistic level of furnishings
- New features fitted to sell houses are often not of the
greatest quality - I've even seen plastic "wood panel look" interior
doors. Would you choose such a thing for yourself ? How about the
framed bits of wall-paper so beloved of TV property programmes. Do you
really want them in your home ?
- Rooms which don't exist: Sometimes buyers advertise their
room or some other room as a 4th bedroom. It looks better on the
details than in real life, and it's possible with virtually any house
which has a dining room.
- New houses are starting to be built with higher ceilings.
done because it gives a sense of spaciousness in otherwise small rooms.
You and your furniture have to fit in the floor area, not up the walls.
- The word "Townhouse" is a way of describing a
terraced house by using a fancy name. It's still a terrace.
- Is a "free" flat screen TV or some other luxury item being
included in the price ? There's a reason why. It has very little value
compared with the property you're buying and they're hoping it will
distract from some other deficiency.
Dodgy home improvements
I've seen a lot of bizarre home improvements in the time I've
been interested in property, including the following:
- Loft extensions made by removing the woodwork which keeps
the roof up - leading to a dodgy looking roofline and very possibly a
collapsing roof in the future.
- Extension into the cellar. This is a good one. If you're
enough to have a cellar, you can convert your living room and dining
rooms into bedrooms and put the living rooms in the cellar. OK, so
there's not much of a view and it seems a bit dark down there, but it
makes the house sound much bigger in the description.
is a relatively well off city, a very pleasant city and I'm glad to say
that there are very few areas of Cambridge that are in any way "rough".
Those small pockets that exist are are spread quite evenly throughout
the entire city and in every electoral ward. There is no-where that
could be described as actually
being dangerous. Sadly it seems that people from one area often like to
put another down while promoting the benefits of wherever it happens to
be that they themselves live. I have no intention of joining in and
pointing at any particular place as being bad, but urge you to go and
look for yourself around any area that you are considering. It is not
difficult to spot trouble.
- Note that crime rates are quite low throughout Cambridge.
moved into the city from a village a dozen or so miles south west of
the city our home and car
insurance rates both dropped. Insurers have a pretty good idea
- There are sadly many houses in Cambridge on busy roads.
to buy them, but expect values to be a little cheaper to take into
account fumes, dust, noise and difficulty for visitors to park.
- There are some very nice properties near the river, but
their flood history carefully and find out how much home insurance will
cost. We've seen floods on several occasions in the time we've lived in
- You may think that not having a garage is unimportant if
intending to cycle or walk to work. Remember that some day you may well
need to sell the house, one day you might have some reason to own or
even just hire a car for a while, and in any case garages offer very
useful storage space.
- Due to the high price of houses in Cambridge, there has
been an unfortunate tendency for additional extra narrow homes to be
built on other people's gardens. The result is often small gardens for
both houses and parking problems, the latter made worse by the council
often not handing out parking permits for such new developments. There
are still plenty of really generous plots on the market, but you have
to find somewhere which hasn't been the result of this penny-pinching.
- A surprising number of houses just outside (sometimes even
considerably outside) Cambridge are marketed as being "in Cambridge".
The new necklace developments (including Arbury Park) are also mostly
outside the city boundary. There are benefits to being a city resident,
such as cheaper tickets for the Folk Festival and other events.
- I once lived in a village which had a group of people in it
running a campaign to get a CB postcode apparently in an attempt to get
some of the Cambridge snob value to rub off. Note that some villages a
considerable distance outside Cambridge in some directions do have CB
postcodes while others a little closer in other directions do not. It
doesn't really mean a great deal, except that insurance rates may be
- Cambridge has sadly been hit harder than most places by the
Buy to Let house price bubble. As a result, terraced houses here are
spectacularly over-valued at present and do not represent good value.
- Here is a list
of Cambridge Estate Agents, but also look out for private
- UK housing prices elsewhere are also currently distorted
very strongly by
the buy to
let market. This has caused terraced houses to be valued far higher
they ought to be. It's a bubble, which I think will eventually slowly
than burst. Expect it to leak rather faster for the most
over-valued houses, though. This is a very very good time for selling a
but not such a good time to be buying one. It makes little sense to
make an investment in something which is over-valued and the smart
money is not buying terraces at this time.
- Prices of semi-detached and detached houses are currently
depressed due to over-valuation of terraces. This is a very good time
to buy a detached house.
- The current prices offer a once in a lifetime opportunity
some terraced house owners to sell, clear their mortgages and move up
to a detached house. It's surprising to me how few seem to have
- Once upon a time, "a man from the council" assessed all the
housing in the country in an objective fashion and put houses into
Council Tax Bands. There was always concern about their methodology, so
for instance some band D equivalent houses would end up in bands C or
E. However, it was rare for a house to be accidentally valued two bands
out from where it ought to be. Be suspicious of such abberations in the
market as a band C property which costs more than a band E property. It
is almost certainly overpriced and probably not a good investment for
the future. There is currently extremely optimistic pricing amongst
some types of house in Cambridge. If you want to pay Band C council
tax, pay a Band C price for the house.
I really shouldn't have to mention this, but I will anyway.
don't make appointments to view properties that you're not interested
in, and please keep appointments that you've made. When selling in the
past I've had the dubious pleasure of spending time tidying up the
house and sitting around waiting for the benefit of viewers who don't
turn up at the arranged time (or ever). It is surprising just how rude
some people are.
Finally, please give sellers some feedback whether or not the
house is right for you. Sellers are always interested to knowing how
viewers see their home.
David Hembrow 14th April 2007