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  • How to buy a house: The process of buying a house

How to buy a house: The process of buying a house

Buying a house can be a lengthy and confusing process. There are lots of things to consider and it's not always easy to figure out which bit comes first, especially if it's your first home! Our guide gives you a step by step overview of the complete house buying process, from the minute you decide to take the plunge, all the way through to getting the keys to your new home.

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A couple embrace, an Asian lady faces toward the camera with a big smile and holding a set of keys, her partner faces away in her arms. In the background are a selection of out of focus cardboard boxes

Timeline of buying a house

There are multiple stages involved with buying a house, which can loosely be divided into three phases. The exact timeline will vary depending on your personal circumstances, property availability and to some degree, luck, but on average:

Finding a home - Research phase: Choose area, find out what you can afford to buy, find a home and put in an offer - six weeks to eight months

Mortgage arrangement - Application phase: Submit application, searches, conveyancing, property survey and exchange of contracts - four weeks to three months

Completion - Ownership phase: Transfer of funds from lender to seller, deed name change, getting the keys and moving in - one day to four weeks

It's most difficult to estimate the length of phase one, as this is something that is largely down to the individual buying. It's also best to have an element of flexibility with the timeline during phase two and three, as whilst the house buying process is more standardised from the application phase onward, how long it takes from mortgage to completion can vary. 

1. Set a budget

A major part of setting the budget to buy a home will be looking at how much you can set aside each month to save for a deposit, and thinking about the size and average cost of the type of home you’re looking for. 

Don’t forget to factor in the other costs involved with buying a home, when you’re calculating how much you’ll need, such as legal fees, stamp duty and moving expenses. 

2. Save a mortgage deposit

Buying a house in the UK will require a deposit of at least 5% of the property value or purchase price, whichever is lower. However, you won’t have access to the best rates with such a small deposit. 

Mortgage lenders offer the most competitive rates to borrowers providing 40% deposit or more, although you’ll benefit from every additional 5% you can afford to add, so even if you can stretch from 5-10%, you’ll still have access to a slightly better rate. 

It can be difficult to save a large deposit in today’s market, but there are ways to save for a mortgage deposit more quickly with a bit of research and organisation.

3. Find out how much you could borrow

Before you start the big search for your dream home, it’s a good idea to get a rough estimate of how much you might be able to borrow with the deposit you’ve saved and your current household income. Our mortgage calculator can help you to do this!

Most people can borrow around four and a half times their income, but there are other factors that influence this, such as your credit score, your outgoings, the type of property you want to buy and your loan to value (LTV) ratio.

A mortgage calculator will give you an idea of what you might be able to borrow, which will help you target your search to properties in the right price range. Keep in mind, however, that, as it will not take your personal circumstances into account, speaking to a mortgage broker will give you a more accurate estimate.

4. Research an area you’d like to live in

Having an idea of your budget should help you narrow down your search to the areas you’re likely to be able to afford to buy a property in. It’s a good idea to be flexible, especially if you hope to find somewhere relatively quickly, as it can be difficult to find exactly what you’re looking for in popular areas.

If you’re considering a location that you’ve not lived in before, visiting or even spending a couple of nights in the area before you begin your search can be helpful. It’s also important to make a list of priorities for the type of area you’d like to live in, and compare which area checks the most boxes, for example:

  • Affordability of property

  • Local amenities such as hospitals, shops and schools (where relevant)

  • Local council plans or any other planning applications that could impact the area

  • Proximity to elements that could impact your property value - flight paths, flood zones, high crime levels

  • Local transport links

  • Access to parks or green spaces

  • Suitability for your demographic, for example, is the area best for families, young couples or retirees?

5. Speak to a broker and compare mortgages

When you’ve chosen an area you’re happy with and begun to look at the property prices, it’s a good idea to speak to an independent mortgage broker. They can:

  • Compare mortgages across the market and explain the cost of taking on a mortgage for the type of home you want to buy

  • Go over your personal circumstances to give you a better idea of whether you’ll be able to get a mortgage as large as you need

  • Guide you through the mortgage application process - which can be very helpful for first-time buyers in particular

  • Help you to obtain an agreement in principle

Importantly, you need to remember when your mortgage's discounts or fixed periods come to an end to avoid seeing your rate hike. According to the latest UK remortgage statistics, the BoE Base Rate is expected to remain at 5.25% until the summer of 2024, before starting to decrease. This could have a profound impact on those looking to remortgage in 2024.

6. Get an agreement in principle

A mortgage agreement in principle (AIP) - also known as a decision in principle, is document from a lender that states that they are theoretically happy to give you a mortgage of a certain amount. It's not a mortgage offer, and you are not obliged to stay with that lender if you take one.

This is an important step in the process of buying a house as it will:

  • Help you avoid the disappointment of choosing a home you couldn’t realistically afford

  • Give more weight to any offers that you make on a property, as you’ll appear to be a serious buyer

  • Help you access property viewings - some estate agents won’t even show properties to those without one

  • Speed up the mortgage application process if you do decide to go ahead with the lender that provided it

A tree lined street with mid-sized houses on either side of the road and cars parked along the kerbs.

7. Finding a home

Once you’ve got an agreement in principle in place, it's time to begin searching for the perfect home. This is the part of the process that has the potential to take the longest, as choosing a property that suits all of your needs takes time and careful consideration - especially if you plan to stay there for a long time!

The majority of property listings are online on sites like Zoopla, but there are still some in local newspapers and property pages if you prefer to do it the old-fashioned way. 

You should also consider registering with an estate agent. It’s usually free and could increase your chances of finding your ideal home, as sometimes they contact registered buyers before listing a property elsewhere if they feel it fits your needs.

View properties in person

It’s usually possible to arrange a virtual viewing of properties you're interested in, which could save you a trip if you’re unsure about them.

When it comes to buying a house, however, it’s important to arrange an in-person viewing to ensure it’s the right fit.

It’s also worth visiting the property at different times of day, if possible, to avoid getting a false impression of the location.

Some important things to consider about the property are:

  • Size - Is the living space adequate, are there enough bedrooms and storage space or is there scope to extend it if not?

  • Overall condition - Some properties will be fine with a lick of paint but others may need considerable renovation to be fit for your needs

  • Parking - Are your needs met on the property or if not, is on-street parking available?

  • Garden - Is it private or overlooked and does it have the space you need?

  • Council tax band - this will be easy to research online to get an idea of the additional costs of ownership

  • Internet speed – If you work from home it’s likely important that the area is served by a speedy connection

What to ask

When you’ve found the home that you think is ‘the one’ be sure to ask the seller or estate agent about anything that isn’t visibly obvious about the property. It’s a good idea to have a list of questions with you so that you don’t miss anything important. Here are some you might want to consider: 

  • Is it leasehold or freehold? - Usually flats are leasehold and houses are freehold, but this isn’t always the case

  • Is there a big chain? - This can sometimes cause delays in the mortgage process, and increase the chance a sale will fall through

  • How long has the property been on the market? - Sometimes a property that has remained unsold for a longer duration could indicate issues that you’re not yet aware of that may have put other buyers off. It could also mean that it’s overpriced

  • How long have the current owners been there? - A short stay could be a simple change in lifestyle, but could also indicate there are problems with the property or area

  • What are the neighbours like? (where applicable) - Sellers are unlikely to run down their neighbours when they're trying to sell a home, but it's worth asking to see how they react

  • What is the EPC rating? - The actual rating should be on all property listings, but if it’s lower than you’d hoped, why is that? Does it need a lot of work to restore a heating system, insulation or new windows? If you don’t mind carrying out these works, it can sometimes give you room to negotiate on price

  • Has the property been extended or altered? - If so, has this been done well and are the correct planning permissions and completion certificate in place?

  • When do the owners plan to leave?  - This will need to align with your hopes of owning the property

  • Are the owners willing to take the property off the market? If you make an offer, will the owners be happy to remove the property from sale, or even enter a lock-out agreement, to reduce your vulnerability to gazumping?

8. Make an offer

Here’s the difficult part. Making an offer can be the make or break in your home buying journey, so it’s important to find an amount that's both appealing to the seller, and that you’re personally comfortable paying. 

Always compare the asking price with similar properties in the area that have sold recently on property websites or with Land Registry. It’s also a good idea to ask if there have been any other offers and what they were, so you know what you’re competing against. 

Remember, never make an offer unless you’re absolutely certain about buying the property. Pulling out after a verbal offer has been agreed is likely to cost you both financially and timewise.

9. Apply for a mortgage

Even if you have a decision in principle, it’s a good idea to compare the mortgages available to you again at this point before you make your application. Your broker will be able to help you to find the best rates for your circumstances, but also make sure that the terms suit you. You should consider:

  • The mortgage type - Is a fixed-rate or variable rate mortgage more suitable for you?

  • Deal length - If you opt for a fixed-rate or an introductory offer on a discount-rate mortgage or tracker mortgage deal, what length of deal do you want? Most are available for two, three, five, seven and 10 years, but it’s possible to find longer deals too

  • The repayment type - Most residential mortgages are capital repayment, but in some circumstances it may be possible to get an interest-only mortgage

  • The term length - This really comes back to your affordability, as the payment will need to be spread out enough for the monthly payments to be manageable. There are also minimum and maximum age limits to be aware of

  • Flexibility - Some mortgages are more flexible than others with conditions such as how much you can overpay and whether you can take a payment holiday. You might also want to know whether or not it's a portable mortgage or even consider an offset mortgage

10. Find a property solicitor

Once your mortgage application has been accepted, a number of legal elements need to take place in the process of buying a house. This is known as conveyancing and is usually carried out by a specialist property solicitor or conveyancer. 

Some first-time buyer deals in particular may have incentives such as free legal services with the mortgage, however, bear in mind that you will have to use the solicitor that your lender has chosen. If you're unsure about their impartiality, it's probably best to look for a suitable solicitors firm yourself.

The functions carried out during the legal process are usually local searches, drawing up contract documentation and registering the property deeds with the new owner. In England stamp duty will also usually be dealt with by your solicitor. 

11. Get a house survey

Your mortgage lender will insist on a mortgage valuation, which is sometimes referred to as a valuation survey, but keep in mind that this is not the same as a full property survey.

Although there is an additional fee involved, it’s always a good idea to get a full house valuation from a Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (Rics) registered surveyor.  

They will assess the structural integrity of the building and point out any potential problems you might be taking on as the new owner. If there are any issues that will be costly to fix, you can then use the survey to renegotiate the sale price to accommodate that extra expense. 

12. Exchange contracts

This is where the buyer and seller sign and exchange contracts, at which point the transaction becomes legally binding. You will also need to pay the deposit, which your solicitor will transfer to the seller’s solicitor. 

Before signing the contract, make sure you are:

  • Happy with the outcome of all searches, surveys and any other specifics of the sale

  • Your lender has confirmed the availability of your mortgage funds

  • You have the deposit and any stamp duty fee available, as well as a transfer fee for the exchange of funds

  • Have organised building insurance from the date of exchange - as you become responsible for the property at this point

This process can be completed in as little as one week, but may take longer depending on the circumstances. A completion date will be set, usually for around two-four weeks later.

Once contracts have been exchanged, both parties are likely to have to pay charges and compensation to the other if they pull out of the transaction.

13. Complete and move in

A mutually agreeable completion date should have been organised when contracts were exchanged, and this is the date where your solicitor will transfer the mortgage loan to the seller’s. 

This is when you get the keys to your new home!

Your solicitor will need to register your details with the Land Registry and send your transfer deed with any stamp duty fee required to HMRC within 14 days of completion. Your new title deeds will also usually be forwarded to your mortgage lender - although you can request a copy or hold the original at home if you prefer.

A hessian door mat which has the words 'Home sweet home' printed on it sits on the floor of a sunny hallway, surrounded by cardboard boxes and a house plant