When you’re switching from renting a place to buying your own flat, it pays to have your wits about you, literally. Being in the financial position to purchase a property is a major achievement, and with such a big investment you simply cannot afford to get it wrong.
But would you be able to recognise potential issues with a property? Unless you have some experience in residential property, probably not. With that in mind, let us take you through the pitfalls you need to be aware of when buying a flat for the very first time.
Property viewings are as much about deciding whether the size, shape and features of the flat are right for your personal circumstances as it is about assessing the condition of the property. If you discover condensation, mould, damp patches on walls/ceilings or a musty smell, there could well be a damp issue. Whether this is easily fixed or an ongoing problem may be hard to tell but RICS home surveys use a handy traffic light system to indicate the urgency of these and any other building defects found, as is explained here.
While you’re there, keep a lookout for cracks in walls or ceilings and ask your surveyor to investigate any detected. Hairline plaster cracks are probably nothing to worry about and can simply be filled and decorated. However, obvious large cracks, particularly around windows or doorways and especially if they run diagonally or get wider at the bottom, can be an indication that the building is not structurally sound. Consider this as a major red flag for your investment.
Plumbing, heating and electrics won’t be inspected as part of a standard home survey – you will need a specialist to get each checked professionally. But dodgy utilities can be annoyingly expensive and messy to put right, so make a point of carrying out some basic checks while you’re viewing the property. Run the taps and flush the toilet to check for adequate water pressure, find out the age, condition and maintenance history of the central heating boiler and radiators, switch on the lights and verify that the fuse box is the modern type.
Virtually all flats are sold on a leasehold basis, which means you buy the right to occupy the property for the length of time remaining on the lease. You don’t actually own the building unless you also acquire a ‘share of freehold’ – and even then, it is the lease that determines your ownership rights and responsibilities. Finding out the number of years left to run on the lease is vitally important. Not only does this have a direct bearing on the property value, but anything lower than about 90 years can make it difficult to get a mortgage, unless you get a lease extension.
The lease also details who is responsible for general repairs in the building, such as the roof, communal areas and gardens. Each leaseholder will pay an annual service charge to cover their share of these expenses, as well as a nominal ground rent to the freeholder. Find out how much these bills are, and what the provisions are in the event of unforeseen large expenditures. The recent ground rent scandal and ongoing cladding crisis should serve as stark reminders of just how vulnerable leaseholders can be.
Since the building is owned by the freeholder, the lease will contain clauses to limit the extent of any structural alterations that leaseholders are able to make to the flat. If the windows are in need of upgrading, or you are planning to change the layout, add an ensuite shower room or remove a chimney breast, check the lease to see that these works are not prohibited. In any event, you will need the landlord’s written consent in the form of a Licence to Alter before you go ahead with your refurbishment plans.
Finally, the lease will contain a set of rules that all leaseholders and anyone occupying the flat have to abide by to protect the comfort, safety and enjoyment of the property for all. These commonly include clauses on running a business from home, using the property as a holiday let, playing loud music and other anti-social behaviour, replacing fitted carpets with hard flooring, and keeping pets. If any of these are going to be a problem for your lifestyle choices or how you are planning to use the property, this is crucial information that you need to know before you buy.
Checking out the neighbours is one of the most difficult (but arguably one of the most important) things to do when you are buying a flat. There’ll be people living above, below and next door to you. This may offer a very happy communal environment – new flat, new best friends next door. However, with a greater number of neighbours to consider, there is the potential to be closer to a more diverse mixture of lifestyles not always fully aligned with your own, and offering the occasional neighbourly challenge children, pets and loud music are fairly common sources of annoyance to those who do not share the same interests. Thin dividing walls are a strong consideration with regard to noise worries. Although it is worth noting that a flat lease will hold neighbours responsible for managing noise levels within a generally acceptable limit. For your own understanding and peace of mind, you are best to view the flat at different times of the day. This allows you to fully appreciate the whole environment and determine if it’s really where you would like to live.
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