Sarah Beeny’s top tips for buying or selling a home

After a decade long property boom it’s been a tough couple of years for the housing market.

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But there are tentative signs that things may be improving – latest figures from Nationwide Building Society revealed that house prices rose by an average of 0.9% in June, the third monthly increase in four months.

While it’s still too early to say whether or not the market has bottomed out, there are indications that some confidence is returning. So if this has prompted you to put your property up for sale, or you’ve decided it’s time to start looking to buy, here are some tips to help:

Selling…

Be realistic

As a general rule everything has a price - the chances are if you have not had any viewers or had viewers but no offers, you’re probably asking too much money for your property. If you really want to sell you need to drop the price, but not by a tiny bit. In uncertain times, I would advise you get below the market. After all, you want your property to stand out.

You are far better off with several buyers all banging the door down to buy, than with no interest at all.  At least then you have a decision to make as to whether you actually sell for that amount or not. Currently, I believe we are bumping along the bottom, so now is certainly not the time to overprice if you want a sale.

The two ways to value are to find out how much a home like yours recently sold for, or look at what else you can buy for a similar amount in your area - if you think your two-bedroom flat is worth £130,000 but there are three-bedroom houses on the market for a similar price, you are unlikely to achieve your asking price.

Clean the whole house

If you smoke, stop smoking inside and clean all ashtrays - if you have pets, wash their beds. Pet and cigarette odour are the two smells that come up most often in the ‘put off' smells list. Look at your kitchen and bathroom from an outsider's point of view. It may sound blunt, but if they are really manky do something about it - often it only requires bleaching the grout and re-siliconing - get in behind the basin and loo and get scrubbing there, too.

And don’t forget curb appeal. What do you see when you approach the front of your property? This is the first impression potential viewers get of your home, and it’s very important. If it looks a bit of a mess, do something about it. Don't argue with neighbours about who is going to do what - check that they don’t mind if you set about smartening it up and do it yourself. Freshening up paintwork, power-washing the path and a well-placed plant by the front door can make the world of difference.

And don’t forget the back garden or yard. Outside space is a real luxury and one that should be cherished, especially in an urban setting. Give it a clean - get a few cheapie pot plants and look out for an inexpensive table and chairs to show you can use the space.

De-clutter

You’ve heard it before, but it works: putting your house on the market is the perfect opportunity to donate all the stuff you no longer want or use to a charity shop. Even if there are things you don’t want to part with, consider putting some of your non-essentials into a cheap storage unit until you move in to your new home.

Trust me, you’ll be surprised at the results: suddenly surfaces, corners and shelves will be clear and this can totally change the feel of a room – it gives a greater sense of space and more importantly, creates the feeling that your property is big enough to live in, in a tidy way, without it feeling cramped and cluttered.

Like small gardens, it's rather more important to dress small rooms well so potential buyers can envisage how the room could work for them.

Don’t wait to get your house on the market

Traditionally there are busier and quieter times of the year for house selling. These are based on what much of the population is doing. December is quieter as everyone builds up to Christmas but the market tends to pick up in the New Year - equally August tends to be quiet because so many people are away on holiday.

However in these more uncertain times, I personally recommend that you don't wait. It’s so difficult to time the market and despite what you endlessly read, the truth is nobody has any idea what is actually going to happen. If now is the right time in your life to sell, get on with it.

Buying…

Work out how much you can afford

To avoid disappointment I would suggest you see a mortgage broker before you start looking for a property to ensure that you are able to get the borrowing you need. Remember, mortgage providers have become more cautious about the amount they will lend so you may find you aren’t able to borrow as much as you were expecting.

Don’t be afraid to make a cheeky offer

Because of the current weakness in the market, there is often room for negotiation. However, if you find a property you like, the vendor needs to know you are a serious potential buyer.

This is where it’s important to know the state of the local market and investigate how long the property you are interested in, has been up for sale.

Your own situation will also play a part – if you are in a position to move quickly, maybe because you are not in a chain or are a cash buyer, you will be in a stronger position to put in an offer significantly below the asking price.

For example, take a house that is on the market at £200,000. If you can only afford to offer £170,000, but you have no chain and could complete quickly that offer may well be accepted. However, if you are dependent on selling your current home but have no buyer, you are in a weaker position.

That said, be bold and hold firm. The situation is dramatically different from a few years ago when in many instances there were bidding wars on properties. Try not to let your heart rule: once you’ve decided what you’re prepared to pay, don’t feel pressured into paying more even if your offer is turned down. Keep the offer on the table, giving the vendor time to consider it more carefully. Even if it’s turned down initially, if they’re keen to sell they may come back and accept it at a later date or suggest a compromise between your initial offer and the asking price.

If the vendor doesn’t budge but you can’t bear the thought of walking away, it’s time to increase your offer.

Look for warning signs

Check for loose tiles and subsidence, listen as well as look...Stand back and see if there are any slates or tiles missing or slipping from the roof - look at the flashing (the lead/cement fillet that seals where the roof meets any vertical walls). Look for signs of movement, such as cracks or areas of new pointing in between bricks. You should be able to line up the vertical and horizontal lines of the exterior - window headers, end (flank) walls, pointing lines etc and these will tell you if there has been movement.

Even if you are concerned, don’t panic as it won’t necessarily mean that you should steer clear of buying the property - most of our housing stock was built with relatively inadequate foundations and will have moved around a bit over the years. Get a good survey: movement may be historic but if there are signs that it is ongoing, seek advice from the surveyor and a builder. After all, if you’ll need to spend money on rectifying the problem, you can use this as a reason to negotiate the price.

Check out the hot water system - if the property has more than one or two bathrooms it should have a more powerful system than a combination boiler. If you are a big shower fan, turn the shower on and check the pressure. 

Look around at the neighbourhood: there may there be specific noise at times of the day – it may be near a school or be on a road that is busy during rush hour. Many are not bothered by children’s laughter (and of course if you have children its likely to be in the catchment area!) but if you do mind then steer away.

Trust your instincts - do you like the house? There will inevitably be compromises to be made but if you get a good feel then it is probably the right one for you - if it doesn’t feel right, then walk away.

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Get a homebuyer's report or a full structural survey...

You will have to have a basic valuation for the mortgage lender but remember this is for its benefit, not yours. It needs to know that the investment is sound, but remember, this is purely a valuation and will not necessarily identify any structural problems. Unless you are buying a new-build it is well worth paying extra for a more comprehensive survey. 

A homebuyer's report is the half-way house. They are designed as a general rule for conventionally-built properties, built in the last 150 years. There is a great deal of information that they will tell you, but be aware that they will not be looking at every aspect of the property, as they do not take up carpets or carry out investigative work.

A full structural survey is the most comprehensive. It will cost more, but particularly if you are thinking of buying an old property it can be money well-worth spending. This type of survey can identify more serious structural problems. If it does uncover something you weren’t expecting, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should pull out of the sale, but at least you are better informed about the money you are likely to have to spend on rectifying any problem - it can be another tool in the whole price negotiation process.

Be aware that no survey will be perfect and problems are likely to come up, so don't panic, just consider how much it is likely to cost to overcome them.

Don’t go for a short leasehold

Many properties are bought on a freehold basis, but if you are buying a leasehold property – which is common with many flats – most mortgage companies want 40 years to be left on the lease once you have reached the end of your mortgage, which is normally after 25 years. This therefore means that anything under 65 years on a lease is generally considered short.

This doesn't mean you can't buy a property with say 50 years left on the lease and take a 10 year mortgage. But there could be problems when you come to sell.

Therefore if the lease is quite short, investigate the cost of extending it. 

Sarah Beeny presents Channel 4’s ‘Property snakes and ladders’ and has launched a new property website, tepilo.com, through which you can buy or sell a home. It also offers advice and tips to help you with the process.

Sarah will be answering your questions in a live webchat at 1pm on Thursday July 9, 2009, so if there’s anything property-related you’d like to ask her submit your question now.

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