When Ruth, JTA and I first set out to look at houses, we didn’t actually plan on buying one. We’d just gotten to the point where buying one felt like an imminent logical step, and so we decided to start looking around Oxford to see what kind of thing we might be able to get (and what it would cost us, if we did). Our thinking was that, by looking around a few places, we’d have some context from which to springboard our own discussions about what property we’d one day like to own.
There’s something about “window shopping” for houses that’s liberating and exciting. We don’t need a house – we’ve got somewhere to live – but we’re going to come and look around anyway. Once you’re on their lists, estate agents will bombard you with suggestions of places that you might like, and you feel a little like they’re your servants, running around trying to please you (in actual fact, almost the opposite is true: they’re working on behalf of the seller… although it’s certainly in their interest to get the property sold promptly so that they can take their cut!).
But as we got into the swing of things, we discovered that we were ready to buy already. Between our savings (and, in particular, boosted by the first parts of my inheritance following my dad’s death last year, as we’re finally getting his estate sorted out), we actually have an acceptable deposit for a mortgage, and our renewal on our current place was looming fast. None of us having bought a house before, we did a bit of reading and decided that our first step probably ought to be to work out how much can we borrow. You know, just to make our window-shopping a little more believable. Maybe.
One of the estate agents we dealt with introduced us to a chap called Stefan Cork, a mortgage broker working as part of the Mortgage Advice Bureau network. We were still only window-shopping at this point, but hey: if we were going to be allowed some free, no-commitment mortgage advice, then we might as well work out how much we could potentially borrow, right? After checking his credentials (the three questions you should ask every mortgage broker), I spoke to Stefan on the phone, and talked him through our situation. I described our unusual relationship structure (which he took in his stride) and the way that we means-assess our household contributions, alongside more mundane details like how much we earn and what kind of deposit we could rustle up. He talked us through our options and ballparked some of the kinds of numbers we’d be looking at, if we went ahead and got a mortgage.
And somehow, somewhere along the line, our perspective switched. Instead of looking at houses just to give us a feel for what we might buy, “maybe next year”, we were genuinely looking to buy a house now. We re-visited some of the places we’d seen already, and increased our search of places we hadn’t yet seen. Over time, and by a process of elimination (slow Internet area; too many hills; too narrow staircases; too expensive; too wonky), we cut down our options to just three potential properties. And then just two. And then we came to an impasse.
So… we put offers on both. Under the law of England and Wales, a property purchase isn’t binding until the contracts have exchanged hands. Sellers benefit (and buyers suffer) from this all of the time, because it permits gazumping: even after the buyers have spent money on lawyers, mortgage applications, surveys and searches, the seller can change their mind and accept a higher offer from a different prospective buyer! But this legal quirk can work for buyers, too: in our case, we were able to put offers in of what we were willing to pay for each of two properties (different values, at that), and let them know that the first one of the two to agree to our price would be the one to get the sale!
Haggling for a house in this way felt incredibly ballsy (I’d been nominated as the negotiator on behalf of the other Earthlings), but it played against the psychology of our sellers. Suddenly, instead of being in a position of power (“no, we won’t accept that offer… go a little higher”), the sellers were made to feel that if they didn’t accept our offers (which were doubtless lower than they had hoped), they’d have a 50% chance of losing the sale entirely. When there are hundreds of thousands of pounds on the line, being able to keep your cool and show that you’re willing to go elsewhere is an incredibly powerful negotiating tactic.
True to our word: when one of them came back and accepted our offer, we withdrew the offer on the other house and began the (lengthy) paperwork to start getting the purchase underway. But that can wait for another blog post.