How to get on – and climb – that property ladder, secrets from a property pro
As part of our young people and finances series, property expert Louisa Fletcher shares her tips on how to get your foot on the first rung of the ladder.
By Louisa Fletcher, Property expert
There are barriers to getting on the property ladder, but lookout for opportunities
There’s no denying that first-time buyers face huge challenges at the moment. Prices are currently at record levels, which means the amount of deposit you need to purchase is the highest it’s been, proportionate to income, for any generation. Mortgages are getting tougher to apply for too, owing to stricter lending criteria.
However, with the advent of greater flexibility around working from home, especially over the last few months, it may be possible for first time buyers to purchase further outside towns and cities, where property tends to be less expensive.
A lower purchase price means that potentially the amount you’ll need to save for a deposit will be lower, which might help you to get on the ladder a little quicker.
Don’t be swayed by social media
Generally, I think social media has promoted a very aspirational mindset over the past few years. In some respects I’d suggest that’s positive, because if you’re motivated to work hard to achieve a certain lifestyle, having that gentle reminder every day can help you achieve your goals.
On the other hand, I sometimes wonder if this has created a certain pressure that a first home has to be perfect and ‘Insta-worthy’, which just isn’t the case.
Buying your first property is a huge achievement, regardless of what it looks like. So, as long as you can afford your mortgage and bills, are happy and comfortable there and it feels like home to you, that’s all that matters.
If you can, stay at home longer to save
My first property was a small one-bedroom house in Wimborne, Dorset, and it was a repossession. The house itself certainly wasn’t palatial and it needed a lot of work, however the moment I stepped inside the front door, I knew it was for me.
I had a deposit of 10% and a tiny bit left to put towards all the work that needed doing.
Before I bought it, I was tempted to move out of home and into a shared rented flat with some friends, but my mum persuaded me it was better to stay at home for longer and save to buy my own place, rather than moving out and paying someone else’s mortgage.
It was frustrating at the time and dampened my social life, but it was the right advice which I’ve thanked her for since.
My advice to first time buyers is the same - if you’re in a position to stay at home and save towards your deposit, rather than renting, you’re likely to get on the property ladder a lot quicker than if you move out, pay rent and try to save at the same time.
The art of compromise
Why did I choose the property I bought as my first home? Put simply, it was the best I could afford at the time. Although it wasn’t initially an area I wanted to live in – it was an hour’s drive to work and further away from my family than I wanted – it was within my budget and ticked a lot of other boxes.
It’s a good idea to be willing to compromise when you buy your first home. The perfect property rarely exists, regardless of your budget, so be prepared to accept that either you won’t be able to afford something in the ideal location, or that it may need some work, or it may not be the size that you’d ideally like.
By looking in an area that you wouldn’t have previously considered, you may find your budget goes further and you can find a property you really love and can afford.
Buy the worst house on the best road you can
Although my first house was tiny and the location wasn’t my first choice, it was on a quiet, tree-lined road, which also had some very expensive properties on it. This meant my house significantly increased in value after I’d renovated it, because the rest of the street was so desirable.
It was absolutely a real-life example of ‘buy the worst house on the best road you can’.
Do your research on the property and the area before you put in your offer. Check your commute, what other properties have recently sold for, broadband coverage, how much council tax you’ll pay, what planning permissions have been granted locally and, if it’s a flat, how long the remaining lease is.
You can do all of this online (mostly for free too) by using a variety of apps and websites, including Google Maps, PropertyPriceAdvice.co.uk, Planningportal.co.uk, and USwitch.com. Your home is probably the biggest purchase you’ll make, so use all the free information available to make an informed decision.
Don’t be afraid of renovating
Because my first house was a repossession, it needed a lot of work (and that’s an understatement)! It would, of course, have been ideal if I could have bought something that was ‘ready to go’ but its condition was the reason I could afford it.
However, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole process of transforming it from a tatty shell into a cosy little home, and my love of property all started from there. I felt such a sense of achievement when it was finished, that I caught the property bug.
I continued to buy, renovate and sell properties for many years afterwards, with the profits I made each time I sold meaning I had more capital to put into my next purchase. That’s how I moved up the ladder.
Short-term sacrifices do pay off
When I was renovating my first home, I worked full-time in an office (with over an hour’s commute each way) then would come home and start stripping wallpaper, re-plastering and decorating late into the evenings and every weekend.
On top of that, I took a second job for a few months to top-up my wages so I could afford the materials I needed for work on the house and furniture. The extra money was great but it didn’t do much for my social life, that’s for sure.
The point is though, after six months the house was finished and I had no debts, other than paying my mortgage. Although it was very hard work at the time, I’d do it all over again the same way.
Preparation is priceless
Saving for a deposit can take years, but it’s a great opportunity to nurture your credit score and hone your money management skills. Demonstrating you’re good with money and able to live within your means is one of the key things that lenders look for when assessing an application for a mortgage.
Avoid taking out any payday loans or easy pay credit schemes, as these can hamper your chances of being accepted for a mortgage later on.
Keep on top of your finances to ensure you never miss a payment. That unpaid phone bill from when you were living in a house share as a student can cause you real problems in the future.
If you have a credit card, make sure you’re actively paying down the amount you owe, rather than just the interest payment each month.
Saving for a deposit? If you're aged between 18-39, consider taking out a Lifetime ISA (LISA) as soon as possible. It’s a clever way of saving because not only can you save up to £4,000 a year tax-free, for every £1,000 you save you get a top-up from the government of £250 - up to a maximum of £1,000 a year. It’s basically free money.
A top tip that my mum taught me – which I still use, by the way - is to set the amount you want to save as a monthly direct debit, so it goes out of your account on the day you get paid. That way, you don’t miss it.
If you then get to the end of the month and you’ve got money left in your account, even if it’s only five or ten pounds, put that in your savings account too. It adds up over the years and demonstrates to a mortgage lender that you’re a habitual saver, which will really help support your mortgage application.
Once you’re in a position to buy, I’d highly recommend you apply for your mortgage before you start to view any properties. That way, you know how much you can spend and it also strengthens your position when you put forward an offer.
There’s nothing worse than falling in love with something, and then finding out after you’ve made an offer which has been accepted that you can’t raise enough on a mortgage to buy it. This happens more often than many people realise.