This clip says it all. The stereotypes are true. Estate agents are wankers.
Once we decided on Stoke Newington as our prime neighborhood to focus on in our property search, and agreed our criteria for the property itself, we started to actually look for a house. Instrumental in our search was RightMove, which has handy filters and updates constantly. Once we set our price range, bedroom numbers, and location, we constantly trolled through the listings to see what was out there.
The bad news was, not much. The credit crunch stalled the rise in house prices across the UK and while London properties maintained most of their value, home owners realized they wouldn't make the big gains by selling earlier in the year and instead starting investing in their properties rather than upgrading. So we would go for weeks when only 1-2 new properties would appear for sale each week and the rest of the listings were old news. That was a pretty depressing time, as it felt like we'd never even see anything we liked that we could afford.
We also registered with estate agents representing properties in Stoke Newington to get on their radars. This consisted of us walking down Church Street, looking in the windows of all of the estate agent offices at the properties they claimed to have on the market, and going in for a chat. We would sit in each estate agent's office and tell them our price range, criteria, what type of property we wanted (period property! no new builds! please God NO EX-COUNCIL PROPERTIES!!!) and outline our own situation; being first time buyers with a decent deposit and rolling month-to-month rental contract made us attractive as buyers as we were flexible. We learned that being chain-free (ie, not having a house to sell to release funds to buy our next property) was a really helpful trump card – I actually came to protect that status, not wanting to waste the opportunity. We would always get a great spiel from the estate agent about how we would find something we would love, how they had so many properties for us, and how everything would just be great.
We kept that optimism as we started going to viewings. Those first viewings tended to be lovely period properties converted to maisonettes – a two-story flat that is either the top or bottom half or a house. As we wanted a garden, we would see bottom floor maisonettes where you entered on the ground floor to the living areas and kitchen and then go downstairs to the bedrooms. What really shocked me about these properties was that they were listed at pretty high prices, not much difference in price to full houses, and often had weird conversion elements that made me think "why did they decide to do THAT?!". I often felt, looking at those maisonette flats, that I would be paying a lot to fix someone else's mistakes.
The other shocker about these properties was that because of the overall lack of properties coming onto the market, everything was in high demand. We were introduced to the "open house" fairly early, when we would be booked in to view a property at 2pm or whatever and show up to find at least 3 other couples milling around the place. It was disheartening as my competitive nature kicked in and we could tell the other couples were sizing us up as foes. It was also pretty depressing because 99% of the time, the other couples were either pregnant OR already had at least one kid. Too many times we walked up to see a property and tripped over a line of strollers parked outside. How can you compete with a bunch of couples who clearly need extra bedrooms for their children when you just want extra rooms for hosting guests and a sewing machine?
After seeing a few of these maisonettes, we saw our first full house and promptly fell in love. I blogged about it here, and the experience of seeing a proper 2 bed house fully intact made me realize that I just couldn't compromise on the idea of a HOUSE. So when estate agents would call with a maisonette or a flat, we would really grill them on what it was like; there's no point in seeing something that wasn't within our core criteria. I can't even tell you how many times I would get a call saying "Hey, we've got something we KNOW you'll love, you HAVE to see it!" and within a few minutes I'd find out that it was actually only a one-bed, didn't have a garden, wasn't in the area we were looking. Even worse, we would go and see properties and the estate agent would say that actually the price hadn't been set yet and so we'd see it, like it, and find out it was about £50-75,000 over what we could afford.
The worst estate agent move we experienced, though, was at the hands of Location Location. I'm publicly shaming them because we know they employed dirty tactics and eventually I refused to see houses they represented because of their horrendous service. We saw the first full house with them and they held our offer back from the owner in the hopes that someone would offer more, and when they did pass the offer on to the owners we're sure they counselled the owners not to accept it. But they also used us in the opposite way, by calling me to tell me they had this GREAT property I HAD to see, but someone was interested in it and about to make an offer so I should see it RIGHT AWAY so I wouldn't be disappointed. But it didn't have a garden, didn't have a full second bedroom, and I realized that the estate agent just wanted me to go in and make an offer to inflate the price for the other poor buyer! When I turned down a viewing of another property they called me about, the estate agent actually lectured me about how property prices in Stoke Newington were rising, that I probably couldn't afford what I wanted, and I was "going to have to start compromising at some point." Her behavior was so rude that I just started avoiding her calls.
So I guess the bottom line is, we ended up having to be really proactive. Good stuff was going fast – if you saw something Saturday that you liked, you had to book in a second viewing Monday morning or risk the property going under offer that afternoon and missing out. Crap stuff was lingering on the market and the phone calls we would get were flogging stuff we'd seen on RightMove for weeks. Often times, we'd call estate agents asking to see properties they themselves hadn't actually seen because they literally would have been put up on Rightmove moments ago. It was pretty cutthroat, and oftentimes disheartening. On the flipside, we had so many estate agents cancel viewings a half-hour before the appointment, or not show up, that it was hard to not just throw up our hands in disgust and just stay on in our tiny little rental flat.
But eventually, we did find diamonds amongst the rough. Tomorrow, I'll tell you about how it came down to negotiating the offer stage – both for ourselves, how we decided to make an offer, and how the actual process of making an offer went down.