I kicked off 2022 on Instagram sharing about our new home, which was one of our biggest highlights of 2021. We had purchased a commercial property and did a pretty interesting renovation to make it residential.
It was a very different experience from our first time buying experience in April 2017 where we purchased a new build off the block.
That experience though, as they say gave us a foot on the ladder.
So almost five years later, I’ve reflected on some of the journey and sharing some of the things we did right, some lessons learned and one or two things we could have done better!
You probably already know a fair bit of our story from masters students to choosing to stay back in the UK (if you don’t, here’s a very detailed post).
So how did we pick a location to live?
Tola worked in Coventry at the time we got married, and I was going to take up a job in London. So we needed a middle point for the commute. (Funny how things might have been different with today’s remote work). We looked at a map and considered other practicalities of the commute. Then we settled on Milton Keynes. Tola could drive to work in under an hour. And I could be at Euston, Central London in 30 mins as well.
I don’t think we thought in-depth about things like good schools, but since we knew we’d likely start a family in the near future, we briefly considered on a general scale whether or not it was a decent location was to raise kids.
I gotta say though that promixity to London was key for me (I was still a yummy 26 year old) but Tola definitely wanted a suburban life (30+ vibes eh?). So MK was a good balance.
I didn’t actually get a chance to check out our rented home. Tola did most of the work as I was in Nigeria when we paid a deposit to secure the house . But the one thing I insisted on as he viewed houses, was a decent kitchen! Also I was more inclined to a two bedroom flat in the city centre but Tola wanted a house. There’s something about a garden and own space that he fancies!
So we settled on a two bed semi detached house with a garden. It was okay – a bit dated with a washed out green carpet — but I guess it did the job. We had one master bed and the other (literally a match box room) had a table and an extra wardrobe, which was kind of like “my space”. The kitchen was a decent size with a washing machine and microwave but no dishwasher.
The living room could take a three seater sofa and we had a small dining table for two behind the sofa.
A back garden, and one bathroom and toilet upstairs completed the entire house. I remember one time a six year old kid visited and was surprised we only had just one toilet! Oh and yeah the house was unfurnished so we had to purchase a sofa and beds in ourselves.
I can’t clearly recall when we started thinking of buying a house to be honest. I mean we had funded our wedding in July 2014 and also moved into the rented house in same July. So we were definitely easing back into things. Also I really was still a student at the time!
March 2015 after I started my job as a Trainee Solicitor was probably when we started thinking of buying a house.
I have to say something that influenced our mindset a bit. We visited a friend we had got to know through another new friend and when we got fo the front of the house it was an electric gate. Now it’s not like It we hadn’t seen an electric gate in Nigeria but something about seeing it in England owned by people like us, made it attainable perhaps? The house also just seemed big and spacious.
Now that I know a little bit more about houses, I can tell it was a 4 bed detached property with a rear extension.
I also remember this friend of ours had a cleaning lady who sorted out the cleaning as she entertained guests. I knew then that I was going to get a cleaning lady too for my rather matchbox 2 bed home. It was about £12 an hour then.
Side note: that was the best cleaning lady ever! She’d clean so quickly and so throughly. I reckon she was used to cleaning newer house so she’d say “oh this house too old. I clean clean it not shine”. Honestly, I looked forward to easing her work when we moved to a better house, but she moved back to Europe before we bought our house.
Anyway Tola and I talk about that night as a game changer. Milton Keynes as a whole showed us larger spaces than London where accommodation was so tight.
So buying in Milton Keynes become even a more attractive option!
Now that you have some back story l can share some nuggets on what I think we did right and learnt along the way.
We probably started saving around May/June 2015. But we also immediately started searching on house websites.
Essentially you need to know what’s in the market and what your money can get you. But it wasn’t enough to just view the details online, we would actually go up to the property for a viewing. It helps to see the area and the house itself, if available + surroundings. Based on this we could strike off some areas.
We weren’t set on a “new builds” so a number of the houses we considered were older houses. Eventually and based on other factors, a new build seemed easier and worked with our plans.
Up till today Tola browses and watched house websites for fun.
Some school of thought considers home ownership unnecessary. And for them, they might have a valid point.
But based on rental prices and potential mortgage costs, the difference between our then current rent for the washed out 2 bed and a 3/4 bed new build property was about £50 more. In some cases the mortgage was actually cheaper.
For a house with newer amenities, more space and just in line with how we’d rather live, it seemed like a no brainier to try to raise the deposit. Our monthly outgoing was to remain the same. Or at least pretty much.
Yeah I know, it sounds basic but it’s true. There was no lump sum windfall or trust fund.
We decided to put a portion of savings aside and we did that every month, in a joint account and with a target date in mind. Of course some months we may have had extra expenses and couldn’t save or some months we “splurged” for a travel experience.
At the end of the day we were young and newly married so hard to balance it out. One thing though, was that we hoped to have purchased our home before we had kids!
For first time buyers, there were a few available government schemes.
In particular, we explored Help to Buy which allows you borrow up to 20% (or 40% in London) of the mortgage from the government. You needed at least 5% of your deposit but could also have more.
Using the loan to boost up your deposit allowed for better mortgage rates. As an example, if you had a 12% deposit, you could borrow an additional 20% from the government brining your deposit to 32%. A 32% deposit was likely to get a better mortgage rate than a 12% deposit. Likewise an 8% deposit with the government loan would give you 28% deposit. The government loan was also interest free if repaid within 5 years. After 5 years interest would be payable on the loan.
It could be repaid in cash or repaid upon the sale of the property.
So this 5 year target so this was our game plan!
Many people erroneously believe that the deposit is the primary cost required and get surprised by the “hidden costs” of purchasing a home. Being a solicitor myself, these weren’t so hidden to me. I was aware of the conveyancing process and the extra costs that’ll be involved such as stamp duty, solicitors fees, and searches.
So we gave ourselves extra time to save up for these as well. Good thing was our developers eventually paid the stamps duty as an incentive!
Many new build developers would often offer some incentives to first time buyers. In our case they offered to pay the stamp duty. However we also negotiated an extra cash allowance for some upgrades in our fittings & fixtures like better taps, door handles, and carpets.
New builds would often be completed to finish and ready to move in.
But as an example, they typically come with basic lighting and bulbs which many people then change themselves.
One thing we did right was purchase our light fittings ahead of time and got the builders to install them. Likewise, our blinds, curtains and bathroom shelves we had ready few days after we got the keys and could get the builders to simply hang them up.
Essentially if you need to make minor improvements like these, it may be helpful to plan in advance and take advantage of the builders being in or around the property at the time you move.
So yeah, that was pretty much it. We moved in April 2017, and interestingly moved out in Summer 2021 paying off the Help to Buy government loan before any interest accrued!
There’s lots of opinions about new builds but we honestly had a pretty great experience, and it helped ease the process as first time buyers.
We didn’t have that much snagging and the fittings were generally top quality.
I see some new builds now and thanks to our reno, I realise how much great fittings we had – oak doors, fully titled bathrooms, gas on glass cooker, integrated appliances etc. Our neighbours were wonderful, the walls didn’t feel light etc. It’d have been nice to have bigger rooms but hey, one can’t have it all I guess.
We were very happy in our home and had lots and lots of memories. It’ll always be precious to us as that was the first home for our boys as well.
It was just so right for that stage of our lives and I’m so thankful to God for it.
While we were saving in a regular account we could have done better by saving in an Investment Savings Account. At the time, the government was topping all savings by 25% provided the money was to buy a first time home and met the requirements. There was a cap of £3,000 that could be paid in and while it’s not a super high amount in the grand scheme of buying a home, every little helps! That could very well have covered the solicitors fees.
As people new to a country and system, it’s always helpful to find out what’s available in the system and how you can maximise it. And of course that’s what I share my experience. So definitely check out government schemes and see what may be beneficial to you!
This is really a theoretical point as it’s not something wanted or could have done better but it’s a good-to-know!
One would think new builds are essentially cast in stone and structural amends can’t be made — but we’ve learned that sometimes it’s about negotiating power or simply asking! So a neighbour buying the same property asked that two rooms be merged into one big room with a walk in closet and en-suite. It was a different layout from the rest of the property on the block.
So those changes can definitely be made!
Sometimes what appears as the same offer may present two different results.
Eg an offer for £10k by your developer to either (i) pay your stamp duty or (ii) be added to your deposit may have two different consequences.
The government receives the stamp duty and once paid it has no benefit to you in the long run.
However, if that same cash is added to your deposit it continues to build equity. I mention this because a friend took the latter option and their equity contribution was topped up so they paid for their own stamp duty. Tola and I thought that was a smart move!
Technically it can be the same result if you accept the stamp duty offer and use the money you were going to use for the stamp duty into your equity. But we know that sometimes once that stamp duty offer comes through, we divert the funds for enjoyment!
Of course this generally assumes you could fund the stamp duty payment yourself. If you dont, that developer offer is a huge win to get you to completion!
Every other person might say the conveyancing and mortgage process is long and stressful. I might say “it’s not too bad”.
Don’t believe me.
First being a lawyer I was fairly familiar with what to look out for in the agreements and the searches (eg what’s a chancel search!). Also on the mortgage side Tola did a lot of the leg work. I mean he’s the person with the finance background right? Shout out to team work.
Honestly though, the back and forth can be a lot. I remember them checking line items in back accounts, sending a million documents over, waiting for decisions etc.
So please definitely look out for a good conveyancing solicitor (check reviews, ask people), and get your documents in order.
Also ask others. We tend to keep such info private until it’s all done, but find a couple of people with similar paths and ask! (If you don’t have any such circles, check out The UpWomen).
And well that’s about it on our experience. Hope this was helpful!
Oh yeah one more thing we should have done in hindsight was when we bought the house was take a nice photo in front of the door. You don’t have to share to anyone or make a social media announcement, but it’s a nice to have! Don’t forget that.
How about you? Are you looking to buy? Exploring? Saving up? Completed? Share your experience and any tips or lessons you’ve learnt along the way.