How to find the perfect property

Couple holding the keys to their new house

Searching for your dream property is an exciting business, whether you're taking your first step on the ladder or looking to move into a family home. It's also likely the most expensive purchase you will ever make, so it's important to get it right. Make your property search a fruitful one with these handy hints and tips.

Do your research
By the time you start looking at estate agents and property search sites, you've probably already got an area in mind, but a little in-depth research can help you to narrow down your search. Take a walk around the neighbourhood you're considering at different times of the day. You may see a different side to the area in the evening, or discover that the charming local pub by day turns into a loud live music venue by night. You may also discover noisy neighbours or flight paths make themselves known after a few visits.

You can also find more detailed information about crime, local schools and potential building work if you know where to look. For instance, the police force provides a crime-mapping website to show local hotspots, and the Government's Planning Portal can help you to avoid any nasty high-rise surprises that might devalue the neighbourhood in the future. A visit to the Environment Agency's website is also a good idea, since it can tip you off to flood risks that could cost you big time when it comes to insurance.

Start your search
Property website giants like Rightmove and Zoopla are a great place to start your search, and you can sign up for alerts when new properties in your desired area come onto the market. It's also worth popping into local estate agents though. Talk them through exactly what you're looking for, the must-haves and the nice-to-haves, and give them a preferred and maximum budget. Be friendly and ensure that they know you're serious about buying - it can take some of the hard work out of your search if they have you in mind when new properties become available.

Check prices
House prices go up and down, and it's nigh-on impossible to predict what the future may bring. But you can keep an eye on what's a reasonable price for similar properties in the same area by checking sites such as Nethouseprices or Zoopla, which reveal the prices of recently-sold properties. Rightmove's more detailed price match tool provides pictures, descriptions and asking prices, so you can be sure your comparison is a reliable one. Another handy tool comes in the form of Property-Bee. This add-on for Firefox will show those sellers on Rightmove who have changed their listing, so if the price has dropped, it could mean you're in a better negotiating position when you come to putting offers in.

Make a viewing checklist
Once you've put an offer in, a detailed survey will reveal any problems, but it's also a costly business. So it's a good idea to keep a checklist when you start viewing properties, which will enable you to spot any potential problems before you get to the point of paying out any money. Issues that could end up costing you a fortune, such as damp, electrics, plumbing, heating, roofs and structural issues aren't always obvious, but keep your eyes peeled for cracks in ceilings or outer walls, missing roof tiles or slates, damp spots, stains or mould that might indicate bad plumbing or a damp problem. Similarly, don't be afraid to try electrical switches, toilets, taps, and even doors and drawers to make sure they're all in good working order. Remember, this is a purchase that likely runs into the hundreds of thousands of pounds - a decent seller should have no problem with you checking that everything is right.

Ask questions
With your checklist ticked off, it's time to quiz the vendor about other possible issues. Ask to see electrical or gas installation reports, check when the boiler was last inspected, and get details of any renovations that were done. Don't be afraid to ask how long the property has been on the market, and how many viewings or offers it has had. If it's a leasehold property, make sure you ask about service charges and ground rent, as these can add a hefty amount onto your outgoings. Try to be chatty with the seller, enquiring as to what the area and neighbours are like, and why the vendor is moving on. It's also wise at this stage to check what's included in the sale. Some sellers take everything from the white goods to the lightbulbs with them, and again, that could mean your costs quickly mount up. Even if they tell a few white lies, you might notice some discomfort when you broach the subject of any potential problems.

Buying a home is one of the biggest decisions, and expenses, you'll make during your lifetime - the main thing is to make an informed decision. What appears to be your dream home could turn into a money pit if you're not careful, but if you do your homework, you should end up with the perfect property.

Have you had any property-buying nightmares? What advice would you give to other homebuyers? Leave your comments below...
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