Buying a home – the timeline
A full rundown on what to do & when
Buying a home is one of the most stressful things you'll do, and it hasn't been made any easier by the coronavirus pandemic. Knowing the rough outline of how the process works though will make the ride much smoother. This guide walks you through 25 steps to buying a home, including timescales.
The process is slightly different in Scotland. For the 25 steps to buying a home in Scotland, see our full guide.
Buying a home and coronavirus
This guide was written before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. Although the fundamentals of this guide still stand, if you're currently in the process of buying a property you could find it takes you longer than anticipated, owing to coronavirus and any local lockdown restrictions.
First-time buyer? Also see our 10 things we learned about buying a home during a pandemic blog.
How long does it take to buy a house?
A typical timeline for a purchase in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is below. But timescales vary depending on the buyer's and seller's circumstances, plus conveyancing problems can arise and add delays:
6 weeks - 8 months
Find a property: Research the area, scour estate agents and search websites.
Put in an offer: Tell the seller what you're willing to pay and any conditions.
4 - 12 weeks
It's accepted: Now get a survey to check the property's condition. Your solicitor checks any legal issues.
Exchange: You pay your deposit and can't back out without major cost.
Instantly - 4 weeks
Completion: You hand over the rest of the cash in exchange for the keys and deeds. The property's now legally yours.
Important: Nobody is legally bound to complete the deal until exchange of contracts.
Can you afford the property you want?
There's no point getting excited about the property of your dreams if you've no idea whether you can afford it. Avoid unnecessary disappointment and if you haven't already, go back and read our How much can I borrow? guide to check if you:
Have the upfront funds you'll need, and...
Can borrow the additional cash you'll need.
If you have, pat yourself on the back and skip to step 3.
Our How much can I borrow? Calculator will help you tot up how much you might be able to borrow, based on your income.
To be more confident (and make yourself more attractive to estate agents and sellers), use our Boost your mortgage chances guide to find the mortgage that's right for you and get an application in principle (AIP) done.
An AIP is a mini-application where the lender checks your information and your credit file and decides how much it might be willing to lend to you.
An AIP is not a binding offer and the lender can change its mind. For example:
- The lender might not be happy with the property you want to buy.
- You might fail to provide evidence that is requested, such as payslips or a P60.
- The lender might discover something you didn't it.
An AIP can also be referred to as a 'decision in principle' and sometimes even a 'mortgage in principle', so keep an eye out for the language.
Find your dream home
Make the right offer
If you're wringing your hands over how much to offer, consider asking the MoneySavers on this site's House Buying, Selling & Renting board. They'll share their experiences and help you dig for clues.
You're likely to get more response if you post a link to the home's advertisement on one of the big property search sites, such as Rightmove. But do remember this is a public forum, and there's a chance you could give away your tactics to the seller.
To avoid getting the keys to a stripped-bare house, ask the seller for a list of all fixtures and fittings included in the purchase. Right down to light fittings, TV aerial cable screws, bins and the fire grate. Yes, one forumite found these gone.
If you're paying extra for any fittings, remember sellers often price up goods on what they paid originally, which can have little relation to current values. For example, a £2,000 TV might have been their pride and joy when they nailed it to the wall six years ago, but would now cost £300-ish new and less second-hand.
There's a quick way to glean second-hand items' values on eBay*. Fill in the search box and tick 'completed items' on the left-hand grey bar. It'll come up with a list of prices similar items have already fetched.
MILESTONE – offer accepted
Mini celebration time! But there's still a lot to do (and nobody is contractually obliged) so don't get carried away yet.
Watch out for gazumping and gazanging!
You and the seller are not legally bound to complete the purchase until you have reached exchange of contracts. Until you reach that milestone, there is always a risk of being gazumped or gazanged.
When another buyer offers more money than you and your seller reneges on your deal. You could ask for them to 'take it off the market' as a condition of your offer, reducing the chances of them attracting another buyer (though it's not foolproof).
When your seller decides to cancel the sale and stay, usually because prices are going up, and they can make more money if they wait a few months.
Sadly, there's little you can do to avoid either of these, as they're both dependent on the actions of the seller, and can end up losing you a lot of money, especially if it happens just before exchange of contracts where your solicitor (and possibly your surveyor) have already carried out a lot of work.
The most you can do is to be as quick as you possibly can be between having your offer accepted and exchanging contracts – and this means getting your solicitor and mortgage lender or broker to hurry things up.
Find your best mortgage
As an agreement in principle (AIP) is usually only valid for 30 or 90 days (depending on the lender), if your search took a while, it might have expired. But if you followed our Boost your mortgage chances guide's steps and got accepted before, you'll probably be accepted again.
As the range of mortgage products on offer can change on a daily basis, you shouldn't automatically go back to the first lender anyway. So it's definitely worth a quick check of the market again to see if you can find a better deal.
It's worth the extra effort to do another check. Getting a 4% deal instead of 3% on a £150,000 repayment mortgage over 25 years will cost you £24,000 more.
Remember, once you've applied for mortgage it can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to well over a month to get a mortgage offer – especially since the onset of coronavirus – so be prepared to be patient.
There are many lenders and only one has the best deal for you. What are the chances it's your bank? If you have a good credit score, then another lender is likely to want you just as much as your current bank. Read our Cheap Mortgage Finding guide, or if you already know what you're doing, head to our Mortgage Best Buys tool to search the market for a top rate.
It's one of the biggest financial decisions of your life, so get it right.
Make sure you get a personalised mortgage illustration. It'll detail all the key features of the mortgage. You'll need this later on. Scan it, keep it and file it.
Choose your conveyancing firm
Conveyancing is the legal process that transfers a property from one person to another. Licensed conveyancers are specialist property lawyers, who do all the legal paperwork, Land Registry and local council searches, draft the contract and handle the exchange of money.
Some house hunters do this before they put in an offer, but it's not essential. However, if you've already found a solicitor you want to use, it can speed up the process.
This all comes at a price and can cost up to £1,500.
If you line one up early, you won't need to sign up the first one you find in a panic once your offer is accepted on the property. You want someone who knows what they are doing, is a good communicator, reliable and most importantly, is on the panel of the major lenders.
That could be the only reason to wait – using a conveyancer who your lender won't also use will add unnecessary delay, so you could be better off waiting until you know what lender your mortgage is with first.
DON'T automatically use the estate agents' firm.
It's probably a commission-based recommendation. If you speak to it, use its price as a benchmark.
DON'T assume they need to be nearby.
Consider someone from further afield. It's perfectly possible to use a solicitor in Newcastle when you live in central London, and it can be much cheaper.
DO check out the web.
Some MoneySavers rate cheap 'n' cheerful internet-based conveyancers that do it all via the phone and net. Our forumites have had good experiences with: My Home Move Conveyancing. However, nothing is guaranteed – feedback (as with all solicitors) varies, so please do your own research first.
DON'T go for rock bottom price if you're in a rush.
The cheapest companies often work in bulk and can be slower. If time's an issue, that can be a problem. Pick a company that answers emails/calls promptly.
DO check for hidden extras.
Ask for a full fee breakdown. Do they include bank money transfer fees, stamp duty forms, land registration fees and drainage and environmental searches? Will they charge to verify your ID?
DON'T automatically use the solicitor who did your divorce.
Pick a firm that focuses on conveyancing or at least has a specialist department. Ask how many cases it handled last year. Just because someone did your divorce doesn't mean they can do this job too.
DO ask if they'll chuck in a will for free.
A top tip from money_maker: “Get your will done with your solicitor at the same time, as some will do it for free since they are already being paid." For more options, see Free & Cheap Wills.
DON'T be shy.
Ensure you fully understand what your legal adviser will and won't do on your behalf.
DO ask if they've a holiday booked.
Will the lawyer be on holiday any time in the next three months? If they'll be backpacking in Peru on your preferred completion date, best go with another option.
Once you've found a solicitor, you can get the ball rolling with the rest of the process – househunting and starting to get a mortgage.
The lender will check the property (and you) are worth it...
Once the AIP is done, the next step is to convert it to a full application. This is where the lender makes sure it's happy to...
Lend to you.
It'll check the information you've given is accurate by asking for evidence such as payslips.
Lend on the property you want to buy.
The property is the lender's security for the loan. If you don't pay your mortgage, it can repossess it and sell it to get the money back.
So the lender will want to be confident that the property is fit for this purpose. This is why part of the application process involves an independent valuer to assess the property and report back to the lender.
Confusingly, what you offer/pay for the property isn't necessarily the 'value'. Your loan-to-value ratio for the mortgage deal will be assessed on the official valuation, and not based on what you're offering.
Each lender will have its own rules about the type of property it's willing to lend – largely related to the lender's confidence in you being able to sell it again.
It may be wary of properties above commercial premises, high rises, or homes made of unusual materials (this can include concrete!).
The application form should check the majority of these so the lender can tell if it's a no-go before wasting a valuer's time. But if there's something odd about the property, point it out at the application stage to avoid wasting any time.
You can't do a full application (or get a formal mortgage offer) without already having a property with an offer accepted.
Your solicitor will carry out searches for you
While your mortgage application is being looked at by the lender, your solicitor will start to carry out the necessary searches. Searches and prices vary based on the location.
Although some of them are optional, it's advisable to get them all carried out. Your mortgage lender will insist on some of them. For example:
- Local authority searches – check to see if there is anything you need to be aware of, such as any building control issues, enforcement actions and nearby road schemes.
- Drainage searches – check it is connected to sewers (approx £35).
- Environmental search – checks land isn't contaminated (approx £30).
These searches cost money and your solicitor will usually charge you for these early on in the process, so it's not out of pocket. There's usually no way to minimise these costs.
Keep in touch with your solicitor
Sadly, it's common for there to be delays in the conveyancing process for lots of reasons: the other party, complications, and even the solicitor themselves. Make regular phone calls to get papers processed quicker. And of course if it's going wrong, in the unfortunate event you think the solicitor is the problem, remember that you're paying them – if they don't meet your expectations, try writing to a senior partner.
- Local authority searches – check to see if there is anything you need to be aware of, such as any building control issues, enforcement actions and nearby road schemes.
Do you need to do a property survey? If yes, book it now
Once you're sure you can borrow what you need, it's time to make sure the property is in good condition too. You can delay doing this until after your mortgage offer has been made but always do it before exchange.
A mortgage valuation is NOT a survey
Yes, the mortgage lender has carried out a basic valuation to assure itself it's happy to lend on it. But this gives you no protection at all. If the property were to fall down the day after you bought it, it would be tough luck. Yet too many people rely on the mortgage valuation.
I've just bought my first house, a 1940s semi. On the day I moved in, I noticed the back of the master bedroom has a significant slope where it had been extended. I had a joiner look at it – he said it was a structural defect.
When I applied for the mortgage, the bank did a valuation survey, which stated the house was in good condition. It'll probably cost a good few grand to fix.
Still not convinced a mortgage valuation isn't good enough?
Did you know that sometimes the valuation carried out is limited to a ‘drive by'? Here, the valuer drives past the house and the inspection is limited to what can be seen through the car window! Often it's just to check the property actually exists.
Unless you're an expert, get a professional opinion. If a problem is found, it's a good reason to go back to the estate agent and renegotiate on price. This may seem a bit late in the process, but a survey is an additional cost so there's no point in shelling out until you know you can definitely get the mortgage.
There are three main types of surveys:
This normally costs £300-£400 and is suitable for conventional properties less than 50 years old.
Sometimes you can pay your mortgage lender to get a homebuyer's report carried out at the same time as the basic valuation.
The second is a full structural survey. More relevant for older or quirkier residences, these are much more detailed, covering everything and can cost up to £1,000, but often are well worth the expense. It could well give you ammunition to haggle down the purchase price of the property.
Whichever you choose, just be sure to get clear on what they cannot check. They should try to access attic space, etc, but they can't start knocking lumps out of walls, or lifting the carpet in someone else's house (unless the seller agrees).
Even those buying new-builds might still have to get out their wallets. A snagging survey pinpoints defects and unfinished bits, so you can push the developer to correct them before completion. These can cost £300 upwards depending on the size of the property.
However, you can download great snagging lists free on the internet and check for yourself (or get a very detail-oriented friend to help you). See Snagging.org.
Make friends with the surveyor
It's worth going with them. They're likely to say far more than they'd write in a report. To get instant quotes from surveyors in your area, fill in your details at Reallymoving.com.
Get quotes for work
If the survey finds any nasties, ask a reputable builder for repair costs. Ask the vendor to either fix it before completion or knock the total off the price.
Get a second opinion, especially with damp. What might seem like minor work can be complex and expensive, as forumite Canny-cat's story shows.
What might seem like minor work can be complex and expensive, as forumite Canny-cat's story shows. You can get a specialist timber and damp report carried out to check for problems such as damp and woodworm. They cost around £150-£250.
Our survey told us the house had a minor case of damp that would cost £400 to solve. It seemed minor so we didn't renegotiate with the seller. Once we'd moved in, we discovered the full extent of the damp problem and paid over £4,000, plus redecoration costs.
The sellers skimmed the walls shortly before selling it, so that you couldn't notice the damp for a few months. Then the metal wall fixings and sockets started rusting, the plaster started to salt and bubble, and I developed asthma.
MILESTONE – you've got a mortgage offer!
Another celebration point. You now have a formal offer that says the lender is willing to lend you the money to buy that property. Get the bubbly on ice and then carefully check it:
Cross-reference the new mortgage illustration and the offer document your lender has sent with the illustration you safely put away. If there are any discrepancies, go back to your broker (or lender if you went direct) and question it.
Everything on this document needs to be accurate, especially your personal information and the figures. If not, raise it with your broker or solicitor to get it resolved ASAP.
A serious mistake could mean the lender insists on credit-checking you again or you end up borrowing too little and there's a shortfall when it's time to complete the purchase. Even something like a misspelt name could cause delays, expense, and at worst, could mean the mortgage offer is withdrawn.
The mortgage offer will state what conditions need to be met before the lender will hand over the cash. It's your solicitor's job to check these have been met, so don't think you can ignore any of them.
Sort out your buildings insurance NOW
"But I don't even own it yet!" you cry.
You might not own it, but once you've exchanged contracts you're legally-bound to purchase it, so it's better to be safe than sorry.
Check your mortgage valuation report for the rebuild value the surveyor estimated. It might not be anything like the purchase price, but you need to be sure that you'd have enough cover to rebuild it if something did happen.
Negotiate a completion date
Your solicitor will update you on the results of the searches. If all is good, the next step is to come to an agreement on a completion date with the seller. The completion date is the date the keys get handed over. This needs to be a date that suits both you and the seller.
Try and be flexible here. Many sellers will want to time it for the start or end of a month to chime in with their mortgage payments.
Of course, if you're selling your current property too, you'll need to take into consideration when you're completing with your buyers. See our Selling your property guide for more tips.
Get your deposit money to your solicitor – gulp!
You're almost ready to exchange contracts, which means you need to get your deposit to your solicitor. It's easiest to spend the couple of weeks before marshalling your deposit money into one bank account (or two if you've more than an £85,000 deposit, so it's all protected under the UK savings safety scheme).
Most banks don't usually allow you to move more than £25,000 out of an account per day (some have higher limits, while Nationwide's is £10,000) so if you want to move more than this, you'll need to call your bank and arrange a CHAPS payment to your solicitor.
A CHAPS payment (it stands for Clearing House Automated Payment System) is usually made the same day. You'll need to pay your bank between £20 and £35 per CHAPS payment, so factor this into your costs.
Your solicitor will also get you to sign the contract at this point – this is the point where you commit to buying the vendor's house.
MILESTONE – exchange contracts
When your solicitor and the seller's solicitor swap signed copies of the contract this is known as the exchange of contracts. Now you can really celebrate.
There is now a legally-binding contract between you and the seller. Once this has happened, you can't pull out from the sale. If you do, you'll forefeit your deposit money. But, on the plus side, the seller can't back out either.
After this point, a lot of simple paperwork happens relatively quickly – so the next few steps are all quick hits.
Get a completion statement from your solicitor
Your solicitor will give you a completion statement with a clear breakdown of the money you need to give the solicitor. This will include any outstanding deposit, stamp duty land tax, solicitors' fees etc. You'll usually have to pay these on or before your completion date.
For a full breakdown, see the Buying Fees guide.
Your solicitor will carry out MORE searches...
Before completion, your solicitor has to check that the seller still owns the property and that you haven't been made bankrupt since your mortgage offer.
You now need to sign the transfer deed
Your solicitor will prepare the transfer deed. You need to sign it, and it needs to be witnessed. It confirms you're willing to take ownership of the property. Your solicitor will send it to the seller's solicitor.
Some buyers won't need to sign this. If you're unsure, or haven't been asked to sign one, check with your solicitor.
Your solicitor draws down the funds from your lender
Your solicitor will request the mortgage money from your lender so that payment has time to clear in the solicitor's account. It's at this point you (well, your solicitor) actually get the mortgage money you've agreed to borrow.
Paying for the house
The solicitor will send the full payment to the seller's solicitor and receive their title deeds and proof that the seller's mortgage has been cleared (this means their bank no longer has a claim on the property).
MILESTONE – completion! You have a new home.
The keys are finally yours. Now you have the joy of moving. That's the bit of the process that's supposed to be the most stressful – good luck!
Pay your stamp duty (through your solicitor)
You have 14 days for your solicitor to send the Stamp Office your transfer deed and for you to pay stamp duty land tax, though usually they'll have asked for the cash before completion.
Officially register your ownership
Your solicitor will register your details with the Land Registry. You'll need to send them a £200-£300 fee to cover this (it can be larger or smaller depending on the price of the property you're buying). Again, this is usually detailed in the statement of completion, and paid by completion day.
Get the title deeds, and that's it...!
Your solicitor will get the new title deeds from the Land Registry and forward them to your mortgage lender (or you if you're mortgage-free). Sometimes they'll keep them on file if you don't request them, or don't want to keep such important documents in the house.
Congratulations – it's all over! You're in your new home (yay), and can start paying off your mortgage (boo)!
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