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The home help

Andrew Winter is a property expert and presenter of Channel 4′s Selling Houses and Selling Houses Abroad. In this exclusive interview he explains how to make the property market work for you…

Everyone is slightly panicky about the property market, what with the ongoing credit crunch problem in the US and the Northern Rock issue in the UK. What do you think will happen to the UK property market in the next six months and how will it affect people in Britain?
I’ve been in the property market for 24 years and I see this as part of a cycle. This sort of problem creates nervousness but the market will stay sustained unless, of course, everyone panic-sells. If demand remains high, the market won’t flop.

If you are planning to sell up and move overseas or are moving into a different area with different market conditions, this isn’t the best time to sell or buy. But, for anyone who’s buying a like-for-like property, it really won’t make any difference.

What would your advice be to first-time buyers?
The buzz word at the moment is affordability. You have to make a decision about what you can afford. For example, it’s advisable to look at smaller, more modest houses on the edges of cities, which you can rent out. That way, at least, you’ll have a foot on the property ladder.

It’s all about compromise, and getting as big a deposit as you can. Your parents may be able to help.

If your mum and dad bought their council house years ago, they can get equity from it and should be easily able to raise £25,000. The number of home owners is higher than ever, but if you’re not in a position to buy alone, consider shared ownership – where you buy a percentage of a property and a housing association buys the rest. The result is that you don’t have such a big mortgage or have to find a big deposit.

What do you think of Home Information Packs (HIPs)? Are they worthwhile or a waste of money?
The original principal made sense as it was all about home inspection. Now, the Government is simply asking less well-qualified people to do the job of a chartered surveyor.

While some parts of HIPs make sense – such as listing planning permission applications and providing information about the lease or freehold – it never needed to be made into a law.

In my view, we should follow the model of large new home developers. They pay a small deposit for the land they’re about to develop and in exchange they get a contract with all the information they need.

Part of the contract is to state a deadline by which they must have the property or land surveyed and a mortgage arranged. If the prospective buyer hasn’t sold their home in the time period specified in the contract, they don’t get the property. It’s a simple, easy process and the developers have made it work for years. I think this could work well in the second-hand market, too.

‘Going green’ is all the rage. Have you made any energy-efficient changes in your home, and how can people make a difference without spending lots of money and time?
I live on the Australian Gold Coast and all our water is recycled rainwater. I’d love to get solar panels too, which would make us self-> sufficient, but about once a year, there is a risk of giant hailstones and they’d damage the panels. I do think the little things count.

I’m a family man and I spend so much time turning lights off in rooms that aren’t being used. We use 50% more energy than we ever need because of this. Forget eco-light bulbs – just turn off your television and your computer at the mains and switch off all your lights at night. You’d save so much energy. It needs to become a habit.

Another easy energy-saving tip is to open your windows so you get plenty of fresh air into your house.

If you don’t do this, the excess moisture will cause mould to form. Not only is it unhealthy but it will have to be removed with chemicals. In the end, it’s the simple things that will really make a difference.

What would your advice be to people who have bought houses in flood risk areas, following the dreadful floods last summer?
Most of London is classed as a flood risk area but you have to weigh up how likely it is to happen. How often has the area flooded in the recent past? It may be only once every 30 to 40 years, and it’s up to the buyer to decide whether they’re comfortable with that level of risk.

If the area floods every few years, there’s not a lot you can do but be aware of the risk. You may still think it’s a viable option.

However, if you do live in a high-risk area, you must have a procedure in place that all your family know about. You need to know how you will get out of your house if there’s an emergency, and make sure that valued items such as photos are stored upstairs so that, if the worst happens, you don’t lose them.

The view is that it’ll be difficult to get mortgages now. How do you suggest people get the best deal?
My advice is to shop around and check out as many sources as you can. Local estate agents usually have brokers; there are the regular financial institutions – the banks and building societies – and there are online lenders too. Mortgage magazines are really useful as they list all the best deals around.

I bought my first property in 1985. It cost £19,500 and I had an £18,000 interest-only mortgage. The mortgage is about to finish and I still owe the original amount – but the property is worth £175,000. Effectively, it has cost me very little, so I’m a fan of interest-only mortgages.

Where do you think we’ll find this year’s UK hotspots, and what makes them so desirable?
Once an area gets a reputation as a ‘hotspot’, prices go up so it’s no longer hot. People also think of a whole area as a ‘hotspot’ whereas it’s usually just pockets within that area. Our property market is full of contradictions. It’s not like cars or coal which are a fixable commodity.

With property, you can find contradictions in a single street. One house may have been bought as a wreck and done up to perfection while another may be bought already done. Yet, even though they are essentially the same property, one will make more money than the other. And changes can happen in a week – it’s never a fixed market.

A tip to bear in mind is that in every estate agency there will be at least one property a month that’s a steal. I’ve worked in all sorts of offices and it’s always the same – about 10 to 12 come up each year. It’s usually the result of a combination of circumstances: the seller is desperate to sell or the house has been on the market for ages, or it’s difficult to view. People looking for a deal should get in with their local agent and be prepared to wait for one to come up.

At the end of the day people are so obsessed with making money from their property that they forget to look for a home. When someone goes into a house, their eyes light up and they say they love it, there’s nothing better. It’s the part of selling houses that delights me.

What about buying abroad? Which countries are good to invest in now?
If you’re considering buying abroad, you must evaluate carefully as you could be entering a high-risk market. People will buy in Spain, for example, and take far greater risks than they’d ever take in the UK. They feel that the market is safe and that it will always bounce back.

Certain markets such as Canada are rock solid, but buying abroad is often high risk so you need to think carefully about the location and how easy it will be to sell a property on – just as you would do here.

What are the key things you need to do to make your house sellable?
Pricing it correctly is key. Stand back from your home and be self-critical. How does it look from the street? What is it like when you go through the front door? How does it smell? What can you do to make it better? Box stuff up and move it out of sight.

Also, present to the market you are targeting. If you’re in a young urban area, make your home appeal to that market. If you’re in a retirement area, think about what will appeal to the older buyer and act accordingly.

You were an estate agent. How do you suggest getting the best out of someone who’s selling your home?
Agents stay with people who they can get on with and if you bond they > will keep an eye out for the type of property you are after. They can also offer you loads of free advice.

What’s the most common mistake people make when they’re trying to sell their property?
The most common misconception is that you are the only people selling a house of that type. In fact, the property you are selling will be one of many on sale at the same time.

No matter how beautiful you think it is, yours isn’t the only house for sale; it’s up to you to increase its saleability. Meet the competition head on. Improve the presentation and ask the local agent to give you a realistic figure, based on similar properties being sold in the same market. Some won’t give you a figure right away, but they should get back to you. Getting the price right is key.

And what about buying? Where do people go wrong when they buy?
I’ve never heard someone say they bought the wrong home. The most sensible thing to do is to buy in an area you can afford. If you find a property you like, see if there’s anything similar on the market. Offer slightly less, then gauge whether you’re making the right decision.

Any advice for someone who needs to sell their home quickly?
Price and presentation. Get the price bang on, make sure it’s presentable and that potential buyers can view easily by giving the agent the key.

Is it possible to add as much as £20,000 or £30,000 to your property?
Yes, very simply by making it look the best it can. By that, I mean making it clean and tidy. Most people will decide whether or not they like a house by looking at the exterior, so make sure it’s up to scratch.

After that, it’s the first point of entry to the house. If that’s good, you’re half way there. A house that has lots of different decorating styles can be shocking, so try to make it look uniform throughout.

And consider this. If you were trying to sell a five-year-old Mondeo, you wouldn’t dream of advertising it while it was littered with week-old takeaway cartons and had dog hair all over it. You’d have it valeted and get new floor mats and T-cut that scratch on the door.

It’s the same for houses. Move the kids’ climbing frame, paint the front door, put the toys in a box. You can pack the cupboards with all of your clutter. It’s easier to get away with having an old-fashioned kitchen or bathroom than one that’s dirty and messy. Having a house that is impeccably clean and presentable will always increase its saleability.

If you are renting out a property, would you recommend using a letting agent or taking on the management yourself?
If you choose to have the property managed, then it’s a long-term relationship. It can be useful to have a third party dealing with it because they will find you new tenants. They get a good fee, but if they are doing a good job, it’s worth it. When you are a landlord, you have responsibilities to your tenants and you have to be able to act on problems immediately. It’s no good going on holiday for a fortnight and not leaving any back-up arrangements in place.

Tenants have every right to complain if things go wrong, so you have to be prepared for that. My advice would be to use an agent.

Is it ever a good idea to buy rather than rent?
I have always owned a house – I bought my first property when I was 18. If things get tough financially, you can always rent it out and go back to your parents. The UK is the most wonderful, solid housing market and it always bounces back. Shares can fall, never to return, but property always recovers… so I would always advise buying.

If you had the money to improve just one room in your house, which one would you choose and what would you do?
One room to improve in my home! Well, ours is a new purchase and we’re in the process of extending and refurbishing all the rooms. However, with that in mind, I’d want to go that extra mile with the formal living area. It would look normal but have a concealed 60-inch TV screen and the most amazing sound system with subtle curved surfaces for optimum sound reproduction, plus remote blinds and bespoke lighting to finish it off – completely self-indulgent but you did ask. My wife, of course, would upgrade somewhere else, I’m sure!

And, if money was no object, what type of property would you buy?
I’d have more than one home, of course. I tend to love city or country/ coast. I’m not a fan of the suburbs. The first property would be an amazing apartment right on Sydney Harbour – not too high, so you can see everything going on below you and the wind wouldn’t be as strong as it can be in a high-rise. I’d have to have a big terrace and a very modern look but not too stark!

The second home would be high on a hill above the ocean, within walking distance of a beach and close to where we live now in the South Eastern section of Queensland. It would be a blend of the traditional Queensland architecture and contemporary design, and it would be built with the Australian climate in mind – in other words, loads of outside terraces, a big swimming pool, great views and a traditional, comfortable feel.

Written By Georgina Meric
First Published in At Home with Andrew Winter, June 2008

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