We test drive cars so why not houses?

    25 July 2019

    Maybe house buying is a bit like Brexit, where expectations are best left at the front door. Perhaps my dream house is just that – a dream. Either way the search for somewhere nice to live has turned into a surreal, protracted nightmare. It’s the utter audacity and ineptitude of everyone concerned that most astounds: the dopey estate agent who can’t be bothered to bring the right keys to a viewing; the delusional vendors who refuse to believe the market has changed; the market itself – a mad, inscrutable wormhole that is a nightmare to predict.

    We all know that buying a house is the biggest purchase we will ever make so why do we insist on leaving it up to ill-informed estate agents who treat the whole process as a bit of a lark? With so much money and emotional wellbeing at stake, you’d think by now we’d be a bit more discerning and that those to whom we entrust our assets would at least pretend to take their job seriously.  If anything is ‘in need of modernisation’, it is surely our ropey property market.

    It seems incredible to me that one of the most important decisions of our life hangs on a perfunctory half-hour viewing conducted by a poorly educated bloke in a polyester suit who clearly hasn’t done his homework and who doesn’t even have our best interests at heart. We spend more time in the supermarket trying to decide what to have for dinner. And we expect more transparency and better service from supermarkets too. At least Lidl don’t deliberately try to mislead us with inaccurate labelling and a pricing system based on little more than a moveable hunch. Imagine if you had to haggle every time you wanted to buy crisps – the cashier reminding you that in order to purchase said salty snack you first had to make an offer ‘in excess of 59p’.

    Yet when property prices go through the poorly insulated roof we boast about it at dinner parties as though not being able to afford somewhere to live were something to celebrate.

    Notwithstanding the fickle lunacy of the market, I fail to see why we aren’t more demanding when it comes to the whole negotiating process. It’s a buyer’s market right now so it’s up to us to take back control from the grasping vendors who still think it’s 2009.

    The way we buy property deserves a serious overhaul. Here’s what I propose. We begin by demanding a far more rigorous viewing procedure. Those tasked with the job of showing properties should be obliged to document every last detail, from running costs and subsidence history to the quality of the fittings and the state of the roof. Some viewing agents I met had never even stepped inside the properties they were showing me let alone spent time researching vital information that might affect my decision to buy.

    During a recent viewing of a farmhouse in Suffolk, the agent told me she was in a terrible rush and could only spend twenty minutes showing me round. She may as well not have bothered. During a whistle stop tour of the kitchen the only nugget of information she could come up with was that the windows afforded ‘views of the outside’. I thought she was joking until a few minutes later when she told me that the bathroom ‘boasted a shower’ and that a poky upstairs cupboard was in fact a ‘spacious fourth bedroom’. I almost expected her to announce that the ‘integrated staircase’ went up as well as down and that the front door allowed ‘full uninterrupted access to both the inside and outside of the property’. When I asked whether the house sat on a flood plain, she looked bewildered and told me to ring head office. They didn’t know either.

    But the house purchasing dry rot sets in long before we start intruding on other people’s homes. Estate agent particulars have long been ridiculed for their exaggerated claims and flowery asides but that joke isn’t funny anymore either. Particulars are our first encounter with a property so it’s vital that they are plainly written, informative and above all, honest.

    We need to bring estate agents in line with other retail outlets by compelling them to abide by the trade descriptions act, outlawing the kind of hyperbole and exaggeration that has plagued the industry for so long. Meaningless phrases like ‘deceptively spacious’, ‘rare opportunity’ and ‘sought after’ must be purged from their vocabulary. Likewise, we should demand that photographs give us the full-unedited picture. No more sexy filters or ultra wide-angle lenses that make box-rooms look like ballrooms. No more cropping and photo-shopping of unsightly edifices and intrusive next-door extensions. If there’s a motorway at the end of the garden or a flight path overhead be upfront and provide accurate noise and pollution level readings. And if there are plans to build a housing estate nearby let us know. Finally, just because you call a space a bedroom doesn’t make it so. If there isn’t room for a bed then it isn’t a bedroom. Period.

    So you’ve read the clear, jargon-free particulars, been enlightened by polite, well informed viewing agents and had your generous offer accepted. Before taking the final plunge, I propose that prospective purchasers be given the right to test-drive their future home. And I don’t just mean a second or third viewing. I mean actually staying in the property for a couple of days in order to get a proper feel for the place. For a nominal fee (enough to put the owners up in a hotel) you’ll be able to put any niggling worries to bed.

    Does that high-tech integrated oven actually work for instance and is the house easy to heat? What about the peaceful looking B road outside the front door, does it turn into a busy rat-run at 7am? You’ll discover if the neighbours are noisy and whether the street feels safe at night? And don’t forget, properties have personalities so make sure you are compatible. Is there a happy vibe or does the house feel spooky and unloved? If after all that you decide to go ahead with your purchase, at least you can be sure that your decision will have been based on more than just a ‘deceptively spacious’ whim and a ‘highly sought after’ prayer.