The fool’s guide to house hunting

Real tips and advice for first timers and hopeless home seekers

Jenny Medeiros
12 min readMay 22, 2024
Photo by Michelle Tresemer on Unsplash

If you’ve been sleuthing online for a while then you’ve probably read through the same house hunting listicles and 101 guides that I have. They all echo the same things — and the advice they give is completely valid—but they skip the small sneaky details that you only learn about when you’re already standing on them.

If you’re familiar with any of my documented ramblings, you’ll know that I am a clueless fool who tends to go through the process just to write about them (amidst many tasteless jokes). And, in my endless quest for a home to call my own, I went house hunting. In London of all places.

For an entire year, I saw everything from high-rise flats in Hackney to 1-bedroom bungalows in Peckham, and from £900K houses to downright architectural atrocities. I had countless moments of, “oh, I didn’t know you could do that,” often followed by, “why didn’t anyone tell me earlier??”

Now with house prices falling and interest rates stabilising, it’s a good time to start looking. And, it’s always a good time to avoid getting screwed over.

With that, here’s everything I found on my search that can help you with yours.

1. How to prepare for the house hunt

Assemble your “team”

If you’re an average home buyer without a million pound trust fund, here are the people you’ll need in your corner to get through this nightmare.

  • Estate agents: unless you can pay someone to hunt for something specific, get a bunch of estate agents to cast a wider net. They only get a commission if they find you a home (and the buyer pays it), so consider their services free for you to use.
  • Solicitor: if you have one already, great! If not, have a shortlist to get quotes from when you’re ready to put in an offer. Estate agents usually have their own recommendations (they get a commission, obviously) and sometimes those are faster since the agents already have experience working with them. Always check their reviews, though.
  • Mortgage broker: you can go straight to the bank for a loan, but there are dozens of non-bank lenders who might offer lower interest rates. Unless you plan to contact all of them, you’re better off using a mortgage broker who can check everyone’s rates in one go. They help you submit your application and deal with the lender for you. Estate agents usually recommend their own mortgage brokers, and their services are free until you submit an application, so keep 2–3 and go with whoever finds you the best deal.

TIP: If you ever feel lonely, just tell Foxtons that you’re looking to buy a place in London. They’ll blow up your phone first thing in the morning and even on the weekends with sweet messages like, “how is your property search going?” and, “did you get my last seven voicemails?”

TIP 2: As someone who’s still getting real estate emails a year later, I strongly recommend using Hide Your Email so they can spam that address and not your own. Once you’ve found a place, you can just delete the bugger and kill the spam.

Understand leasehold, freehold and share of freehold

This took me longer to understand than I care to admit. So let me spare you the grief of re-reading the same unhelpful definitions in every guide.

Leasehold: you own the flat/house — but not the land it’s built on (for some unfathomable reason). That means you owe rent to whomever owns the land. This is called “ground rent” and you’ll want to ask how much it is per year. You’ll also need to pay them an annual fee (the “service charge”) to help with general maintenance and fixes. High-rise flats are always leasehold since there are dozens of people on the same patch of land. Frankly, going from renting to a leasehold is basically like stepping from the train track into a bus lane. Same shit, different conditions.

Freehold: you own the building and the land it’s on. Although that also means you’re responsible for all maintenance costs and fixes. Most houses are freehold (unless they’ve been split into flats).

Share of freehold: everyone living in the building owns a part of it and part of the land it’s on. Basically, everyone owns a share. In this case, you’ll want to ask what the other shareholders are like since you’ll be periodically meeting with them to discuss building maintenance and other issues. Victorian houses that have been split into flats are typically share of freehold. Same for “low-rise flats,” which is just a medium-sized building with a handful of flats in it. These smaller builds are like VIP flats without the hubbub of 150+ neighbours. (I saw dozens of these so don’t let estate agents tell you they’re rare.)

Estimate your budget

House prices are always going up and down, so the best place to start is on sites like RightMove and Zoopla. For example, I checked for 1–2 bedroom flats in London and used the map view to see what the prices were like in each area.

If you’re staring at your bank account and not sure how much you could put down, consider that you’ll need at least 15% of the total price as a deposit. Some will take 10%. (If you can wing 25% you’ll get access to the lower mortgage rates.)

But, don’t forget the solicitor fees, mortgage application fee, house survey to check for structural damage, and all kinds of extra expenses. Plus, you’ll need to set up home insurance and likely pay movers and utility setup fees.

This was me, and likely you as well.

To be safe, set aside £5,000 — £10,000 to cover it all. And, obviously, make sure you’re leaving yourself some money in the bank to, y’know, survive.

Narrow down your search to a sentence

Every single estate agent will ask you the same question: what are you looking for?

Here’s where you’re meant to say something helpful like, “I want a 1-bedroom new build flat in Clapham under £500,000.” To help you formulate a good answer, give these questions a think:

  • How many bedrooms do you need?
  • Do you want a modern new build or an older house? (FYI, “new builds” are anything built within the last five years.)
  • What areas are you hoping to buy in?
  • Do you want to be right in the bustle or in the quieter residential side?
  • Do you need parking? What about public transport?
  • What do you prefer to have nearby? (School, office, park, gym, etc.)

Most folks already have an idea of what area they want to live in based on their job, family, or they just like a certain place. If you have no idea what area to live in, RightMove actually has a pretty helpful “quiz” to get you started.

In my case, I didn’t have the foggiest idea of where I wanted to settle down for the next 5–10 years…so I went to viewings in all of them. That’s right, all 32 boroughs of London and beyond. It took me almost a year. Don’t do this. Make a list and work your way through them until you narrow it down. Once you find the area, the right home just sort of pops up.

Get a mortgage in principle (MIP)

This is the “MIP” you’ll hear about. It’s basically a PDF from a bank or financial lender that says how much you can potentially borrow from them. What this letter does is basically tell the estate agent that you’re in it to win it and not just viewing houses as a weird hobby.

At first, I thought you needed to go through some seriously expensive process to get this letter, but apparently you can just…get one online. Rightmove will even give you the option in their listings.

Did you think I was lying. It’s usually under the map.

Personally, I got one from Nationwide using their online form. You put in your budget, how many years you’d tolerate being in debt for, your income info, and your last three years of residential addresses. It takes a minute to process and then you get your MIP in an email. Congrats. You’re now a serious buyer. And don’t worry, you can always go back and update the numbers to generate a new one.

BONUS TIP: I made a mortgage application template so feel free to make a copy! Strongly recommend filling that in so you have it handy when the next 15 people inevitably ask for the exact same info.

2. What to do (and ask) at property viewings

The best things in life satisfy both your emotions and your logic. The same goes for your perfect home. You want it to make sense on paper, but you also want it to “feel right”.

Here’s how you can make both your heart and your brain happy.

Make a wish list

Grab your overpriced coffee, sit down, and make a list of what you want based on the following:

- The “must haves” (e.g. minimum two bedrooms)
- The “nice to haves” (e.g. open plan, extra bathroom)
- The deal breakers (e.g. no garden, above a shop)

A word to the wise, be flexible with that checklist. Every estate agent has at least one story of someone who went in saying something like, “I will never live in a basement flat,” and then ended up buying a basement flat. If it clicks, it clicks.

Although the reverse is also true. If a place checks off everything on your list but your gut is telling you no, trust your gut. Have your checklist, but never ignore your intuition. (You’ll almost always find out why in the long run.)

Book your viewings wisely

I’ve had days where I only had one specific viewing, and days when I had 5–6 in a row. I have to say, lining them all up in a day was smarter. My advice here is not to blast messages to every single listing you see. It’ll run you ragged. Nitpick the descriptions and ask questions BEFORE booking yourself into a disappointing viewing.

That said, to help you weed out the misleading listings, here’s a translator for common real estate speak.

Beautifully presented: it’s like 52% clean.
Lovingly renovated: check for mould.
Unique architecture: the bedroom is shaped like a triangle.
Modern kitchen: not enough counter space to rest both elbows on.
Home office: there’s a tiny room that we can’t legally call a bedroom.
Superb: it’s okay.
Cosy and welcoming: no space for a dining table.
Fantasic location: there are a few shops and a local crackhead.
Contemporary: your sofa will be two inches from the kitchen.
Prestigious: overpriced.
Spacious: the bedroom is 1cm larger than the minimum legal size.
Amazing views: you can probably see your neighbours naked.

Take photos and do video walkthroughs

While some viewings give you plenty of time to amble around and get a feel for the place, others give you a 15-minute slot and the estate agent is ragged from back-to-back viewings. But oh, the worst viewings are in groups.

Yes, you arrive to the scene and there are 10 others waiting around. There’s an uneasy sense of camaraderie and competitiveness, like, “Oh yes, the joys of house hunting amirite ha ha—I will slap your children if you put an offer on this place.”

My point is, viewings can be unpredictable and viewings are not the time to “live in the moment.” Whip out that phone and snap as many photos as you can to review later on.

The best thing I did was record video walkthroughs (agents are used to this and often will step outside and leave you to it). That way I could obsessively watch them later when I was alone and without the pressure of acting interested. Half the time you’ll catch something you missed during the viewing and save yourself the trip to a second viewing.

Have a shortlist of not-so-basic questions

Every place will be different (unless it’s new-build flats, those are basically carbon copies after a while), so you’ll always have a few unique questions. That said, there are some questions that you should ask at every viewing.

  1. Is it leasehold, freehold, share of freehold? (And what extra charges are involved)
  2. How long has it been on the market? If a property has been languishing on the market for months on end, you might want to find out why. You also might want to ask why previous offers have fallen through.
  3. What are the neighbours like? This one is important if you’re buying a flat or terraced house. You’ll want to know whether the neighbours on all sides have newborn babies, eight dogs, or like to play the tuba.
  4. What’s the timeline for moving in? If the property has a current owner, you’ll want to know if “there’s a chain”, which means any sequence of events that need to happen before you can move in. Chains can mean months of waiting for the owner to find a new place first or to wrap up legal dealings concerning the property.
  5. Are there any construction plans? Shared buildings sometimes have building works planned and it’s best to know about them before you move in. I once saw a lovely flat but only after asking this question I was told there were plans to add a lift and a rooftop extension. That would’ve meant living in a construction site for 6–12 months. Nope.
  6. (If a new build) Who’s the developer? Every estate agent will give you the same spiel about the developer being oh-so-high-quality and efficient. Then you go online and check reviews of their other projects and find desperate residents with cracks in their new walls and nobody to call. Always research who’s building the place you’re buying. (Tip: if it’s in a block of flats, use Homeviews to read what current residents are saying.)

A popular question I’ve seen in other guides is, “what comes with the property?” but, frankly, if you’re set on a place you’re not going to pull out because it doesn’t come with the toaster. Plus, during the purchase process they give you a form listing what does and doesn’t come with the property.

TIP: If you live ages away from the property or just don’t know if it’s worth a viewing, ask the estate agent for a video walkthrough. Most of the time they already have one or they can record one during their next viewing. It’ll save you a lot of commuting and you can see what the place looks like unedited.

3. Found a place? Put your detective hat on

Let’s say you found something you like. What’s next?

See what the locals are saying

I wouldn’t say that googling “Living in [area] Reddit” is the epitome of research, but it sure does give you the most honest opinions on a place (sometimes too honest).

An…insightful review on Clapham

You’ll learn everything from the main demographic to the best/worst restaurants and the “overall vibe”. Forums in general are good watercooler corners to get the good, bad, and the ugly before you set your sights on relocating. Also worth checking the “crime map” as the higher the crime rate, the more your home insurance will likely cost.

Check the broadband coverage

If you work from home (or value your sanity at all), check the broadband coverage for the area. I say this because I saw a pretty snazzy house, but the fastest broadband available at that postcode was 11Mbps. That’s just about enough to open your inbox.

So, do “future you” a favour and use the Ofcom broadband coverage checker first.

Summon your mortgage broker

All this time you’ve been working with hypothetical numbers. Once you have your eye on a place, you can work with real numbers. Now’s the time to go back to your mortgage broker(s) and ask them to “run the numbers.”

They’ll basically check how much you actually need to borrow and what the latest rates are (these change really often). If you’re happy with what you can get, then you’re safe to submit your mortgage application. Expect to wait up to a week for either an approval or a request for more info.

4. Happy with everything? Put in an offer

The scary part. This can go differently depending on who you’re buying from. Some estate agents send a super adult-looking form where you state how much you’re offering. Others accept a simple email saying, “I’d like to put an offer on this house for £______.” The agent will take it from there.

Now here’s the thing nobody told me outright—you can put an offer on more than one place at a time, and you can always back out of an offer—even after the seller has accepted it. Nothing is set in stone until you sign the contract (the part they call the “exchange”).

That might be obvious for some, but I had this movie-like sequence of events in my mind where you find the perfect home, the intense negotiations happen and that’s that. But no, turns out putting offers on homes is just like dating. There are the “one and done” buyers and the “keeping my options open” buyers. It definitely took the pressure off to learn that I could always say “never mind” and waltz off to a better property.

And with that, the fool can be fooled no more

That concludes the most confusing part of the house hunting experience (which is all of it). The best part is simply not having to search anymore. Once your offer is accepted, your solicitor enters the ring armed with paperwork, and then suddenly you have a whole new host of things to stress over.

If you need a fool’s guide for when you’re knee-deep in buying a house—leave a comment to let me know. It’s a lot to write, so I’ll only do it if forced.



Jenny Medeiros

Tech writer/editor who dreams of living in a sustainable house with a delightfully stupid cat.