Diary of a first-time buyer: “How I bought my first home on a budget during a pandemic”

From being ghosted by solicitors to the surprise expenses along the way, writer Katie Bishop gives an honest account of buying her first house on a budget during the pandemic – as it happened. 

With rocketing house prices and stagnating wages, buying a first home has never been more difficult than over the past decade. And as if things weren’t hard enough, Covid has further rocked the housing market.

Yet while many young people found themselves facing furlough and job insecurity during the pandemic, others found that lockdown was an opportunity to squirrel away the funds for a deposit. 

Many newly remote workers found themselves leaving expensive cities for more affordable areas of the country, causing economists to predict that London’s population could decline for the first time in the 21st century. And for some, the stamp-duty holiday meant they could afford a more spacious home after months of being cooped up indoors – in fact, 19% of first-time buyers reported being more likely to move to a rural area post-pandemic.

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For me and my partner, Covid initially scuppered our house-buying plans. We had hoped to buy a house and move in together back in 2020, but when the pandemic hit, slashing my income, we had to put our plans on hold, instead moving into a rental property in Leamington Spa. In early 2021 we finally decided to take the leap and start to hunt for a new home in Birmingham.

From being ghosted by solicitors to the surprise expenses we encountered along the way – here’s my honest account of what it was like to buy a house during the pandemic. 

19 January 2021 – After discussing a move and visiting Birmingham a couple of times to explore, we’ve narrowed our search down to a few favourite areas. But a more in-depth browse of RightMove reveals that we may have been overly optimistic. We’re looking for properties under £300,000 and would like a three-bed, as I work from home and would like an office space as well as a spare bedroom. But unfortunately, we’re finding that houses of that size within our budget are few and far between. Back to the drawing board!

10 February – After lots of browsing property sites we find an area just a 10-minute walk from a part of Birmingham we love. It has lots of pubs and restaurants, and is a 30-minute bus ride from the city centre – and there’s plenty of properties within our budget. Result!

1 March – Several RightMove alerts later, a perfect house comes on the market. Until now, we’ve been nervous about booking viewings, and have been quite back-and-forth about whether now is really the right time to be buying, as, due to the pandemic, there’s still a lot of uncertainty around my work situation. But this place seems too good to miss.

We call the estate agent, who tells us we’ll need a decision-in-principle from a lender before we can attend a viewing, something we didn’t realise beforehand. Fortunately, we find that we can complete an application online, which is very straightforward and is approved straight away. We call the estate agent, and they arrange a booking.

3 March – We chase the estate agent but they tell us they still haven’t been able to get a booking in.

4 March – Another call to the estate agent, who tells us the sellers have accepted an offer and the property is now off the market. We’re disappointed but newly spurred on. So, with a decision-in-principle in hand we decide to speed up our search and arrange a day of viewing a few different properties in the area.

8 March – We drive to Birmingham after work to check out a few houses. We’re immediately taken by the first property, a Victorian terrace house that looks a bit rough around the edges but has beautiful high ceilings, lots of space, and a freestanding bathtub that I immediately fall in love with. We agree it would be hasty to offer on the first property we see, so decide to check out some more places over the next couple of weeks.

12 March – We view another property we also really like, but totally different to our original favourite. It’s much more modern, and would need less work – it’s even a bit cheaper – but my heart is still with the lovely Victorian terrace. We decide to book second viewings for both side-by-side to compare.

20 March – We go to view our two favourite houses and explore the area a bit more. Lots of places are still only doing takeout, but we get coffees and pastries at a local bakery and wander around the nearest park.

We would have liked to take our parents to get a second opinion, but unfortunately, many estate agents are still restricting the number of people permitted at viewings. Still, seeing the houses side-by-side is really helpful, and we both agree that the Victorian terrace has a bit more wow factor. It needs a bit of TLC, so we decide to put in an offer about 10% under the asking price, leaving us a bit of extra cash for minor renovations.

We’ve heard houses are selling way over the asking price at the moment, so it’s a risky move, but we know the sellers are keen to agree a sale, so keep our fingers crossed. 

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21 March – The estate agent emails us to ask for our thoughts. We tell them we love the house and would like to make an offer – a bit lower than 10% under, as we expect them to negotiate. They respond almost at once, asking if we’re willing to increase our offer. We state a slightly higher figure, about 8% below the asking price but still well within our budget, and it’s immediately accepted!

23 March – The estate agent says they need an email for our solicitor. We had no idea things would move so quickly and haven’t found one yet, so I start panic-researching. I find a remote solicitor with reasonable reviews and a fee that’s within our budget. We put down a deposit for them to work with us. I also book a mortgage appointment with our bank in a couple of weeks’ time.

1 April – Time for our call with the mortgage lender. Appointments are taking place remotely because of Covid, which is a bit strange. There are a few points where we have to hang up the phone to discuss between ourselves and then call back, so in total the entire call takes about two and a half hours.

We went into the appointment with quite a clear idea of what we wanted, but surprise ourselves by opting for something different, agreeing to pay our mortgage off over a shorter time period, and opting for a longer fixed-term. When we do the maths, it just seems like a much more sensible and cheaper option in the long run. We also agree that the lender will arrange our survey.

Now we have a clearer idea of our monthly payments, as well as some of the costs associated with moving, we have a mini-panic about money. For the first time, we properly calculate the total costs. Our property is fortunately below the threshold for paying stamp duty, which will be a big saving – but other expenses are definitely going to add up.

The final figure is a bit scary, but manageable as long as we really budget and I pick up some extra work over the next few months.

20 April – It feels like we’re constantly dealing with paperwork from solicitors – I even end up buying a printer, because we’re having to fill in so many forms! A lot of the documentation feels quite confusing and technical. I’m surprised by how much prior knowledge it’s assumed that you have about the process.

The solicitor also asks us to transfer some money for searches [extra information about the property from the local authority] – this is something we weren’t really aware would be an extra expense and hadn’t budgeted for it. I’ve just been paid for some work, and so agree that I’ll cover these.

katie bishop first time buyer pandemic

5 May – We get the survey back for the house! We’re told that the chimney needs repointing and consider negotiating the cost of doing this from the price of the house. However, our solicitor is quite unhelpful when it comes to facilitating this, and we’re struggling to get clear responses from them about some other queries. Our rental contract is due to expire in July and we’re worried about slowing things down.

In the end, we call a few local tradespeople and get a reasonable quote for doing this work ourselves at some point in the future. In the interest of keeping things moving, we decide to go ahead without bringing this up with the seller.

15 June – We’re told a closing date has been agreed for mid-July, and give our current landlord notice that we’ll be moving out at the end of our tenancy. We sign our contract and return it to the solicitor. It all feels very real now!

1 July – We transfer a portion of our deposit to the solicitor, ready to exchange contracts.

Katie bishop first time buyer pandemic
Katie bishop first time buyer

7 July – We thought the process was going smoothly and are all ready to move next week. However, when we chase our solicitor, they tell us our seller won’t be able to move out next week after all. It turns out there was a miscommunication, and sellers further up the chain actually want to move out in August.

This is a disaster for us, as we’re due to move out of our rental property soon. After lots of chasing our solicitors – who are now almost impossible to get hold of – we end up contacting our landlord and begging to extend our contract for another month. They tell us that they’ll check with the next tenants and let us know.

8 July – A very tense 24 hours later our landlord agrees to extend our contract by another month. We’re relieved, but it’s an extra expense we weren’t anticipating.

9 August – We were due to exchange contracts last week, but after calling our solicitors several times a day for confirmation (we’re pretty anxious after the last time the move got delayed!), things don’t seem to have progressed.

I spend most of the day on the phone chasing and eventually am told that the solicitors have exchanged contracts. We’ll be moving on Friday! It’s been an incredibly stressful month, so I’m relieved, but still feel cautious. Things went wrong so last-minute before that I don’t want to get my hopes up.

13 August – Closing day! We take the day off work and drive to Birmingham. There’s quite a lot of hanging around waiting for news. Fortunately, we have some overlap with our rental, so won’t move all of our furniture until next week. We get some lunch and wait for a phone call.

Despite calling a few times, we don’t actually hear from our solicitor at all. In the end, we get a text from the seller telling us that we’ve exchanged and can go and pick up the keys. We’re finally homeowners!

What I’ve learned about house buying

Buying a house for the first time was a huge learning curve, and I don’t think I quite appreciated how stressful the last few weeks would be. One of the things we really struggled with was poor service and communication from our solicitors – if I was buying a house again, I would definitely take my time, and use a solicitor recommended by a friend or family member rather than relying on Google. It’s a massive expense, and you’re completely in their hands, so you want to get it right. 

I’d also recommend leaving plenty of buffer room in your budget. We knew that house buying was costly, but we didn’t anticipate all of the added expenses. We also realised that the plumbing was a bit dodgy soon after moving in (we had a flood just a couple of weeks after moving day) and have also had to pay for a new front door, so I’d also suggest having an emergency fund for any unexpected work.

Overall, it’s been an exhausting and expensive experience, but after over a decade of renting it’s a great feeling to own a home. I can’t wait to make it our own. 

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Images: Katie Bishop