PROPERTY / Seven ages of home ownership: The first-time buyer who went for it

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Rhino keeper Berry White threw caution to the wind when she bought a three-bedroom flat for just pounds 30,000 at auction. Rosalind Russell begins a series on the choices homeowners make at different stages in their lives

BERRY WHITE is not a typical first-time buyer. To begin with there's the question of her job - as a rhino keeper looking after 10 black and two Sumerian rhinos at Port Lympne Zoo in Kent. Second, she doesn't actually live in the three-bedroom flat near Hastings that she bought earlier this year. Accommodation comes as part of her job, and happily is more luxurious than a pen full of straw with en suite mudbath. But when property prices appeared to be creeping upwards this summer (a rise

of 0.5 per cent), it was a case of now or never.

If Berry had waited any longer, prices might have risen beyond her reach.

Cautious by nature (as anyone would be when dealing with clients who weigh up to 1,600kg each), Berry is not given to impetuous behaviour. The way she chose to buy her flat was therefore out of character. What's more, she broke every rule in the first-time buyer's book: she didn't look at any other flats, didn't sign up with any estate agents, didn't have time to organise a mortgage and didn't have a survey done. She simply decided to go for it.

In one or two respects Berry was typical: at 25, she is part of the biggest first-time buyer age group (the UK has a greater proportion of young owner-occupiers than the rest of Europe or America). In terms of salary, too, she is average. Only 15 per cent of first-time buyers has an annual income over pounds 25,000.

What most do is buy through an agent and approach a building society for a loan. Instead, Berry went to auction. She asked her brother Colin to keep an eye out for a suitable property, and a few weeks later he found one. 'There was a flat in the catalogues,' Berry says, 'a repossession which he thought I'd like. We went and had a look and I fell in love with it.'

Buying at auction is still unusual for a private individual - especially a first-time buyer. Auction rooms remain largely the fiefdom of developers, unfazed by the problems which scare off the novice. Neglect, dry rot, damp and absentee freeholders are all run-of-the-mill.

'But I threw caution to the wind,' Berry admits cheerfully. 'I knew the reserve price was pounds 18,000 and that the previous owners had paid double that.' She set her upper limit at pounds 30,000 - considerably less than the pounds 45,633 that is the average for a converted flat in the South-east (in Greater London it is pounds 20,000 more, in Wales pounds 11,500 less). Too nervous to do the bidding, Berry asked Colin to bid for her.

'It was really unnerving,' she says. 'There were seven people wanting it at one stage, and we didn't even enter the bidding until it reached pounds 26,000. It all seemed to go so fast. I'd rather have gone to another auction first, to see how it was done and compare the going rate. But there wasn't time.'

One by one the other bidders dropped out until it was just them and one other. The rival stopped at pounds 30,000. Colin bid another pounds 250 and the flat was hers. 'I felt a massive sense of relief,' she says. Ten per cent of the purchase price had to be paid as soon as the hammer went down, the rest on completion.

Robin Dean, auction manager at GA Property Services in Kent, says novice bidders like Berry give him nightmares. But she at least knew what she wanted, regardless of the flat's faults, and always intended to follow through her actions. Others do not.

'Some people have been buying blind, not even having been to see the property but going on the picture in the catalogue,' he says. 'When it turns out not to be what they anticipated, they refuse to complete.' Because of the odd rogue bidder, GA has taken to printing the rules of engagement in red at the back of the catalogue. 'We want people to know what they are getting into,' Robin Dean says. 'It is vital to do your homework beforehand.'

Berry won't be moving into her flat for the foreseeable future, but Colin is comfortably installed as her tenant. She now has time to organise her mortgage and pay back the money she borrowed from her family to make the purchase. 'I've compared prices locally since,' she says, 'and I think I got a really good deal. Other flats at that price are just shoeboxes.'

Local agents report that pounds 30,000 buys a lot of property on the south coast. Black Horse Agencies recently sold a one-bedroom flat in the Bexhill area for pounds 9,000 and say it is not unusual. A three-bedroom house, depending on condition, can cost between pounds 32,000 and pounds 40,000. A sea view will bump up the value. Moving west from Hastings, prices begin to rise. Studio flats are almost non-existent now, but a two-bedroom flat costs about pounds 30,000.

The age of the first-time buyer is not dead. Despite three years of record repossessions, declining house prices for the first time since the 1930s and volatile mortgage interest rates, optimism is high. A survey carried out by the British Market Research Bureau asked: 'Do you think owning your own house has become more or less attractive over the past two years?' Only one person in five thought home owning a less attractive option than renting.-