Property: What do women really want? Something sound, secure and good for singletons

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The Bridget Jones's of this world may not know what they want in their men, but when it comes to their homes they certainly do. Penny Jackson finds out what successful, independent thirtysomethings are are looking for.

It is hardly new to say that the influence of women in the matter of buying and selling homes is strong, to put it mildly, but now the cult of the young, single woman has appeared in the first- time buyer market.

When they walk into an estate agent's office asking for a two-bedroom terrace house, it doesn't mean they can be persuaded to look at a one- bedroom basement on a busy road just because it's their first purchase.

In London, single female first-time buyers have a clearer idea than men as to exactly what they want, finds Hilary Wade, director of Winkworth, the estate agency. "They have done their homework and know their property values and from a financial point of view are far more realistic than men as to what their parameters are. Their budgets are very similar but women are more realistic and take fewer risks in terms of over-stretching themselves."

They also tend to want large entertaining rooms rather than spacious kitchens and want to stamp their own decorative mark on a place. Surprisingly men show a preference for gardens, but this is usually because they like the idea of summer barbecues rather than nurturing a passion for gardening. Generally, Winkworth finds them less specific about requirements and less concerned about location or condition, decorative or structural.

Women are down to earth even when it comes to their personal lives. Single women who might once have bought with a partner are more inclined to take the mortgage in their own name. "This possibly reveals a greater acceptance that relationships among twentysomethings are often transient," adds Hilary Wade.

Wiser, older and often wealthier than their '80s counterparts, today's first-time buyers certainly don't feel the same pressure to get onto the property ladder. When they do, the affordability of homes can enable them to leapfrog the first rung and go straight into somewhere larger.

Kate Denston is no exception. A business consultant, 30 years old and coming out of a long relationship, she has just bought her own place. "I felt it was time to put my roots down. We were renting in London, but when the relationship went pear-shaped I felt I would be better off on my own, living my life as I wanted to."

Kate knew exactly what she was looking for and was not willing to compromise, particularly on the outside space, whether a balcony or a garden. "I got sent an awful lot of places I didn't ask for, and some places were very pokey for the price."

In the end, through Winkworth, she found spacious rooms and a garden on the ground floor of a converted pub for pounds 137,000. "The last few days were fraught because I was given just three days' notice by my landlady. Up until then I didn't feel under any pressure. The only surprise was the legal bill which had mounted up because of complications with the lease."

In Kentish Town, the area where Kate Denston bought, there are more female first-time buyers registered with Winkworth than men, many of them working in the media. Men, apparently, spend longer in rented accommodation or at home with their mothers, while in Maida Vale and West Hampstead, Foxtons find that single women are the biggest force in the first-time buyer market, most commonly looking at house conversions and mansion blocks in the pounds 130,000 to pounds 140,000 bracket.

In Battersea that would be closer to pounds 105,000 for a one-bedroom flat, with their main concern being close to public transport and not on the ground floor or basement. Claire Hall, who works in public relations, found that hitting 30 was the turning point for her. "I love living on my own. Up until now I had shared a house. I was aware of all the horror stories of people buying very young in the '80s, and I want to have the money to enjoy life as well."

Claire found exactly what she was looking for in Hertfordshire - two- bedroom, period terrace house with a garden for between pounds 65,000 and pounds 72,000. Not only did she complete within eight weeks, but made her offer conditional on the house being taken off the market. She bought through agents Ensum Brown. One surprise was how inflexible many other agents were about times they would take her around properties.

Clearly this is a good time for first-time buyers, so good in fact that the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors sees the demand from this quarter being an important reason for supply not being able to meet demand.

However, Alan Gottschalk, regional director at Black Horse Agencies, finds that their 20 per cent of first-time buyers has remained constant for the past two years. "Now is a good time for them to buy. Since the market slowed down in the late summer they are not being rushed and so can budget with a greater deal of accuracy."

In some areas, though, there is temptation for first-time buyers to make savings. In the first months of last year they were borrowing on average 91 per cent of a property's value and the Council of Mortgage Lenders is anxious not to see costs pushed up. However, only a third of new borrowers take out payment protection insurance. On a monthly repayment of pounds 300, it could cost between pounds 12 to pounds 15, less if the cover is restricted.

Again, failing to get a survey can be a false saving. Black Horse, which supplies homebuyers' reports, something between a mortgage valuation and a full survey, finds that only about 10 to15 per cent of first-time buyers have one.

"When the importance of getting a survey is explained individually, that percentage shoots up," says Peter Bray, operations director of Black Horse surveying services. "Although many first-time buyers are well informed, there are plenty who take sellers at their word and don't ask to see guarantees or question them about the condition of the house. They are often unaware of the problems you can have with boundaries as well." A few more of those hard-headed women buyers, though, and the scene could change dramatically. A sound structure for them is non-negotiable.