Would you team up with a stranger to get on the ladder?

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The Independent Online

Sarah Pender lives in Walton-on-Thames in Surrey with her mother and sister and is looking to buy her first property.

"With my salary I can only raise a mortgage of £125,000, and a small two-bed flat in this area costs £180,000," says Sarah, who works for an engineering company. The 25-year-old has a card up her sleeve, though: she has registered with a new firm called sharedspaces.co.uk, which brings together strangers prepared to pool their resources to get on the housing ladder.

Buying with someone she has yet to meet is preferable to buying with friends, she says: "I'm not sure I would want to as, if things went wrong, you would have [a friendship] to lose."

Sharedspaces hopes to revive a flagging market: only 320,000 properties were sold to first-timer buyers in 2005, according to the Halifax - the lowest number since 1980.

The site, which has attracted 1,000 members since its launch in February, is a "virtual meeting point" for young people who are renting or living with parents. "For the sake of familiarity, we can be compared to an online dating agency," says founder Richard Cohn, a surveyor and former estate agent. "Each member writes a profile of themselves including their age, interests, habits, likes and dislikes - they can even upload a photograph."

Members must also give details of their desired property, target location, how much they want to spend, and the sort of person they prefer to live with - a non-smoker, say, with no pets.

The site can then be searched to find a match, after which the idea is that potential co-buyers will meet up to make sure they're compatible.

"I'm happy to buy with one person - a girl who is preferably older than me and wants to live in Walton-on-Thames. But getting three people together would be better still," says Sarah. "With economies of scale, you could then buy a four-bed house, rent out one of the rooms and make some money back."

The first 1,500 members of sharedspaces will pay nothing for six months; the service will cost £14.99 a month thereafter.

So far, the site has not brought any strangers together, but is hoping to get its first match before the end of the spring.

Up to four people can team up to buy through sharedspaces, though James Cotton at broker London & Country warns: "When calculating how much you can borrow, lenders will usually only take into account two or, at a push, three salaries."

Technically, buying a property with a stranger is no different to doing so with a friend in that you should always ensure your rights are protected. First, a "deed of trust" should be drawn up with a solicitor, detailing agreements such as the proportion of the mortgage repayments contributed by each party; who pays which bills; and what happens if one of you wants to leave.

"On top of this, it's a good idea to take up references," says Helen Adams of the first-time-buyer website FirstRungNow.

The deed of trust will also record the householders as "tenants in common" rather than "joint tenants". So if one of the owners dies, their share of the property will pass straight to an assigned beneficiary such as a member of their family - and not the other owner. The deed will cost anything from £250 to £450.

Although it will be more cost-effective for both parties to use the same solicitor at this stage, you would be better off seeking individual representation if an acrimonious dispute developed and ended up in court.

Mr Cohn recommends that sharedspaces members also consider mortgage insurance. If either buyer were to lose their job or be off work due to illness, it could imperil the repayments.

Mortgage payment protection is one option, he says, though you should always check to see if your employer offers any benefits.

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