Buying a home usually involves the largest financial outlay of your life and is one of the greatest causes of stress. But being well prepared means half the battle is won.
It is still a buyer's market (estate agents' jargon for when there are more homes on sale than buyers ready to purchase). That means buyers should negotiate hard on prices; usually the longer a home has been on sale the more flexible the seller is. Property website Hometrack says a typical buyer now pays 93.3 per cent of an asking price.
Because of worries about a possible price crash, the number of sales plummeted by 28 per cent in the first half of 2005, but as the market has stabilised buyer enquiries have increased for four months on a row, says the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. Even so, there is still a surplus of homes over buyers.
Whether you are buying a house or flat, in the city or countryside, whether you are a first time buyer or serial mover, the rules are much the same.
Make sure you like the area where you want to buy. Visit at night and at weekends to see if it is still appealing, then shortlist homes on websites such as www.rightmove.co.uk, www.propertyfinder.co.uk and www.primelocation.com. You can discover what other buyers have paid, free of charge, on websites such as www.nethouseprices.com.
If you are buying a brand new home you can buy off-plan - you pay a deposit before the home is built, usually in return for a cheaper price and a wider choice of fixtures and fittings. If you buy a new home that is nearly or fully completed, you can still bargain on price as developers always want to shift stock as quickly as possible.
In addition, almost all new homes these days carry 10-year warranties on their structure and fittings.
But more than 95 per cent of buyers each year purchase a second-hand property. In this case, register with local estate agents and call them at least once a day, make yourself available to view homes, and get them to think of you first when a new property comes on the market. Be thorough by asking the agent how long a home has been on sale, whether other buyers have done surveys, and if the seller is in a chain.
About 6 per cent of buyers shun estate agents and buy privately through sites such as www.propertybroker.co.uk, www.houseladder.co.uk and www.homesonsale.co.uk, but they must deal directly with sellers to arrange viewings and strike deals.
At a viewing, always check conditions of walls, decorations, woodwork, flooring, window frames, roof, drains and guttering, and remember the social things that are important to you - is the home close to shops, pubs, work, motorways or stations?
More difficult but still key are checks on anti-social problems like takeaway shops creating smells and crowds, and nearby factories, very busy roads or nuisance neighbours.
OFFERS AND AFTERWARDS
If you put in an offer on a property, only do so on the strict condition the property comes off the market with a Sold board put up to deter other buyers. Then:
* Get a survey - mortgage lenders insist on basic surveys to validate the purchase price, but sensible buyers commission either:
* A Homebuyer's Report (£250 to £500), giving basic views on the structure and identifying major problems; or
* A Building Survey (up to £1,000), giving details of the construction, the structure and a list of major and minor defects.
* Hire a solicitor to conduct "searches" (to find details of planned developments near the property) and to check "title" (boundaries and formal ownership). You pay £750 for legal and search fees if you buy a home for less than £250,000, then about £850 for properties up to £750,000, or up to £1,500 for homes over £1m.
* Get a mortgage. Solo buyers can get up to four times annual income; couples get three times the first income plus one year of the second income, or two-and-a-half times the joint income. Shop around, and avoid lock-in deals that prevent short-notice switches to cheaper mortgages.
BUYING AT AUCTION
* Order a catalogue from an auction house and identify homes you like;
* Arrange viewings and commission a survey and council searches - to avoid duplication, some sellers or auction houses arrange this for potential buyers;
* Stay calm at the auction, bid only up to your financial limit and remember that most homes at auction need substantial refurbishment;
* Ensure you have 10 per cent deposit on auction day and a mortgage ready if you need it - if your bid is successful, you sign a contract there and then, and must pay the remainder within 28 days.
These find and shortlist homes for busy clients, sometimes using links with estate agents to discover properties before they officially go on sale. Fees are usually £500 to £1,000 up front, then 0.5 per cent to 1.5 per cent of purchase price.
"One of the greatest advantages is having someone to negotiate for you, closing a deal at the best price. Buying agents can be hugely important," says James Greenwood of Stacks Property Search & Acquisition.
* Which? Way to Buy, Sell and Move House, £11.99
* the Government's guide to buying is on www.direct.gov.uk
* the Association of Relocation Professionals lists buying agents on www.relocationagents.com
Buyers' stories: old hands and new kids on the block
Kym Metcalf, a customer adviser for the Norwich & Peterborough building society in Colchester, has bought four homes over 11 years and this time approached the task with a strict check-list. She wanted a two-bedroom period house close to the A12, with original windows, an open fire, a garden and a good outlook.
"Estate agents sent us details that didn't match our criteria whatsoever, so we found the Rightmove website a real godsend. We looked at 45 properties in five weeks, drove past each house before booking a viewing, and didn't give the time of day to any property that didn't meet all of our criteria," she says.
She and husband, Paul, move into their £178,000 home at St Osyth, near Clacton-on-Sea, next month.
Public relations executive Rowena Collins and her partner Richard Hoare, a solicitor, are first-time buyers and are acutely frustrated with poor service from estate agents.
"They've been less helpful than we expected and the whole process is much, much harder than it should be. Agents send us property details that are completely inappropriate, and when we ask questions about leases, ground rents or service charges they don't know the answers. We have to manage the buying process without the help we thought we'd get from the agents," says Rowena.
The couple want a £300,000 flat in West Hampstead, north London, and have been viewing several properties a week for four months.Reuse content