In March of this year, I did something that had always seemed too good to be true. I bought a flat in London!
If you know me, you know that living in London was my biggest dream since forever and that eventually, in 2019, I decided to brave it and move here. When I finally made that decision, buying a place in the UK one day was nothing but a very vague idea. I definitely didn’t think I would be doing exactly that just over a year later.
I don’t think there has ever been anyone more prepared to move abroad than me. From the age of 16 I was creating spreadsheets with the costs of living in London, rent prices and mortgage prices. I knew the average rent price in every borough (and let’s just say that knowledge was the exact reason why I didn’t move to London sooner). Because of this, I did know that eventually, buying would be a lot cheaper than paying rent every month.
I also knew that there was this government scheme called Shared Ownership. The name is a bit confusing: It does NOT mean you have to share ownership of the property with someone else. Well…not really. With Shared Ownership you buy a share of the property and you pay rent on the share that you don’t own. It’s that simple.
So for example: take a 500 000 pound flat (yes, that’s a very normal price in London). You decide to buy 50%, so you need 250k. The deposit you need is based on the 250k you’re actually buying, not on the full price. With Shared Ownership, you can buy a place as soon as you have a 5% deposit (of course you do need to get approved for a mortgage which depends on your income etcetera). On the remaining 250k, you pay rent. However, the rent is a LOT lower than the rent of a similar property on the open market. You can buy more shares later, so you can eventually own the entire thing just like other homeowners.
The big benefit is obviously that it’s easier to get onto the property ladder. You don’t need a massive deposit and you can get your own property. There are, of course, a couple of downsides. The biggest one is that, when you want to buy another share in a couple of years, it will most likely have increased in value so you will need to pay more. Personally, I think that’s quite logical so it didn’t put me off.
I do not believe that you have to buy a house or a flat. However, the rent prices in London are so eye-watering that buying usually means that your monthly payments will be lower. Like, a lot lower.
Let’s have a look
I liked the flat that I was renting, but it had its issues. First of all, it was incredibly expensive. My rent was 70% of my salary. It was nice, but the building was quite old. Also, although the flat was near some very lovely areas like Ealing, Chiswick and Richmond, my neighbourhood itself was sad. There was a local Sainbury’s and that was it. There was nothing within a 30-minute walk and the nearest tube station was 20 minutes away.
I’m not sure how it happened, but I started watching YouTube videos about buying in London again. I started thinking (or daydreaming) about how much money I could be saving with a loan instead of my ridiculous rent. The idea became less vague and more concrete, and eventually I decided to have a look at places. Just for fun. Kind of when you fill your online shopping basket but you’re definitely not going to click on the checkout button. The lies we tell ourselves.
I should have known that once I have my mind set on something, I have absolutely no chill. It wasn’t long before I found myself on the Shared Ownership property website multiple times a day.
One day, I saw this incredible flat. It had a ‘winter garden’ which is basically a kind of conservatory that can be transformed into a balcony. For some reason, I immediately fell in love with the flat. However, when I reached out for more information, I was informed that all of the flats in that building had been reserved. I was very disappointed and I kept checking the website for new flats, but I didn’t see anything that made me feel as excited.
One evening, after another day of refreshing that page over and over again, I had a little talk with myself in the shower: ‘Gladys, this needs to stop. You’re going mad.’ I told myself that I didn’t even need to think about moving yet. After all, I had signed a two-year tenancy agreement. I made a promise that I would stop looking for flats until after New Year’s.
This is the one
THE NEXT MORNING I got an email about that one flat. I kid you not. It had become available again and they were wondering if I was still interested. I called them, they told me that I shouldn’t wait too long, as they had viewings the next day. I said, ‘No you don’t. I’ll be there tonight.’
Just like the flat I was renting, I decided to get this flat five minutes after I walked in and it was the very first flat I viewed. People tell you that you need to see at least ten flats before making a decision, but I honestly think that’s bs. When you get a really nice job offer for a job that you want, you’re probably not going to say no either because you feel like you want to do twenty more interviews first? When you know, you know. Don’t say yes when you’re not 100% sure, but you also don’t want to say no because you feel like there is some kind of unwritten rule that you need to see more places and then regret it later on.
Of course it’s important to do enough research beforehand so that you have an idea about the prices, areas and things that are important to you, but in my case I had been looking at flats in London, both to rent and to buy, for the better part of 10 years. I just knew it wasn’t going to get any better.
The mortgage process (aka torture process)
Even with the Shared Ownership scheme, you obviously still need a deposit and a loan. My salary got me a decent mortgage, but it was not nearly enough to get me a flat in my preferred area. My family helped me out with the deposit money, which I’m very grateful for. I’m aware of the fact that I never would have been able to buy a flat of this size this close to the city without that gift.
I know that I’m incredibly lucky to be able to do this. There are people in this city who pay the same amount of money for a room in a house they share with strangers. Unfortunately, the reality is that in London even someone like me with a very decent salary and a lot of help from family can just about afford to buy a share of a medium-sized flat. I decided to move here so I knew what I was getting into, but knowing that I would pay a lot less money anywhere else will always hurt just a little bit.
That gifted deposit was great, but it also ended up being a massive pain. Because it was coming from abroad, the bank screened both me and the family member who was giving me the money like nothing I have ever experienced before. Friends and family, both in the UK and in Belgium, told me that their mortgage process had been super easy and quick. For me, it was the complete opposite. If it weren’t for the hassle with the bank, I could have moved in three months earlier. Because of several ‘miscommunications’ (which I’ve come to understand is quite standard in the UK) we had to answer the same questions and send the same documents three or four times. Eventually, it all worked out, my landlord was okay with me moving out early and in March of this year, I moved in!
I ended up buying quite a large share, so you can definitely start out with a smaller one. 25% is the minimum share you need to buy if you want to enter the Shared Ownership scheme. Since my flat is in zone 2, its price is also on the higher side. You can get flats for a lot less, but for me, location was very important. My old flat was in zone 3 almost 4, and living there had taught me that I wanted to be able to walk to the city centre. From my new flat, I can reach London Eye in 30 minutes. My old flat was a 3-hour walk to that same Eye. Not impossible, but not exactly my idea of a chill after-work stroll either.
I live in Brixton! Oh, I’m absolutely in love with this area. I’m close to basically everything, I can see the skyline from my flat, I live in a lively area where everything is a few minutes away, my flat is completely new and I pay a lot less than when I was renting.
Another thing that makes me really happy: I have lovely neighbours! I’ve always wanted one of those sitcom experiences where the characters are friends with their neighbours, but that was never the case for me. Every time I’ve lived in a city, I didn’t even know my neighbours’ names and we never spoke. My new neighbours and I meet up for drinks and we all get along very well. It’s wonderful! As for my housemates: it took my cats a while to get used to their new environment (Monty did not leave the bedroom for two weeks) and it was quite emotional for me to move out of their very first home, but we’re all happy in our new flat.
I’m still very much getting to know my area and I’m still surprised how quickly I can travel to basically any area in London. It wasn’t the easiest process in the whole world, but I feel like I’m exactly where I need to be right now. I’m a proud Brixtonite!
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