How to buy an off-plan property without even stepping foot inside

Buying off-plan means purchasing a home before it’s finished – and in some cases, before construction work has even started.

It may sound odd to be making the most expensive purchase of your life without actually stepping inside the property first but, in fact, it makes perfect sense.

By snapping up a flat or house ahead of the pack,  you’ll be able to pick the best plot and maximise your options for personalising it by selecting fixtures, fittings and colour schemes that can be incorporated at different stages of the build.

You agree the sale price at reservation, so in a rising market the property will be worth more than you paid for it by the time you move in.

If the scheme is popular, reserving early could mean you don’t miss out later on, as developments often sell out before completion. It may also be the case that all the homes offered with Help to Buy or other incentives sell out.

With pent-up demand from lockdown and the stamp duty holiday (homes up to £500,000 are currently exempt from tax) ending on March 31 next year, developers report that homes are shifting fast right now.

How long does it take to buy off-plan?

If you do buy off-plan, be prepared for a wait – anything from a few weeks to a couple of years or more – and bear in mind that most mortgage offers are only valid for six months, so you’ll have to reapply or get an extension if completion is delayed.

Although you won’t be able to set foot inside your future home, you can make your decision to buy based on floorplans, site plans, viewing the show home or marketing suite, taking a virtual tour,  and discussions with the sales team.

Research the housebuilder’s previous developments and find out if a similar finished property type can be viewed  at another site.

You can also ask whether there’s room for negotiation if you reserve early – if there’s no flexibility on price, you may be able to get an interiors upgrade, for instance.

You’ll also need to find out about access, as being one of the first to move in, roads might not be finished.

What it’s like buying off-plan

Steven at his new property (Picture: Steven Luemba)

Just before lockdown, interior designer and actor Steven Luemba moved into his first home, a one-bed apartment at Barratt’s New Mill Quarter in Hackbridge, after reserving it in February 2019.

‘It was great fun looking for a home and I knew I’d end up decorating it to my taste,’ he says. ‘Buying something off-plan was attractive as  I could get exactly what I wanted.

‘Obviously, it’s nerve-wracking when you are effectivey buying a floor plan, but the key is asking questions to give you peace of mind – how big are the windows, what do the radiators look like, where are the electricity points?

‘Also, if you’re buying off-plan really question who the developer is. It was comforting knowing that Barratt London had a history of housebuilding and I went to visit several of their completed developments to check out the final product.

‘I looked at different floor plans before deciding what I wanted and measured out the layout too so I could envisage the space. After I’d reserved, my home’s floor plan was stuck to my wall and I’d measure furniture out and design my interiors from it. Between reserving and moving in, I bought furniture and furnishings, and everything was in boxes waiting for me to unpack.’

When should you apply for a mortgage?

Before you start house hunting, contact a mortgage broker who will be able to  give you a good idea of how much you can borrow and the deposit you’ll need. They’ll also be able to give you a mortgage agreement in principle.

Once you’ve found a new home to buy, secure it with a reservation fee – usually around £1,000 – then appoint a solicitor to handle the conveyancing and ensure that everything you’re expecting to be included in the property is written into the contract.

Put your mortgage application in as early as possible as offers are taking much longer than usual to come through, and once all your paperwork is in order you’ll exchange contracts and pay the deposit – usually within 28 days of reservation.

Now comes the wait, and the developer should keep you informed of the build’s progress. When your home is nearly finished, you’ll be given two dates – an estimated completion date, and the date it has to be ready by.

You may only have two weeks’ notice of your actual move-in date, with little flexibility as handovers are staggered – particularly in apartment blocks – to allow for social distancing.

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