I bought a flat

8 minute read

I (we, me and my partner) bought a flat. It’s our first owned property and we’re pretty chuffed - after years of renting this is kind of a big deal for us. Sure, it has meant giving out a huge chunk of our savings, but they’re going into something we own, and we never owned anything home-related before, not even pieces of furniture - if you exclude a cheap table he uses as a desk and an IKEA cabinet, both bought in a second-hand shop (which we will bring over, by the way). In retrospective, we should have bought it a year ago, or maybe more, we’ve been renting for a long time (separately and together) and it’s a bit painful to look back at how much money was spent in that.

Anyway, I’m not here to talk about the flat per se, but the process of going from “hey, shall we start looking for a flat to buy?” to “woah, we made it!”, with the many human and bureaucratic hurdles along the way. It can be a long, exhausting and in many regards still backwards process. I won’t name names, I just want to reflect on the unnecessary stress that the whole procedure may bring and where to improve.

Office space at our new flat, in the making.

We had started looking for a flat to buy in January 2019; the idea had been lingering in our heads for a while and at the start of the new year we felt ready. Note: we were complete newbies, never did it before, didn’t even know what the procedure looked like and could only count on advice from friends and colleagues. We are also expats, which adds to the feeling of disorientation in these situations, given you can’t rely on family (in fact, you have to explain them how things may be slightly different than they think!).

We’ve been extremely lucky in the first phase and found something we loved almost immediately and were able to block it. I hear it may take a lot of time to find something you like. We chose a new build, which made the starting phase immediate: the flat isn’t there yet so none is living in, you don’t have to bid for it, price is fixed, you just need to pay an initial deposit to put it off the market. Done. We then headed towards finding a decent mortgage - to cut a long story short we found the best deal we could ourselves, without the help of advisors (we heard from a few, but the one we found ourselves was better). A bit of luck maybe, plus the willingness to trade some energy spent for a few hundreds (or thousands) saved in the long run. Mortgage offer signed, we had an estimated entry date of the end of August. All looking great.

Then COVID-19 hit (right a month after or so), and it slowed down the whole thing quite significantly. I’m not going to complain about this, given this is a global pandemic and many people have lost their lives - it was just interesting to see how procedures wired to function within certain timescales have been rewired to overcome something unforeseen. Our mortgage offer had to be extended to be still valid.

Events unfolding and pain points

Lockdown meant the construction industry had to go for a halt, and in Scotland this lasted 4 months, so our initial August date wouldn’t clearly be met, and for a while nobody could really tell what the delay would look like. Soon as we had a new planned date of entry from the builders, we reached out to the bank in regards to extending our mortgage - it was a force majeure after all. The bank made us sign a form to request an extension and assured us it’d be fine - but we only had an email from the bank advisor that “proved” so. We didn’t worry too much even though we would have liked to have a new mortgage offer document with the new date confirmed (we asked but got no answer)! But we assumed it wasn’t needed - after all, they know their procedures. This turned out to be not so clear later.

Now, we had a confirmation of the entry date 10 days before. We were hoping to have it a bit earlier (especially due to being able to give leaving notice to the rented flat), but we understood the whole uncertainty around it from their side. Those 10 days have brought an escalation of stress that even I - a worry-for-everything person - found unbelievable. I learned the settling of everything amongst all parties happens naturally in the last days, things are not taken care of in advance. Despite our multiple attempts at asking what to do and set some things ahead of time, it turned out everything gets moving between bank and solicitors just ahead of the date. This is understandable of course, as people deal with many clients at once, but I still think a better system with steps taken ahead and explained upfront could be easily set in place. Instead, it felt a lot like you’re in this meat-grinding machine, largely unaware of what is happening (if it is) and just begging for information. You also end up spending a lot of time and energy in phone calls.

In short, the main pain points have been:

  • Paying our deposit - costed time and money because we had to do it in a rush at the last minute, and because transferring large sums isn’t allowed via online banking. We had to go in person to a branch and perform a special type of money transfer, at a fee;
  • Documentation, and the need for paper-signed one. Most of the bureaucracy regarding ID check, anti-money laundering and various other legal stuff was easy to do as our solicitors use a digital service providing remote checks. But one of the documents was needed in paper and it needs to be signed by witnesses too. We had sent it ages ago but the solicitors didn’t find it at the last stage: I had to scramble to ask a friend and her husband who luckily live nearby and have a printer (we don’t);
  • Understanding if the mortgage had been extended and getting the right documentation has been a real problem, and by far the worst source of stress: we had received verbal confirmation every time we called the bank, even if no document was attesting this. The online service we used to apply reported no info on this. Then two days before settlement the bank decided to throw some problems, for reasons we never got to know. Most likely something had gone wrong with the documentation on their side amongst the various people involved in the process. What this meant is that as of the settlement day itself the bank hadn’t paid their share, and we were wondering what would happen, feeling completely helpless. Our reference mortgage person at the bank was off that day so no chance to get to speak to him. We did write to our customer service advisor who tried to reach out to someone else and was really helpful. I don’t know what happened but the bank sorted their mess at literally 5pm (closing time) of the day. That day has been super stressful for us, going from freaking out (“we are not getting our flat”) to “yay! we did get our flat”. We spent it on the phone to the solicitors, checking every hour if anything was changing - we finally got the last call informing us everything had been resolved! The builders couldn’t give us the keys before all money had been transferred of course, so when they called us to confirm all was fine on their side, and that we could go retrieve the keys, we jumped up, got quickly dressed in a way that was barely presentable for the outside and headed there. First pic at the entry of the flat, key in hands - nightmare over!

Reflections on all this

  • Communication amongst all parties involved in settling a house-buying transaction can be broken. Depending on whom you find at the other end, you might receive incomplete answers, or something might change along the way and you won’t get to know why. Not to mention the fact that you’re never made fully aware of the steps, they just happen - you’re largely in the dark until there is a problem, and you have to do lots of calls, which feels really an unnecessary use of time;
  • We all need more use of digital documentation services please, and in all areas! I’m not sure if we were lucky that our solicitors used a digital service or if it is a standard practice, but in any case some parts of the procedures are not digitised yet. The mortgage part with the bank was fully online, but getting to know about the extension, for instance, couldn’t apparently pass through their online portal, and relying on email exchanges doesn’t seem like the safest and most reliable way for something like this;
  • Human errors, chains of communication, knowledge gaps: I still feel what happened with the bank was that in the chain of the process at the final stage, someone has messed up or communication has gone wrong, or something else imputable to a mistake of some sort, which is disappointing of a big financial institution but likely due to the human chain of tasks - we have to do better on this.

In short, I’m sure much can still be done to improve in this space. We’ll see what it’ll be like next time we try selling or buying a property :)