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Buying my own place was an impossible dream – here’s how it came true

If someone had told me at the start of last year that I’d be living in – scratch that – owning a two-bedroom loft apartment with a suntrap of a terrace, I’d have rolled my cynical eyes. As a Generation Rent 34-year-old millennial living in London and working as a freelance journalist on a modest income, buying my own place always felt like an impossible dream.

For starters, the average deposit for first-time buyers in London has jumped 276% in the past decade to a staggering £100,445, according to the Halifax. I did explore shared ownership, but I found many of the schemes insanely competitive and only available to people on much higher salaries, while service charges were steep, culminating in mortgage repayments plus rent settling in at about £1,500 a month.

A close mate suggested we join forces and buy a place together. Yes, I thought. Propped up by someone on a much higher salary, here was my one chance to buy a property in the capital. Except we had very different ideas. She was intent on staying in Hackney and splashing out up to half a million – the maximum amount we could borrow – on an ex-council flat, while I sought extra square feet for a fraction of the price in the less well-established neighbourhoods of Walthamstow and Tottenham.

And so, with that idea evaporating as quickly as it started, I’d put the idea of buying to bed when an article about a wave of like-minded creative folk who were swapping London for Margate stopped me in my tracks. A bit of digging and I could see there was a buzz about the place. In line with my spontaneous side I quickly announced: “I’m moving to Margate!” to my astounded pals. My boyfriend at the time asked: “Have you ever been to Margate?” No. But something screamed that I had to jump at this. Rather than spend my savings on travel, I needed to think of my long-term future.

I knew I wouldn’t ever be able to afford to buy much more than a treehouse in London, but Margate – somewhere that sounded like it had an artsy community going on and I could commute from – well, maybe it was just possible? Still, I knew the bubble could easily be pricked: mortgage lenders aren’t known for handing over wads of cash to freelancers, although there are 1.9 million of us in the UK.

A friend of mine who has also headed to Margate, freelance fashion stylist Issie Gibbons, recalls the challenges she faced when she and her now-husband, Oliver Archibald, a self-employed plumber, originally planned to buy in London. “We had a mortgage adviser who told us to come back in two years’ time with more profit shown on our yearly accounts.”

The couple decided to declare more profit in their tax returns by lowering their expenses. “It meant very high tax bills for two years, which ate into our deposit savings,” she said. The couple bought a flat in Margate last spring. “We got there in the end but it was hard work – we had friends in full-time employment earning less than us who were getting mortgages really easily.”

And here I was attempting to buy on my own. It didn’t look promising. I contacted mortgage broker Sam Cox, a consultant at IFA firm Whichers, on the recommendation of a friend and explained my situation: I had a deposit of £23,500, which included £10,000 from my parents (though I could have just about bought the property without this top-up) and a few thousand from my help-to-buy Isa (I can’t recommend using one of these enough – start now).

Sam was my calming guardian angel throughout. She asked me to fill in a long questionnaire and provide my last two SA302 tax forms, which provide evidence of earnings. When she first calculated how much I could borrow, it didn’t look too rosy. Most lenders work on an average of your last two profit figures, but because I’d travelled and lived abroad my profits had taken a hit. However, as my income had increased substantially over the past year, she suggested I complete my 2015-16 tax return early, which helped increase my borrowing potential.

Meanwhile, I sloped off to Margate for the first time and fell in love with a two-bedroom flat. To cut a long story short, after many bids – going well over the asking price – I bagged it … well, for a week, until I was gazumped. But when the cash buyers split up two months later, the estate agent gave me first refusal.

Like many property purchases, the buying process was far from smooth and it took six long months to complete. But on 30 December I moved in. With interest rates at an all-time low, the mortgage for the flat, which cost £155,000, is considerably lower than the rent I was forking out for a room in an often mice-and-cockroach-infested two-bed flat in Islington.

For those who are self-employed and similarly hungry to buy their first home, Sam offers some heartening news: she says more lenders are extending their criteria to help those no longer on the payroll.

So what can freelancers do to help improve their chances of getting a mortgage? “First, your tax affairs need to be in order, and if there is income from more than one source – ie, earned income – then keep payslips, P60s and contracts etc,” Sam says. “Presenting a CV of the job roles you have had over the past two years also really helps.” Plus a sizeable deposit can help win over lenders, of course.

It’s six months since I walked into that empty flat – a world away from my life in London. And though no one ever enlightens you about the never-ending associated costs of homeownership (hello leaks and boiler issues), I feel very fortunate that I found a home in a soul-stirring town with a wonderful community, beach and incredible sunsets on my doorstep. After all the stumbling blocks, it was worth the wait.

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