So you have decided to buy a flat

For many, buying a flat is the first step on to the first rung of the property ladder, but for many others, a spacious flat is the perfect choice for their lifestyle – especially as there is no garden to maintain! Often couples choose to downsize to a flat once their family has flown the nest as flats are easier to heat and maintain.

If you are flat hunting do spend time looking carefully for faults such as dampness, noisy neighbours or faulty guttering. Recently, discovered that in London, property buyers spend on average 33 minutes visiting the property before deciding to make the biggest purchase of their lives – crazy, when you think how long you can queue for a train! Spend time really assessing whether the flat you have chosen is going to be a good buy for you.

There are a few additional important points to consider:

  1. Is the flat leasehold?

  2. Whilst most houses are freehold – meaning that you are buying both the property and the land, flats are leasehold which means that you will own the flat and will be buying the right to live in the property which will be shared by other people.

  3. How long is the lease?
    Whilst leases are usually for many years – 99, 150 right up to 999 years - if you are buying an older flat that has changed hands a number of times, the length of the lease could have been reduced considerably.

    It is well worth asking early on in discussions because many mortgage lenders will not agree to a mortgage if there is less than 80 years left to run on the lease.

  5. What are the hidden costs?

  6. The main extra charge that you will be faced with is the 'service charge' which covers the maintenance and cleaning bill for all common areas. When you visit the flat, spend a few moments checking whether the common areas are nice and clean and the doors in good condition with fresh paint and the windows are nice and clean. Check what lighting there will be in the evenings too. 

    Service charges are used to pay for the general maintenance of the building and are usually collected by a maintenance company that looks after the property. Whilst these charges will cover cleaning and gardening, they may well not cover major repairs – best to ask exactly what is covered and for large bills, how the cost will be shared. It is best to check whether the service charge is a set amount or is variable depending on what work has been carried out on the property.

    Do check the small print too, because many management companies charge an administration cost for amending the documents when a flat owner sells his property and it changes hands.

    An extra cost that you might incur is a leasehold charge that includes ground rent. Do check exactly what these charges cover, how much they are and how often they are payable. Mortgage lenders usually ask about all these charges so that they can assess more accurately how much money you will be able to borrow.

  7. How good is the safety aspect?

  8. Whilst good lighting in all the common areas is a basic requirement, it is important that the flats have also been installed with an emergency lighting system, smoke detectors in the common areas and fire extinguishers. Clear directions should be pinned on the wall explaining what to do in the event of fire. 

    When a block of flats is leasehold, the flats should be covered by property insurance but individual flat owners will need to insure their belongings. This is a point that your solicitor will check out for you.

  9. Are there any restrictions on what you can and can't do?

  10. Many leasehold flats do have rules parking restrictions both for you and your visitors and it is good to find out how this works in the vicinity. There are also strict rules about what alterations can and cannot be made to a flat. The larger ones like changing the windows or knocking down a wall are to be expected but there are usually others which could include the prohibition of changing the style of the front door or even the colour. In many blocks, individuals are requested not to personalise 'their' common area with rugs, potted plants or ornaments.

    Many flats also have restrictions about which pets (if any) can be kept in a flat and noise restrictions. Your solicitor will be able to secure a full list of the restrictions for you.

Whilst buying a flat may seem a little more complicated than buying a house, there is plenty of good advice available on line or from your solicitor. The best advice is take your time, visit the property at different times day and night to assess noise, traffic problems or parking issues and importantly, parking difficulties. After that you can look forward to seeing the sold sign in the estate agent's window...