Caroline Sanders is a typical house hunter, looking for – and not finding – the home of her dreams in Oxford. So we gave her CABE’s new book The Home Buyer’s Guide to see what difference 110 pages of advice make. Here she reveals all
After eight months of househunting I’m beginning to wonder if the home of our dreams exists – one we can afford, anyway – so any advice this book can give will be welcome. As it’s aimed at people buying a new home I’m wondering how relevant it’s going to be, since most of the properties I’ve been looking at have been older ones (does anyone just look at new ones?) but hopefully there’ll be enough to make it worth reading.
There are three main sections in the book – location, which looks at what makes a good neighbourhood; home design, covering internal matters, such as lighting and the use of space; and outdoor space, which looks at the area around a home, from gardens and parking to bin storage. Dotted throughout are lists of “what to ask” and “what to look for”, and case histories of new developments.
I like the way the book encourages you to imagine yourself living in a property, and to think about whether the layout would suit your lifestyle, how you’d move about the kitchen, where you’d put all your belongings and so on. It also suggests thinking about what you’d find in a five-minute walk from your home. A lot of this I’ve already been doing, but the checklists help to concentrate the mind and make sure you haven’t missed anything, and they do help you to compare properties.
Something I haven’t given much thought to was light and orientation – which rooms get light at which time of the day – so I’ll be looking out for this on future viewings. The advice on buying off-plan was helpful – what happens when, the different payment stages, what plans to ask for and so on. I didn’t know anything about this as the new homes I’ve been looking at have gone past this stage, but I’d now feel more confident about buying off-plan as an option.
The book is easy to follow and quick to read but there’s a lot of background information and design theory I didn’t feel I needed to know. I ended up skimming over things like Parker Morris space standards, Radburn principles (separating pedestrians and vehicles) and the eco credentials of BedZed, which all seemed a bit OTT for the average homebuyer. I know CABE is looking at homes from an architectural perspective, but I could have done with less background and more practical information, for instance on how to tell if the build quality of a new house is any good.
Questions, questions …
The “what to ask” and “what to look for” checklists cover everything from public transport to the inclusion of fittings in the price and whether the building has Secured by Design accreditation. The lists provide useful practical advice, so if you’re not interested in the background detail you could almost get away with just reading these. I’ve already been asking some of the question – mainly the ones that apply to old properties as well as new – but I will be adding a few more now.
There are others I can’t see myself getting round to asking, such as “has the property used sustainable construction techniques?” and “what’s the insulation rating and energy efficiency?” This is partly because I’m imagining the look on the estate agent’s face, but mainly because I assume that Building Regulations mean that new homes are built to defined standards. Also, what will I do if the builder says he hasn’t used materials from renewable sources? When it comes down to it, I’m more interested in room sizes than SAP ratings.
Price comparisons: whole life costs
One piece of advice in the book is that it’s important to find out if you’re getting value for money from a new home. It offers a calculation to work this out so that you can compare different properties (add up the price, the energy cost and maintenance costs and divide by the floor area to reach the value square metre). I can’t see myself doing this, and in any case, if the house I set my heart on turns out to be poor value on this basis, it wouldn’t make me change my mind; I’m more likely to bury my head in the sand.
Layout tips: the open-plan mantra
The book’s ideas on what makes a well-designed home all make perfect sense – flexible living space that can be adapted, converted or expanded; access to private open space; a location that feels safe and has lots of local amenities nearby; somewhere that’s cheap to run and easy to maintain. The new homes pictured to illustrate all this are very modern and open-plan in design, which gives the impression that this is the design that best fulfils these criteria – and the book also talks about leaving behind the Victorian legacy of divided rooms and enclosed staircases. But I like Victorian houses and don’t particularly want to cook, eat and watch television in the same space … and mean, open-plan layouts with no room for a proper dining table have put me off some of the new homes I’ve looked at. Having said that, I would certainly be happy with several of the developments CABE have pictured, so I’m more inclined to look at open plan again.
Keep looking: good design is out there
The pictures show that there are some great new homes out there, and I’ll keep looking at the few going up around me. As I said, I’m glad to know more about buying off-plan, and when we do find a home I probably will go back to the table at the end, which summarises the main questions, to check we’ve thought of everything. My priorities haven’t changed since reading the book – what a place looks like and room sizes are still more of a concern than energy ratings – and I’ll keep looking at older properties. Everything the book says about design seems sensible, but ultimately I can only choose from what’s affordable in my area. It makes the point that good design doesn’t cost more than bad, but it may be more useful to tell that to developers.
A convert to new builds: How the guide changed Caroline's view of one new development
The Waterways is a new Berkeley Homes development in north Oxford, the biggest in this part of the city and next door to Waterside, another Berkeley development finished several years ago. Most of Waterways is complete and lived in, but homes are still being built here and sold from the on-site marketing suite. Properties are a mix of fairly traditional-looking brick and stone three and four-bedroom townhouses and more contemporary open-plan two-bedroom flats. The scheme's big selling point is its location alongside the Oxford canal and a short walk from local amenities, but applying The Home Buyer's Guide's ideas on what makes a well designed neighbourhood it looks to be well planned too. For instance, it has a mix of housing types and styles, "pocket parks" for sitting and playing in, linked streets rather than cul-de-sacs, streets that connect to the surrounding area, and attractive landscaping that will include a lake with walks around it.
We've looked at two of the smaller homes here - a second-hand flat and a three-bedroom house that was still being built - but didn't pursue them because of room sizes and layout. We would rather have a bigger bedroom than an en-suite bathroom in the house, and weren't sure the flat's open-plan living/dining/kitchen area was big enough for us. The book talks about looking for versatile layouts that allow different configurations of furniture, and rooms that aren't too tightly planned, which puts these reservations into words. But Waterways has a lot going for it, so we'll keep an eye on what comes up, new and second-hand, including the off-plan options that remain.