Buying to let? The what, why, when and where

Peter Bill, former editor of Estates Gazette and author of Planet Property, suggests factors potential buyers should consider as the demand for rental property soars ever higher.

Bracketing Kipling’s ‘six honest serving men’ into three pairs is as decent a way as any to mark the righteous path toward buy-to-let happiness. No need to rigidly follow the responses to the questions, ‘what & why’, ‘when & where’ and ‘how & who.’ Stray by all means, but take care, there are many perils.

Here’s a selection: Do not buy in spring, it’s sucker-rush season. Do not buy new, they cost far too much. Do not buy where other rented homes do not exist, there are usually good reasons for their non-existence. Do not rent without using an estate agent, there are very good reasons why agents exist.

Look around for financial advice: Enough to fill a bank of Google servers is obtainable from far more qualified experts at the click of a mouse. Just one tip, buy and never sell. Don’t trade. How do you think the rich stay that way? By hanging on to property accumulated through the generations.

A new generation of buy-to-let landlords spent £300 billion between 2000 and 2012, taking advantage of low interest rates. Prices more than doubled by 2008, then fell by nearly 20% and are only back up at 2008 levels now. Be careful. House prices are not immune to the laws of economic gravity.

Fund managers don’t rely on rising prices. Even so, today, professionals are opening their purses like never before. Why? Because they see reliable returns between 4% – 5% a year on their outlay, after deducting 25% or so from the rent for management costs, maintenance and vacancies. A good model to follow.

What, what not and why?
Steer clear of newly-built or off-plan homes. These tend to cost 20% more than second hand units and can be 20% smaller. Leave these to bulk-buying fund managers who can negotiate discounts. Avoid Victorian wrecks, refurbishment will cost 60% more than your wildest estimate and take 60% longer than the builder’s estimate. Shun areas where you feel a cannabis farm in the bedrooms would be tolerated by the neighbours.

Flats trump houses because neighbours tend to police behaviour, but beware of leases less than 100 years. The unit will start to fall in value at 80 years and extending it will cost more than your wildest estimate. Avoid mega-blocks because you can end up with mega-repair bills for the lifts, fancy cladding or the roof. Best buy: Generously proportioned walk-up flats in three/four storey developments of no more than 50 units built between 1965-1985.

When and where?
A rainy Tuesday in the last week of November is the prime time to walk into an estate agent. A sunny Easter Saturday is the worst time to make enquiries. In November the negotiator is likely to be starved of customers and more eager to help.

Avoid ‘up and coming’ areas because the speed they ‘come-up’ is glacial. Avoid student-land. Not because students can be nightmare tenants but many now rent in purpose-built halls. This is a shift depressing the rental market for Victorian wrecks in the same way £29-a-night hotels are killing B&Bs. Go for quiet streets, no more than a 10 minute walk from a station, peppered with rental properties.

How and who?
DIY is for skinflints with the hide of a rhinoceros. Normal folk prefer to buy through an estate agent and folk with any sense and distaste for conflict pay an agent to manage the property; get the paperwork right, obviously and to take the call at midnight when the washing machine floods, clearly. But the priceless value of an agent is their role as an emotional cut out between you and the tenant.

Difficult to be nasty to that nice young couple you plied with tea and cakes, now they have trashed your flat, isn’t it? An agent who can cut-up rough as you metaphorically cower behind the sofa is worth every penny. Finally, how do you find a managing agent? Don’t just trawl the web. Wander the High Street. Ask ‘which of these doors would I enter if I was looking to rent?’ Look no further, enter and buy.

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