Ben Cornwell contemplates homeownership in 21st Century Hastings. 

Homeownership has been firmly rooted in the British psyche for decades. France, a nation largely of renters, has even coined the phrase ‘the English disease’ to describe our intense obsession with the property market. Ownership is encouraged right from the top, with Boris Johnson and the conservative government pledging to turn the UK’s younger generation from renters into buyers. But that seems ambitious in the current climate with house prices reaching record highs, significant rises in the cost of living and reports that monthly mortgage repayments will likely exceed rents in the coming months (for the first time since 2008). Considering all these uncontrollable variables, is it now becoming harder than ever for first-time buyers to get onto the property ladder?

The Pandemic Spike 

Despite the many obstacles in their way, it appears some were not deterred by the uncertainty created by the pandemic. Estate agents across the country experienced an unexpected spike in the number of first-time buyers moving in last year. According to the Yorkshire Building Society, an estimated 408,379 people bought their first home during the year, 35% more than in 2020. 

CREDIT: Dave Young

The introduction of low borrowing costs, government guarantees for mortgages and the stamp duty holiday likely all helped those looking to buy. Not to mention that many people’s spending plummeted for a while during the lockdowns, with shops, pubs and restaurants shut. Even fuel prices dropped temporarily to under £1, which now seems like a lifetime ago. 

Having already rented in St Leonards for five years, HIP’s social media advisor Garry James was one of those who took advantage of the market and successfully secured a property in January 2021. But it wasn’t easy for him, and he experienced his fair share of challenges along the way. 

“I had two house offers fall through due to the pandemic. I think people were so scared and unsure of what they wanted to do and where they wanted to live. When speaking to a local estate agent during winter 2019/2020, they told me that the average turnaround time on houses due to the pandemic was 4 days!” 

He added, “It was all quite stressful for a first-time buyer who did not understand what the hell was happening.”

Having originally come from Scotland where the house prices are generally much cheaper, Garry joked that he probably could have bought a small Scottish village for the same price. But while it was a big commitment to make
in a time filled with so much uncertainty, he feels that he made the right choice in the end and it was worth the hassle. 

“I chose not to go for something at the top of my budget. I don’t want to be a slave to a house. I don’t want a huge mortgage. I want to continue having an awesome lifestyle with a mortgage. Reflecting back now, I am so glad. The cost of living is more expensive, and bills have gone up, and because my mortgage is not ridiculous, I can still live a fairly comfortable life.”

The Bigger Picture

But this does not reflect everyone’s recent experiences in the market. The average age of first-time buyers in Britain has already been pushed up by two years; due to the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, the average age of a first-time buyer was 32. Reports now estimate that it has risen to almost 34.

House prices in Hastings have experienced one of the highest annual growths regionally with over a 16% increase. This has undoubtedly been a key reason for the rise in average age of first-time buyers in the area. As any budgets that were initially set aside would now buy them a lot less in the market. Therefore, buyers are needing to save for much longer.

There has also been a surplus of new residents from out-of-town flooding into Hastings. Because many new people desire a place by the sea, local buyers are not the only ones that have been affected. It has also impacted the rental market. There has been a lot of people moving into the area from cities like London and Brighton who have a high disposable income and budget. Often, they are prepared to rent a property for six to twelve months whilst they wait for the right property to come onto the market. But due to their London-sized budgets they can then afford to buy a property whilst they are still renting which does not help first time buyers or those that need to rent.

Before the pandemic, local renter and HIP community writer Kathryn Sutter said she had not put much thought into buying as she would not be at home a lot. But having spent time at home in lockdown she realised how much space impacted your mood, and now she craves more space of her own. She admits though that her biggest challenge has been trying to compete with the new people moving to the area during the lockdown. 

“Many come to Hastings with London wages and have sold a high-value property so they can afford the inflated prices. When you know that Hastings is one of the poorest areas in East Sussex, it is hard to see how local people can compete.”

Putting plans on hold?

Is the homeownership disease previously diagnosed by the French still around in today’s society?

It would appear that many may have been prescribed a temporary treatment as despite last year’s spike, a long list of people across the country are now putting their plans to buy their first home on hold in favour of renting for the immediate future. A Nationwide Building Society survey found that 70 per cent of first-time buyers looking to buy in the next 12 to 24 months have now decided to delay their plans of getting onto the property ladder. Of this group, 77 per cent claimed they would even wait for up to three years before buying their first home. However, this change in attitude on ownership is unlikely to last long. The UK do not have the same favourable terms or security for long term renters as France ─ an average lease in France is three years compared to just twelve months in the UK.

Therefore, while everyone has different personal and financial circumstances, John Bray’s sales manager Colin Darbyshire advises that those who can afford to buy now should still consider joining the property ladder as soon as possible. Even if the property is not perfect, in the long term, it will likely put you in a more favourable position when you want to upgrade to somewhere else down the road.

He added, “Hastings is and will continue to be a growth area, so it is better to invest in something now even if it’s not the dream home. Then at least you will be paying towards a mortgage, which means in a year or two, you may actually have more equity and be able to move into somewhere bigger and better.”

John Bray’s Tips for First Time Buyers

Ensure your mortgage application is completed and you have your mortgage in principle.

Speak with friends who have bought recently. This could help you better understand the process.

Save as much as you can for a deposit. This will always help with your mortgage interest rate.

Negotiate on price. Everyone else does!

Don’t forget to put aside the money for your other fees (solicitors etc).

Think about renovations and budget that will add value and improve the property.

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