Thursday, 29 December 2011

Why Phil Spencer’s on a mission to help first-time buyers

Phil Spencer’s new book is a toolkit for first-time buyers. He talks to Samantha Baden about his own attempts to get on the property ladder, his children’s home-owning chances and why he’s switched to presenting a holiday show

Phil Spencer is on a mission to help first time buyers. One-half of the UK’s most famous TV property couples, Spencer this week published his second book and it’s aimed at first-time buyers - the group struggling the most to buy a home.

Spencer and on-air partner Kirstie Allsopp have spent the past ten years travelling around the UK helping people buy property. But as Spencer says, the challenges faced by first-time buyers are now having a trickle-down effect on all homeowners, who are finding it hard to move up the property ladder as those lower down struggle.
What was your experience as a first-time buyer? Did you make a good investment?I did actually. I was very clear about my motivation at the time: I knew it was a first-time buy and wasn’t going to be my forever home. It was on a busy road in Battersea and I was 29 and it wasn’t even somewhere I even particularly wanted to live. But I bought the property purely for its ability to make money. I ended up living in it for five years. 

I knew it was in an area that was changing and that was going to change during the time I lived in it. So I bought it purely to help me climb up the ladder and I was lucky enough to be able to take two  steps up the ladder when I sold it because the market changed when I was there.

You’ve got two sons aged five and seven. Do you worry about their ability to buy property?Yes, in actual fact I was very concerned about that. When they were born, I cast my mind forward and wondered if they would ever be able to buy a property and how much a home might cost them when they leave school? It could be a million quid. So I made quite serious efforts when they were born: I bought one property when Jake was born and then another one when Ben was born two years later. Those properties will never be for sale because they are Jake and Ben’s. They’re in the same street as each other in Brixton.

If I can do nothing else for my children it will be to hang onto those and as and when they leave home they can either live in them or rent them out. I’d like to help with that.

Why is you new book focused on first-time buyers?My first book was about adding value at a time when it was increasingly important to add value to a property because the market wasn’t doing anything to help you. But what is very important and crucial in the market at the moment is that first-time buyers are the sector that are struggling the most. They are massively important to the health of the market.

Why are they so important?The market can be driven in two ways – by cash arriving at the top of the market and coming down through the market or by first time buyers joining the bottom end of the ladder and helping every body else shift upwards.

Where we are today, there’s not much cash arriving at the top and there’s not many first time buyers managing to get onto the bottom. I wanted to write a book to help these people at the bottom of the market because they’re crucial to every homeowner in the country.

As you say, it’s a difficult time for first-time buyers. What would improve the situation for them?What’s limiting their ability to get on the property ladder is access to finance. The Government has come up with their FirstBuy scheme, which will help 10,000 first-time buyers. It’s a step in the right direction, but 10,000 people is really a tiny number and it’s only being offered to those who are buying new builds, although I understand the reason for that.

So what else can first-time buyers do to get help?Buy the book and be prepared for the decisions they’ll need to take! Being a first-time buyer is such a daunting experience: it’s the biggest financial decision of your life, but there is precious little help out there for you at all.

For instance, too many first-time buyers go into an estate agent with the misapprehension that they’re about to be helped and provided with a service and with advice. But that’s not true. Estate agents are there to provide a service to the people who are paying their bills - the people who are selling their property.

So would you like to see a similar situation to what happens in the US with the use of buying agents who are there to look after the interests of the buyer?I would actually. I’ve been a buying agent for 15-odd years. We have a rather biased method of buying and selling property in this country – all the help is for the seller and the person spending the money is left to fend for themselves. Buying a home is daunting and it’s never more daunting than when you’ve never done it before as a first time buyer.

Given it’s so difficult to get on the market, are we in danger of becoming a nation of renters?I don’t actually. I think owning property is so deeply ingrained in our society and culture that I can’t see a day when that will change. I understand that’s not the case on parts of the continent and I can see that if a property isn’t going to rise in value then some of that motivation for owning is diluted.

But the fact remains: An Englishman’s home is his castle. We like to own our own homes and feel that’s why we go out to work and make sacrifices. We want to own our own bit of England and do with it  what we want, be there as long as we want and not have to move out when a landlord tells us or puts the rent up.

You’ve diversified with your new television show Vacation Vacation Vacation. Is property still your first love?Yes of course, but who doesn’t love going on holiday? Kirstie and I spent the past ten years travelling around England and staying in hotels and exploring new areas and looking for deals for people. The Vacation idea came out of that, just on a bigger scale and with a focus on holidays.

Holidays are of course another big financial decision. In the same was that a house doesn’t always suit all members of a family and there are compromises and decisions that have to be made, the same is true of a holiday when one family member wants to do lots of activity and one wants to lie still.

So with all this travelling to exotic destinations, were you tempted to buy property overseas?Property is such a big investment and it’s difficult in any market to invest wisely. So I believe you should invest only in a market that you know and understand. I know a fair bit about the Australian property market and I have looked at property in Ibiza because I’ve been there a lot, but to answer your question no I wasn’t.

I think some people fall foul of that when they are choosing a home, an investment or a holiday home. There are different motivations and you chose different properties for each option and these competing motivations in an unfamiliar market can muddy the water.

What’s your top piece of advice for first-time buyers?Try to choose a property that will suit you for the longest possible period of time. First-time buyers tend to be at a stage in life when things can change quite quickly – where you work, where you live and who you live with. So buy a home that is flexible enough to suit as many of those options as possible.

Also, try to chose a property that you can add value to during the time that you live there. And I say that because the market isn’t necessarily going to help you move in the future, certainly not in the same way as we’ve seen in the past ten years, so it’s now harder to generate equity to help you move and come up with a deposit for your next home. Chances are you’ll have to come up with that yourself.

But what about the push for first-time buyers to buy new build homes? It’s much harder to add value to a new build.
Yes, it is much harder, nigh on impossible, to add value to a new build unless the area changes. However it can be easier to raise the money because there are more schemes out there to help you do that to buy a new build. On the other hand, an older property can be harder to buy because it might be in a chain and cost more money, but you do get the opportunity to add value to it. It's a tricky one.

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