Taking the mystery out of first-time home buying
like the one or two-bedroom London flat they thought they’d end up buying.
As McLeod, 34, explains, the rather repetitive exercise actually helped to educate them about what they wanted – and didn’t want – in their first home. “Before I was in sales, I was an actor, so had always done mystery shopping as an extra income stream,” he says. “Mystery shopping involves playing a role, so it comes naturally.”
The couple were employed by Pulse Mystery Shopping to pretend to be first-time buyers at the marketing suites of new-build developments, for £75 per trip. “Sometimes we posed as Help to Buy customers [the scheme that offers buyers a government equity loan to help with their deposit on a new home], other times buyers with a deposit from ‘the Bank of Mum and Dad’, and each time we wore a hidden camera,” says McLeod. “To make it useful for us, we asked to be sent to developments an hour from London, but we genuinely didn’t know where we wanted to end up living. Researching the location was one of the key things we learnt.”
The couple inevitably saw multiple schemes by major housebuilders, including Barratt, David Wilson Homes and Redrow, but soon realised that many properties at the lower end of the market were very similar to one another. “You receive the same sales patter at many of the marketing suites. Although on one occasion a salesperson did actually say ‘my boss would kill me for saying this but I wouldn’t actually buy here myself…’ We often walked into a scheme and thought we’d seen it before, when we hadn’t, it was just the same thing in a different place. So consider the location first, then find a developer you like,” he says.
Tyler, 32, who works for a tech company, agrees. “A lot of what we saw was quite boxy, and I would have liked to see much more open-plan living layouts,” she says. “Also, developers could really treat buyers as individuals, trying to find out what they want, rather than just sell them a property.”
Another thing they learnt was to look for the extras or “add-ons”. “The headline price might look attractive, but ask what is included and what is not. Often we would see an incrediblelooking show home but realised that it had a number of upgrades that would cost extra – maybe £50,000 on top of the £300,000 sales price. White goods are often not included,” says McLeod.
Having seen an awful lot of homes – and saved around £6,000 towards their wedding – they knew what they wanted.
They opted for the Berkeley Homes scheme at Holborough Lakes, south-west of Chatham. “I had lived in New Zealand for five years, and at the back of my mind had always dreamt of living by a lake,” says Tyler. “With mystery shopping, you always pretend you like something, but that time I wasn’t acting. The natural setting made it really stand out from other schemes.”
The brand-new neighbourhood set around an eight-acre freshwater lake comes with walking trails, nursery, primary school, village hall and private residents’ gym. Prices start at £375,000 for a three-bedroom house. It’s accessible to London from nearby Snodland, getting to Stratford in 38 minutes and St Pancras in 45 minutes.
The couple sorted out their finances – Tom’s mum downsized her home to free up some cash for their deposit – and reserved a four-bedroom house with a balcony and a large garden for £570,000, which they bought using the Help to Buy scheme.
“It was a bit of a leap of faith, buying a home off-plan, but we had the confidence after getting to know the developer,” says McLeod.
All of this mystery shopping made the couple savvy about how to approach developers and get the best deal. “Don’t be afraid to negotiate on the price of a new-build, whether it is asking for £10,000 off the price, the stamp duty to be paid, or on the Help to Buy ticket,” says McLeod.
“Some properties are advertised for between £650,000 and £690,000, but might be brought down to £600,000 so buyers can take advantage of the scheme. Don’t be afraid to say that you can only afford to buy a property if it’s under £600,000.”
The couple have now enjoyed their first full summer of entertaining and barbecues with family and friends at their new home. Tyler relishes the easier commute and the lakefront community: “I love living here as I feel like I am on holiday every day of the week,” she says. And the added extra: there are no more trips around building sites at weekends.
Berkeley’s Holborough Lakes, where prices start at £375,000