The UK housing crisis means that some buyers are struggling to find the sort of properties they are after. But it is still possible to find your dream home if you're prepared to take matters into your own hands.
And the grim reality is you’ll have to if you want to succeed in the current market.
Figures from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors found the average estate agent had just 43 properties on their books in April – the lowest number since records began in 1994.
Since then, things have hardly improved. The general election created more uncertainty, Brexit negotiations started with a whimper, and the Bank of England has hinted that inflation may persuade it to raise interest rates.
As a result, the number of homes being put up for sale last month fell at its fastest rate since the Brexit vote last year.
Anyone with flexibility in their house-buying plans would be forgiven for putting the whole thing off until the market improves.
How one couple beat the odds
Instead of waiting as long as it takes for the perfect home to come to the market, a dedicated and proactive buyer can manage the process themselves.
Claire and Andy Preston, from Clevedon in Somerset, knew exactly what they wanted when they moved home five years ago.
There was nothing suitable on the market at the time, so they used five techniques to track down a property and secure a beautiful home in a stunning location.
They wanted to trade up to a detached home in the same area, with more space – without taking on a budget-breaking mortgage (you can search for cheaper mortgages here).
The best way to do that, Claire realised, was to take on a project that needed work.
Unfortunately, there was nothing at all around, and she says: “After a couple of months we were getting nowhere.”
1. Work the agents
An obvious place to start, but getting to know the estate agents really can pay dividends.
By calling in regularly, and going to see the properties on their books, she was already ensuring she was near the top of the list to call when a new property hit the market.
She found the agents within each business that she was most comfortable working with and built up a rapport.
Once she knew the estate agents well enough, she didn’t just ask about the properties on their books, but also about the near misses: the properties that had either been on their books but withdrawn from sale, or the ones which they valued but never listed.
She says: “One of the agents said a lady had recently died, and he had looked around the property and valued it for the family, but it ended up not going on the market.”
Once she knew about this house, she went over to see the property from the outside, she says: “It was clearly uninhabited, and hadn’t been touched since the 1960s.
"I peered into the garden and realised the space and potential it offered were perfect.”
2. Contact homeowners direct
Once Claire realised that she had found the right home, she and Andy decided to contact the homeowner direct.
She says: “I waited a while for it to come onto the market, but when it didn’t, I decided to put a letter through the letterbox.
I introduced our family, and said we would love to live in the home, and that it was perfect for our needs. Then I posted the letter through the door and waited.”
Claire’s targeted approach vastly improved her chances of a positive result, but it’s not the only way that committed buyers tackle this challenge.
If you have narrowed down the kind of property and the area you want, there’s nothing stopping you putting a leaflet through the door of several homes.
Most people won’t be ready to sell, so the leaflet will go straight into the bin, but there could be a handful of homeowners for whom the idea of a buyer who is ready and waiting is enough to persuade them to sell.
3. Ask around
After sending her letter, Claire didn’t hear back.
More than a month passed, so she cast the net wider: she started asking around among friends and neighbours.
Because it’s a closely-knit community, Claire was able to do this in person.
“I started asking people whether they knew anyone who could potentially want to sell – possibly older relatives or neighbours who were struggling with a property,” she says.
In an area where people are less familiar with their neighbours, social media could provide a useful alternative approach.
Any area with a neighbourhood website or Facebook page is a handy forum for raising the subject.
People may not be happy to share details of their personal circumstances on a public forum, but a carefully-worded post could encourage people to get in touch for a private chat.
4. Scout the area
Claire also realised that she had been able to spot her ideal property from the road outside, so there was nothing stopping her from looking for similar places around town.
“I went driving around the roads where I ideally wanted to live, looking at the houses,” she says.
“I was looking for signs that someone was ready to downsize, or that the property was empty – so for things like untidy gardens or yellowing net curtains.”
5. Make it easy for the seller
Almost six months after posting the letter, and just as they were about to give up and approach the next homeowner, they had a reply.
The family invited them over for a chat, so Claire and Andy met the nephew of the former owner, who showed them around.
They got on well, and chatted about the house and its beautiful garden, and he suggested they make an offer.
They decided to make life easy for the seller at this point, as their knowledge of the going rate for the area had been honed by months of checking properties both on and off the market.
Claire says: “We could have made a lower offer and tried to haggle, but we wanted it to be straightforward for the seller, so they weren’t put off by a negotiation.
“We went in with a market price offer and they accepted straight away.
“If you have gone to all the trouble of bringing a property to the market, it’s worth offering a fair price, rather than scuppering your chances by lowballing them.”
They had one more tactic that they were prepared to use if this sale didn’t go through.
To make life even easier for the potential seller, they were ready to sell their own property, and rent for a few months, to put themselves in the perfect position to buy.
If someone has decided not to sell, it’s likely to be partly because they cannot face the hassle of a move – and the uncertainty that comes from the fact that the process can fall apart at any stage.
If they have a fair offer, from someone ready to move whenever it suits them, then it takes a great deal of the worry out of the sale, and can tempt them into selling.
Don’t wait for the perfect home
Being proactive may not be a common way to buy a property in this country, but there’s no reason why not.
When we want to buy anything else in life, we don’t sit around waiting for the perfect option to fall into our lap by chance, so why should we do this with one of the most important purchases we will ever make?
As Claire says: “It didn’t occur to me that it was an unusual approach. We just wanted to do everything we could to get the best home for our family.”