Before I get to the process of our purchase, let me put in context why we wanted to buy in London at all. Although we are hoping to move there in 12 months or so, that was only one factor in the decision. Instead, we focused on London because it was actually cheaper than Perth.
Let me explain.
If we go back 4 years from the time of our purchase, to April 2008, we were just moving in to the Global Financial Crisis. The 'credit crunch' contributing to it started in mid-2007, but the worst of the stock market plunges happened in September 2008. Australia weathered the aftermath of this fairly well by world standards, but Europe, as we know, did not. The UK entered a recession in mid-2008 and has pretty much stayed there since.
In the London area where we bought, the average price for a flat in April 2008, based on UK land registry data, was £237,715. In April 2012 it was £227,327, a 4% decrease.
In Perth in 2008, the median price for a flat was $470,000. In 2012 the median was $472,500, a modest increase of 0.5%.
(For those of you noticing my switch from mean to median, I am drawing on data available and the UK reports means while Australia reports medians. Statistically speaking, it shouldn't matter greatly for this example.)
Changes in property prices are only a small part of the picture. In April 2008, one Australian dollar bought 46 British pence (or conversely, £1 bought AUD $2.17). In April 2012, one Australian dollar bought 65 British pence (£1 bought AUD $1.55).
|Exchange rates for the Australian Dollar to the British Pound, from April 2008 to April 2012. |
Higher points on the graph equate to better exchange rates for the Australian dollar
When we apply the above to convert average London property prices into Australian dollars, we move from an average cost of $515,841 for a London flat in April 2008, to an average cost of $352,357 for a London flat in April 2012. Now we have a 32% decrease! What is more, the cost of purchasing in London (in the borough we bought in at least) is now less than the average price of a flat ($472,500) in Perth.
That is the background. What about the logistics? In an attempt to summarise our experiences, here are 10 points I would describe as key if you are looking to purchase property overseas. Of course, I am not a financial expert or a property expert and these are based purely on our one-off experience. I would encourage you to read widely, get advice from as many people as you can, and factor in your own personal circumstances when interpreting our experiences. Any decisions you make must be made according to your own needs and circumstances, and this is not intended to be taken as one size fits all advice.
|Tenuously relevant London photo #1 (Canary Wharf)|
These are not in order of importance, simply in the order I have recalled them.
1. Get a bank account in the country you plan to buy in.
This will simplify things when the time comes to actually purchase your property, and will also save on international transaction fees in the longer term. If you are going to move to the country you're buying in, establishing a bank account early will be beneficial even aside from the property purchasing. If you aren't moving to the country you're buying in, presumably you will be renting the property out, in which case you need an account for your rental income to go in to.
We started off looking at English bank accounts that were marketed towards overseas / non-British residents. This tended to equate to an account held in the Channel Islands (exempt from British tax). These accounts had a number of limitations as well as opening and ongoing fees and costs. Opening a regular account with one of the English banks isn't easy to do if you're based outside of the country without an English address.
Our solution came from HSBC, which has offices in 84 countries, including Britain (where the headquarters are) and Australia. Fortunately for us, we already had a joint bank account with Australian HSBC. This meant that opening a British HSBC account was straightforward: an application form (although we did have to call to find out which one), a visit to an Australian branch, and a one-off fee to process our application and open the account. We had to take an hour out of work to get to a branch together during working hours, but that was about as difficult as it got. I can't speak to the process in other countries, but the international nature of HSBC facilitated things for us.
2. Decide on a budget and whether you need finance.
This will be a personal step, and will obviously depend on your own circumstances and situation. I can say that the big banks in Australia don't make it easy to borrow money to purchase overseas, and British banks are (understandably) reluctant to give a mortgage to someone not living in the country. We managed to move some things around with our Australian finances to avoid getting a mortgage for the London purchase, and, as such, kept our budget under a tight rein. If you do want to borrow money, smaller credit societies and building unions are reportedly easier to deal with for loans for overseas purchases.
3. Decide what you are buying for.
To rent? To live in? To rent and later live in? To sell in the short term, or to keep for the long term?
This sounds like an easy step, but it was a hold up for us for some time. Originally, we were looking to find somewhere we could rent for 2 years or so and then live in when we moved to London. The problem with this is that the things that are desirable in a rental property (no work needed on the property, minimal maintenance, well furnished, excellent transport links) may or may not be the same as the things that are desirable in a property you plan to buy and live in over the longer term (where you may be prepared to put some DIY effort in to painting, or converting certain features).
One of the barriers for us was the belief that we needed 2 bedrooms if we were to live somewhere ourselves. With our budget, getting 2 bedrooms was a challenge, and there was a definite trade off in quality when moving from 1 bedroom options to 2 bedroom options. In the end, we decided to focus on something that would rent easily, and we bought 1 bedroom with that in mind. Having seen the place last September, we now think we could probably fit in it despite the single bedroom, which also shows that what you think you need may not match what you do need!
4. Research property in the city you are buying, and try to narrow down possible areas.
This is a big step. We spent a lot of time on it in the lead up to "seriously" looking at property. Over that time, we changed our mind about where to buy on multiple occasions. Amusingly, where we ended up buying (south-east London) is where we started looking, but we were then put off by various things and moved to just about every other corner of London before returning to the south-east.
There is no foolproof way to go through this process, but some starting points are searching online for articles or opinion pieces on 'up and coming' areas; looking at rental yields and crime rates by area (available on property websites, some of which I link to at the end); and looking at current and planned transport links by area. In London, easy access to the centre is obviously important, and looking beyond tube lines to the overland and light rail systems opens things up beyond the established, tube-serviced regions.
|Tenuously relevant London photo #2 (St Pancras train station)|
5. If you're buying to rent, think in terms of rental yield.
This is the proportion of rent you receive each year relative to the purchase price of the property. If you buy somewhere for $100,000 and you rent it for $1000 per month, you would receive $12,000 rent per year and your rental yield would be a very impressive 12%.
What you can expect to receive in rental yield varies by area and economy. We found it helpful to think of the rental yield in comparison to what you could get in a high interest bank account. If you can get 4% interest on savings, a rental yield above that is great. Comparing across properties and areas also helps, and highlights that more expensive properties aren't necessarily better when it comes to rental returns. One bedroom places usually give a higher percentage return than two bedroom places, for example.
6. Learn about leasehold and freehold.
When I discovered this quirk of the British property system I was somewhat astonished. Freehold is what you would associate with owning a property in Australia: you own it, end of story. This usually applies to houses in Britain. In contrast, leasehold means that you own a property for as long as it is specified in the lease. At the end of the lease, the property would revert to being the property of the freeholder, unless a lease extension had been arranged. You would think this would make things cheaper, but leasehold and freehold properties are generally about the same to buy, if the lease is long. By 'long', I mean anything from 100 to 999 years. Anything shorter than 90 years or so can make it difficult to get a mortgage on the property and thus tends to be associated with a sharp drop in price.
Leaseholds are the norm for flats, units, townhouses and any other properties with some sort of shared land or infrastructure. In somewhere like London, most properties are leasehold. The freeholder only receives a token rent each year (generally <$100), and arranging lease extensions is relatively easy and not too costly if you organise it well in advance of the lease running low (so, say, at 80 or 90 years plus). Buying the freehold, or a share of the freehold, is also possible if you have held the lease for several years or longer. We bought leasehold but hope to buy the freehold in the future.
7. Know your tax implications.
If you buy a property and rent it out, you pay tax on the income if your other earnings place you above the tax-free-threshold. For Australians buying in Britain, you can consult this PDF guide. For anyone anywhere, I'd recommend speaking to an accountant about if and how a property purchase would impact your tax. They could also advise on what costs could be offset against rental income.
You don't need to pay tax to two countries, so if you live in Australia you would pay any tax on rental income to the Australian government, not the British government. However, this requires you to register for tax exemption in the UK. Details are in the PDF guide I link to above.
8. Start transferring money into your overseas bank account early.
Most banks don't allow you to transfer very large amounts of money in one go. Thus, it is unlikely that you will be able to move the finances for a property purchase in one transaction. We moved money from our Australian HSBC account to our UK HSBC account over a number of days.
For this step, you will also need to decide how to transfer the money. If you transfer through your bank, you will pay for the privilege of an international exchange. This can significantly reduce how much money you end up with after the transfer. We used Ozforex, which gives rates that are very close to the listed exchange rate if you are transferring large sums. You need to register to use the site, but it is free and offers a number of exchange possibilities (including scheduling transfers to happen when the exchange rate hits a certain point).
You may also want to consider the timing of your money transfer, in terms of how the exchange rate is tracking. However, this becomes a bit speculative because it is difficult to accurately predict the exchange rate. We were fortunate in transferring when it was beneficial to us, but when the situation is less clear cut external financial advice may be worthwhile.
We decided to go with a property buying firm, The Buying Agents, to help us with this step. We would recommend this approach without hesitation, even if you have family or friends in the area you are buying. If you do rely on family or friends, they will need to be sufficiently flexible to look at properties at short notice, and you will need to be prepared to take their advice on the property's quality and appearance.
Property buying companies usually offer a range of services, from doing everything (searching for possible properties for you to consider; looking at properties you're interested in on your behalf; arranging building surveys; liaising with the estate agent; and liaising with your solicitor [see next step] if you move to purchasing), to simply managing the sale of a property you have already identified as the one you want. We pretty much went for the 'everything' option. Although we were able to find properties online that we liked the look of, evaluating them in person was out of the question for us. Having someone who could see the properties from a neutral and experienced position, and give us detailed feedback on pros/cons, was invaluable.
10. Find a solicitor, and make an offer.
There seems to be more legal and administrative work involved in the buying and selling of property in Britain than there is in Australia. A solicitor or licensed conveyancer is the norm for creating a contract for the sale; exchanging the contract with the other party and providing the deposit on your behalf; managing any requirements of the sale (such as things the seller has said they'll do before you buy) and checking that everything is in good standing with the property's registration and titles; and then processing title deeds and organizing stamp duty payment on the purchase.
If you make an offer and the seller accepts it, there is no binding agreement to your offer and purchase until contracts have been exchanged. This is different to in Australia, where acceptance of an offer usually means that the house is yours unless something interferes with your ability to pay what you have offered, or if the offer is made contingent on something that doesn't eventuate. In England (but not Scotland), someone could offer a higher amount on the property a week later and the seller is free to take that offer instead of yours. This 'gazumping' option means that it is sensible to have a solicitor lined up, so that if you make an offer and have it accepted, the legal side of the purchase can commence straight away.
|Tenuously relevant London photo #3 (City, near the Inns of Court)|
Some other useful links for British purchases:
Crime rates UK - compares crime rates across two areas.
Home.co.uk - information on buying, selling, renting and financing properties in Britain.
London property watch - provides average rental yields and other information by London area.
Rightmove - property for sale and rent, recent and historical house prices.
Zoopla - property for sale and rent, recent and historical house prices, and property news.
Note: Ozforex kindly commented on this post (see below) and offered to give readers two fee-free international transfers if they reference this post. To receive this, quote “bitesizedthoughts” when registering on the site to claim your first Fee Free International Transfer.
I have turned comments off on this post because it received a high volume of spam.
Do you have any experience in this area? Anything you would add to the above?