How to buy a flat

From maintenance costs to leaseholds, there are some things which can make buying a flat very different to buying a house. 

If you’re currently looking at flats for sale in West Sussex, East Sussex or beyond, you should probably get your head around the specifics of how to buy a flat first. With that in mind, Cubitt & West have created this essential flat-buying guide. 

Block of modern flats

Main differences between buying a flat and a house

  1. The land: Although there are exceptions to the rule, with a house you also usually own the land that the house is on. With a flat, a landlord or company does and you’ll need to formalise an agreement – known as a lease – about what you can and can’t do with this land. 

  1. Ground and garden maintenance: Unless you own part or all of the freehold, things like repointing and gutter cleaning are managed by the freeholder (also known as the building owner or landlord) with a flat – however, you will be expected to contribute financially (more on this later). With a house, this responsibility falls to you. Bear in mind, this may not be the case if you own the freehold or part of the freehold.. If this is the case, you’ll have to take responsibility for arranging the maintenance as well as footing at least some of the bill.

  1. Extra restrictions: If you buy a flat, there may be restrictions about the kind of alterations you can make – for instance, if you live above another residence, wooden floors may be strictly verboten.  

So, what is leasehold? 

There can be some confusion around the leasehold of a flat. As you may already know, a lease is a legal agreement between you – as the owner of the flat – and the owner of the building and land that it sits on. 

New leases generally start at 99, 125 or 999 years. Most flats tend to have a lease that’s in excess of 90 years – greater still if this is a new-build. Although this seems like an awfully long time, the same lease will need to be passed over from owner to owner, so it has to be. 

Who can extend a lease? 

Most flat-owners are entitled by law to have 90 years added to their lease for a fair market price, according to the Leasehold Reform Housing and Urban Developments Act 1993

Providing that you’ve owned your flat for at least two years, you’ll be able to extend your lease if you so wish. Two years will still apply if the property in question was purchased as a buy-to-let since you don’t actually have to live there to extend its lease. 

How can you find out how much time is left on the lease? 

Your estate agent should be able to tell you how much time is left on the flat’s lease, however this will usually be based on what the seller says so always seek legal advice.  

So, what should you do if the flat that you wish to buy has a short lease? In most cases this is considered to be below 85 years. A flat with a shorter lease shouldn’t necessarily put it out of the running for you. In fact, you can request that your seller gets the ball rolling with extending the lease to coincide with your purchase. It’s best to be done and dusted by the time you complete or you’ll have to wait the specified two years to be entitled to a lease extension. 

Why extend your lease? 

A longer lease can add thousands to your property’s value and ensure a quicker sale. So, how much extra could it add to your asking price? It’ll all depend on how long your lease is to begin with. For instance, if your lease is 95 years or more, you’ll probably just cover your costs by adding value to your property. Shorter than this however and you’ll be able to break even on your costs and add a tidy sum to your home’s value for your trouble. 

When to extend a lease? 

It’s generally agreed that if you’ve 85 years left on your lease, you should begin to look into extending. 

How much to extend a lease? 

Just how much this will all cost you, will depend on the length of your current lease. If your existing lease is between 80-90 years, you can expect to pay less than £10,000 to extend it. Anything below this and your costs could edge into the tens of thousands. 

However, this being said, unless your current lease is more than 95 years, you can expect to cover your costs and add significant value to your property – so it’s worth looking into. Still have questions? Ask Cubitt & West for lease advice that’s tailored to your own situation. 

Leasehold restrictions – what to check:

  • Pets permitted? Some leaseholds prohibit keeping cats or dogs unless you have permission from the freeholder first. 

  • Renovations allowed? You’ll probably need to submit any improvements that you want to make with the freeholder first. Bear in mind that planning permission and approval from your mortgage provider and building regulatory committee may also be needed.  

  • Renting a room? If you want to rent out a room or the entire flat, you may also need to check that your lease and mortgage allows this. 

What is a property service charge?

Put simply, service charges in residential properties are a fee that’s paid either annually, monthly or quarterly. This acts as your property’s contribution towards the ongoing repair and maintenance of your building and its grounds. 

What does your service charge include? 

Although your property’s location and the facilities it provides will ultimately determine this, the property service charge should go towards: 

  • Repairs and upkeep of communal areas.

  • Conservation of shared grounds or gardens.

  • Servicing of any lifts in the building. 

  • Upkeep of communal heating and lighting systems. 

How are service charges calculated?

Service charges are based on the total costs of repair, maintenance, management and insurance of the building in any given year, equally divided by the number of flats in the building. They should be itemised in your leasehold agreement.

Although some leases will have a fixed service charge, most will fluctuate depending on the level of maintenance and repairs that are needed in any given year.

How much can I expect to pay for a service charge?  

On average, flat owners can expect to pay between £1,000 to £2,000 per year as a service charge – however this will change from building-to-building, depending on your location and facilities. 

If the property in question is a buy-to-let, it is possible to pass on this charge to your tenants. Be sure to set out in your tenancy agreement ahead of time, however. 

Recap: how does buying a flat differ from buying a house? 

Generally speaking, whether you’re looking for houses, bungalows or flats to buy in Sussex, Surrey or Hampshire, both your search and buying journey will feel very much the same. However, there are some notable exceptions: 

  • Normally, when you buy a flat, you’ll be offered it as leasehold not freehold.

  • Leasehold means that you’ll need to formalise an agreement (or a ‘lease’) with the owner of the freehold about what you can and can’t do with your property and the land it sits on.

  • If the flat’s lease is 85 years or less, you should look into extending it. 

  • You may have to pay a property service charge for your new flat, so this cost should be factored into your budget. 

  • Property service charges vary, but on average in the UK, you should expect to pay between £1,000 and £2,000 per year. 

Take a look at the latest flats for sale in Sussex or pop into your local Cubitt & West branch for more lease advice.