housing in the Boston area

My latest ‘project’ is… buying a house. (Sorry, not much geekery involved here.)

My wife and I have been looking at houses for a few months, so it’s been interesting to compare the typical features of houses here with those where I grew up.

  • Where I come from, normal houses are invariably built of brick (or more precisely, a blockwork inner layer with brick shell, with the air gap in between providing some insulation and protection from damp). Houses here are usually a timber framework with a skin of weather boarding like vinyl siding or wooden shingles, and insulation in between the inner and outer layers. British people tend to arrive here with the view that wooden houses are flimsy and liable to fall down if there’s a strong wind, but I have now learned otherwise.
  • Houses here have basements, which usually house the furnace, water heater and similar, and often the washing machine and dryer. The rest of the space may be used for storage, but we’ve seen lots of houses where part of the basement was turned into extra rooms, like a home office or ‘snug’. Houses I knew in England don’t very often have basements, so the heating system and laundry have to go elsewhere.

The process of buying a house also has some differences here. For a start, we did a lot of looking at houses by going to ‘open houses’, which are usually on weekend afternoons, and have a selling agent at the house letting anyone turn up and wander around. It could be an entertaining way to pass an afternoon if you are a certain sort of person. Some houses had listings saying they wouldn’t do any other viewings until after the first open house. Later we learned that some of the nicer houses would go under offer without ever having an open house (and before we saw the listings come up, in a couple of cases). We did find the house we are buying through an open house though.

Having decided to make an offer we realized we didn’t know how to do it, so found a buyer’s agent to help us. Buyer agents haven’t really caught on in England (apart from ‘Kirsty and Phil’!). Maybe the law doesn’t support them in the same way: I don’t really know. They seem to be quite popular here. We don’t have to pay ours directly, instead she gets a split of the commission that would otherwise all go to the listing agent.

The buying process is a lot more upfront here. Buyers are expected to have ‘pre-approval’ for some mortgage amount before they put in an offer, if they want to be taken seriously – so we did that a while back and can be fairly confident about getting the amount we want. Then even the offer is a written contract with conditions, so there is no ‘gazumping’[1].

These would have stopped what happened to me when I was selling my flat in Enfield, where I had an offer from someone who then spent a couple of months trying and failing to get a mortgage. Here they would 1. probably not have made an offer without pre-approval and 2. the written offer would include fixed dates by which certain things would have to happen or it would become invalid.

We have reached the stage where we have a executed ‘Purchase and Sale Agreement’, which kind of says we’ve all agreed to sell/buy the house but the mortgage and final legal transfer of title is still to be done. Wish me luck.

1 Gazumping is where a seller has accepted an offer, and the buyer is proceeding with inspections, legal work etc. but another buyer makes a higher offer and the seller takes that instead. This is possible in England because offer acceptance is verbal: there is no binding contract until closing. I suspect it is not happening so much now the market has slowed down.


  1. Guy
    Posted May 13, 2008 at 2:33 am | Permalink

    You’re right – falling house prices has made gazumping go away. We now have ‘gazundering’, where the buyer makes an offer then at the last minute before completion demands more money off or they’ll pull out. People tend to agree because of the cost and hassle of restarting the whole selling process.

  2. Aaron
    Posted May 14, 2008 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    I wish England followed the Scottish/American system. I found buying my first apartment stressful enough, without the extra hassle of selling my old place too!

    I’m still suspicious of wooden houses though. :)

  3. Edward
    Posted May 14, 2008 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    As I recall (from watching Kirsty and Phil), the Scottish system also seems to result in people losing out because they have to pay for inspections/surveys before they put in a bid. Other than that it is binding sooner than the English system though.

    The wooden house we live in at the moment (rented) was apparently built in 1812, and it seems pretty solid, even if the floors aren’t quite flat.

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