PHIL Spencer, property expert and investor, reveals the warning signs to walk away from if you’re buying a new house. It’s all about “information, information, information” says the property guru. Luke Rix-Standing finds out more.

FOR almost two decades, Phil Spencer has headed up Channel 4’s Location, Location, Location alongside Kirstie Allsopp, and has now set up Move IQ, a website that uses complex algorithms to produce 45-page status reports on properties.

He took some time away from the cameras to comb through the “red flags” that should make buyers dig a little deeper - if not send them running for the door.

- Cautionary tales

There are many traps traps you can fall into when assessing a property, said Phil. “I know of one sale where the buyer didn’t do their research and bought a house without realising the neighbours were running a business with 24-hour deliveries.”

That’s just the tip of the iceberg, and Phil is full of anecdotes about property purchases that went horribly wrong. “I’ve worked on several cases of buying a house from a divorcing couple, when you find out later that the person still in the house doesn’t want to sell. That makes for an extremely complicated negotiation.

“There are lots of examples of people buying houses and then finding out the right permissions weren’t in place for building work done by the previous owner. If a house has probate, that can be complicated. Honestly, it’s a minefield.”

The last thing you want at the sharp end of a property deal is a sudden, nasty surprise. So, how can you ensure you don’t end up as another anecdote on Phil’s list?

- Knowledge is power

Unfortunately, the most worrying warning signs are the ones you can’t see. “Your priority is misinformation,” said Phil. “You need all your info to be as accurate as possible, and it will come primarily from the estate agent and the vendor. Ask direct questions, ask them again, and then ask the same questions of different people.

“The key thing is to ascertain why the house is being sold. People often try to muddy the waters and it’s up to you to get to the bottom of it. Have they outgrown the house, are there financial reasons, or is there an argument with a neighbour?

“There are plenty of valid reasons for selling, but it’s going to come down to negotiation, and you want to know how motivated the vendor is to do the deal. Will they want to conclude quickly, and how willing might they be to agree to a price reduction?”

Once you’ve done that, you can focus on the house itself. “You need to understand the marketing history. Is there any interest, has anybody made an offer, and has anybody had a survey done?”

If it has been on the market for six months under a different agent, undergone repeated surveys and fallen through three times, then that’s need-to-know information.

Next, is the price reasonable? “The internet has made making comparisons easier than ever, but you need to be sure you’re looking at fairly recent sales. Pounds per square foot is a useful rough guide; work it out for the property you’re interested in, and compare with others in the area.

“Remember, this is just a rule of thumb, and takes no account of condition, views, garden, etc.”

- Buyers and sellers

There’s a certain amount of trust between buyers and vendors at the heart of every sale.

“If you ask a direct question, you need to be confident you’re getting an honest, if probably gilded, answer,” said Phil.

Unmotivated sellers can spell trouble - last-minute mind-changing can be infuriating and costly - and be wary of overly-canny sellers bending over backwards to show their house at its best.

“If the table is laid for dinner, there’s fresh bread baking, and the smell of percolating coffee,” said Phil, “keep your wits about you!

“I’ve also seen examples of sellers stowing things in storage to make their house look roomy enough for children and two adults. There is, if you move half your stuff out.”

- Bricks and mortar

For many, a house viewing involves scouring every nook and cranny for dry rot and missing roof tiles.

But for Phil such practical pitfalls are a secondary concern.

“I wouldn’t get overly het up about it; the surveyor will come in and give the house the once over.

“If it’s of interest, by all means go over the house with a fine tooth comb - you can easily see for yourself if the windows are rotting, there are cracks in the walls or the bath leaks.

"Just remember, there’s nothing wrong with any of these - so long as it’s reflected in the price.”

Much more important are pre-existing works and renovations, and the paperwork surrounding them.

“If you do end up negotiating, you want to be able to warn your surveyor and solicitor about any extensions because you’ll need the forms and permissions that support that work.”