Buying a house is an emotional experience. And I’m not just talking about the eye-watering cost of stamp duty. No, I’m talking about the first conversation you have with your partner about making the leap onto the ladder, the weeks and months of frantic saving, the difficult financial conversations with family, the homes you fall in love with and then lose, the hours of negotiating on your non-negotiables, the packing up of childhood belongings, the decisions on what goes in which place, the first celebratory glass of champagne.
Then, you have The Process that sits alongside this…applying for a mortgage, getting surveys done, getting more surveys done, getting ripped off, negotiations through solicitors, exchanging, completing, moving.
Having recently heaved my way onto the property ladder in London, and waved goodbye to my fair share of dodgy landlords I’m calling for a serious overhaul of the whole property experience. There are so many opportunities to tap into the emotional experience everyone goes through when buying a property yet so little seems to be being done. Whether renting, buying or selling, the property market is an industry crying out for some ‘experience design’ thinking and there are huge opportunities to get this important, and emotional, experience right.
Understand what actually matters
When you’re embarking on looking for a new home – whether buying or renting – you will always start with requirements. How many bedrooms? How close to the station? Is there off-street parking? Back in January of this year we had carefully planned out our list of ‘requirements’ and ‘non-negotiables’ and dutifully handed these over to several estate agents. Then, in a single Saturday we looked around 16 different places and kicked off the house-hunting process. What we found immediately though, was that you could write all the requirements in the world, but it’s how you feel in a place that is most important. How do you decide where to call home? And how can we redesign this experience to make it more about the person than the property?
In experience design we talk about designing around the user, gathering user wants and needs, mapping the journey, building empathy…yet in one of the most emotional experiences of all – buying a house – we seem to have gone right back to what is, essentially, gathering functional and non-functional requirements.
It’s easy to compare properties based on requirements, that’s why estate agents do it. But, I’m sure there would be benefit in using some design thinking techniques to really understand the buyer first. Instead of ‘how many bedrooms do you want’, ask buyers to tell you about their lifestyle, do you work from home (or would you like to), do you like to entertain, what are your plans for the future, what kind of place do you imagine yourselves in.
I’m not saying this is foolproof, and it needs proper thought, but using a more exploratory way to finding out what people really want from their next home may save both the agents and the buyers time and money.
Create a single source of the truth
Who ‘own’s the experience? The buyer? The seller? The mortgage provider, broker, estate agent(s), solicitor… The list goes on. There are a lot of moving parts in buying a house and – for good reason – a lot of different people you need to interact with. But, there is no one single source of ‘the truth’. Technically, your solicitor should be the main point of contact for negotiations, but during our process we found we were often the go-between for updating the estate agent on our progress who would in turn update us from the sellers end. If you’ve got your mortgage through a broker then the financial side of things is a little smoother as they tend to handle all the back-and-forth with the bank. But we found time and again we were passed around and unable who would be able to answer our questions, or even whether they were the right questions to be asking!
We were going through a rollercoaster of emotions. We had a lot of questions which, to people experienced in this would seem trivial, but were really important to us: when do we pay our first mortgage payment? how much will it be? who are the other freeholders? how do we work out the communal costs? what are the measurements of the rooms and doorways so we can order furniture? what colour were the carpets again?
We were in desperate need of a single person who we could trust to help us through every part of the experience. Our own personal Kirsty and Phil there for every step of the way, not just The Process. Or, in this digital age, imagine a way to to track your whole house buying journey that you, as the buyer, have full control over. The vendor and buyer’s solicitors, estate agents, surveyors etc. would each be able to log on and give updates at their step in the journey and it’s the one single place for managing everyone’s expectations throughout. Again, this needs more thought but given that in most other transactions my generation is used to doing things digitally, and expects this, a single platform for the process seems a sensible place to start.
At the end of the day, it’s about people, not property
I could write on for longer about the poor experiences I’ve had through renting and getting onto the property ladder. But, the whole journey taught me that in an industry with so much process, regulation and bureaucracy, it’s really the people that matter at the end of the day.
When we were close to exchange the sellers were pushing us to move faster, yet we held out for a change in the deeds to be made. Little did we know they actually weren’t trying their luck, but the day we actually exchanged the wife went into labour. Their story, like ours was driven by emotion, not numbers, or systems or processes.
If we looked at this industry, this experience, as a whole, I think we would set it up in a completely different way. If we started with the people, understood and empathised with their issues and challenges, then designed a solution that worked for them – not one they had to fight against – then I think moving house would move down the list of ‘most stressful things ever’, and that would be better for everyone.