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First time buyer mortgages: everything you need to know

Updated 28 January 2021

8min read

Nick Green
Financial Journalist

Mortgage for first time buyer

If you’re hoping to buy your first house or flat, the most daunting part of the process for you may be finding your first mortgage. There’s lots of new information to take on board, but here we break it down to make it easy to understand.

Once you’ve saved up your deposit (or found a mortgage guarantor), here’s how you go from house-hunting to an agreement in principle, passing your lender’s stress test and securing your first mortgage deal.

Who qualifies as a first time buyer?         

Being a first-time buyer isn’t all bad. Though there are many challenges, first-time buyers also benefit from certain schemes and allowances to make the home-buying process easier and more affordable. This means it’s important to define legally what a ‘first time buyer’ actually is.

In the UK, a first-time buyer is considered to be someone who has never owned any residential property anywhere in the world. This means you must not have owned your own home (with or without a mortgage) and you must not have owned any buy-to-let property either. This includes any inherited property (so even if you have never actually bought residential property before, inheriting it means you’re no longer a first-time buyer!).

The good news is that commercial property (e.g. shops or offices) does not count. Therefore, if you have owned a shop, workshop, warehouse, office etc. before, you still qualify as a first-time buyer for the purposes of buying a home.

Remember too that you’re only a first-time buyer if you’re buying the home to live in yourself. If you’re buying rental property to let out, then you don’t qualify for any of the first-time buyer perks.

One more thing: if you’re buying with someone else and your partner already owns residential property or has done in the past, you may not qualify for some of the advantages of being a first-time buyer. However, some will still be open to you (such as the government bonus on a Lifetime ISA).

How do first time buyer mortgages work?

Getting a mortgage when buying your first property is a slightly different process compared to when you’re selling one home to buy another. For this first mortgage, you’ll need to put down a deposit – a cash lump sum to cover part of the cost of the property.

This is because you can’t (usually) borrow all the money you need to buy a home. Some of that money must come from you, and this is your deposit. The bigger the lump sum you can raise (proportional to the property’s total price), the more likely you are to be offered a mortgage, and the more generous the terms of this mortgage may be.

Example of a first-time buyer’s mortgage

Patrick and Helen want to buy their first home together. They have saved up a total of £20,000 between them and make a successfully offer on a house for £200,000. Their deposit is 10% of the total value of the home, so they need to cover the remaining 90% with a loan (i.e. a mortgage). Assuming they can find an available 90% mortgage, they will need the loan to be £180,000.

Will they be able to borrow this much? This depends on their incomes. Lenders may lend up to 4 and a half times someone’s annual income, so Patrick and Helen would need to earn at least a combined £40,000 to borrow this much. However, depending on their other outgoings and essential expenditure, they may need to earn more than this to pass the lender’s affordability test.

To find out how much you might borrow based on your income, see the Unbiased Mortgage Calculator.

Where can I get my first mortgage?

Although you can of course apply to lenders direct, the best way to find the right mortgage deal for you is to use an independent mortgage broker. There are many reasons why this is a good idea, which we explain below.

What does a mortgage broker do?

Your mortgage broker is an independent go-between who scours the whole of the mortgage market to find the most suitable loan for you, and maximise your chances of a successful application.

First and foremost, a mortgage broker can save you money by identifying the best deal with the lowest interest rates and/or lowest fees, or lowest exit penalties, or whatever other criteria make it most suitable and affordable for you.

Secondly, your broker can make this choice based on all the deals available on the market, and will have access to some special ‘broker only’ deals that you won’t find direct from any provider or on any price comparison sites. Thirdly, being independent, your broker isn’t tied to any particular providers, so can give you unbiased advice on the best deal for you, with no conflicts of interest.

Fourthly, your broker will guide you through the whole process to ensure that your application is as strong and complete as you can make it, to improve your chances of being accepted first time. Finally, as a first-time buyer you can benefit enormously from having an expert on hand who can answer any questions you have about the mortgage or the process in general. Many mortgage broker clients have mentioned this as the service they valued most – having someone to reassure and inform them throughout this major life decision.

What should I know about mortgages as a first time buyer?

Mortgages come in a bewildering variety of shapes and sizes. Here are some of the key features of mortgages that it’s good to familiarise yourself with.

Mortgage interest

A mortgage is a loan, so you’ll be charged interest each month. The higher the rate, the more you’ll repay monthly, and in total. That may seem obvious, but it’s a crucial point when it comes to making certain decisions and comparing different deals.

The mortgage term

This is how long you’ll have the loan. Most mortgage terms are 20 to 25 years, but they can be up to 40 years. Your loan must be repaid in full by the end of the term.

Repayment or interest only

With a repayment mortgage, you pay off some of the loan each month, along with the interest. With an interest-only mortgage, you only pay the interest – so the amount you owe does not change. This is a crucial point, because you must still pay off the full loan by the end of the mortgage term. If you don’t have a lump sum available to do this, you will probably have to sell the property to pay off the loan.

Interest-only mortgages are usually taken out by landlords buying property to let, since they can sell the property at the end of the mortgage term to pay off the loan. Taking out an interest-only mortgage as a homebuyer is not recommended, unless you are very confident of being able to pay it off in the future (e.g. with an inheritance), or plan to remortgage soon to a repayment mortgage.

The mortgage deal

Your mortgage deal is one of the most important factors. This determines how much interest you pay on the loan, and whether or not this rate can fluctuate (and if so, by how much).

The most popular type of deal is a fixed rate mortgage. This means you’ll pay an unchanging rate of interests for a set period of time. Other kinds of deal include tracker mortgages (where the rate changes in relation to the Bank of England base rate) and there are various others (find out about all the types of mortgage).

A mortgage deal, such as a fixed rate, lasts for a limited period such as two, three or five years (occasionally more). After this, your mortgage will revert to the lender’s Standard Variable Rate (SVR) of interest, which is usually higher and can change without warning. However, you can usually remortgage onto a new deal to get another fixed or tracker rate.

Mortgage fees

Often you’ll have to pay certain fees when setting up a mortgage, ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand pounds. There can also be fees for leaving your mortgage (i.e. remortgaging or paying it off) before a certain time has elapsed. Many deals have a tie-in period, which is often longer than the deal period itself. This might require you to spend at least a year on the lender’s standard variable rate (SVR) unless you are willing to pay the charge. Find out more about early repayment charges.

How much deposit do I need as a first time buyer?

Most lenders will insist you have at least a 10% deposit. Historically smaller deposits have been accepted, but when there is more uncertainty in the economy, a 10% deposit (with a 90% mortgage) is generally the minimum requirement.

Generally, the bigger your deposit, the better deals you can get. With a larger deposit you will be offered lower interest rates and perhaps also longer-lasting deals.

Let’s look again at the example of Patrick and Helen given above. They might struggle to find a 90% mortgage with affordable interest rates. However, if they manage to find an extra £10,000 then they would have a 15% deposit and would only need an 85% mortgage. This would mean they would need to borrow less (£170,000) which would be more affordable, and might also get lower interest rates on their mortgage deal.

New mortgage deals are usually available at every 5% threshold – i.e. a 15% deposit will get you better deals than a 10% one, but a 14% deposit won’t. Find out more about how loan-to-value ratio affects your mortgage.

Will I be accepted for a mortgage as a first time buyer?

Assuming you have saved at least a 10% deposit and want to borrow no more than 4.5 times your income, there are a few more tests you need to pass in order to secure your mortgage offer.

The first is a credit check – you’ll need a good track record of borrowing and repaying money on time.

The second is the affordability test. Your lender wants to make sure you can afford your mortgage repayments not just on paper, but in practice. So they will look at all your spending patterns (on both essentials and luxuries) to see if you have enough money left over to pay your monthly repayments.

For this reason, in the weeks and months before your application, it’s a good idea to get your spending under rigorous control so you can demonstrate a comfortable surplus of income each month. Remember that any rent you’re currently paying won’t count, because of course, if all goes to plan you won’t have to pay rent anymore!

When should I apply for a mortgage as a first time buyer?

You can apply for your mortgage at any time in the homebuying process, even before you start viewing properties, or after you've found a home you really like. Some mortgage brokers may prefer to help you later on in the process, while others are happy to consult with you before the viewing stage, so specify this when you search for them on Unbiased. You can also work out roughly how much you can borrow using our mortgage calculator, but you'll still need a broker to give you a definitive answer and find the best deal.

Which help to buy schemes are there for first time buyers?

Various schemes are available to help first-time buyers onto the property ladder.

These include:

You can also get homebuying help from parents in various forms, such as guarantor mortgages.

Will I pay stamp duty as a first time buyer?

One of the more recent perks of being a first-time buyer is that you will be exempt from paying stamp duty on all but the most expensive properties (you’ll start to pay it only when the property price exceeds £300,000). This can save you several thousand pounds. Find out more about stamp duty.

Find out more about how to succeed as a first-time buyer.

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About the author
Nick Green is a financial journalist writing for Unbiased.co.uk, the site that has helped over 10 million people find financial, business and legal advice. Nick has been writing professionally on money and business topics for over 15 years, and has previously written for leading accountancy firms PKF and BDO.