First Click: Why can’t I buy a home on Airbnb?

August 9th, 2016


Buying a house is a headache. I recently had the misfortune of having to participate in a six-month stress test to purchase a house in Britain, and it’s a tiring and anxiety-inducing process. We have ancient English laws that date back to 1677 that allow someone selling a house to accept an offer on a property and then immediately accept a higher bid from someone else. We call it gazumping, and it makes the entire process uncertain and worrisome. It usually takes weeks or months to exchange contracts on a house, and there are no protections for the buyer as the whole transaction can fall through until contracts are fully signed. It made me immediately wish I could buy a house online, with the convenience of a single click.

Accepting a lifetime of debt isn't something you'd necessarily want to just click and forget about like an Amazon order, but the entire process of buying a property is in desperate need of an overhaul. In England, for example, we need the ability to place an offer on a property that's legally binding, subject to conditions like a property inspection. Many countries in the world, most states in the US included, have this basic protection for buyers and sellers, but England is lagging behind. I want to buy a house like I buy an iPhone, and not have to worry about how it was manufactured or the processes required to deliver it to me. Technology hasn't overhauled house buying yet in the UK, only the ability to simply find properties online.

Beyond the basics of an offer price for a property, the next stages of a house purchase are equally frustrating. Finding a good lawyer to properly check over the property's deeds and other legal documents is a lottery. You can opt for an expensive local lawyer, or go online to try and save some money. I selected a lawyer that claimed he was part of the 21st century, with precise online tracking of each stage of the purchase and communications over email and WhatsApp. The end result was the complete opposite, despite glowing online reviews. I had to chase the lawyer for six months and decipher the lies among the truths. As a journalist I'm used to people lying to me on a daily basis, but it's more stressful when your life savings are at stake.

There's hope that things can improve. Some US startups focus on improving the selling process so a company takes on all the responsibility and hassles. Opendoor offers a home selling service and lets potential buyers only offer against its own listings. This improves the buying and selling process by limiting it to a single company, but there's no sign such a service will ever exist in the UK. Airbnb is even trying to encourage home-ownership with a try before you buy scheme in the US, which seems like more of a gimmick than a property market overhaul.

The industry feels like it exists to benefit the businesses involved in the transactions and not the humans parting with their hard-earned cash. Everyone wants a simple conveyancing process, but entrenched interests are holding back progress. Estate agents, lawyers, insurance companies, and banks all exist in the process to drain you of money in as many ways as possible with very little customer service involved.

The UK housing market isn't an easy task to fix, but I'm hopeful that an Airbnb or Uber for house purchasing will eventually exist here in the future. If it does then I know where my money will be going the next time I'm involved in Britain's broken house market.

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