October 26, 2020

A guide for first-time buyers

Deciding to invest and buy your first home can be quite daunting at the beginning. This is true for everyone, but especially for young couples who are just starting their life together. This process is long, and it can be rather emotional, allowing feelings to take over will result in uncertainty. This article will deal with purchasing an already built property. Buying a plot of land for development or buying a property on plan would involve further steps to those outlined below. Should you opt for the latter, one word of advice would be to ensure that the property that you intend to buy on plan already has a Planning Authority permit to avoid disappointment.

Taking into consideration the closing costs, down payments, home inspection and choosing the right people to work with is a lot. It can quickly turn into an overwhelming experience rather than a new and exciting journey if one is misinformed. Expenses are inevitable. Taking the time on decisions, informing yourself, asking the right questions, and getting the correct information may help you avoid mistakes which in turn will save you money.

Expenses are inevitable. Taking the time on decisions, informing yourself, asking the right questions, and getting the correct information may help you avoid mistakes which in turn will save you money.

#1 The Right Agent

Deciding whether to engage with the help of a real estate agent is the first step that you will need to take. However, choosing someone with experience and who is trustworthy will benefit you in the long run, so taking the time to decide on an agent who will make the process more manageable.

In addition to finding the right agent, preparing a list of your priorities is essential to meet your criteria. This list may include, the location, type of house, specific amenities you want your home to have, and any other relevant information to fit your needs.

No detail is too small or irrelevant. Pinning down your interests will ensure that the person you engage gets the right information from you when it comes to looking for your home. The buyer's agent can facilitate negotiations, organise the closing process, and help answer questions whilst taking into consideration your needs and budget when showing you the available properties.

#2 Choosing Your Professionals

Besides the buyer's agent, you will need to find trustworthy persons who will ensure that the details are not overlooked or the process is not rushed. The professionals that are responsible for this task are your chosen notary and perit (architect and civil engineer).

The notary’s role is conducting the necessary research to verify who the owners of the property are (i.e. title of the property) and ensure that the property is legally transferred from the seller to you.

Do not get deterred from opting for a house inspection, as this step is crucial. A perit can provide you with valuable information and give you a better understanding of serious problems which can exist. Issues may include lack of compliance from the Planning Authority permit, structural issues with the property and structure as well as insights in the electrical wiring, the plumbing and the disposal of rainwater should the property be purchased with all finishes installed.

Opting for an inspection would highlight any red flags that can be dealt with before sealing the deal – benefiting you from dealing with extra costs afterwards. The perit will also give you useful information to reduce (if not eliminate) future problems which may arise in time. Knowing what might occur in the long run can help you be prepared to tackle the situation the right way. The perit will also be responsible to supply you with the Land Registry plans and Eight Schedule which will be used by the notary to start the research on the title of the property. In order for this documentation to be accurate, you will need to provide your perit with a copy of the promise of sale contract. Remember also to request the Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) from the seller.

First time buyers
#3 Paperwork

Inevitably, there is the dreaded paperwork, which without it, purchasing a property will not be possible. This does not only include the promise of the sale contract (‘konvenju’). Throughout the entire process, you will start to realise that the documents required start to add up. As discussed, engaging a notary is essential to determine the title of the property which is being transferred the buyer bears this cost.

One needs to take into consideration the taxes which will add to the financial burden. These are often not mentioned from the start, and therefore asking questions is crucial. If the property is being bought in a finished state, i.e. with all electrics, plumbing, tiling, etc. ensure that penalties are included in the contract should the seller not honour the timeframes.

Taking a loan and setting up the insurances (both life and home) are other essential steps in the process. Talking to a loan officer and an insurance clerk will help you to receive information on various types of schemes being offered. These schemes will help you cut some costs by merely doing your research. Keep in mind that every company provides different types of products, so talking to several companies will help you decide which best fit your needs.

#4 Compare Quotes and Timeframes

An exciting part of investing in a house is making it a home. This stage requires reflection and thoughtful choices. You may opt to engage the services of a perit or interior designer to help you with this process. The advantages of this is that they will create a holistic design approach, ensure that the space is designed according to your needs and to make best use of all areas. They will also aid in choosing the furniture and their size, design any custom-made units, and help you choose materials. All this could be presented in 3D visualisations that would represent how your final home will look like and you will have the opportunity to avoid unexpected results.

If, however you choose to brave this phase on your own, we recommend that when visiting furniture and appliance stores, it is always wise to ask questions. Some could be:

  • Are there any deposits required?
  • What happens when your order arrives?
  • Will they provide storage space until your house is ready?
  • What happens in the case of delays?
  • Are there any extra fees along the process?

The more questions you ask, the easier it is to avoid any unexpected surprises. Often, we become overwhelmed with choice when visiting several outlets. While it is highly recommended to shop around and get multiple quotations, do this by going with a plan in mind. That way, you can narrow down your search to your specific needs. This step is essential, but it can sometimes lead to rushing. Keep in mind what are the necessities and do not feel obliged to furnish your home from top to bottom – that will come with time.

#5 Know Your Budget

As you may imagine, investing in a home will lead to digging into your savings. Assessing how much you can afford can reduce unnecessary pressure. In as much planning as you may do, take into consideration the ‘hidden expenses’ when it comes to finishing your home. For instance, if you are remodelling an old house, things to look out for which might need fixing. These can be the plumbing, trim and moulding, the wiring, the heating and cooling system, humidity issues, broken slab flagstones (‘xorok’), rotten timber beams, just to name a few. In old homes, it is also important to assess the soil water drains and how these connect to the sewer. If this is not checked, it could lead to unexpected work in replacing the pipework which in turn may mean that the Maltese traditional tiles may have to be removed.

If you are purchasing a new home, you might want to take into consideration things which are not listed in the contract of purchase. Finishing items such as gypsum soffits, gypsum walls, ceiling roses, the electrical sockets amongst others are generally not included in the contract documents. All these come at an additional cost which if you are not prepared for from the start, you end up with an unexpected bill in the end.

General expenses could also be of the type of obtaining local council permits for cranes, skips, cherry-pickers, etc. for delivery and removal of materials and debris. This could be accompanied by local warden fees which could be necessary depending on the street location of the property.


Aside from the points above, it is paramount to refrain from seeing your home as simply an investment. It will be the place where you will create a life, possibly a family, memories and most of all it will be the place for rest and a place to experience life. As we have seen recently, the home will also be a place for children’s education, it may double-up as an office and generally be the place where we are able to multi-task! It is important to keep in mind that it is not just the area of the rooms which makes a home – it is the configuration of these rooms, links with nature via a balcony, terrace, yard, or other outside space. Your well-being and that of your loved ones should always be taken into account in the choice of your home.




July 6, 2020

Do you want to live in a thermos flask?


This case study focuses on the development on Goldsmith Street, Norwich, designed by London architecture studio Mikhail Riches, showcased as being a modern affordable social housing scheme of high architectural and environmental quality.1 In fact, this development consisting of 105 homes holds several awards, including the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Stirling Prize of 2019 - which made it the first ever social housing scheme to win this prestigious prize, and described as a “modest masterpiece” by Julia Barfield, chairperson of the jury.


The architects sought to re-think the design of social housing and, rather than building the bare minimum, incorporated ultra-low energy buildings and eco-technology built to the highest specification – enabling both the residents and the environment to benefit.

Perhaps the more obvious aesthetic approach the architects followed for this estate is its traditional street pattern, as opposed to the common, daunting block of flats. In addition to this, the design is less car-oriented, with parking shifted towards the boundaries of the estate and existing green links carefully integrated in the landscape scheme, extending beyond the site boundaries to include nearby roads and a park.

The terraced dwellings are spaced 14 metres apart, allowing it to be a high-density housing area. However, to avoid overshadowing, most of the houses are low-rise at two storeys high. While it may be the intention of developers to build new homes to the smallest size allowable, the architects designed these two-bedroom properties to be 90m2 – surpassing the 76m2 recommended by guidance for this type of property in the UK.

new communication model
Photo credit: Mikhail Riches

Design Features

The project was “commended not just as a transformative social housing scheme and eco-development, but a pioneering exemplar for other local authorities to follow” says RIBA president Alan Jones.

The architectural language is contemporary with the corners of the houses curved to gently lead the visitors into the streets of the estate, while also serving as the envelope for internal staircases. The shared alleyways running through the centre of the estate, which are accessible from the private back gardens of the dwellings, provide residents with a communal garden and a safe area for children to play. Each dwelling has its own front and back garden2, and a different-coloured front door that leads onto the street, giving the residents a sense of ownership.3 These features place an emphasis on the social aspect of these developments, focusing on creating a community by reducing social isolation.

By aligning the street to have an East-West orientation, the designers ensured the homes have windows and habitable rooms facing South. This not only provides exposure to natural light, but also maximises the solar gains in winter and shade in summer, fitting within a passive solar scheme and greatly improving energy efficiency. Furthermore, the dwellings are fitted with internal heat recovery systems, walls that are over 600 millimetres thick, triple glazed apertures, and roofs that are inclined at an angle of 15 degrees to ensure the dwellings do not block sunlight from entering the windows of the adjacent properties.4
With their sharp attention to detail, the architects turned this project into a sustainable housing development that is now the largest social housing scheme that has achieved the Passivhaus standard in the UK.

These key design features significantly lower the heating and cooling costs by up to 70%, when compared to average UK homes.


Properties that hold a Passivhaus standard, a very rigorous German regulations for environmental performance, have the highest certifiable standard of energy efficiency and result in ultra-low energy buildings. It is a system that puts the building fabric first; i.e. it uses the components that make up the building to reduce energy consumption rather than relying on the use of renewable energy devices. Passivhaus depends on five design pillars:

• Super insulation
• Thermal bridging
• Stringent air tightness
• Solar gain
• Ventilation system

(Well not quite the thermos flask then; but you get what we mean) These key design features significantly lower the heating and cooling costs by up to 70%, when compared to average UK homes. The social houses belonging to this development on Goldsmith Street are quoted to have a yearly energy bill of approximately £150.

Contrary to common perception, projects of such a high specification need not necessarily be very expensive projects. Although this social housing scheme cost around 10% more than a typical procurement would have, when considering the whole-life costing, these properties result in a far more

superior quality in terms of running costs, carbon emissions, comfort levels and health benefits. The long-lasting products and materials specified in this development do not require frequent replacement, implying that the additional initial costs will come down in the long run.

As the Passivhaus practice spreads geographically, increasing its exposure, the short-term costs will naturally decline as the market expands and the skills gap between design and construction diminishes. Case studies such as Goldsmith Street demonstrate that, given the right context, the learning from the Passivhaus practice can be passed on to improve the quality of other future non-Passivhaus projects.

The social houses belonging to this development on Goldsmith Street are quoted to have a yearly energy bill of approximately £150.

Photo credit: Mikhail Riches

Malta and Passivhaus

One may argue that the principles of Passivhaus are difficult to achieve. However, we can explore our vernacular typologies in a way that could accommodate our climatic condition. This way, the Maltese thermos flask will respond to our local needs. Windows play a huge part in the thoughtful balance between cooling and heating. These apertures are culturally significant, as we are people that look outwards to the horizon – the sea! Hence, one must ensure this line of visibility is incorporated when possible, as it also has a psychological factor embedded in its fundamental function. The best options for shading, window-glazing and exterior building colour need to be examined depending on the orientation and exposure of the building. Controlling gains and losses over different seasons needs to be carefully worked out. Colour plays a very important part in this as well-planned use of outdoor colours can change the cooling demand by up to 5 kWh/m² (7), even in well-insulated buildings. After all, the Maltese are used to a lot of light – it is a contrasting feature to other climates and what makes our seasons Maltese! When it comes to the interior spaces, the use of ‘cool’ colours on outside walls lowers solar absorption, helping to reduce the sun’s heat load during the summer months.

Moreover, moveable rather than fixed exterior shading is preferred to avoid additional heating demands in winter. Care must be taken to ensure that the permanent shading of east or west-facing windows does not increase the winter cooling load beyond any energy gains achieved from the same shading in summer.


Housing plays an important role in improving health and wellbeing, both in terms of the quality and affordability of housing as well as the quality of neighbourhoods and communities. Therefore, one way that housing design and housing policy can contribute to a good quality of life is by creating new opportunities for improved integration between housing, health and social care.

While this project deserves all the acclaim that it has had, it would have been ideal to hear more about the social dimension (other than the communal spaces) and if the community was involved in the design process. Design cannot stand on its own. It needs to be understood from a cultural perspective and accommodate the needs of the 21st century city dweller. It is imperative to ensure collaborations with all stakeholders and the community and, in essence, approach the design bottom-up, with the inhabitants of these buildings playing a much greater part in helping to shape buildings. After all, buildings shape us and we shape buildings!

The right type of homes in the right place at the right price to meet the housing need and to attract new businesses and investment in the city in turn will create new jobs and training opportunities, thus pushing toward a thriving city.


1 https://www.dezeen.com/2019/10/09/goldsmith-street-stirling-prize-reactions-twitter-news/
2 https://www.bbc.com/news/in-pictures-49964986
3 https://www.dezeen.com/2019/08/01/goldsmith-street-social-housing-mikhail-riches-norwich/
4 https://www.insidehousing.co.uk/insight/insight/the-gold-standard-how-a-council-housing-scheme-won-architectures-biggest-prize-63761
5 http://www.mikhailriches.com/project/goldsmith-street/#text
6 https://www.passivhaustrust.org.uk/UserFiles/File/research%20papers/Costs/2019%20PHT%20Costs%20Summary%20web.pdf
7 https://timesofmalta.com/articles/view/Passive-housing-frugal-architecture.371249

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