The title is important here. This is not “How To Buy A House” – and if you’ve arrived here after a Google search on such a topic, then be immediately advised you will not find the usual route to property ownership of an adult human. That said, stay for the laughs.
When you’ve been renting the same place for 16 years, and been househunting (with various levels of enthusiasm) for over five years, when it all actually happens, it really does take a bit of time to sink in.
I attribute the penny-drop moment to the following April. There was a strange feeling in the air. I instinctively checked Whacky’s litter tray – nothing. It was something different, like an impending dread, and it seemed to blip when I was reminded that it was April. Days went by, maybe even weeks, before I realised. No e-mail from the letting agency, no notification of a “flat inspection”, no weeks of ambiguity over whether the landlord was going to renew our tenancy, no rent increase. I didn’t realise quite how much until then, but this woe had been a depressing part of my annual calendar. Wait, no rent increase. That’s basically FREE MONEY. Most years my rent went up by more than my salary, so I was technically poorer every year. This was a game-changer. What would I spent this extra money on…LEGO. Well that was a short train of thought. Still, free money and no flat inspection. What a time.
It was enough to put me on a high until a few weeks later when the annual statement on my mortgage came through to remind me I owed 24 years of money to Nationwide.
Flat inspections had been a part of my life since I was 21 and moved to Birmingham like the independent free spirit I was (*or was forced to move to have a job). The tidying, the cleaning. The conflicting feelings: on the one hand this is good because it’s making me tidy up, if I can just not mess the place up again I can triple the floorspace in my flat; on the other hand, I’m spending days doing this for someone to come in, look for 5 minutes then fuck off. They’re only really checking to make sure I haven’t removed a wall or converted the house into an HMO, but I still can’t leave pants lying around in my bedroom. Also for the last eight years of Tooting this situation had involved a pretty thorough cat hiding.
Myself or Andrea – my lone housemate during the second half of my tenure – would always book the day off work. Whacky would be outside until they had been, but her general approach was that she had more right to live here than we did, so what were we playing at. Laura, the letting agent might see her sitting expectantly at the patio door. Whacky would not be wearing a look of “Hello is anyone there, I am a local stray in need of scraps, I am curious and flea-ridden. I wonder what it’s like in that nice house.” No, Whacky would be wearing a look of “What gives? Why did you put me outside, I know you’re not at work I can fucking see you. How is…. oh wait, now who the FUCK is this? Is this why? Did you put me outside because of her? Who the fuck does she think she is. GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY HOUSE YOU LEATHER-FACED OLD SOW, I’ve got chicken in there, if you touch my chicken or any of my stuff I’ll end you, and it won’t be quick I fucking promise you. I swear if it wasn’t for this glass door between us I’d scratch you a new arsehole.” Laura would leave to find her tyres slashed and claw marks down the paintwork of her car crudely spelling out “I KNOW PEOPLE. WATCH YOUR BACK.” and there would be a dead mouse where the furry dice usually are.
Admittedly in later years Whacky seemed to know the drill – we’d show her the letter from the agency and she’d make herself scarce for a few hours, knowing meaty compensation awaited on her return. But even without Whacky scratching at the back door, every year we would miss something. No matter how painstakingly we hid away all cat evidence, there would be something left.
I’d take Laura to the living room making smalltalk and then leap into the centre of the room with a flourish “Aaaaahhhhhh, just love how spacious this living room is, right Laura! What a nice property you rent us!” She’d give me a funny look and walk past and when her back turned I’d bend down and take a stray toy mouse from under my foot and chuck it under the sofa. She’d occasionally comment how spotless the sofa cushions were after 10+ years of use. It was incredible. It was almost as if a pair of wily tenants had just turned the cushions over to hide the fact that Whacky had torn the usual side to fucking shreds.
She’d be in the kitchen and go to the bin to deposit a gum or a wrapper. Shit. In the bin, she’d see a pouch of Felix beef in jelly chunks. Then beside it a tin of beans and a Pepperami wrapper. She’d look at me. “Yeah wouldn’t put it past him” she’d mumble. We were safe.
In later years, they just stopped coming. Oh, they’d book it in and tell us they’d be there, but we’d tidy frantically, take the day off, and they just wouldn’t show. In the end we even stopped putting Whacky outside. It had become like those people who say “yeah my wife doesn’t know I smoke”. She knows; your deception is a farce. Laura would have walked in, seen Whacky, rolled her eyes, then gone to the patio to comment on the garden (which she always did, even if it had been recently cut and there was 5cm of grass, she’d make some passive-aggressive comment like “Is the lawnmower we gave you still working?”).
The problem with the Tooting flat was it was just too cushy. And although the rent increases had been outpacing my salary they weren’t really outpacing market rents, so my 16-year tenure had meant we were getting the place for a bit of a bargain (case in point it was a three bedroom place and me and Andrea were splitting it two ways). The place had a huge garden, backed onto a playing field so green as far as the eye can see, was close to station for work. It was easy to stay.
At the same time, we were both conscious we were servicing someone else’s mortgage, so decided to test the water around buying a place together.
Myself and Andrea had a pretty simple set of requirements for the new place. It needed to have two bedrooms, of equal size, but not side by side. We were two singletons and we didn’t want our bedrooms side-by-side for good reason. Andrea wouldn’t want to disturb me if she had a gentleman-friend over, and I didn’t want to wake her up in the middle of the night if I tripped over my LEGO while carrying a Pot Noodle into bed. (The temptation here was of course to simply say that we could both have partners staying over, but Andrea reads this blog, and if I were to try for a moment to suggest I was equally likely to have girls round, she’d be all over it in the comments section).
Two bedrooms, equal-sized and far apart doesn’t sound like much. It’s just completely contrary to how almost every dwelling in the United Kingdom has been constructed and laid out. “Ooooh this place is nice”, we’d say before realising the house had one bedroom-sized bedroom and two box rooms. We considered trade-offs where I might have the bigger room in the deal, and Andrea would be compensated by exclusively having one of the areas I didn’t need, like the kitchen for example.
Bromley & The Hunt for the Holy Grail
I’d left Andrea to research some “good places to look” – this was not laziness on my part, it’s just that the location mainly affected “her” things; places to go, outside space, parks, markets & shops to potter about in. My concerns were addressed as soon as it had been established that an area had broadband and Amazon delivery. Bromley was identified as the first place of interest, and Andrea booked some viewings (liaising with estate agents was also one of her responsibilities, not for any practical reasons, just that I didn’t want to until it was legally required).
We had three to see in one day. I grumbled muchly about the amount of time the commute took; “Don’t think I could handle this every day,” I moaned for about the ninth time, until Andrea mentioned that if we moved here we wouldn’t be commuting back to Tooting, so half of this journey didn’t apply.
We left the station and set off to the first house – Andrea was handling the navigation on account of the fact Germans are good with maps. Over the next few minutes of discussion about this, we discovered that my entire reasoning for this assumption was based on the title sequence from Dad’s Army. As we walked down the street, we passed a young girl, about 12 years old, carrying a tennis racket in a holdall. She said hello to us in English, Romanian and Chinese. “Good luck with your tennis, small girl” I shouted after her with a wave… OK OK OK none of this happened, it’s just that Emma Raducanu is from Bromley and I was trying to do that thing writers do where they weave in portents of things to come in the story so a tiny niche of people can say “ooooh”. That said, I cannot say for sure we did not walk past Emma Raducanu that day, since we didn’t know what she looked like, so it might have happened. Let’s pretend it did.
Although Andrea was looking after navigation I was starting to take an interest. We walked down Bedivere Road, then Galahad Road, then Launcelot Road (which I assumed was a typo), then onto Gareth Grove… Now, I’ll admit my knowledge of the Knights of the Round Table is mostly based on Monty Python & The Holy Grail, but I have seen that film a LOT of times. And I don’t remember a Gareth*.
Arriving at the first house, it was a very busy, high traffic area. Not the roads, it was in a nice little cul-de-sac, I mean the immediate vicinity of the house. It was clearly an open day, which the estate agents hadn’t mentioned. There were couples bursting from the seams of the house. I wasn’t sure if there was actually space for us to get inside. It was like a world-record attempt. How many young couples can fit in a three-bed terrace? We meleed our way in as I sniped under my breath at the estate agent standing by the door “Going to have the rest of the week off are you?” and “Why take the time and care to show people round a property when you can just leave the door open for half an hour and have a fag outside?”
Inside Andrea was looking around the house assessing its pros and cons, delicately separating the chaos of the other viewers from the cold hard objective facts of the situation. Meanwhile I was huffing around muttering “fuck’s sake” and “too many fucking people here”, and occasionally “yeah we’re not a couple actually, in case you were thinking we were just because you all are, we’re not actually WE’RE NOT LIKE YOU”.
“What do you think?” Andrea said after about ten minutes of shuffling and squeezing and trying to look around other people to look at things.
I think she was expecting me to hate it, and she was expecting that to be entirely based on my experience on the day, and my annoyance at the open day, and not based on anything to do with the actual house.
To be fair this is a good call and the kind of thing I normally do. If I was a restaurant reviewer, penning critiques of London’s top restaurants, a typical review might go like “Absolutely horrendous, worst restaurant ever, never go here under any circumstances, disgusting. There was a man at the table beside me who was talking the whole time about his boring fucking life. One star.”
Actually she was only half right. We were standing in the third bedroom and I opened up the cupboard on the wall: “Boiler in a bedroom. Who does that. Absolute shithole.” See I had been paying attention.
We popped outside for a quick look at the garden. At first it felt serene, but we realised this was because there were only about 8 other people in the back garden, as opposed to the roughly 620 people currently inside the house. It didn’t last though as we soon noticed barbed wire around the top of the fence. Well obviously this was a no-no for Whacky, but of course it could have been removed. Of more concern to us was what had led to the current owners decorating their garden like a prison yard. Either this place was seriously dangerous (and possibly befitting the intervention of Knights), or the people who lived here hated animals so much they plotted to eviscerate them if they tried to climb their fence. Monsters. Boiler in the bedroom and barbed wire fence. Shithole. It was decided.
We were at risk of being late for our next appointment and I momentarily panicked thinking it would take us ages to say all our goodbyes, then I realised much as it seemed like it we weren’t at a massive house party, it was just an open day.
The next place, well it would have been very handy for the train. Staggeringly convenient, since the railway line pretty much went through the garden. We’d just have to master the art of jumping from the patio onto the train at speed. The place was not as suitable for us as the last place, the proximity of the train line was just the dogshit on the cake. Fairly uneventful, and onto the third and final.
It was clearly open season on open days because we were not alone at the third place either, but at least it was just one couple. The place was quite dingy, but it was hard to separate the mess in the house and general disrepair. There was just stuff everywhere. It was not in marketable condition and we were pretty unimpressed. But what was fascinating about this house was how much the other, older couple loved it. We were trying to climb over old cookers and rusty fridges to get to the garden, when these two were talking to the estate agent about offers. We couldn’t understand it.
I think we settled on the theory that they had discovered an old treasure map, and the buried loot was directly underneath. Thus they were keen to buy the house at any cost even though such enthusiasm seemed MENTAL given the standard of accommodations.
Maybe the Holy Grail was in Bromley after all?
We left in high spirits from the day overall. We’d had our first experience of looking and seeing; we weren’t expecting any of these houses to blow us away, it was more about getting a feel for the process, what to look for, pitfalls (like boilers in bedrooms and train lines in gardens). We wouldn’t get into dream house territory until we started looking a little further out in Kent, in a place called Strood, which I’ll tell you all about in the next instalment…Continue with Part II
* This was meant to be a joke and I assumed this was just a normal street, but while doing due diligence on Wikipedia it turns out there was a Sir Gareth…