Where were we? Ah yes, Bromley. No, Strood. No no, Tooting! That’s it. Tooting with an air of impending dread. February 2019, with a mission to find and completely buy a house by June or face EVICTION. Now just so I don’t overly ham up the drama, I want to make it clear that although June 2019 was the end of the tenancy, and I’d have been paying by then three and a bit months of the full salary-decimating rent, I had reasonable confidence that if something went, shall we say, tits up, I might be able to convince the landlord to let me stay a little longer, due to my obscene tenure at the flat, good standing, and if need be, crying phone voice.
When I’d let them know I was leaving, I’m pretty sure some party poppers went off in the office and some cake was had. As I mentioned while the rent had been steadily increasing, we definitely were paying below the market rate due to the length of occupancy. And this was despite one year around 2010 or 2011 or so when they increased the rent by £250 a month. I dated a girl who was paying the same for a one-bed flat with no garden in a similar area of London. After the celebrations stopped, the letting agent let me know that the landlord was planning to kick us out anyway as he wanted to renovate the flat, something which hadn’t been done in … roughly … yes, 16 years. This “landlord kicks us out, renovates, and lets the flat for market rate making wads more cash” was an eventuality we KNEW was coming, and was always on our minds every April when the dreaded mail about inspections, rents and renewals came through from the agent.
Whatever was to come, we had to remember to check listings in the summer to see if we could find out what they did to the place, and for how much it was now being rented out.
You might imagine I’d be the type of person to fanny around for a few months and then end up in a right panic at the last minute with one week to find a place to live. Now on the one hand, you’d be right. I am exactly that type of person. But for once in my life, just once, I was different. Because I was all over this solo-house-hunting business. I’d made a lot of progress before Andrea even properly moved out, working out places, booking viewings, even going to viewings. My aim was to have a house bought by the end of February, leaving the subsequent months free for the “process” which I had heard could drag on. Maybe I’d even have time for one to fall through before getting in trouble.
I was looking in Mitcham, Epsom, Stratford, Abbey Wood, Yule, and even keeping an eye out on Tooting in case an estate agent advertised a place with a zero left off the price and I was able to get BBC Watchdog to honour it. Partway through I also discovered the place I had been verbally recommended as “Yule” and had been searching on Rightmove for as “Yule” was actually spelt “Ewell”.
As part of my method I had to weigh up the fundamentals. There was a scale of things and a very fixed budget.
- A shit flat in a shit area (with shit transport links)
- A shit flat in a shit area (with good transport links)
…all the way up to…
- A good house in a good area (with good transport links)
I did not have the money for the upper end of this scale. So I zoned in on what was achievable. And used a website to work out house prices vs commute times to solve that. I would be looking at:
- A shit flat in a good area
- A good flat in a shit area
- A good flat in a good area
- A shit house in a good area
- A good house in a shit area
- A good house in a good area
The ones in bold were where I was aiming. If I wanted a nice place in a nice location, it would need to be a flat. If I was willing to sacrifice some things, I could get a house, but it would either be not in great condition or not in a great area.
The Mitcham mafioso
I had been feeling a bit sad that I was basically priced out of the place where I’ve spent most of my adult life, and part of me was hoping some bargain would pop up in or near Tooting. I had a lot invested in Tooting. I own the internet domain sw17.london. I used to present a weekly Tooting-based global news show, described by one viewer (me rewatching it) as “criminally under-viewed”.
I was on friendly terms with the local barber Anton, and even invited him round to play VR games. My friend Thomas (indeed my original flatmate in that Tooting flat) was also nearby having bought a place just 5 minutes away, admittedly over ten years previously when such purchases didn’t require a lottery win or investing early in Bitcoin.
I’d look mostly in Mitcham, for money reasons. Mitcham is the next place along from Tooting, but unfortunately the Tube line goes the other way, so it’s very poorly connected. Which was precisely why I could afford it. I’d be staying in London, but my commute was going to increase significantly. I saw a cute, but ridiculously small bungalow which appealed to me. It had sort of been built in between two other houses, but had it’s own little garden, and crucially, its own roof. It was dinky, but it was a house and I liked the idea of a house. I wanted something I just couldn’t afford in London and this little guy was something of a compromise.
Just be aware that the estate agent scam-cam is set to 11 on this. I took the measurements from the floorplan, it was less than half the size of the flat I had been sharing in Tooting. But cute, and new.
I called the agents and arranged to go see. They’d take me to some other places, and also offered if I wanted a meeting with their in-house mortgage broker. I knew nothing about these things, but had been recommended a broker by a good (and very financially sound) friend, and this smacked of an add-on service which people like me might use out of convenience rather than savvy. But I agreed, at least I could get some info on this next stage and get ahead of myself.
I arrived in Mitcham about lunchtime and met a young “Brandon”, he took me out to his car and immediately looked frustrated. In what seemed like a routine occurance, he’d been blocked into the little carpark behind the building by someone from the neighbouring Greggs. He called Greggs. I didn’t know you could phone Greggs, so this was fascinating. He was clearly talking to someone he knew, someone who had done this before, and someone who didn’t care. We sat in the car as he waited for her to come out. She didn’t come, he called back and was increasingly becoming “nervous angry”.
You know when you get someone who is quite confident and forward, and then they get put in confrontation or an awkward situation, and they clearly don’t like it, despite their usual confidence. Brandon was like that. He was going red and his voice was a bit shaky, even though he was 100% in the right. Unfortunately for us, it was Greggs and it was lunchtime, this woman was under a whole lot of other pressure. Eventually she came and we were free.
In the car I asked something about the bungalow. He said casually “oh the bungalow was sold”. Pschf. So we were now off to see the two places I wasn’t so keen on, and then see a mortgage broker I wasn’t interested in. Great.
First flat was in some kind of block of flats. It was pretty grim, and additionally, seemed riddled with mould. It also had something which I had come to view as a major downside. It was full of other people’s crap. Bits of writing like “Live Laugh Love” on the walls, the odd “Keep Calm And Blah Blah Blah” tat. I’d experienced this in the Strood family house with the over-stickered kids bedroom, and the scam flat in Tooting with the sofa in the hallway (their flat was absolutely full of pictures of themselves and bits of writing with their names on them as if it was the only thing keeping their relationship going). I’m probably being mean and there’s nothing really wrong with any of them, I just fundamentally don’t like second-hand things, even flats.
Onto the next place, which I had seen from the photos was very new and shiny inside and also unoccupied. We stopped at a bus stop – this huge brown concrete blight that could have done with a demolishing. We walked towards the Co-op, I assumed Brandon was popping in to get a sandwich and then we would be on our way (for various reasons I was presuming he didn’t get his lunch from Greggs). No no, this flat was right next to the Co-op. Talk about a convenience store. It was the ground floor of an unbelievably fugly block of council flats, and in we went. Indeed inside it was really nice, they’d obviously spent a lot of money doing it up and adding a conservatory. The kitchen was so new everything still had the stickers on; the conservatory was cute and I could envisage using this bright open space to store boxes and boxes of my crap piled floor to ceiling. Outside the “grass” was astro-turf. I couldn’t decide if I like that or not but Whacky wouldn’t have been a fan.
I checked out the “garden” and spotted a door at the back – intriguing. Turns out not only was this place dodgy to the front, there was a creepy alleyway down the back full of rubbish, old white goods, tyres etc. I could easily imagine someone busting through the front to stab and rob me, only to find I was already being stabbed and robbed by someone who had busted through the back. It was probably not as rough as it seemed, but I didn’t get a good feel, and no amount of new extractor fans in the kitchen could compensate for that. It was on the list under “If I absolutely have to”.
A bit fed up I ended up back at the office to meet the mortgage broker, and the day took an unexpected turn for the better. Kieran welcomed me into his lodgings at the heart of the estate agents office. He was a character; short and sharply dressed in his grey suit, with immaculately neat short hair and a little pencil moustache. He looked a little bit like an Italian gangster, albeit an incredibly courteous and well-mannered one. A cross between Joe Pesci and John Leguizamo – like he could handle himself in more matters than merely property finance.
I took a moment to giggle to myself at the fact I had just met a polite Italian gangster sort in the office of an estate agent called Goodfellows.
For the next HOUR AND A HALF, Kieran took me through every step of the house-buying process, from making offers, to bank meetings, surveys, solicitors, pitfalls, tricks, techniques the lot. He was a fucking legend. And all of this was FREE. He gave me packs of stuff to take away, checklists, guides, and he annotated everything by hand as he talked through it to highlight the important bits. I was potentially weeks away from buying a flat or house and I realised just how little I’d actually known. He didn’t even just talk about mortgages – it was everything. Every so often I would pause and wonder what on earth he could possibly be getting out of all this free advice – but this was just his approach. Give honest frank advice, go above and beyond, and hope that more people will return to take on his paid services when the time comes.
I’d gotten to that stage after about 20 minutes. This recommendation I’d had of a mortgage broker from a savvy friend was out of the window. It was Kieran all the way. I was tempted to tell him my old housemate was out of the picture and did he fancy buying the house with me and moving in. For days I referenced him in almost every conversation: “Well, Kieran told me that…”, “Kieran wouldn’t have done it like this,” “Wonder what Kieran would make of that idea.”
Legend. I was renewed in my enthusiasm for finding a place and was no longer dreading the “next steps” – Kieran would be all over it, for a modest upfront fee and a referral commission from the bank. I left Goodfellows in high-spirits “Bye Kieran, bye other guy” I waved to Brandon whose name I had already forgotten. I almost popped to Greggs on my way home, but didn’t imagine Kieran would approve of Greggs so I passed.
On the matter of actually finding the right house, I was no closer, until a few days later when I was at netball.
The netball house-hunting revelation
I’d bought two season tickets to see London Pulse play in their first season in the UK superleague. Every fortnight, I would take a new friend for their first netball experience, at the Copper Box Arena (home of netball) in Stratford. It was win-win*; I’d have someone to go with, my friends had a night out to something they’d not seen before, and I also had the reminder that I had managed to accumulate not only 8 friends, but 8 friends willing to go to netball with me. I’ve never felt so popular. *note, the games themselves were not win-win, that’s not how netball works.
I’d been looking around East London due to its proximity to the netball – I don’t go out much, so as crazy as it may sound for a home location to revolve around one hobby, for someone like me with limited outdoor hobbies, it did make some sense. But homes in Stratford or the environs where I looked were very much in the “shit flat in shit area” when my budget was taken into account.
I’d invited my good friend Hannah from work, we’d enjoyed the game, and were walking back towards Stratford station. We reached the junction between Stratford (Tube station, for my trip home to Tooting) and Stratford International (national rail, for Hannah’s trip home), and I was telling Hannah all about my house-hunting woes, including a postage-stamp-sized flat I’d seen the day before in Tooting.
“Why don’t you buy in gravy?”
She was right you know, Hannah knew me well enough to know that the best thing I could do to cheer myself up was go back to Tooting, pop into Sainsbury’s next to the station, buy in some gravy, and lash it over some comfort chips and comfort sausages. “That’s a good shout, I’ll be able to think more clearly about house-hunting after I’ve been beefily nourished.”
“No no, I mean buy a place in Gravesend where I am.”
A few people had recommended I move to where they lived – that’s how the whole Yule thing had started; but there was more.
She added pointing to the station, “Two stops home.”
“And although it was a few years ago, we bought out our first three-bed place there for 200k.”
We both missed our trains as I spent the next 25 minutes standing frozen still with shock. An area of the world exists, which is two train stops from netball, where I could buy a house for the money I have. What was this Gravesend? And why isn’t Facebook selling more of my personal data to Rightmove so it could have recommended this to me sooner. I fidgeted all the way home on the Tube, waiting to get above ground to get internet so I could look for places in Gravesend, still somehow convinced that Hannah must have been mistaken. When I came out the station, Hannah had already WhatsApped me some links. It was real!
I DIDN’T EVEN POP TO SAINSBURY’S TO BUY GRAVY. I was too excited.
Things were ramping up, first good fellow Kieran, now Hannah’s gravy tip. By the following morning I’d found a place to go see and booked in a viewing. I was set for my first trip to Gravesend, and in some kind of omen, it was booked for the evening of Valentine’s Day.
There was just one problem. I was going to be in Manchester with work that day…Continue with Part V