When I went to pick up the house keys from the estate agents on a grey drizzly Saturday morning I felt in a rather neutral mood. Being stubborn and British I decided to walk the distance of almost two miles up hill to avoid paying for a bus or taxi, resulting in a matt of tangled, curly hair and a nose that continued to pour, even when I stepped inside the ultra clean office.
A man with overly gelled hair and patchy stubble directed me to a sofa while he consulted with a female colleague. All the staff looked like dolled up fifteen year olds, and I think no one could quite believe a young woman in unbranded jeans and a tatty Gap hoodie could possibly have bought a house from them.
The lady tottered over with a clipboard and let me sign for the keys. I politely smiled and said thanks, but she’d already gone. Everyone else was continuing to hit their keyboards in a monkey-like fashion, so I took my cue and left.
That was it. I owned a house, my house. I checked the envelope ten times over just to be sure.
“Oh my God.”
I was so overjoyed I didn’t know what to do with myself, so ended up marching straight down the hill in record time and landing back to the house I lived in. I dumped my bag, threw off the soaked hoodie and dashed around next door with nothing more than the key.
I held my breath as I inserted the key into the door and slowly opened the door. I stood there for a moment before walking in and sitting on the bottom step. I stroked the banister rail, like some prized pet.
“You’re mine now, and I am yours” I muttered.
With rain cold feet I ascended the first flight of stairs with ease and entered the bare living room and then the empty kitchen. Suddenly without warning I started laughing, then screaming, then running up and down stairs and into rooms and out of rooms. Slamming doors, apologising for slamming doors. Spinning round and round and round. I lay on my bedroom floor and took my breath.
“This isn’t happening, pinch yourself Alice, you just can’t have done this. Oh my God, what is happening? A homeowner? A homeowner…A homeowner! You. Are. A. Ruddy. Homeowner!”
I ran next door and grabbed my laptop from the top floor before rushing back round to my house. I turned it on and loaded Spotify, before blasting out Nina Simone, Arctic Monkeys, The Killers, B*Witched. Anything and everything which came to mind. I screamed every lyric from every part of the house until my throat was hoarse from all the yelling, before lying in a heap on the cold, dark living room floor.
Why? Because I could.
This article is part of The First Time Buyer Diaries. To view the entire series (so far) click here.
With the mortgage in place and all the relevant forms filled in, my solicitors were deployed.
For cost sake, said legal representatives were located nowhere near Swindon, but their website and documentation reliably informed me they had a small office in Suffolk. The price I paid was so low I never questioned my solicitors’ insistence on email and postal communication and in return they didn’t spit in my envelope for paying them peanuts and putting Swindon-based solicitors out of business.
The next day I strolled down to the nearby pillar post box and posted off the initial fee. “Lovely county Suffolk,” I thought, “shame about all the Londoners though.”
For the best part of a month there was little more for me to do. My energies became more engulfed with buying, collecting and, in Mum’s case, painting furniture from around the region and storing it in the furniture warehouse (alias, my parent’s garden room extension).
Meanwhile, at work, people were beginning to realise why I’d been so stressed of late. Although I’d frequently commented on “looking at houses” or “difficulties with the bank”, many colleagues had wrongly assumed I was moving into a new rental property. Given my age and martial status I can hardly say I was that surprised by the confusion, in fact I was more taken aback by the ripple effect my purchase had on these same people.
Suddenly I was the Martin Lewis of home buying, everyone had a question to ask and apparently I was the girl to give advice. The hints and tips recited beside boiling kettles and in toilet queues was little more than a blended mix of common sense and random statistics from The Telegraph, and yet that was enough. I was the Marmite of the organisation, people respected me or envied my very guts. And slowly, oh so slowly, habits of those around me began to change. People stopped buying coffee, packed lunches started making a comeback, and a night in with a made-from-scratch lasagne became the ultimate date night experience. All subtle signs of people putting money to one side for an unspecified goal.
“What have I created?” I thought.
Apart from changing the psychology of my fellow workforce, up until February life was blissful (well, compared to the fiasco with BankUK*).
I suppose I was a bit naïve to think the sellers would let the house sale proceed on my terms. Throughout the entire mortgage drama there had been not a word from either of the two solicitors to suggest concern, so I guess I assumed that with things moving at a normal pace I shouldn’t have the cause to be concerned.
On February 14th 2017 the tenants of the house formally moved out. I knew this because a) They told me this when I met them to discuss buying furniture (of which I bought none) and b) I saw the van on their drive that very evening as I walked back from food shopping. The tenant had wanted me to buy his wares to avoid use of a van, which made me watching him struggle with an oversized pine bed particularly awkward. Unable to commit my vocal cords, I made somewhat awkward eye contact and mouthed “hi” in the winter darkness before scuttling into the house next door and telling myself I was not to go out again that evening.
On February 15th the chasing began. My solicitors informed me that the sellers’ Swindon solicitors were constantly asking for updates at request of their client. This was frustrating my people in Suffolk because they were not being paid enough to care or give five minute updates to first-time sellers who weren’t clients. I thanked them for letting me know and assured them that I’d see any documentation was returned promptly upon receipt and funds were moved into place ready for exchange.
To save boring legal and financial jargon, the planned exchange date fell through. The fault was not down to myself, nor my solicitors, not even the sellers, but due to incorrectly submitted documentation from my old friends BankUK.
I called Katie* to inquire as to the hold up.
“We sent both sets of documentation through, your solicitors should have read them and used the right one.”
“But why wasn’t it made clear?”
“They were sent both the first and second versions because of the difficulties we faced with your application before. If they’d read the figures correctly…”
I was already impatient. “I can’t believe this. At the final hurdle BankUK have messed up. Look, whatever documentation my people have got it’s wrong. They need a different form to either of the two you sent them. If the exchange falls through again the whole house sale might fall through. You can understand why I’m a bit frustrated, no?”
“We are aware of this Miss Bennett and looking into it now. I’ll remind you to watch the tone of your voice on the phone.”
“For Christ’s sake” I said as I hung up the phone.
I never spoke to Katie again.
I cursed under my breath but hoped that the sellers would accept the revised date and understand there was nothing anyone could do until Thursday, two days later.
That was when the seller’s fiancée crossed the line.
Before this situation had kicked off I’d met them very briefly to check out the white goods which were being included in the sale. From that I learnt the house belonged to the man and he and his soon to be wife were buying a new build on the edge of Swindon. In turn they learn my first name and I lived next door. In the world we live in that’s all she needed.
I don’t know how, but she found me. Of all the millions of Alices on Facebook she found my profile that evening and, in blatant convention of legal process and regulation, she sent me a direct message.
“Hi Alice, My solicitors have just told me we are not going to be able to exchange today due to BankUK not being in a position to go forward…We’ve been advised by our sellers that they are very reluctant to continue with the sale to us if the completion date is affected, consequently if they pull out we will have to too. Many Thanks.”
I was stunned. Was she seriously threatening me to pull out on the entire sale, over Facebook? She wasn’t even the owner of the property.
Eventually, after fully processing what I’d read I wrote back a response with the help of my parents down the phone. I sent it thinking it would be the end of it, but no the messages came in thick and fast from her, pouring her heart out with the added threat of turning at any point and making her partner put the property back on the market again. After all I’d been through and money already sunk in, I couldn’t bear the pain of living in the shared house next door, forever watching people go in and out of my ‘could have been’ home. I’d had enough, I ratted them up to my solicitor and under their instruction ignored all of the messages sent from thereon.
It transpired that the real reason why the house sale almost fell through was so petty it was almost a joke. My sellers’ sellers didn’t want to pay another monthly repayment on their mortgage which would happen if the exchange was delayed by two days. The news came to me via phone after we finally exchanged. It was one of the few times I actually spoke with my solicitors.
“But if they relisted the property they’d have to make the payment anyway?” I questioned. Surely no one can be that stupid?
The speaker sighed. “Yep. You’d think someone would have told her that before she started shouting and getting your sellers into a state. I don’t know what game she was trying to play and we don’t know why it wasn’t handled better as opposed to scaring everyone in the chain. As for the Facebook messaging, well that’s taken us all aback.”
“I suppose it’s the world we live in right?”
“Where rules don’t apply because it’s social media and everyone thinks they can be a solicitor,” there was a slight pause, “I’ll send you the final invoice via email shortly. If you can pay it ASAP we can at least complete on the original date everyone agreed to, even if the exchange was delayed.”
I did all that was required by me, signed a few bits of paper, moved a few digital numbers from one place to another and then waited. And as if by legal magic I received an email saying I owned a house.
No big deal.
(Names marked * have been changed for the benefit of this article.)
This post is part of The First Time Buyer Diaries. To view the full series (so far) click here.
Disclaimer: names of individuals/financial institutions marked with * have been changed.
Same bank, same branch, same waiting room with the same generic music. The only difference was the day. Yet another meeting with BankUK* and advisor Katie*, yet another week in mortgage limbo.
“I should be in work now.” I thought.
At this point it’s worth noting how lucky I was to still even have sniff of the house I’d set my hopes on. The offer had been accepted by the seller in November, yet here I was in January with nothing more than a Chamberlain scrap of paper to suggest the funds were in place to buy the property. Since then there had been no requests for updates from either my solicitor or the agent which suited me to the ground. To tell the truth would be buyer suicide.
I walked into a different meeting room, this one blander than the others. The other rooms had photography with inspirational sayings on, this one had a single thank you card in the small, square, window which faced onto next door’s brickwork. The only ounce of personality in a white-washed cube. I half wondered if I was living in the Truman Show, that the same utilitarian chairs, desk and room was also used by dentists, consultants and middling management. As if at any moment a forklift truck would lift up the confined box and move it to different location, to film another character in an ongoing Soap which I was part of.
Such ponderings were brief, Katie walked through the door swiftly with all the relevant paperwork for signing.
“Before we sign the formal documentation for your mortgage, I’d like to sort out this business with your complaint.” Katie opened with.
“Ok,” I replied, “what’s the situation with that then?”
Katie went on to explain in detail the nature of my complaint, that the comments in the subsequent letter sent to head office had been fed back to her. She understood my frustration but told me it was something none of them could have predicted or prevented against, that their policy was underpinned by UK law. In other words, “our hands were tied, what could we do?”
In equally “I don’t give a stuff fashion” I nodded through her comments until she got to the bit we all cared about, what BankUK were going to do to shut me up. It was clear that I wasn’t going to let this drop easily, I’d already threatened further action on the phone and in my letters. I was looking forward to a big settlement.
“So, in light of all this, we’d be prepared to offer you a cash amount to the value of the administration fee on this mortgage. Given your original application was for a different mortgage at the same interest but fee-free, we believe this settlement to be fair. We are prepared to offer you £99 today. If you accept this now, we can close the complaint and move on with your application.”
Kate slid a prewritten cheque across the desk, signed by an unknown individual, presumably the branch manager.
Silence. I looked at the cheque and then up to Katie, then down to the cheque, then to Mum who was sat beside me for support. Her face was a mirror of mine.
“And the rest?”
“Sorry?” Katie blinked twice.
“Well, this can’t be the entire settlement. Given I’m not getting the full mortgage amount I was promised and after how much I’ve been messed about. I’m meant to be at work right now, not here. Besides, I should have got the fee-free mortgage in the first place. Thank you for this opening offer, but I reject.”
I handed the cheque back to my advisor. My response to what Katie, her manager and BankUK had assumed to be a fair offer stunned the former who once again returned to the same nervous state witnessed in our first meeting.
“Urm, can you give me a moment? I need to talk to my manager.” Katie requested.
“Sure,” I said, leaning back in my seat. “Take all the time you need. I’ve got all day.”
She returned a short while later to after apparently speaking to the invisible bank manager which we weren’t allowed to meet.
“My manager wants me to ask you if you had a settlement figure in mind.”
“Yes, something for us to work with. What would it take for all this to go away?”
“Can we meet the manager?” Mum chipped in. “I believe my daughter requested this on a previous email which you agreed to.”
“I would, but she’s in meetings all day today, but if you feedback to me I can pass any messages onto her.”
That was it, I decided. I’m officially banking with the mafia.
“Well I’d have to go away and carefully put a figure together. There’s money owed for transport, time off, stress of a house sale almost falling through and so forth. I think it’s best you tell your manager that I can’t be expected to pull out a random figure out of the air without some thought and analysis. It wouldn’t be very professional or fair to BankUK.”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“But that said I would like to get this sorted today. So, in light of that, I propose that I take the £99 today (as this is money you owe me anyway) and I sign the mortgage documentation so I can get the ball rolling on my house purchase. Meanwhile, I want to keep that complaint open for me to take this further with your regional managers.”
In my head all I could hear was Aretha Franklin singing Respect. Part of me wanted to flick my hair storm out of the cube room right there and then.
“Let me speak to my manager.”
Those six words marked the end of face-to-face negotiations with the white collar mafia. They accepted this temporary deal (more than anything to get rid of me). I signed the paperwork and finally secured a mortgage. Not the mortgage I’d originally wanted, but a mortgage nonetheless.
After another month of further discussion via letter and email a more reasonable settlement was agreed. In digging about to prove they were in the right, BankUK discovered that Jack*, my first advisor, had actually been in the office for several days prior to his accident. Several working days where he’d forgotten/put off contacting me about my failed mortgage application. Coupled with the birthday card and Katie’s admittance that they’d failed me, BankUK had little to use in their defence. They’d have to give out more than £99, either through the imposing financial regulators or one woman and her persistent emails. They went for the logical option, firstly by offering the higher mortgage value I’d originally applied for, followed by a request for a final figure to close the complaint for good.
I collected all my receipts and carefully justified every penny of compensation but in the end no hard evidence was required. To say they handed me a blank cheque would be over selling it, but to say they cared deeply would be false. At the end of the day they’re a bank who would be taking interest payments from me and millions others in the years to come. They weren’t short of money then and they aren’t short now. The figure on the cheque wouldn’t make the slightest difference to them, but it would to me. Was it the greatest victory in the world of small claim settlements? Nah, of course not, but it was a victory nonetheless. I’d taken on the banks and won.
The icing on the cake was my demand to sign the settlement paperwork in no other location but Swindon. Previously an unthinkable request, BankUK shoved Katie in a car with a cheque and sent her packing to Wiltshire.
I signed the documentation, took the cheque and wished her well in life. It was the closest thing to a thank you card she or BankUK were ever going to get from me. After all the stress and frustration, I finally had a mortgage and could start formal proceedings on my house purchase.
This post is part of The First Time Buyer Diaries. To view the full series (so far) click here.
Disclaimer: names of individuals/financial institutions marked with * have been changed.
Six weeks after my first mortgage meeting I found myself sat in the same bank branch, listening to the same generic music, with Mum by my side. The latter element caused a great deal of unease among the staff, the Customer Service Assistant’s face said it all. She handed us drinks and scuttled off to warn Katie* about the deeply unhappy customer and her menacing bouncer.
In stark contrast to both former advisor Jack* and her telephone demur, Katie was a quieter, more reserved figure. The sort of person who looked very knowledgeable and nice, but not built to handle stress or pressure. Like Jack she looked not much older than me, although the engagement ring on her finger suggested a higher degree of maturity and stability compared to her predecessor. Early on, as part of attempts to break the tension, she commented on her house purchase. Oddly enough, it didn’t work.
By the time my meeting with Katie had come around I had developed strong, understandable and justified reasons to be ticked off with BankUK*. Waiting for the elusive Saturday slot I’d had time to simmer, research and rebound. I’d sat in my small house share room fuming at the situation, firing off emails to solicitors promising all was in hand. The offer had been put on the property in November and it was now mid-January, unsurprisingly people on both sides were starting to ask questions regarding the legitimacy of funds. The emails I sent back were at best holding emails, at worst down right lies. I settled with telling myself they were white lies, the only thing that could hold the sale together. When I wasn’t on email I was on the phone, researching and grilling BankUK. I didn’t believe for a second that what they’d done was above board and was determined to find out more. One Thursday evening the exhaustive, repetitive, calls finally bore fruit.
“…well BankUK’s lending policy changed on January 5th. We decreased the lending multiples on that day.”
“Remind me again what date my mortgage was declined? The application which was based on the higher lending limit?”
“It was declined on January 7th Miss Bennett.”
“Right. I want a transcription of this call please.”
With this previously withheld knowledge now firmly in my grasp, Katie’s attempts to try and lighten the mood did nothing but make her look like an increasingly fragile figure.
“Now, I’m aware you have a complaint with us, but I am here to start a new mortgage application, as discussed on the telephone…”
“Yep, I remember that call,” I replied with a straight face.
“We’ll pick up the other outstanding issues once I’ve submitted your new mortgage application,” Katie quickly added with a strained smile.
It was at that time I realised that Katie was perhaps not as hard faced as her telephone manner had suggested. When the office scanner started playing up I could see her hands visibly shake. Trying to cover up her emotions, Katie squeaked “this printer always plays up!” I meanwhile sat across the desk, unsure what to make of my new advisor. “This can’t be the same woman I spoke to on the phone” I thought, “a puff of wind would blow her over”.
Watching someone get into a state is never particularly pleasant, especially when it’s over the presence of one’s own mother. Minutes later, with advisor and printer getting into an ever worsening state, the Katie dashed out of the room to find an alternative scanner.
“She’s freaking out.”
“She wasn’t expecting me to be here. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s gone to her manager.”
“I’m not angry at her, she’s not the one responsible for messing this up. But if I don’t assert myself they’ll think they can walk all over me.”
After a vacating for a lengthy period, Katie returned to the room in a more composed state. I did everything I could to speed the meeting and forced myself to think happy thoughts when I agreed to apply for the lower sum. At the end of the meeting Katie took the print outs of the emails and a scan of the famous birthday card and promised that the complaint would be looked into.
“In order to move this on, I suggest we meet this Thursday.” Katie said, shuffling papers.
“I work in Swindon during the week. Can we do Saturday?” I asked.
“I do alternate Saturdays I’m afraid.”
“Do I need to come to this meeting? If all it involves is signing the agreement can I post it?”
“Sorry, it needs to happen in Heathley branch. It’s policy.”
I sighed. “Fine, I’ll use my annual leave to sit in a finance meeting.”
“Great, I’ll see you then.”
And that was that.
Other than a quick email confirming my second application had been approved (“too ruddy right it has been”), the next time I spoke with Katie was in the second meeting. And if I thought the handling of my application was already poor, the situation was about to get a whole lot more bizarre…
This post is part of the ‘First Time Buyer Diaries’. To view the full series (so far) click here.
While the last house viewing had been preceded with relative calm, my second dip was a much tenser affair. For one, I was going to be the first person to view the house (“you want to view number 22? But its only just been put online!”) and secondly I didn’t want the agents to know my current situation. If they knew I lived next door it would provide them far too good a hand to use against me should I need it in negotiations. As before, my property guru parents had ventured down to Swindon to assist me and together we hatched a cunning plan to prior to the viewing. It went something like this:
1.All three of us would arrive in Mum’s car, I was not to walk there as it could be a giveaway that work was close by.
2.Dad wasn’t to park the car on the drive of my current rented house.
3.All three were to downplay the location and/or act naïve.
4.(As with any house viewing) we were to remain poised and calm throughout.
5.After the viewing, we’d linger on the drive until the agent went, then dash into my house next door to discuss further over tea and shortbread.
That was the plan and, in an ideal world, that’s exactly how the second house viewing would have gone. But then nothing is ideal, especially when it comes to houses.
Owing to dad’s parking a mini scrap broke out over point two before we’d even got out of the car.
“Why do you need to straighten up three times? You’re not going to be parked here long!”
“It’s no good, I can’t get it fitted into the space right. I’ll park over there.”
“For God’s sake! It’s an IQ, it couldn’t be any shorter if it tried! Mum, please can we just get out, the agent is stood there!”
“One more time…”
“Get me out!”
With some awkwardness, I clambered out of the back of the three door car.
“He’s being ridiculous.” I complained to mum, before performing a quick personality change to greet the agent.
After some mild surprise from the agent when I was presented as the potential buyer, Mum and I entered the property, with Dad following shortly behind. Point three on the plan worked, I kept very cool when it came to the location and held back the urge to get too overly excited about the property.
Unlike the first house, number 22 looked exactly as it did in the pictures. Everything was clean, tidy and all the rooms were nicely decorated. There was no clutter in sight. I wouldn’t go as far to say it was perfect but it was certainly near to it. Sure, the list price was a bit higher but then I was prepared to pay more just to be on a nice estate and away from the dreaded prospect of surface wiring. The only drawback was the issue of the third bedroom. As demonstrated on the floorplan, bedroom three was an odd L-shaped space, used for nothing but storage at the time of the viewing. Having sacrificed some of its space to allow for a bigger utility room, the room was now too small to be a suitably sized double bedroom, but too big to be ignored. The pre-existing tenants had the same dilemma themselves for in the room was a random trio of items: a chest of drawers, a bedside table and a massive American fridge.
Having mentally prepared myself for this scenario, I subtly got Dad to inspect the nature of the dividing wall and whether, at a glance, he thought it could be knocked down and moved back. The quick answer was yes.
As I took another look at the fridge and wonder what it was doing in a ground floor bedroom, a voice chipped in from behind.
“I had to put it somewhere.” The tenant commented.
Compared to the previous house, the presence of another human in number 22 bore none of us any problems, in fact it reassured me that the tenant held no grudge over a potential eviction.
“I want out of the contract,” came the blunt response when asked, “that’s why the seller has it up for sale. As soon as I can, I’m gone.”
Nice house, tenant on positive terms, all things were going well so far. Something had to slip up.
I was stood in the kitchen when I saw three people milling about outside the house. Trying to stop calmness jumping out of the first-floor window, I chose to ignore the group and tell myself they were just random people, before pressing on. Another floor up though and I could see they were still there. I got Mum into the master bedroom alone and muttered to her in an urgent fashion, “there’s other people waiting outside, look out bedroom two’s window.”
Mum popped into the other room while I made small talk with the agent.
“Did you say you had many viewings booked on this property?” Mum called out from the other room.
“Well, you are the first people to view the property, you got in really quick there,” replied the agent, “and yes, we’ve got a couple of people lined up. This one won’t hang about, it’s on the market at a very good price.”
“There are a couple of people stood on the driveway! More like couple of hundred” I thought.
We were starting to head downstairs when, to our annoyance and horror, a second agent came in leading a string of people.
“Morning Phil!” our agent cheerfully greeted one of the viewees.
I felt sick. Here I was in a house I really liked and the agents had the cheek of bringing round a property tycoon before I’d even exited myself. With mild panic setting in, I wanted to finish the viewing so I could discuss things outside. Mum agreed, but insisted we give the third bedroom one final look before departing. It was at this point we unfortunately got tied up in further conversation with the tenant. Awkwardly shuffling on the spot, I was becoming increasingly concerned that I could be discussing theoretical building works on a property I was about to lose. When the tenant started telling us about the quiet student neighbours, (“humph! I am not a student!” I remarked), I decided it was time to make a speedy exit.
Unfortunately Dad was less on the ball. I hissed through gritted teeth repeatedly for him to exit number 22, desperately trying to not let my panic show overtly, but, like many fathers, my Dad felt no sense of urgency.
“I’m putting my shoes on!” He called back at me as I manically waved to him from the car. I sighed in frustration and, having dropped the plan to go next door, Mum and I hopped into the IQ instead.
We must have waited no more than two minutes for Dad, however in that little car it felt like the Second Coming would happen first. (It was only months later I discovered the real reason why Dad had taken so long to vacate the property. Far from engaging in heavy conversation with the agent or tenant, my father had been making use of the downstairs toilet at quite possibly one of the worst times to do so.)
By the time Dad sauntered into the driving seat the Mum and I were in absolute hysterics.
“Where were you? Don’t you see what’s happening?! I’m going to lose this place!”
“We don’t have time to mess about, these people are investors. They could be making an offer as we speak!”
“So, you want the place then?”
“Yes!” I cried out, “it’s like my current place but ten times better. I know the area, I know it’s a good place to buy and nicely done out inside. Unlike the other place I could move in straight away. In short, I really like it Dad.”
Just then, the second viewers exited the property. As they parted with the agents it was all smiles and handshakes. We eyed them suspiciously from the cramped silver car as they walked back up the road.
“They’ll put an offer in if she doesn’t do it first,” Mum said, “there’s no time for laid back discussions over tea and biscuits. It’s now or never.”
What followed was the most heated discussion ever carried out inside a Toyota IQ. Over the next 90 seconds the car temperature increased by several degrees as figures were suggested and then retracted to only be put forward again seconds later.
“The house went on the market a couple of days ago. You should offer a sensible price for what is on offer. Don’t let your heart rule your head.” Mum warned me.
Once I’d decided on a starting offer (with the help of my parents), Mum put the call in. With her many years of property experience I felt it best she entered negotiations on my behalf. It was the right decision, her no-nonsense tone and straightforward presentation of the facts (that I wasn’t in a chain, that I had the deposit to put forward) helped convince the agents that I wasn’t there to mess about. That didn’t mean that the agents were about to make my life easy though. Before they were prepared to even consider the offer they wanted documented proof I had the funds to back it up. Luckily this information was all present and correct, loosely collected in a folder in my rented bedroom.
Keen to escape the claustrophobic tin can, we jumped out of the car and crashed in the living room of the house next door to the one I’d just viewed. Several cups of tea later, I handed my bank statements to my parents and left them to take the information to the estate agents while I tried to settle back into the pace of work back at the office. As lunchbreaks go, it had been the most stressful I’d ever incurred.
After reviewing the documents the agents put the offer to the vendors. As half-expected, the first proposition was rejected, only to be countered by one far exceeding my budget. I supplied my ever faithful negotiator with a final offer which was crushingly rejected.
“Tell them no more,” I said on the phone, “it’s a shame, but I’m not paying a penny more. It’s Swindon, they’ll be other houses.”
Half an hour later my phone buzzed. Expecting it to adopt the nature of a “chin up chuck” conversation, I calmly popped away from my desk to make a tea. I hit the dial button while I was en route.
“They’ve accepted the offer!”
“I know, I can’t believe it either! The vendor has had a change of heart and he’s accepted your final offer!”
I slumped against the corridor wall and went into a state of what I can only describe as ‘offer-acceptance shock’.
“Yes! The other guy doesn’t want to make an offer on account of that third bedroom and the vendor has been talked round by the agents. It’s official, you’re going to buy your first house!”
Once I ended the call I didn’t know what to do, I was shaking. Placing the silent phone to my ear so as to look purposeful, I turned to face the wall I took in a couple of deep breaths. I gently closed my eyes and suddenly could see the future.
This post is part of “The First Time Buyer Diaries”. To read the entire series (so far) clickhere.
After the failings of the first house viewing I was ready for a couple of weeks away from house hunting. It was November and the whole world was gradually gearing itself for the hype of Christmas, so much so I wondered if it was a sign from God that houses were not to be considered when you have fifty clients screaming for their branded posters. For all of about two days I accepted this and for those two days life without property searches was good. Blog posts got uploaded, newspaper articles written, outside of work life was a very productive affair. However my brief moment of tranquillity was not to last. On the third day I started involuntarily twitching at the site of Rightmove’s consumer-targeted advertising.
“Oh no, not the twitch!” I thought, “it’s the very reaction mum has to house programmes. The property twitch.”
I tried to hold my finger back, I even went onto various other non-property websites to distract the demonic spirit inside, but it wasn’t working. By the time day five came around I found my eyes wandering the streets to look at the bright bill boards outside properties for let or sale. (Some of the feelings I felt towards the sight of a new ‘For Sale’ board are too disturbing to be described anywhere on the internet.)
A particular low point came when I realised the property twitch had spread from my hands to my feet and, scarily, my brain. A house on a nearby street was undertaking
substantial building works around this time, a thirty-something male and his mates were ripping the place to shreds. One morning the need to be near the smell of brickwork became so great that, without thinking, I crossed the street to walk past the house and thereby straight through a mini-building site. Without thinking, in my black pump shoes and office wear I strolled through the mud and brick dust that covered the street. The two builders who had witnessed this from the comfort of the doorway with their tea couldn’t believe what they were seeing. It was only later down the road I realised what I’d done and subsequently cringed and made for the nearest patch of greenery.
“Christ, I need help” I muttered as I wiped my leather shoes on the dew covered grass.
Help (of a sort) came shortly after this event. I was watching Pointless on TV which to me represented a bit of a low point in my viewing choices (pun not intended), when an email flashed up in my inbox. No surprises for guessing who it was from.
“THE HOUSE NEXT DOOR IS FOR SALE!! ON RIGHTMOVE! LOOK!”
(It was as if there was a sale on exclamation marks.)
Thinking her to be either a) insane b) nosey or c) a combination of both, I gave in to my inner twitch and logged onto Rightmove. Immediately my body relaxed, it was as if it was destined to spend many nights on this website. As I started entering in my search criteria into the various boxes all I could think to myself was “what monster has my mother created?” A few clicks later and I was able to track down the property. It wasn’t hard to find, as mum had correctly identified it was indeed the house next door. My housemate’s white car sat proudly on the driveway to the left.
As I scrolled through the property images one thing that kept coming to mind was simply “this can’t be the house next door, this can’t be the house next door”. For starters it was a heck of a lot cleaner and minus the clutter of the house I was sat in, but it was also just so different. Fewer bedrooms had resulted in a different approach to space layout and planning. A bigger kitchen, normal straight staircases, access to a patio area! All things which number 22 lacked and suffered for. I was in my own bubble and couldn’t help but smile reading through the description. The agents needn’t have gone to so much bother, I was already sold.
Meanwhile, in the reality of number 22, a roommate set off the kitchen smoke alarm, triggering the property’s hard-wired alarm system. Shouts from other housemates rippled around the house while I sat staring at images of a tenant free property with its clean carpets and stylish bedrooms. I sighed. Carefully avoiding the spring that was starting to protrude from my mattress I took the one stride needed to cross the marked carpets to where my phone sat quietly charging. God knows I had tried to ignore the call of the housing market, but enough was enough. I made the call.
This post is part of “The First Time Buyer Diaries”. To read the entire series (so far) clickhere.
In the days leading up to my first property viewing evenings were spent looking at the same picture real over and over again until I nearly convinced myself I actually lived there. In what can only be described as mildly sociopathic, I scrutinised the property listing to deduce that the current owners were recently married with a small child (male) and the move must be linked to that. Careful study of the photos did however bring up other issues. My parents had also spotted something which had the potential to be much more damning; surface wiring.
I’d heard of surface wiring before. I knew it was something typically found in older buildings and it was a nightmare to sort out. (Remember the antidote on Warwick Castle and scrambling around floorboards? That was Dad rewiring a bungalow.) What I didn’t know however was how much it would cost to rectify. “Thousands” my Dad said bluntly, an opinion very much concurred by Mum. “It’ll cost you thousands to fix and you’ll never see the benefits” she said.
The three of us did everything to try and get a better look on the wiring, but the magnolia walls and grainy indoor photos made it virtually impossible to establish the presence of surface wiring. In the end we agreed to go through with the viewing anyway. The house was nicely presented in the photos, it was possible that the owners had already had the work done as part of redecorations.
On the day there was mild trepidation on my part. Yes, I was viewing a house, but what kind of house? There is something very different about viewing month-old still shots of a clean house compared to walking through an active family property in the here and now. The weather did nothing to assist with my spirits; on that particular Monday lunchtime it was chucking it down. Dashing to get work completed in the office my phone started pinging incessantly in a manner associated with only one person.
“Yes, yes Mum, I’m coming out now,” I grumbled as I tugged on my coat and walked past my professional colleagues. A sprint to the parked car outside and a speedy drive took me to the property in question, a Victorian mid terrace house.
I suppose the signs were never great to start with, it poured with rain that lunchtime. All three of us sat in Mum’s tiny Toyota IQ waiting for either the rain to clear or the estate agent to show up (whichever came first). As the appointment time came and went I sighed under my breath. As the viewing had been conveniently scheduled by my property agent to coincide with my lunch, every minute I went over my allotted hour was another minute I’d have to work overtime to compensate. After what felt like an age in that small car the agent appeared and the rain paused just long enough to get inside.
Dad had planned a few choice questions to ask the agent prior to the viewing. Questions linked to the electrics, the wiring and the attic space. Mum wanted to probe into the circumstances of the sale. The property had been on the market for a short while now, was there any room for negotiation on the price? I was there to see if fundamentally I wanted to live there and quietly ask questions to Mum when the agent was out of the room. If I’d learnt one thing over my many years of property involvement it was this; never, ever trust the word of the estate agent.
Our hopes were quickly dashed when we entered the property to see the vendor sat quite contently on the sofa with a baby on her knee. She smiled politely and greeted us, the baby likewise. Already we could see a probable reason why the property was still on the market, they had done this all before. We reciprocated and commenced our viewing. If the awkwardness of the vendor didn’t make things off putting, then the attitude of the estate agent certainly didn’t help. During the whole visit he was difficult and mildly unpleasant, it was as if he was irritated that the three of us had common sense. When the inevitable subject of surface wiring came up early on (which, we discovered, DID exist) the agent flippantly suggested it would only cost “a couple of hundred” to resolve. Dad, with his previous experience of rewiring a property, had little faith in the white-collar quote. “It’ll cost more than that” came the blunt response. Stood between two very differing opinions, I could sense the tension that usually preceded a Victorian street brawl. I moved swiftly into a room where Big Brother and its baby wasn’t present.
Where does one begin with the faults of that house?
To start with, the supposedly pristine kitchen had whacking chunks missing from the cupboards and the floor had stiletto-shaped holes in it. It was if a glammed-up Bull Terrier had gone through a Saturday night stint in the small space. Adjoining this was the one singular bathroom of the house. In the photos the bathroom looked like had been recently refitted, nicely done out to a high spec. Unfortunately, in the same way the camera supposedly adds pounds onto models, the camera had very much over promised on the offering in this room. We stood in dismay at the sight of broken wall tiles and the scruffy shower door swinging over a ‘well-loved’ bath. Climbing up the narrow stair case (the type one has to walk up sideways like an awkward crab), we walked across the landing and entered into what was the second bedroom. In amongst the piles of clothes and discarded children toys we could hear the loud banging and drilling of an engineer installing a new boiler in place. This was the boiler that the agent had boosted about in previous communication. It was also the new boiler that had caused the house price to increase by £5,000 overnight.
“Did she ask you to put the boiler there?” Dad called over the mess. Sandwiched between the bed and a pile of outgrown baby clothes, the engineer took a brief rest bite from his work.
“Yep. I would have installed elsewhere personally,” he shrugged, “but she insisted.”
Dad shuffled out to enable myself and then Mum to see the room. Who knew surprises lay beneath the raised clothes carpet, although even with all the junk removed I argued that as second bedrooms go it would still be a small room.
Like bedroom two, bedroom three had also been omitted from the listing photography of the house. A child’s bedroom, it naturally was also the smallest of the three in the property. A quick look around and, surprisingly, all seemed in adequate order (aside from the ‘stuck on’ looking plug attached to the sideboard. By this point though dodgy looking plug sockets had become water off a duck’s back to me). The rain having stopped, the three of us could look out over the garden from the small sash window. From a source above water was dripping down the pane in large blobs.
“That’s a bit suspicious,” Mum observed.
“Forget that, look at the wall!” I pointed to the wall of the second bedroom, visible from the indented third room.
A massive crack stretched right across the exterior wall, a diagonal split that in the dull November weather looked as menacing as it did damaging. Knowing that the crack would still be there in five minutes (and if not, the engineer would be the first to suffer the consequences), our little trio moved on. The agent meanwhile, clearly having written us off as serious contenders, only started to amble up the stairs as we entered the third and master bedroom.
By this point I don’t know what I was expecting the last bedroom to provide. A bit of normality I guess? Just a single space where there were no hidden horrors or things that needed urgent attention. I stepped into the bedroom and laughed. Put it down to insanity or the actual hilarity of what I was looking at, but I couldn’t help myself exclaiming my observation for all to hear.
“That radiator is wonky!”
The final blow had been cast. Disbelieving it for herself, Mum walked over to the piece of old plumbing to check. The secondary opinion came in, the radiator was, indeed, crooked. The estate agent started bleating that straitening the radiator would be a quick and easy job to do, that it was not an unusual feature of period properties. Our trio had long since stopped listening to the advice of the suited bald man, we scuffled across the tattered carpet and exited the room without even acknowledging his opinions. At the bottom of the stairs we bumped into the engineer again.
“Have you seen the crack on the exterior wall of that bedroom?” Dad muttered.
The engineer exchanged us with a knowing look, the classic look of a tradesman who wasn’t born yesterday.
“Yeah, it’s a mess. I wouldn’t want to sleep in that room,” he gruffly responded, before slipping out of the front door onto his next job.
We briefly popped outside to the back garden, more than anything to get away from the all-hearing estate agent and to participate in the unique British need to congregate and exchange negative comments about other people’s houses. Half of the guttering was missing, leaving a streak of mould down the second bedroom wall, but that felt old hat now. Give us something new. The rear parking was so far up a back-end dirt track that to get a car up there would be virtually impossible. Pfft, so what? Another stick in the fire. As we walked back up the crumbling garden path I cast a brief look at the neighbouring garden. With long overgrown grass, a knocked over fence, and disintegrating garden toys lying about haphazardly I whispered to Mum, “the garden next door looks rough.” I didn’t much fancy angering the neighbours.
From the dirty grout in the bathroom, to the rough looking garden next door (which, we were reassured a few too many times by the vendor, belonged to “lovely neighbours”), the three of us knew this period property wasn’t ‘the one’. Other than the mild humour that came when Dad realised he wasn’t going to fit through the Jimmy Crankie attic hatch, the level of investment required by this house was farcical. Two words; money pit.
Maybe this house was destined for someone more naïve or for first time buyers who wanted a long-term project, but someone that was not me. A feeling reciprocated by the agent, he shut the door firmly behind us as we walked out, leaving him, vendor and a crying infant inside.
“Is he going to come out?” I cautiously asked.
“Must be talking to the seller.” Mum replied.
“Perhaps he’s telling her she’s a fantasist to ask that much when there’s so much to do.” I mused.
“Maybe. At any rate, I’ve never experienced an estate agent like it. He seemed so nice and, well, typically estate agenty on the phone. Remember him Alice, you’ll never experience an agent like that ever again.”
From the house we ambled over to a local coffee shop where we sat and discussed the house we’d just viewed. Well, when I say discussed I mean we basically had a massive slating off session as we tore apart every single element of the past forty give minutes. Mum and Dad had travelled some distance to attend this viewing while I only had a five-minute walk back to the office. Waving them off I felt a pang of guilt that they’d travelled some way to see a duff house. However we all agreed that the house was in no way a goer, to the point where Dad said he’d step in if I even vaguely suggested putting an offer on it.
Two days later the estate agent contacted Mum with a markedly different attitude. With a friendlier tone, he accepted our points about the surface wiring and general state of the property.
“I have told her she needs to drop the price, but she’s set on getting higher than the market valuation. It doesn’t help that she seems in no rush to move. Her partner is currently working in North Devon but she doesn’t want to let the place go.”
Mum left the agent with a simple and clear message “fine, good luck to her with that.”
So this particular house was a no, but I refused to be downbeat about the whole experience. My first property visit had been an eye opener and educational to say the least. There would be other houses to view in the future and I there would be many more rejections before I found ‘the one’. The property search would continue on.
This post is part of “The First Time Buyer Diaries”. To read the entire series (so far) clickhere.
“You’re not looking at houses in Swindon again are you?”
“Well, a couple of nice places have come up in the past couple of days. Look at this one on Morrison’s Street…”
“Oh for Christ’s sake mum! How many times have we been over this?!”
The start of my home buyer journey began many years ago, before I had even stepped foot in Swindon. Picking up property magazines, browsing through estate agent windows, the glossy images of marble topped kitchens and designer bedrooms scattered across the kitchen table. The rise of the internet changed nothing but the advert medium. Praise and scrutiny of homeowners formed an integral part of the Bennett way of life, one which still exists to this day.
“What a messy garden.”
“Look at the tape across the sinks, that one is a repossession. If only we had the money…”
My folks have dabbled in the property market for as long as I can remember. My childhood memories are pin pricked with flashbacks of being traipsed around rentals, scrubbing holiday cottages and, in one fond memory, being convinced that we wouldn’t go to Warwick Castle unless I got under the floorboards and helped dad with the rewiring. It also meant exposure to heated discussions when things went wrong. It was ok though, if it got too much I’d go out into the field and run around with a stick. It didn’t matter if the tenants in Bidford were being difficult, because I was Superwoman and the proud owner of the biggest and best mud pie in Gloucestershire and that was all that mattered.
When my parents decided to pursue a new investment venture in my university city of Southampton some ten years later I was introduced directly into the world of house buying. How to view a property, how to negotiate and how to spot potentials and money pits. 19 Highcrown Street indeed helped to cultivate my inner middle-aged persona. As students in neighbouring streets slept off their hangovers, at twenty I was hanging out with handy men, builders and carpet fitters. I was also monitoring house accounts, handling awkward topics of underpayment (and evictions) and doing house viewings for potential roommates (and responsible tenants). For two years I helped manage my student digs, giving me invaluable real-world experience in a student bubble that provides you with anything but.
My deep seated need to buy a house was therefore nothing less than expected. As house prices steadily rose and fell, I steadily saved, watching intently as the Recession broke across Europe and interest rates fell. By the time I was at University the bigger concern was over employment at the other side, but even that wouldn’t stop me trying to achieve my dream. With a peculiar level of pride I lived off £4.50 a week to save on my student loans and limiting spend to need only purchases. ‘Want’ buys tended to come with mild guilt and/or heavy usage (to this day I still wear particular dress I bought when I was sixteen years old, partly because I felt bitter at splashing out £18 on it at the time). If you were to ask any of my friends and colleagues, past and present, they would testify the same about the surreal outlook on savings adopted by Alice Bennett. Even I myself used to consider myself to belong to a very special club for having the aspirations of owning property before owning a car.
I graduated from Southampton in the summer of 2014. On the day I graduated (16th July) Bashar al-Assad was sworn in for a third term as president of Syria and at around the same time throwing buckets of ice water over people became a thing. Luckily by this time the graduate employment was starting to bounce back and, thanks to assorted extracurricular activities, I secured a job working in the head office of a nationally recognised Heritage organisation. I bit a tearful farewell to Southampton, packed up my bags and headed to a House of Multiple Occupancy (otherwise known as a HMO or house share) in Swindon. Renting a room with other young people, in a town that also wasn’t particularly pretty, I would come to refer to the Wiltshire town as “a smaller Southampton”.
The housing market in Swindon has remained fairly unchanged since 2014 but don’t be fooled, the town is on the cusp of a substantial property boom. Compared to other local towns in Wiltshire and the neighbouring Cotswolds, Swindon is cheap. Inexpensive (relatively) but not too bad a place to live. Close to the M4 corridor, a commutable distance to Bristol and South Wales and, when the railway line is fully electrified, it could take less than an hour to get to London Paddington. The average house value in Swindon (complete with multiple bedrooms, parking and a garden) is considerably lower compared to London (which, based on what I’ve seen, will get you somewhere as big as a box room). You don’t need to have an A* in British currency to see the difference. And investors are not stupid people, they were starting to realise it too. As quickly as I could save £1000 by living off mouldy cheese and plain rice house prices around me would increase by £5000. The problem was not my level of saving, more what was obtainable. My resistance to mum searching on property websites such as Rightmove wasn’t due to a lack of property interest, but more because I simply could not afford to buy something that wasn’t a shed. As she got to learn the housing market of Swindon better, mum started to send me links to properties with the comment “I give it two days” and sure enough a perfect house would change to SOLD within the allotted 48 hours. She meant no harm by it, she was after all a self-titled housing guru, however it didn’t stop me feeling utterly helpless.
I decided to set myself (and mum) a few choice requirements for any property that I wanted to live in, thus reducing the ill feeling towards the natural cycle of house markets and start a more realistic internal monologue (“people sell houses and buy them, get over yourself Alice!”)
The requirements were:
Ideally three bedrooms (I didn’t want to live alone and I wanted lodgers to help cover the property costs).
West Swindon (close proximity to work and amenities).
A sound investment (I am my parent’s daughter after all).
No dumps/long term projects.
AFFORDABLE!! (Unless I shacked up with Mr. Bank of England any property had to fall within a tight budget.)
Mum’s reaction to my list was as expected.
“Well, they’re not going to get you onto any house buying shows are they? Kirsty Allsopp would hate you!” She exclaimed. “You’re searching in a half mile radius of Victorian terraces. Do you know how hard it is to find parking in this area?”
“Yes.” I responded, walking out the door. “Good luck.”
I thought the list would stop the constant emails from my unpaid land agent. It didn’t.
Things remained unchanged for the next two years. Searching Rightmove for property became a hobby sport more than an actual, let’s look for something to buy now. Spending Saturday nights throttling the next button, tapping on floor plans (“ooh, look at that nicely sized living room…”), passionate shouting matches with a dodgy broadband connection as it cuts out part-way through the photo slideshow. It was only when I told a friend about my nightly activities that I understood this was not how most young singletons spend their finite time on Earth.
In 2016 two things would happen to change my outlook: securing a permanent contract and a hefty handful of luck.
Obtaining a permanent job in Swindon equalled job security and meant for the first time I could apply for a mortgage (if so wished). It was a real game-changer in how I perceived the town. It gave me the freedom to do what I wanted without having to constantly prepare for my contract coming to an end. No more would I have to beg my line manager for a contract extension every four months. It also forced me to acknowledge that, after nineteen months, chances are I was going to remain fairly fixed in Swindon for the foreseeable future.
As for the luck, well that came into play on a damp November day in the shape of a harmless text.
“Just emailed you. Let me know what you think. x”
When I got back into my small room that evening I dumped my bags on the floor and scrambled across the bed to get my laptop. A click on the email and a double tap on the link took me to, surprise-surprise, a house for sale in Swindon. However this one looked nice, there was a charming bay window and some nice potted plants outside. Inside it had three bedrooms, a decent sized garden and even off road parking. It was also a reasonable price. With a deep breath I picked up the phone and made the call to my land agent.
“That house looks nice mum, I think I’d like to view it.”
“Already booked. Next Wednesday at 1:30 to fit around your lunch.”
“Your mother is crazy Alice! I couldn’t stop her!”
“Don’t listen to your father.”
It was official; I was going to view my first Swindon property.
This post is part of “The First Time Buyer Diaries”. To read the entire series (so far) click here.
For you I saved since I was 14 years old
For you I patiently waited in a world of rising prices and panic
For you I searched long and hard
For you I put up with the stubborn legalities and the long, stressful days and restless nights
(But) for you it was 100% worth it and I’d do it all again
For you are a three bedroom townhouse and are officially mine.