2. Surface Wiring, Scruffy Bathrooms and Slanted Radiators: House Viewing #1

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) click here.

1. Steamy Nights in With Mr. Rightmove (The First Time Buyer Diaries)

“Mum what are you doing?”

“Just searching.”

“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.”

“Overpriced.”

“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”.

 

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#HouseGoals

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:

  1. Ideally three bedrooms (I didn’t want to live alone and I wanted lodgers to help cover the property costs).
  2. West Swindon (close proximity to work and amenities).
  3. A sound investment (I am my parent’s daughter after all).
  4. No dumps/long term projects.
  5. 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.

The ‘First Time Buyer’ Diaries: For You

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.

 

Nablopomo Day 25: Update on Living Arrangements

It has been a little while since I provided an updated on my living arrangements, so here is a quick summary.

Location: Still based in Swindon

Company: Still working for that same national organisation

Department: UPDATE – back in March I moved from the Commercial department to Marketing

House: Still living in 22 Starfish Road* (*not actual street name)

Housemates: Still living with Cherice and Becki the mermaid. UPDATE – I now also live with Amy who works at the head office of a high street newsagent firm, and Alex who, for whatever reason, can’t tell us where he works (we’re thinking Ministry of Defence or mafia boss)

Hobbies: Still managing the Swindon 18-30 group, hitting the gym, baking and (obviously) blogging. UPDATE – I now also write articles for a local online paper, The Swindonian

Transport: Still car-less. UPDATE – now much better at navigating the public bus system

In general: Still making the same mistakes and being wonderfully me. Classic Alice lives on.

22 Starfish Road (Where the Mermaid & Her Housemates Live)

I’ve been doing this blog a solid amount of time now and yet it has only just come to my mind that you guys know nada about where I live. I was munching away on a tuna baguette I’d just rustled up (you’ll be impressed to know I managed to combine the two components without setting the smoke alarm off – a first for me) when the thought struck my mind. So here we are, a summary of everything you need to know about the house Alice, the mermaid and the other ‘professionals’ live in.

Now, for the sake of not wanting to come home one day and find myself hassled by one fan, I am going to give a fake name for the house. It’s on a housing estate with street names that all link to one theme, a theme that bears no resemblance to the area. So, in landlocked Swindon I’m going to say I live on 22 Starfish Road.

Summary:

Date of construction: Early 2000’s

No. proper bedrooms: 4

No. of actual bedrooms: 5

Floors/Storeys: 3

Bathrooms: 3

Parking: Off road and garage

Oh that’s good, do you actually use the garage for a second car?: No, it houses Mermaid Becki’s wheelchair and DIY trolley, so she can be carted around for her performances. There’s also a desk and loads of rubbish.

Garden: Urm, there’s a weird patch of slabs off the back of someone’s bedroom. But we do have a communal garden, where you can sit and feel uncomfortable because it looks like you’re out there watching children when you just want them to go away so you can read your book. So really, no.

Things you need to know:

  1. We have random pictures/hangings in the house that have probably been there since construction. Images that have nothing to do with each other or the house.
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2) Tenants of this house have an abject fear of letting go of the Christmas spirit. I kid you not, we had a Christmas cake sat on the microwave that only got thrown out this week. This wreath:

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…This wreath has been outside my bedroom since late December. A fellow housemate is so used to seeing it she’s forgotten that Christmas wreaths should not normally hang off third floor radiators. But then to put it in the garage takes time and it’s cold and scary down there, so we leave it. Not as bad as last year when the tree stayed in the living room until about April/May:

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3) There’s always a blown out lightbulb – that or one just vanishes one day.

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We all marvel as the non-existence of it, we all get a bit grumpy because it increases the risk of falling down the stairs and dying at night, but yet we all get on with it.

4) Things that could easily be resolved tend to get left unless they’re life threatening. Mine and Sophie’s bath for example has the tendency to do this whenever we use the shower:

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(I think we’re too British to talk about bath water – I really should bring it up in conversation…)

5) speaking of bathrooms and water, 22 Starfish Road has previously flooded – on the third floor. This expertly filmed video shows how bizarre a situation it was. Not what I was expecting when I got home from work. (Also, because I haven’t used Windows Movie Maker since I was 12, I also added a cool stock library soundtrack to make it sound more dramatic and cool. It also helps hide my awkward British film narration).

6) We accumulate random items. As a result of living in a houseshare where tenants come and go, we pick up the random items that get left behind. Because the housemate leaving doesn’t tend to say “hey, I’m leaving this food behind” or “help yourself to my juicer” we tend to leave it. Like a loyal dog we assume the owner will one day come back for it, or it is owned by a current housemate. Both are false. Therefore in our house you’ll find objects only young professionals would own. Items like soda streams and blenders…

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…or endless piles of crockery:

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Fancy a George Foreman? We have two! Although we’ve haven’t read the instructions, you get healthy from stacking them in a corner and letting them gather dust right?

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As there’s now five girls in the house we know this isn’t ours, but we’re all a bit scared by it:

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…And we have a VCR video player. Just because.

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7) This is not a good place to live if you have cleaning OCD. If you read the blog post on my cupboard contents – There’s Some Weird Shizz in My Cupboard – with horror then you really don’t want to start poking around in the communal spaces too much. This cupboard I had to force shut:

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And as for the utility. Well, I’d advise you look away now:

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If you look very carefully you’ll see that there should be a sink in the right hand corner of the above image. Not anymore.

(None of the above stuff is mine I’d like to add. Lets make that very clear.)

8) Despite earning a respectable salary, I still remain stuck in my Grimgrad ways. From looking at my fridge self you’d honestly think I was sponsored by Sainsbury’s Basics.

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(I’ll be honest, you caught me on an off day. There’s usually a tub of Basics hummus in there as well, with Basics pita bread to go with it.)

What can I say – I’m a creature of habit and a creature that is, for her age, unhealthily obsessed with the current housing market and need to save up a deposit for a fictional house.

Can’t say my bedroom is much better. For the sake of my privacy, I’m only taking a photo of my bed, however I think it sums up my life pretty well.

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Laptop, headphones, plate (which usually always has food on it), book (Far From the Madding Crowd by Hardy is the present choice), oh, and a giant Stitch toy (a character from Disney’s Lilo and Stitch). Long story but my sister and I have a soft spot for this scene:

(More because Stitch has a stupid voice than the sentimental value).

To show me how much she loves me, she gives me the world’s biggest Stitch toy. One which takes up my room and therefore my life. I now know how Miss Bates felt in Emma when Jane Fairfax buys her a stupidly sized piano for the tiny house.

Love you sis!

I was going to write more on this, but I’ll save my room for another post. A sequel to “There’s Some Weird Shizz in my Cupboard” if you like.

So that’s the house. A nice summary of what it’s like to live in the four walls of 22 Starfish Road, Swindon. A pretty decent house as house shares go, certainly one of a kind. As long as I don’t think about the contents of the utility room and the monster that I’m convinced lives in the garage then I’m just fine living here.

Aren’t we lucky professionals?

Ps – After I filmed the state of the house post third-floor water pipe flooding, I felt compelled to dance about in the flooded patch. Not only did I dance about in it, but I also filmed myself doing it. It must have been a long day in the office, or the pipes were leaking more than water. I’ve added more Windows music so it sounds like Alice is having the time of her life, bless her. Enjoy.