The Pleasures and Horrors of Buying a House
There is a romantic view that homes are made with love. That through hard work and caring we can transform shabby buildings, with peeling wallpaper and drab colours into Instagram photos. But in reality homes aren’t made with love. They’re made with skill. I realize this as I look at the wonky bolt I have attached to my gate. Just wanting it to be straight isn’t enough to make it so.
I blame home renovation shows. The house-hunting, nesting couples may change, but the woodworm and planning permission remains the same. Over and over we watch the misadventures and pitfalls of house renovators leading to the final, inevitable moment when the newly redecorated house is revealed in its stunning, TV-network-subsidized glory. As a format they seem to be almost powered by magical thinking: the home renovators’ desires for a barn conversion with lots of south light leads to one coming into existence. If they want that extension enough, they will get it.
I am thinking of this as I look at the mouldy mattress the previous owners left in the garage and wondering how to get rid of it. There will come a time when the house is painted and refreshed, but right now it is dusty and cold and full of other people’s stains and that day seems a long way away.
Moving house is an unsettling experience. When you arrive you are more squatting than anything. Your possessions are boxed or in transit. Nothing is in the right place. I am sleeping on a mattress on the floor. The olive oil is in a cupboard with the spanners. One kitchen drawer contains lightbulbs and the single fork I use for all my meals. I may have found a home, but none of my possessions have.
During this period, I feel both liberated and adrift. I realize I can get away with just that single fork. The rest of my kitchen utensils are unnecessary. No one really needs a slotted spoon or a potato masher. I half daydream of burning all my possessions. Or at least leaving them packed up and starting again from scratch, only unboxing the essentials and throwing everything else out. There’s something magical about a clean start. A sort of possession do-over. But, I also wish I had a sofa so I didn’t have to sit on a pillow and eat dinner off my knees.
A friend of mine tells me that when he moved he used a company that packed everything. He walked out of his current house leaving his possessions in the places they always were. The company came, boxed everything up, and unpacked it all into the equivalent rooms in his new house. Sort of like restoring from an iCloud backup onto a new phone. I can’t work out if this is the dream or a nightmare.
Often I feel like the modern world has everything sorted. I develop a contemporary fin-de-siècle delusion that we have invented everything that needs inventing. If you ever feel this, there is nothing like buying a house to dissuade you of this view. Buying property is a knotty, arcane process, full of pitfalls and gotchas based on laws from centuries ago. In the UK, many houses still come with an obligation to fund repairs to the roof of the local church. I have to pay £25 for “chancel liability insurance” to protect against this (and £100 for a solicitor to arrange it). I feel like an Anglo-Saxon peasant. Seven years ago, the UK government tried to get rid of the rule but due to a procedural confusion the bill was “lost” as it progressed through the legislative system. One archaic institution failed to get rid of another archaic rule. As a result I have to pay £25. (And £100 to the solicitor. Whatever changes, the solicitors always do alright.)
There are dozens of forms and documents. A search for radon gas turns up nothing, but a more worrying form warns of toxic chemicals nearby (the cause is a laundrette down the road). The solicitors bounce back increasingly passive-aggressive worded emails to each other: “Further to my letter dated 23rd March, I note you have still not provided the answers to questions 3, 8, 12 , and 13…”/“As per our correspondence dated 28th March, I refer you to…”. It is an occupation that seems to consist of writing catty emails. I am glad we don’t use this process to buy anything else: further to my correspondence ten seconds ago, I notice there is still an unexpected item in the bagging area.
If there is one area ripe for disruption from a tech upstart, it is surely house purchasing. I look to see if any tech companies are trying to improve the property market, but the only companies I find are exploitative sharks, preying off people in dire straits: we guarantee to buy your home, they say, before offering fully 50% below the market average. They are the pay day loans of the housing world. The conveyancer I use has a web portal to track progress, but it has a look of 1998 about it. “Upload a photo of your house,” it says. But when I try, I get a 500 server error.
Property remains one of the few exchanges we make, along with car-boot and yard sales, where we purchase second-hand goods directly from an individual without guarantees or protections. Once the money is handed over so are the problems and there are no-takebacks. It is a straight zero sum game where the seller’s gain is directly the buyer’s loss and vice versa. How strange that we put more regulation around tat from corner shops than we do the most expensive purchase any of us will ever make. I have more protection buying a phone case from eBay than buying this house.
In our heads, there is something romantic about house purchases. Brides are carried over doorsteps, couples choose paint colours together and laugh as they fall through loft floorboards. But when I talk to friends who have bought houses, their overriding experience is relief followed by exhaustion. Those positive images are the stuff of mortgage adverts, not real life. The emotions we see on the actors’ faces belong to bankers with their bonuses and 30 year mortgages at a guaranteed 1.5% above the base rate.
For the first few days, I imagine what I’m going to do to each room. Where I will put the sofa, the TV, what colour I will paint the walls. This renders the house into a semi-imaginary state. At one point I catch myself thinking of going and watching TV in the living room before remembering the living room doesn’t have a sofa in it. Or a TV.
Property ownership is a privilege denied to many. Bring out the world’s tiniest violins for the people who can afford to purchase properties and find the carpets stained and the paintwork faded. There is something magical about buying your own house. Even if the roof is leaking and the windows rattle. We love our houses, as only a parent can, no matter the flaws with their floors, they are are our safe places. An Englishman’s home is his castle, they say, but I don’t see this limited to those from England. Everyone’s home is their castle.
I wander around this new building, touching things. This radiator. This is mine. I am a radiator owner. This toilet, this too, is mine. Limescale and all.