What follows is a slightly longer entry on my buying-a-home-in-London drama. If it’s not your cup of tea I won’t mind if you skip it.
Once upon a time
About two years ago, V and I decided to buy a place in London. We’d saved a bit of money, we both had good, stable jobs, and we were planning to start a family. It seemed like the natural thing to do.
We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I mean, this is London we’re talking about.
We knew there were lots of boxes to tick (affordable, nice safe neighborhood, feasible commute to work) and plenty of compromises to make.
We knew we’d be fighting endless bidding wars with dozens of other prospective buyers and that we’d end up paying more than we were prepared to.
We knew it would take forever to find a place, because there simply aren’t that many places, and we can’t possibly do viewings 24/7, what with life needing to be lived as well.
So in many ways, we were terrified. But then, this would be our home, our first, wonderful home together, and we were ready to go through whatever it took to get it.
In with the new
To begin with, we started looking at newly built properties. Mainly because we were hoping to find something that didn’t need a lot of work done, what with us being pretty much penniless once we’d pay the deposit, and determined to start trying for kids straight away. So new builds seemed to check those boxes from the get-go.
Remember when I said there weren’t many properties for sale in London? Well, out of that handful of places which are for sale, only a fraction of about 2% are newly built.
Most people might find that off-putting, but no, not me. For more than seven months, I spent every lunch break, tube ride and free moment I had searching the guts of the internet for brand new, expensive as hell, super duper London flats and houses. I began stalking the building companies, phoning them at all hours and dropping by their show homes every weekend, trying to get my name on waiting lists and waving my mortgage agreement at them like a victory flag. See? They’re giving me money! And I’m ready to throw it all at you in a flash, this mountain of money I’ll be paying back for decades, just stay the word and it’s yours.
But everybody can get a mortgage these days, I was nothing special. So I got myself on a million waiting lists, and waited, my crumpled mortgage agreement forgotten at the back of a drawer.
When a newly built development gets launched, they first let the investors know. That happens weeks, months before everything is released for sale to people like me, the waiting list losers. Investors get the first pick, usually pick the best places, and usually pay cash. At that point, the development may not even be built, just a bunch of flags on a muddy patch of land and a tiny sales office.
It’s with the investors’ money that the first building phases get funded, and by the time us waiting list losers learn the properties are available to buy, most of them have already been purchased off plan, by cash paying investors or the building company’s friends and relatives. Fair enough, I mean, more than half the people I know in this city are looking to buy a place. If I were a builder, and had houses on sale, I’d be nice and let my friends know first, right? Anyhow.
By the time the rest of us, who cannot fork out half a million pounds in cash overnight and are not related to any of the sellers, finally get the green light, there’s a couple hundred people fighting to the death over half a dozen houses or flats. It’s supposed to work on a first come first served basis but really, when there’s three things on offer and three hundred people each wanting a piece, there’s no such thing as first come first served, is there.
When we finally found a flat we liked, we were on top of the world. It had been 9 months of searching, waiting and growing bitter.
And then there was this flat, in an area we liked, and there were only two left in the building, and who cared it was £50,000 more expensive than we were prepared to spend, and that it was on the top floor and not newly built per se but in a converted office building, and pretty much glued to the rail line with trains passing by your window every half hour? I mean, who cared, really? It was huge, we’d finally have a proper nursery and, humanity!, a study! We’d be able to ride our bikes around the living room if we wanted to, and more importantly, we didn’t need to be getting ourselves on any waiting lists, we could just decide, then and there, pay our £2,000 reservation fee and that was that, three months later we’d be moving into our new home.
So we did, pay that fee I mean, and for a while, we were happy.
You know how you get a letter in the mail, from the company selling you your new flat, and you think, yay-oh-yay, it’s probably time we went and picked out tiling and carpeting, it’s finally happening tripple-yay, and then you open it and you find your £2,000 check and a three line letter saying they’re no longer selling the building for reasons they can’t disclose, and here’s your money and bye bye. And then you go online and you find out they’re bastards and are not selling because they’re waiting for the market to pick up so that they sell for more profit.
What, that’s never happened to you? Oh well, let me tell you then. It sucks.
It sucks so much that you want to go by their sales office and make a Romanian swear-words scene, but you don’t, because they really don’t need more stuff about nasty Romanians in the Daily Mail, and you get it, you can’t make anyone sell you their stuff if they don’t want to, but somehow that doesn’t make it suck any less.
Not old, vintage
It was at that point that we started looking at old houses and flats as well.
Maybe new wasn’t for us. Clearly we weren’t agile, sneaky, rich and tough enough to win this fight against sellers, investors and hundreds of equally desperate unfortunates. So extending our house hunting targets to include older builds couldn’t hurt, right?
Shopping for older builds in London works like this: You spend each and every afternoon and weekend going to viewings and open houses. You book a time slot, which contrary to what you may think, does not ensure you’ll be viewing the property at your own pace for 10 or so minutes. Nope, there will be 12 of you booked into the same 15 minutes time slot and you’ll be bumping into each other down narrow corridors and stair cases, you won’t get to ask many questions and you’ll never get to see a room twice. You’ll not get to see the property twice either, mainly because by the time you’ve made your way from the door to the parking lot, there’s already half a dozen offers on the table and the bidding process is well on its way.
Oh, the bidding. It truly is a thing of wonder.
You get about 6 seconds or so to come to a decision and put in an offer. Once you do that, the estate agents will, without fail, call you back and tell you that your offer has been matched and that you need to come back with your best offer. Your offer will always be matched, it’s a fact of life in the property market. I’m more sure that your offer will be matched than of the fact that the sun will be up tomorrow as well, just like today, all round and shiny and bad for your skin.
You will never, at any point, even if you win the bidding process, get any details about the other bids, or any confirmation that they even existed. It’s a trusting game, this bidding business, what’s not to like about it.
Of course, we’ve lost this game more times than I can count.
And it’s hard to believe how this process has changed us. We’d devised this set of rules on which to base our decisions, and those rules evolved from what we thought was common sense to begin with, to absolute insanity towards the end.
“You don’t like the place? Don’t buy it!” became more of a “You don’t like the place? Has it got a roof/walls/survivable amounts of asbestos? Bid £60,000 over the asking price!”
“You don’t like the area? Don’t buy it!” turned into “Only got raped once on your way to the viewing? Lovely area, you’ll fit right in!”
And let’s not forget, “Is it too expensive? Don’t buy it!” of course became “No such thing as too expensive, this is crazy town London!”
And then, one day, we found it.
A beautiful two bedroom flat, light and airy, freshly redone and on the most adorable street. We clicked with the vendor straight away, and made an offer the same afternoon. We did go through the bidding war through the estate agency again, but the vendor had really liked us and intervened and in the end, we managed to get the place for a price we were both very comfortable with. Still £20,000 over the asking price, but hey, who’s counting.
Boy, were we happy.
Everything started happening really quickly. We hired a property surveyor, and everything was fine. Our solicitor initiated the land registry searches, and everything was fine. Our bank came back with our final mortgage offer, and everything was fine. It seemed we were days away from exchanging contracts and moving in, and everything, absolutely everything, was fine. We even gave our two months notice at our place and I started hoarding decorating ideas on Pinterest and walking up and down furniture aisles on lunch break, mentally placing tables and chairs around what would soon be our very own, absolutely beautiful living room.
When we hit the first bump, I didn’t even notice. I was too happy picking fabrics and organizing my everything in labeled cardboard boxes. And then my solicitor started calling me frantically every ten minutes and it hit me: maybe everything wasn’t fine after all.
There’s this lovely thing called property lease. Without going into too much detail, our vintage flat’s lease had been written out 30 odd years ago. Since then, things like legal terms and such had been updated, and this exciting little paper called a deed of variation needed to be made now, in order to cover all those out of date lease issues. Sounds simple enough, right?
Here’s a short summary of how things unfolded.
Week 1: Vendor’s solicitors say they are unable to sort out the deed. (lie)
Week 2: Vendor’s solicitors say the building’s managing company refuse to sign the deed. (lie, they had never mentioned the deed to the managing company, in fact, had never been in contact with them altogether)
Week 3: Vendor’s solicitors say the building’s insurer refuse to sign the deed. (lie, they signed straight away once we contacted them directly)
Week 4: Vendor’s solicitors say everyone is happy with the deed and that they will come back to us with the final document asap. (lie)
Week 5: Vendor’s solicitors don’t pick up or return calls for an entire week.
Week 6: I transfer most of my savings into my solicitor’s account to prepare for contract exchange. In less than 2 weeks we need to leave our current flat with nowhere else to go. The deed of variation is finally signed by all parties but the building’s managing company, who refuse to sign it and then go on holiday.
This brings us to present time. We are ten days away from involuntary homelessness. Six days really, because weekends don’t count. Nothing can happen over a weekend that can save us. But things do happen, even on weekends, things that make me go crazy with worry and hopelessness.
I’ve been packing everything with such fervor that I’ve got paper cuts up to my elbows and touching the sticky part of so many yards of packing tape has turned my fingertips raw and unfit for typing. I dream about bubble wrap, but really it’s all part of this bigger dream in which we’ve got nowhere to go and all we’ve got is mountains of labeled boxes and bubbles everywhere. I’ve lost eight pounds in ten days, which would be great, really, had I intended to lose eight pounds in ten days.
Then earlier this week I was frantically looking for some paperwork to fill in for our solicitor. It was urgent, like all things are these days, and I was sure I’d seen it somewhere, so I turned our living room upside down, I even opened some of the boxes I’d taped just the night before, I checked under the armchair pillows, behind the few books still on shelves, even in the oven, I drove to my office to check my locker and then drove back going over every possible hiding place in my mind, raided the bedroom and the insides of every bag, backpack and suitcase in sight, and hours, hours later I finally sank to the floor and sobbed, really sobbed for twenty minutes or so, all the while aware that I was losing my mind. I’d never had those papers, I realized. They’d always been in an email, never printed out.
And yes, I know. There are so many much worse things people are going through these days. Trust me, I know. In fact, it’s probably the only thought that keeps me somewhat sane right now. But I’m struggling, and it’s the kind of struggling that not only was I not prepared for, but it doesn’t seem like it’s going to end any time soon.
So this is it, my home hunting adventure so far. For what it’s worth, we’ll hopefully know something by tomorrow, and then I’ll be embarking on my homeless adventure, which I’m sure will be super duper blogging material as well. So at least there’s that. The glass may be half empty, but at least there’s a glass. Until there isn’t one, because it’ll have to be wrapped in bubbles and put into storage.