“Mum what are you doing?”
“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.