6. Mortgage Developments

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.

Mess With My Garden, Mess With Me. 

It’s a gloriously sunny day in the fair town of Swindon, Britain. The temperatures are scorching, children are playing about on the lush green communal lawns and there are men walking around topless who really shouldn’t be. So why do I find myself ripping my hands to shreds as I tug away at weeds and vines in my garden?

Crawling under my front hedge to pick up pieces of rogue rubbish, putting together an outdoor table and realising at the finish line I’d screwed one part upside down and thereby having to start all over again. When I bought a house they did no tell me this is how I would spend my finite time on Earth. My government sold me a lie! Damn you Teresa May!

As I look at my patio garden, now with correctly assembled three piece dining set, I acknowledge that to some the small outdoor space would hardly pass as acceptable. The fact that despite the owner’s hard efforts, vine and weed sprouts are already starting to poke through the wicker fence would be inexcusable. There is no water feature or decorative sculpture, no plants and excluding the weeds there isn’t a speck of green. Not a single blade of grass can compete with the paving stones which stretch from the back door to the boarder of my territory. In fact it could be said that the only characteristic feature of the plot is the clothes horse proudly plonked in the centre to catch as much light as possible. As I type my floral duvet in ruffling ever so slightly in the near still breeze. Foliage will make an appearance eventually, as soon as I have the money to buy pots, soil and greenery which requires zero attention to look fabulous. (As I reread that I realise that basically I’m asking to plant a tub of weeds…)

And yet do I care? Pfft, of course not! Because although it’s not perfect and it’s not a 20 acre meadow, it’s mine. Who wants perfect? Who wants to battle a wild meadow on their weekends just to use it as a five minute conversation piece at dinner parties? Not me. You can keep all that, I’ll take my perfectly small, perfectly improve-able garden. It’s not ugly but a work in progress.

It may not be full of colour, bees and landscaped features but it’s mine and that makes it more attractive than any one blossom in your garden. You mess with my garden, you mess with me and my poorly constructed table.

IMG_2629

Written in response to Daily Prompt Blossom

5. One Man’s Car Crash is Another’s Failed Mortgage Application

Disclaimer: The names of individuals/financial institutions marked with * have been changed.

When I found myself sat in the non descript office of a finance advisor, sipping on tepid water and discussing my death it did cross my mind that I’d had more upbeat birthdays. The situation was made all the more bleaker when he asked me how I planned to spend the rest of my day. With a Christmas brass band playing outside the window, I said half-humouredly “oh, you don’t understand, this meeting IS the highlight of my day”. He laughed out loud, I cried a little inside.

The above paragraph is lifted from the opening of Happy 100th Birthday, Sorry, Blog Post to Me. It marked the start of a funny spell and probably the closest I’ve come to acting since I was fourteen years old. Sick with stress and fury, whilst having to plaster on a cheesy grin for the rest of the world. Angry phone calls one minute, cheerful conversations with business suppliers the next, ended by crashes in the evening. Seldom few people knew about it and fewer still knew the realities. When the sale almost fell through days before exchange the inner circle shrunk to only those who could be counted on one hand.

But here I am, getting ahead of myself as always. Let’s get back to that insipid meeting room, with the overly sweet hot chocolate and Bono playing on BankUK* FM in the background. Take it back to when I met Jack and learnt about his boyfriend’s Christmas tree, his mother’s house in Evesham and his love of dogs and cats. Jack*, my first mortgage advisor.

Having sailed through the telephone interview for my Mortgage in Principle, I spent the following couple of weeks pouring through paperwork, digging out statements and venturing to the dark recesses of my office collect old payslips. Having asked others of their experiences, I’d prepared myself for a long meeting, involving heavy financial gruelling to determine suitability. I also had the unwanted assistance of the Cotswold’s answer to Gok Wan sorting out my wardrobe.

“Use that bag! No, the other one! Put your hair into a bun! Wear that nice dress!”

“So, shall I assume it’s a no to the wolf hat then?”

“Alice, do not wear that bloody wolf hat!”

I had always imagined bank lenders to be bespectacled, scary and fat, puffing on a cigar while they scrutinised your documentation. Really I suppose I expected Jack to be the spitting image of a cartoon character from Punch magazine. In reality he was anything but. I had to fight back my surprise when he made casual remarks such as “wow, you’ve got as much in savings as I have in debt!”, and “I really should start saving money, but I’m just too addicted to using the credit cards.” How could this man be in charge with lending such high value sums?

As we neared towards the close of the meeting the only element of my spending Jack had queried was that on food.

“You spent £40 a month on food? Really?”

“Well, it’s £10 a week maximum. I struggle to spend more than that.”

“No wonder you can afford to buy a house,” Jack muttered, before moving swiftly on.

Before the meeting I’d clued myself up on what I could borrow and on the best rates. For getting what I wanted at a fixed-term rate BankUK came out top, hence why I was sat in their bland appointment room, not the bland room of another bank. I felt very confident that I’d pass the second approval with flying colours.

“Oh. The computer says you can’t borrow that much…” He showed me the red screen.

Thoughts ran like crazy in my head. Are mortgage advisors just chimpanzees who hit keys into a computer? Because I could have done that at home. Also, I spent fifteen minutes explaining very carefully the difference between the charity I work at and our competitor’s, this man owes me. Thirdly, he must be mistaken. Of the three, it was the latter which was verbalised.

“Ok, ok, let me try something.” Jack quickly twisted the screen round, quickly typed and clicked a few things in and sighed with relief.

“There, all sorted. It’s been approved.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, well it needs to be approved by the bank manager but I’ve worked some magic on it and I’ve got you through. Your figures all match up, it’ll get sign off next week when I’m in the team meeting. Now, we need to have a second meeting to sign the paperwork off, can you do next Saturday, 10th December?”

“Sure, sounds good to me.”

“Great, I’ll see you then. Enjoy the rest of your birthday weekend!”

“Thanks, I’ll try to!”

That was first and last time I saw Jack.

On 6th December, a day after my birthday, a letter turned up on the parent’s doorstep.

“You expecting any late birthday cards or post?”

“No.”

Inside the envelope was a girly birthday card signed by Jack “…and all the Heathley* BankUK team” was shoved in the corner as if it were an afterthought.

“Ok…”

“That’s amazing. Why did he do that?”

“New policy? ‘We’re going to bleed you dry of money, but here’s a nice birthday card to make you forget about it’?”

“I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Well, there’s a first for everything. I’ll stick it with the others.”

And that was that.

A couple of days later an email.

Hi Alice,

Hope you enjoyed your birthday.

I’m afraid I can’t see you Saturday, I’ve been trying to get the application approved and the branch manager is out of the office until Monday and the service manager is on holiday which of course isn’t ideal.  To make matters worse, I break for Christmas on Wednesday next week, which gives us a very small window to complete.

I can book you in for the first Saturday in Jan for you.

I’m sorry about this, I hope it isn’t too inconvenient.

I was a little perturbed by this minor set back, but accepted that with everything shutting down for Christmas and New Year the delay of one week shouldn’t affect the house sale. I wrote a half-cheery, half-formal response in which I asked him to book the meeting for 7th January. A quick reply back confirmed this had been done. So with nothing else to do than to wait for my application to be approved, I sat back and focused on Christmas.

January rolled in as the tinsel rolled out. Like every January the streets took on a more dark and slippery persona, very much like those who worked in my mortgage bank. I emailed Jack to wish him a happy New Year and confirm the appointment time (a finer detail which hadn’t been set pre Christmas). Nothing. I emailed again two days later, a little more formal this time. Nothing. On Thursday morning I sent a third, more concerned email, asking for a call back. Nothing.

Not wanting to spend all of my Saturday waiting in a bank (I can think of a million things I’d rather do on a day off), I called the 0800 number on Jack’s email. Eventually I got through to someone based in India. I was a painfully slow process but eventually I persuaded the lady to send a direct email to Jack and to get someone to call me back to confirm. She said she couldn’t see the booking, but my advisor could have made the reservation outside of the booking system. Starting to feel a bit uneasy, I spent the Thursday lunchtime walking around town and telling myself to not panic.

About an hour and half later my phone lit up with a 0800 caller ID. I scooted from my desk and went out into the office reception. It would be Jack calling to apologise. He’d bleat on about being busy and then confirm the appointment time.

“Hello, is that Miss Bennett?” Came the female voice.

“Oh, err yes it is,” I replied, confused as to why Jack wasn’t calling me.

“Hi there, my name is Katie Smith*, I’m calling in response to your enquiry into a new mortgage application.”

“Well it’s not new per say, I just wanted to know what time my meeting was with Jack on Saturday.”

“Your meeting with Jack?”

“Yes, we have a meeting booked this Saturday. It’s our second meeting, he emailed pre Christmas to confirm the date, but he’s yet to get back to me on the time. When is it?”

“I’m sorry, I’m calling about a new enquiry. The call centre in India passed your details onto this branch.”

“Well I’m talking to you about my existing application.” My voice raised a little.

“OK. Unfortunately Jack went off sick yesterday, it was a bit unexpected. Was he your advisor?”

“Yes.”

“Well, um, he hasn’t passed any details onto me. I can start a new application, but because he went off sick I can’t do anymore than that.”

My blood started to boil. “He said it would be approved before Christmas, in which case I only need to sign it off. I’ll be on your system, please look it up for me. You have my name, it’s a three bedroomed house in Swindon.” I said through gritted teeth. Watching people coming and going around me I realised that this was perhaps not the best place to be having this call.

“Here we are,” Katie said down the phone, “I’ve got your records here.”

“Ok, and…?”

“Yes, it says your application has been declined.” Came the blunt reply.

I hit the roof. “WHAT?!” I yelled down the phone. “It can’t be!”

“I’m only telling you what I’m seeing on the screen Miss Bennett.”

“You’ve done me wrong!”

“Miss Bennett, I can assure you…”

“No, no, you listen to me. Jack sat there and approved my application. He had all my information. He told me not to worry about it, it would be approved. Why are you telling me this?”

“Well Jack went off sick yesterday. He was in a car accident. I don’t know why it was declined, I can only tell you the outcome. We’ve been under a lot of strain, no one expected him to be off sick…”

“That’s not the point! My last appointment was over a month ago. Why didn’t anyone tell me my mortgage application was declined? Why am I only finding out now? Why have I had to telephone a call centre in Mumbai to speak to someone in my local branch?!”

“Miss Bennett, a mortgage can be declined for a number of reasons…”

“How many times? I sat there with Jack, before Christmas, we went through it all and he approved it. He told me it was fine. Why would he, a mortgage advisor, tell me that if it wasn’t the case?”

“Well Jack has unfortunately been involved in a car accident so we can’t ask him that, can we?” Katie’s tone grew sharper.

“Just admit you’ve done me wrong. You have, you know it. Just say that right now and we can start to pick things up from there.”

“I’m only here to book a new mortgage appointment Miss Bennett, that’s why I called you. I don’t have your detailed records in front of me, just the outcome and all I can see is that the application has been declined. I’ll also remind you to watch your tone and use of language when on the phone.”

That was the final straw. “After what I’ve been through in the past five minutes please don’t lecture me, the customer, on how to react to a unreasonably failed mortgage application. I need to go back to my desk now and do the job I’m paid to do, but you go and look through my records properly. Call me back on this number when you understand why I’m not happy. If you don’t call me, I’ll call you. Trust me Ms Smith, my tone of voice could be a lot worse.”

I hung up.

This marked the start of Fake-Face syndrome. I went back to my desk and put on a brave face, trying to carry on like the nothing unusual had happened. “What do I do now?” I thought, “why was it declined?”, “in all that time, why didn’t Jack or his manager chase to get the application approved?” I punched keys into my computer in a zombie like fashion, anything that didn’t require thought or emotional attachment.

A short time later Katie called back. This time her attitude was very different. She’d been through my file and discovered it to be, by banking standards, an absolute mess. Handwritten notes, random print outs, missing financial documents, it was in a real state. However, she also acknowledged that the bank manager had only seen the application two days ago.

“We will probably have to book you in for another appointment. Financial conduct I’m afraid, I can’t pick up Jack’s clients or any work he’s already started. We’ll also be unable to lend you same money the interest rate you originally applied for, our borrowing limit has changed.”

“You’re joking. I didn’t choose that figure because I wanted to borrow more. I need every pound of it to buy my house. You think I can just magically conjurer the difference out of thin air?”

“It’s all I can do Miss Bennett.”

BankUK had me in a headlock and it was clear that my irritation was, right now, as useful as shouting at the wind. While this wouldn’t mark the end of the war, I begrudgingly had to accept defeat at the battle.

“Fine, when is the earliest Saturday appointment you can do?”

“I only work every other Saturday, so it’ll be Saturday 21st at 9:15. That ok for you?”

“Just book it. I have no words right now.”

“Ok, that’s done for you.”

“Please be advised Katie that I’m not happy. A BankUK mortgage advisor lied to me and you manager failed to conduct his job by not approving an application within the time frame BankUK policy and finacial conduct dictates. Don’t think you can brush this off.”

“Ok, well we can pick this up when I see you.”

A thought popped into my head. For the first time that afternoon a wicked smile crossed my face.

“Tell your manager I have the emails too.”

“Sorry, emails?”

“Yes, it’s all documented. Jack’s confirmation that it would be approved, the suggestion that the house could be valued over Christmas, the meeting reservation. I saved them all.”

“Urm, ok, I’ll pass that message on.”

“And there’s the birthday card.”

“The birthday card?”

“Jack sent me a card for my birthday. It says ‘To Alice, Have a Great Birthday! From Jack and all the Heathley BankUK Team. Kiss, kiss.'”

A long pause.

“Hello?”

“Yes, urm, hi. Urm, I will speak to my manager about that. I was unaware Jack had sent a card. Can you bring everything in when you come to this meeting?”

“Sure, I certainly can. I need to go back to my desk now, but I’ll see you on Saturday 12th. I look forward to meeting you then Katie.”

“Yes, ok. Have a nice weekend Miss Bennett,” Katie’s uneasy voice replied as I cut the line. I returned to my desk feeling more exhausted than a marathon runner.

Shortly afterwards a colleague tapped me on the shoulder to assist with a work problem.

“Did he say that in an email?” I asked.

“No, unfortunately not.”

“Rookie mistake!” I said, turning to my personal archive of emails. “If there is one thing I have learnt from working in an office it is this; always, always, get it in writing.”

This post is part of the First Time Buyer Diaries. To view the full series (so far), click here.

4. A Poorly Timed Toilet Stop: House Viewing #2

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.

 

Young man experiencing road rage
“Hang on, I’m just tying my shoe laces.”

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!”

“What?”

“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’.

“Really?”

“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) click here.

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.