When I went to pick up the house keys from the estate agents on a grey drizzly Saturday morning I felt in a rather neutral mood. Being stubborn and British I decided to walk the distance of almost two miles up hill to avoid paying for a bus or taxi, resulting in a matt of tangled, curly hair and a nose that continued to pour, even when I stepped inside the ultra clean office.
A man with overly gelled hair and patchy stubble directed me to a sofa while he consulted with a female colleague. All the staff looked like dolled up fifteen year olds, and I think no one could quite believe a young woman in unbranded jeans and a tatty Gap hoodie could possibly have bought a house from them.
The lady tottered over with a clipboard and let me sign for the keys. I politely smiled and said thanks, but she’d already gone. Everyone else was continuing to hit their keyboards in a monkey-like fashion, so I took my cue and left.
That was it. I owned a house, my house. I checked the envelope ten times over just to be sure.
“Oh my God.”
I was so overjoyed I didn’t know what to do with myself, so ended up marching straight down the hill in record time and landing back to the house I lived in. I dumped my bag, threw off the soaked hoodie and dashed around next door with nothing more than the key.
I held my breath as I inserted the key into the door and slowly opened the door. I stood there for a moment before walking in and sitting on the bottom step. I stroked the banister rail, like some prized pet.
“You’re mine now, and I am yours” I muttered.
With rain cold feet I ascended the first flight of stairs with ease and entered the bare living room and then the empty kitchen. Suddenly without warning I started laughing, then screaming, then running up and down stairs and into rooms and out of rooms. Slamming doors, apologising for slamming doors. Spinning round and round and round. I lay on my bedroom floor and took my breath.
“This isn’t happening, pinch yourself Alice, you just can’t have done this. Oh my God, what is happening? A homeowner? A homeowner…A homeowner! You. Are. A. Ruddy. Homeowner!”
I ran next door and grabbed my laptop from the top floor before rushing back round to my house. I turned it on and loaded Spotify, before blasting out Nina Simone, Arctic Monkeys, The Killers, B*Witched. Anything and everything which came to mind. I screamed every lyric from every part of the house until my throat was hoarse from all the yelling, before lying in a heap on the cold, dark living room floor.
Why? Because I could.
This article is part of The First Time Buyer Diaries. To view the entire series (so far) click here.
With the mortgage in place and all the relevant forms filled in, my solicitors were deployed.
For cost sake, said legal representatives were located nowhere near Swindon, but their website and documentation reliably informed me they had a small office in Suffolk. The price I paid was so low I never questioned my solicitors’ insistence on email and postal communication and in return they didn’t spit in my envelope for paying them peanuts and putting Swindon-based solicitors out of business.
The next day I strolled down to the nearby pillar post box and posted off the initial fee. “Lovely county Suffolk,” I thought, “shame about all the Londoners though.”
For the best part of a month there was little more for me to do. My energies became more engulfed with buying, collecting and, in Mum’s case, painting furniture from around the region and storing it in the furniture warehouse (alias, my parent’s garden room extension).
Meanwhile, at work, people were beginning to realise why I’d been so stressed of late. Although I’d frequently commented on “looking at houses” or “difficulties with the bank”, many colleagues had wrongly assumed I was moving into a new rental property. Given my age and martial status I can hardly say I was that surprised by the confusion, in fact I was more taken aback by the ripple effect my purchase had on these same people.
Suddenly I was the Martin Lewis of home buying, everyone had a question to ask and apparently I was the girl to give advice. The hints and tips recited beside boiling kettles and in toilet queues was little more than a blended mix of common sense and random statistics from The Telegraph, and yet that was enough. I was the Marmite of the organisation, people respected me or envied my very guts. And slowly, oh so slowly, habits of those around me began to change. People stopped buying coffee, packed lunches started making a comeback, and a night in with a made-from-scratch lasagne became the ultimate date night experience. All subtle signs of people putting money to one side for an unspecified goal.
“What have I created?” I thought.
Apart from changing the psychology of my fellow workforce, up until February life was blissful (well, compared to the fiasco with BankUK*).
I suppose I was a bit naïve to think the sellers would let the house sale proceed on my terms. Throughout the entire mortgage drama there had been not a word from either of the two solicitors to suggest concern, so I guess I assumed that with things moving at a normal pace I shouldn’t have the cause to be concerned.
On February 14th 2017 the tenants of the house formally moved out. I knew this because a) They told me this when I met them to discuss buying furniture (of which I bought none) and b) I saw the van on their drive that very evening as I walked back from food shopping. The tenant had wanted me to buy his wares to avoid use of a van, which made me watching him struggle with an oversized pine bed particularly awkward. Unable to commit my vocal cords, I made somewhat awkward eye contact and mouthed “hi” in the winter darkness before scuttling into the house next door and telling myself I was not to go out again that evening.
On February 15th the chasing began. My solicitors informed me that the sellers’ Swindon solicitors were constantly asking for updates at request of their client. This was frustrating my people in Suffolk because they were not being paid enough to care or give five minute updates to first-time sellers who weren’t clients. I thanked them for letting me know and assured them that I’d see any documentation was returned promptly upon receipt and funds were moved into place ready for exchange.
To save boring legal and financial jargon, the planned exchange date fell through. The fault was not down to myself, nor my solicitors, not even the sellers, but due to incorrectly submitted documentation from my old friends BankUK.
I called Katie* to inquire as to the hold up.
“We sent both sets of documentation through, your solicitors should have read them and used the right one.”
“But why wasn’t it made clear?”
“They were sent both the first and second versions because of the difficulties we faced with your application before. If they’d read the figures correctly…”
I was already impatient. “I can’t believe this. At the final hurdle BankUK have messed up. Look, whatever documentation my people have got it’s wrong. They need a different form to either of the two you sent them. If the exchange falls through again the whole house sale might fall through. You can understand why I’m a bit frustrated, no?”
“We are aware of this Miss Bennett and looking into it now. I’ll remind you to watch the tone of your voice on the phone.”
“For Christ’s sake” I said as I hung up the phone.
I never spoke to Katie again.
I cursed under my breath but hoped that the sellers would accept the revised date and understand there was nothing anyone could do until Thursday, two days later.
That was when the seller’s fiancée crossed the line.
Before this situation had kicked off I’d met them very briefly to check out the white goods which were being included in the sale. From that I learnt the house belonged to the man and he and his soon to be wife were buying a new build on the edge of Swindon. In turn they learn my first name and I lived next door. In the world we live in that’s all she needed.
I don’t know how, but she found me. Of all the millions of Alices on Facebook she found my profile that evening and, in blatant convention of legal process and regulation, she sent me a direct message.
“Hi Alice, My solicitors have just told me we are not going to be able to exchange today due to BankUK not being in a position to go forward…We’ve been advised by our sellers that they are very reluctant to continue with the sale to us if the completion date is affected, consequently if they pull out we will have to too. Many Thanks.”
I was stunned. Was she seriously threatening me to pull out on the entire sale, over Facebook? She wasn’t even the owner of the property.
Eventually, after fully processing what I’d read I wrote back a response with the help of my parents down the phone. I sent it thinking it would be the end of it, but no the messages came in thick and fast from her, pouring her heart out with the added threat of turning at any point and making her partner put the property back on the market again. After all I’d been through and money already sunk in, I couldn’t bear the pain of living in the shared house next door, forever watching people go in and out of my ‘could have been’ home. I’d had enough, I ratted them up to my solicitor and under their instruction ignored all of the messages sent from thereon.
It transpired that the real reason why the house sale almost fell through was so petty it was almost a joke. My sellers’ sellers didn’t want to pay another monthly repayment on their mortgage which would happen if the exchange was delayed by two days. The news came to me via phone after we finally exchanged. It was one of the few times I actually spoke with my solicitors.
“But if they relisted the property they’d have to make the payment anyway?” I questioned. Surely no one can be that stupid?
The speaker sighed. “Yep. You’d think someone would have told her that before she started shouting and getting your sellers into a state. I don’t know what game she was trying to play and we don’t know why it wasn’t handled better as opposed to scaring everyone in the chain. As for the Facebook messaging, well that’s taken us all aback.”
“I suppose it’s the world we live in right?”
“Where rules don’t apply because it’s social media and everyone thinks they can be a solicitor,” there was a slight pause, “I’ll send you the final invoice via email shortly. If you can pay it ASAP we can at least complete on the original date everyone agreed to, even if the exchange was delayed.”
I did all that was required by me, signed a few bits of paper, moved a few digital numbers from one place to another and then waited. And as if by legal magic I received an email saying I owned a house.
No big deal.
(Names marked * have been changed for the benefit of this article.)
This post is part of The First Time Buyer Diaries. To view the full series (so far) click here.
Disclaimer: names of individuals/financial institutions marked with * have been changed.
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.
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.
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!”
“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’.
“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) clickhere.
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.