10. There’s a Lot of Shizz in my Room

There was a room.

A room full of bits and pieces and accumulated knick-knacks gathered over the course of two years. All telling the story of Alice Bennett, the Alice Bennett Installation if you like. Small, full of rubbish and severely lacking in suitable storage. A room unable to decide whether it wanted to rival Tracey Emin or desperately try and avoid it.

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Alice Bennett’s 2017 installation – ‘Push it Against the Wall and It’ll Become Invisible’
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Tracey Emin’s 1998 installation ‘My Bed’ – what can I say, I learn from the best.

As the house sale on the property next door started drawing to its intended close, I realised I was actually going to have to tidy up and clear all my stuff out. And this wasn’t something that a bottle of Windowlene and a couple of Peter Gabriel songs could solve, it was going to involve brutal woman power and an acceptance that, indeed, my room was full of shizz.

The timing for this wasn’t great, I was in the process of re-establishing my love of porridge and the supermarket had a sale on. Plus the shared kitchen gave me no space for storing foodstuffs (see – There’s Some Weird Shizz in My Cupboard) so I started the process of cleaning my room by with piling a load of oat sachets chocolate bars and varying alcohols and taking a photo of it for Instagram, obviously.

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Remember what I said about Tracey Emin aspirations?

Then it all got too much and I wrote a blog article about something else.

Several days later, after consuming a sizeable amount of ‘the pile’, I remembered why I’d piled it in the first place. I got cracking with the tidy up.

It was a painful process. Because I’d achieve a mini-milestone of clearing one patch of floor space…

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…to turn around and see this behind me:

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That’s what hurt me most. Having to empty drawers and boxes that had previously hidden so much but now spewed everywhere. As you can probably tell, my room was tiny in the shared house, the double bed sandwiched into the small space the only way it possibly could.

The clean went on. Thanking the God’s for a decent metabolism and reasonably priced gym membership, one evening I wriggled under the low bed to pull out all the hidden ‘gems’ that had spent years in the shadows. Forget Blue Planet, my under-bed had some weirder things than the deepest depths of the Antarctic Ocean.

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But it also had a couple of bottles of wine so I was prepared to overlook some of the other things I found under there.

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Discovering bottles of wine when cleaning is like finding a five pound note when you’re tidying your room aged ten.

I learnt a lot about myself when cleaning up that space. For example, I’m a closet hoarder who’s in denial. I had enough plastic bags to fill a tanker.

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But then I realised I was British so quickly laid to rest my concerns. I wasn’t weird, just normal. In the same way I had been unable to throw away a handbag I like so mended it with a safety pin as a short term solution. Five million handbags later, I found it at the bottom of my wardrobe.

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You just wait until ‘Make Do and Mend’ comes back into fashion.

A week or so later (yes, that long) I was starting to see progress in the big tidy up.

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Yes, I saw this as progress.

I was quickly becoming numb to the difficulty of throwing stuff out. Either an item was literally falling apart or I was lazy and wanted future me in her massive house to store it. Clearing out items was as black and white as that.

When it came to my wardrobe door however I was forced to make more brutal decisions.

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I find it easier to tear up memories when it means I can spend more time looking at Andrew Lincoln’s face in Love Actually.

In rentals (or at least mine) blu tac is the substance of Satan, pretty much all landlords don’t want it anywhere near their magnolia walls. In place of that, the thin door was my only place to tac up things which meant something to me. A pin board-come-scrap-book of information and pictures that summed me up. New job cards, renters info from the Telegraph, a sassy postcard from M&S, it was, well, me. And now I had to take it all down and be a big girl for a change. Renters and school girls can do this sort of thing, homeowners with matching furniture sets and themed wallpapers couldn’t. The odd item got put to one side (sassy postcard, check!) but most of it ended up in the bin.

When the drawers were finally emptied and the shizz (well, most of) was in a black bin sack there remained little for me to do than slog over the worn down dirty mess that was the carpet. The landlord had bestowed on us a Henry hoover to enable us to keep the house tidy. Now, Alice, I hear you cry, what could possibly be wrong with that? Hurrah for landlords! Well, before you think my previous landlord was a saint…

  1. Three storey townhouses with heavy, hose-based, Henry’s do not mix.
  2. Never expect tenants to buy hoover bags, especially when most do not know what they are.
  3. No hoover will revive a cheap, well trodden, carpet that hasn’t been replaced since the property was built fifteen years ago. None.

I spent hours on my hands and knees trying to suck up every bit of dirt the machine could just about manage. I knew at the time it was a joke, trying to remove a strand of hair from the dirty beige pile. At the end of it I was so exhausted that I think I lost it a bit. On a Saturday night, a Saturday night, I put this on my Instagram:

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The filter only makes it worse.

I mean seriously.

Once that was done all that was left was to wait. Until the house sale was completed a lot of items remained bagged up in assorted suitcases donated by family and random shopping bags. It looked like I was about to go to some far flung country, about to jet off somewhere new, but in the meantime I had to sit and wait it out while messages pinged in from solicitors and I scrabbled around the square of floor to complete important documents. Like I was waiting for my plane to depart.

After the sale had completed on my house I started moving items over, often taking a heavy case down to flights of stairs, across, up another two flights of stairs, then dumping the contents in a cold, empty bedroom. Then back down and up, fill up the case again and repeat. Then do the same with kitchenware and foodstuffs and you have the makings of a very drawn out, tiring, house move. My housemates would watch me carrying out the unorthodox house move in silence, whether they thought I was crazy or not mattered little to either of us.

On the last night I packed up my case with the last of the few items of clothing and put out what else remained on the bedside table.

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The boiled down essentials of Alice Bennett, all laid out on one tiny rectangle. At first I was a little bit emotional, then I felt a bit let down by the basicness. Only I would rate the presence of Sudocrem and a lemon pip higher than books or make up. What scenario would cause me to urgently need Sudocrem and a lemon pip I do not know.

The duvet and bedding got carried round to the house bright and early the next day, alongside the final case of clothes which this time got left unopened in the bedroom. Into one of my many plastic bags I scooped up the bedside table contents and checked the tiny room for the millionth time. I knew that it would be clear and I also knew that living next door it would be a breeze to collect things should anything have been missed off, but it still didn’t stop me checking again.

Ironically, now the room was clear of junk and shizz it looked much bigger, I realised why I’d taken it on in the first place (well, cheap rent and location were the main reasons, but still).

 

I placed my bedroom door key on the bedside and with a final long look and a sigh, walked out with the latch off so that the newer housemates could peer in after I’d gone. I slipped out the front door and posted the key back through the brass-coloured letter box. Done.

 

There was a room.

A room full of bits and pieces and knick-knacks accumulated over the course of two years. A room which told the story of a kooky girl who hailed from Gloucestershire (or was it Hampshire or Warwickshire?) who worked in a solid job, with solid interests, yet always aspired to be more. She moved out of the busy house share and into her own home next door. Why? Because we all thought she was mental.

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This post is part of The First Time Buyer Diaries. To view all articles in the series (so far) click here.

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9. Completion

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.

8. Swapping Solicitors for Social Media: Impatient Sellers

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.

7. A Surreal Settlement: Mortgage Conclusions

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

Same bank, same branch, same waiting room with the same generic music. The only difference was the day. Yet another meeting with BankUK* and advisor Katie*, yet another week in mortgage limbo.

“I should be in work now.” I thought.

At this point it’s worth noting how lucky I was to still even have sniff of the house I’d set my hopes on. The offer had been accepted by the seller in November, yet here I was in January with nothing more than a Chamberlain scrap of paper to suggest the funds were in place to buy the property. Since then there had been no requests for updates from either my solicitor or the agent which suited me to the ground. To tell the truth would be buyer suicide.

I walked into a different meeting room, this one blander than the others. The other rooms had photography with inspirational sayings on, this one had a single thank you card in the small, square, window which faced onto next door’s brickwork. The only ounce of personality in a white-washed cube. I half wondered if I was living in the Truman Show, that the same utilitarian chairs, desk and room was also used by dentists, consultants and middling management. As if at any moment a forklift truck would lift up the confined box and move it to different location, to film another character in an ongoing Soap which I was part of.

Such ponderings were brief, Katie walked through the door swiftly with all the relevant paperwork for signing.

“Before we sign the formal documentation for your mortgage, I’d like to sort out this business with your complaint.” Katie opened with.

“Ok,” I replied, “what’s the situation with that then?”

Katie went on to explain in detail the nature of my complaint, that the comments in the subsequent letter sent to head office had been fed back to her. She understood my frustration but told me it was something none of them could have predicted or prevented against, that their policy was underpinned by UK law. In other words, “our hands were tied, what could we do?”

In equally “I don’t give a stuff fashion” I nodded through her comments until she got to the bit we all cared about, what BankUK were going to do to shut me up. It was clear that I wasn’t going to let this drop easily, I’d already threatened further action on the phone and in my letters. I was looking forward to a big settlement.

“So, in light of all this, we’d be prepared to offer you a cash amount to the value of the administration fee on this mortgage. Given your original application was for a different mortgage at the same interest but fee-free, we believe this settlement to be fair. We are prepared to offer you £99 today. If you accept this now, we can close the complaint and move on with your application.”

Kate slid a prewritten cheque across the desk, signed by an unknown individual, presumably the branch manager.

Silence. I looked at the cheque and then up to Katie, then down to the cheque, then to Mum who was sat beside me for support. Her face was a mirror of mine.

“And the rest?”

“Sorry?” Katie blinked twice.

“Well, this can’t be the entire settlement. Given I’m not getting the full mortgage amount I was promised and after how much I’ve been messed about. I’m meant to be at work right now, not here. Besides, I should have got the fee-free mortgage in the first place. Thank you for this opening offer, but I reject.”

I handed the cheque back to my advisor. My response to what Katie, her manager and BankUK had assumed to be a fair offer stunned the former who once again returned to the same nervous state witnessed in our first meeting.

“Urm, can you give me a moment? I need to talk to my manager.” Katie requested.

“Sure,” I said, leaning back in my seat. “Take all the time you need. I’ve got all day.”

She returned a short while later to after apparently speaking to the invisible bank manager which we weren’t allowed to meet.

“My manager wants me to ask you if you had a settlement figure in mind.”

“A figure?”

“Yes, something for us to work with. What would it take for all this to go away?”

“Can we meet the manager?” Mum chipped in. “I believe my daughter requested this on a previous email which you agreed to.”

“I would, but she’s in meetings all day today, but if you feedback to me I can pass any messages onto her.”

That was it, I decided. I’m officially banking with the mafia.

“Well I’d have to go away and carefully put a figure together. There’s money owed for transport, time off, stress of a house sale almost falling through and so forth. I think it’s best you tell your manager that I can’t be expected to pull out a random figure out of the air without some thought and analysis. It wouldn’t be very professional or fair to BankUK.”

“Yes, I suppose so.”

“But that said I would like to get this sorted today. So, in light of that, I propose that I take the £99 today (as this is money you owe me anyway) and I sign the mortgage documentation so I can get the ball rolling on my house purchase. Meanwhile, I want to keep that complaint open for me to take this further with your regional managers.”

In my head all I could hear was Aretha Franklin singing Respect. Part of me wanted to flick my hair storm out of the cube room right there and then.

“Let me speak to my manager.”

Those six words marked the end of face-to-face negotiations with the white collar mafia. They accepted this temporary deal (more than anything to get rid of me). I signed the paperwork and finally secured a mortgage. Not the mortgage I’d originally wanted, but a mortgage nonetheless.

After another month of further discussion via letter and email a more reasonable settlement was agreed. In digging about to prove they were in the right, BankUK discovered that Jack*, my first advisor, had actually been in the office for several days prior to his accident. Several working days where he’d forgotten/put off contacting me about my failed mortgage application. Coupled with the birthday card and Katie’s admittance that they’d failed me, BankUK had little to use in their defence. They’d have to give out more than £99, either through the imposing financial regulators or one woman and her persistent emails. They went for the logical option, firstly by offering the higher mortgage value I’d originally applied for, followed by a request for a final figure to close the complaint for good.

I collected all my receipts and carefully justified every penny of compensation but in the end no hard evidence was required. To say they handed me a blank cheque would be over selling it, but to say they cared deeply would be false. At the end of the day they’re a bank who would be taking interest payments from me and millions others in the years to come. They weren’t short of money then and they aren’t short now. The figure on the cheque wouldn’t make the slightest difference to them, but it would to me. Was it the greatest victory in the world of small claim settlements? Nah, of course not, but it was a victory nonetheless. I’d taken on the banks and won.

The icing on the cake was my demand to sign the settlement paperwork in no other location but Swindon. Previously an unthinkable request, BankUK shoved Katie in a car with a cheque and sent her packing to Wiltshire.

I signed the documentation, took the cheque and wished her well in life. It was the closest thing to a thank you card she or BankUK were ever going to get from me. After all the stress and frustration, I finally had a mortgage and could start formal proceedings on my house purchase.

 

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

On Becoming an *Actual* Adult

Have you ever had that moment when you stop momentarily in the middle of something (be it mundane or professional) and think “gulp, I’m an actual adult now”? For me it happens alarmingly often, and I never quite know if it’s a good thing or not. Seeing as I tend to get it whilst singing along to Horrible Histories songs or dancing around to S Club 7, it’s probably more likely the latter.

It’s funny how things which made no sense at one stage of your life can make complete sense years later when it’s too late to go back. Case in point, this video which I first viewed as a student. I thought then I knew what it was like to be an actual grown up, but hahahahahaha I was so wrong. (WARNING: video below contains adult content.)

Pulling things back in my defence for just a moment, can I just say Horrible Histories was/is awesome and, yes, it was used as a revision aid during my University degree finals…

(100% true story)

Furthermore, there have also been a few occasions where, in stark contrast, I realised that I’m actually more mature than I let on (yes, that was a serious comment).

Remember those children’s magazines where there were double page pizza spreads? I knew I was getting more mature then because by the age of nine I was choosing to enter in for the draws where the prize had the most monetary value or use in my life. Hobby Horses? Hah, no way, enter me in for the prize to win the designer riding clothing worth over £150 (another fun fact, I won that competition. Mumma Bennett thought it was a hoax at the time so didn’t tell me for days until she couldn’t ignore the calls anymore. That riding gear was amazing.)

Shortly after that I took a liking disc 2 of Now That’s What I Call Music and boom! There went my childhood. We all know that feeling. Overnight I went from listening to this:

To this:

From Darius and Steps to Amy MacDonald and Plain White T’s. No complaints here.

Yet years down the road, on a Wednesday evening, I’m sat on a sofa, covered in tea (as per usual), watching clips of Tots TV (I’m not even going to try and explain it – if you’ve never heard of it, YouTube it). And apparently I’m an adult? How, just, how?? It’s all a bit alarming really, I mean I have the following things (sorry not sorry if it comes across as smug):

  • A house
  • A car
  • A job
  • A 6″ 7 beast of a man
  • All the things referenced in Nina Simone’s “Got no, got life”

Basically all the things that naturally are meant to mature one into feeling more adult like. All I’m missing is a pet and/or spawn but then those things cost money and require more time and effort than a tea round for all the King’s horses and all the King’s men. Can’t be dealing with that.

So I guess I better accept it, I’m an actual adult now with actual human responsibilities. But does that make me mature? Hell no, another slice of cake please sir. Why? Because I’m an adult and I darn well can!*

*Just make sure that cake is billed to anyone else but me – I may be an adult but, owing to expenses outlined above, I (ironically) have no easily accessible money. Being an adult is hard!

 

6. Mortgage Developments

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.

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.