I was in the passenger seat of our car the other day on the way to a shopping centre, my bluetooth headset on, phone and notebook in hand. I was ringing our electricity supplier.
“And what is the address of the property?” I heard coming across through my headphones from a woman who sounded like she had a miserable head cold. I gave her the address.
“Ok, I have the information here. And are you the new tenant in the property?”
“No, I am the new owner.”
Fuck yeah, it felt good to say that.
I am the new owner. We are the new owners of a house. Our own house. It’s been quite the journey to get here. I’ve heard it said that starting a new job and moving to a new home are two of the most stressful experiences in every day life. I’m going to amend that to say that buying a home is one of the most stressful things in every day life. Moving is a short term stressor that can be alleviated with good organisational skills, help from friends, and time off work. Buying a house? Frankly not even having the money handed to you appears to make it significantly easier from what I can tell, unless it’s money for paying someone else to endure the whole damn process for you. And we’re not talking about a couple of weeks of being surrounded by boxes followed by a couple of weeks of figuring out where to put the essential things in your new home. This is months and months of torment and anticipation and waiting around, months of phone calls and emails, months of holding your breath hoping for elation but preparing for heart break. It’s brutal.
First, there are the listings. You very quickly learn the tricks and the language. “In need of updating, good for first time buyer or investor” means “still has carpets from the eighties, wallpaper from the seventies, decorated as if from the sixties.”
“A builder’s dream!” is a gutted premises that could double as a film set for an abandoned crime scene.
“Cozy” and “quaint” means it’s the size of a postage stamp. Or The Mister said after one viewing “that’s not a bedroom, that’s a closet with delusions of grandeur!”
The photographs are their own brand of lies. At the more subtle end there are lighting effects to brighten the place up. Then there is the ever so slight telescoping of the room so that the far wall of the kitchen looks to be further than it actually is. Soon you begin to spot the photos which are distorted at the edges and that’s when you discover all the fun estate agents can have with a fish-eyed lens. Armchairs in a sitting room begin to take on odd dimensions as they’re stretched out a little to give the room a more spacious appearance. The proportions begin to look a little bit off. One estate agent clearly lost the plot with the camera and on the photographs the walls actually curved around until you were seeing the back wall and the side wall all at crazy angles. I was vastly disappointed to discover it wasn’t Jareth the Goblin King selling his home-inside-a-crystal-ball.
The truth is that after you see enough properties, you steel yourself for disappointment. You see the photos, and your mind begins to automatically reduce the proportions of the space. You expect sitting rooms to be narrower than they look on the photos, bedrooms smaller, kitchens less spacious and airy. What struck me about the house we ended up purchasing is that as soon as we walked through the entryway and stopped in the front room The Mister and I both glanced at each other in surprise. The room felt the same way it looked in the photos. In four months of searching, this was the first time we had come across this sort of feeling.
But that’s just the beginning of the learning curve. Next, you begin to learn the tricks of the real estate trade. I don’t know what it’s like in other countries, but here in Ireland the profession doesn’t seem to have much in the way of regulation. Not only that, but the recession is definitely over in the Dublin property market. Supply of family homes in the city is far below the demand, so even if you find your dream home, you still have to come out the top dog in the bidding game.
This is when you also discover that the “asking price” on the advertisement bears little semblance to reality in many instances. We walked into a home for its very first open viewing and when we walked out ten minutes later the price had already gone up by €15,000. We encountered estate agents from both ends of the spectrum in this practice. Some expect underbidding, and they try to get an accurate price, but they will then refuse to settle for anything less, dragging out the bidding process for months with continuous viewings, even if it’s just to eke out that last €5,000 so that they can get a higher level of commission for achieving the asking price rather than below it. We were the only bidders on a house for six weeks. Numerous viewings later the estate agent finally rang me in triumph to tell me that a new bid had come in. I had the equal pleasure in turning down the offer of making a further bid as we had finally just put down the initial deposit on the house we ended up purchasing.
Then there was the luxurious penthouse which was priced at nearly half the market value simply to get people in the door to have a look. The place seemed too good to be true and when The Mister rang that did, in fact, turn out to be the case. The owner had just accepted the highest bid far in excess of the paltry sum for which the property had been listed.
The estate agents themselves were also like an alien species to me and it was difficult for me to come to terms with the fact that I was dealing with human beings who were quite happy to smile charmingly at me while lying through their teeth. I work in a law firm where we often converse with colleagues on the opposite side of a case. It is customary to expect evasion or lies of omission. But as officers of the court, solicitors aren’t in the habit of outright lying. They may not tell you the whole truth, but at least you can reasonably rely that what they do tell you is at least in the same neighbourhood as the truth.
Estate agents? No such luck. “Oh, you really should get your bid in by this weekend. I know for a fact the owners are anxious to sell and they are going to make their decision very soon” starts sounding ridiculous when you’re still bidding weeks later. “They’re sale agreed on another property and are anxious to sell.” Has a fifty/fifty chance of being true.
One estate agent tried to convince me that when I was showing him the proof of having mortgage approval I had to disclose the amount for which we were approved. I was still a newbie to the process at the time, but I managed not to fall into that trap. I might as well bid against myself if the estate agent knows what our maximum budget is. The guy was an affable enough chap in person but turned into an arrogant bastard over email.
Another one was more subtle. We were bidding on two properties with the same agency with slightly different prices, so the agent with the slightly cheaper house knew there was at least an extra ten grand in our pockets as we had bid higher on her colleague’s house. We were aware of this, and we were not surprised when the colleague (the one who spent weeks trying to wring the additional €5,000 from us) tried to ply us with other “similar” homes in the area she was selling which she “didn’t expect to achieve the asking price”. They were all out of our price range but if we bid our maximum amount then we would instantly give away our hand. However, I had to hand it to her, she was at least a delight to speak to, as long as you remembered not to take a word she said at face value. “All sweetness and light” was how someone else had described her, but capable of drawing out the bidding process until she’s wrung every available cent from your pocket.
The agent who was selling the house we purchased was not in either category. She was so rude and abrasive on the phone that I nearly cancelled the viewing because I could not imagine the house being worth putting up with her attitude. Now, it was a good lesson for me in patience and forbearance, as if I had cancelled the viewing we wouldn’t have found our house. But dealing with her was its own level of torment. It took me several weeks to even get a response from her company about a viewing. The house had been on the market for some weeks but I hadn’t seen any indication of a viewing. I had emailed her office numerous times requesting a weekend viewing without any response until eventually the agent herself rang me.
She berated me for being unwilling to drop everything and come out to view the property in the middle of the weekday when I requested a Saturday viewing. “Everyone else has to do it,” I was told. I asked her eventually if the property actually had a scheduled viewing, any viewing, as I hadn’t seen a single advertisement for one. “Well that’s not true. If it is true, then someone in our office isn’t doing their job as we put all our open viewings up on Daft and MyHomes.ie.”
“Ok, I challenged her. “When did the house have a viewing scheduled that I missed?”
“I’ll tell you right now,” she shot back, pausing while I heard the clackety clack of a keyboard. “Well that particular house hasn’t had a viewing. I can’t tell you why now, but it hasn’t had one. No, wait. I will tell you why. The vendor has just had hip surgery and I’m sure you would agree that it’s reasonable for someone to at least have a few days of rest being forced to open up their home.”
I got off the phone eventually wondering how the conversation got so turned around that it was suddenly my fault that the guy had to open his home to viewings so soon after surgery, as if I was somehow forcing him to do it.
I took to calling her “the dragon lady” or “the scary lady” and when we did eventually come out to view the house, I actually warned my husband that I planned to literally use him as a shield between me and her, as I wanted to have as little to do with her as possible.
In the end, this woman did not turn out to be one of those who preferred to wring every last cent out of you no matter how long it takes. She favoured the “wham bam thank you ma’am” approach, selling one home quick-quick-quick and moving on to the next sale. We outbid the person before us, and when he didn’t come back to her after 48 hours of our own offer, that was enough for her.
I was not the only one who was put off by her manner. “THAT woman? She’s a psychopath!” our valuer exclaimed when I gave him the name. He had all the gossip on her and it soothed my jangled nerves somewhat to know that she was an aberration even in such a chequered profession.
The secretary in the surveyor’s office had an equally difficult time dealing with her to arrange a site visit. “She doesn’t seem very nice at all” in the first email became “oh, she’s a piece of work!” a couple of days later after difficulties in arranging access.
Our solicitor brushed her off when she rang, aggressively pushing him to speed up the transaction even though we hadn’t even received contracts from the vendor yet (and wouldn’t for weeks).
Psychopathic estate agents aside, there’s the stress of the rest of the transaction. (I haven’t even written about the mortgage approval process, which is its own form of bureaucratic torture.) We were sale-agreed at the end of October, signed contracts in February, but I didn’t actually believe it was real until the keys were in my hand. The earliest days were the worst because I was even afraid to talk about it, for fear of jinxing the purchase. I decided that being sale-agreed on a property was quite akin to the first trimester of pregnancy – after months of searching and dealing with the bank to get mortgage approval, you have finally found a home you like and you want to shout your joy from the rooftops to everyone around you, and yet you’re also terrified to say anything because of the possibility that it will fall through, so you and your partner just whisper to each other about it like it’s a family secret.
But you know what? Now that we do have keys, it was all worth it. I’m not in a hurry to experience any of that again in a long while, and we still have the move to get through, but while my to-do list at the moment is daunting, and our house has been taken over by flattened cardboard boxes we’ve yet to fill, I’m super excited.
This has, unfortunately, had an even worse impact on my writing schedule, but some things cannot be helped. I have so many thoughts and ideas and I simply cannot find the time or energy to get them down in between what feels like hundreds of phone calls and lists and emails. Everyone will have a new routine to get used to, but at least I know from the beginning that I need to make time for writing somewhere and I fully intend on carving out more time for it after we get settled in the new place.
Until then, I give you The Boy Who Lived for chuckles. Hawkeye ran into the under-stair press when we were measuring the place and insisted that we close the door once he was inside. The Mister shrugged philosophically.
“He has a scar on his forehead and glasses. Maybe we’ll end up with a wizard in the family?”