Back in February, before Covid chaos properly kicked off in the UK and we could still do things like go to pubs and hug our friends, I had an offer accepted on a flat. After months of house-hunting and several rejected offers, it was incredible to finally be on the path towards buying my own place. “Thank God, the worst is over,” I thought. “It’ll probably be a while before it’s all sorted, but at least I’ve done the hardest bit and had an offer accepted. It should be plain sailing from now on.”
Ha ha ha.
Since then I’ve experienced the many highs and lows of buying a property (in the middle of a global pandemic, no less!), so if you haven’t done that and you’re wondering what it’s like, allow me to enlighten you. Here is what it really feels like buy a house.*
Obviously the first thing you feel is elation and excitement. House-hunting is terrible for a thousand reasons I won’t get into here, and even if you like somewhere enough to put an offer on it, the chances of being rejected are high. That’s because there’s tremendous competition out there, especially for decent properties that are on the lower end of criminally overpriced. So when you finally ask, “Can I spend literally all my money on this flat?” and the seller actually says, “Go on then,” it’s an incredible feeling. It’s happened! You’re on your way! Now there’s just paperwork to do, and how hard can that be!
The answer is: very. Now that your offer has been accepted, you enter a world of form-filling and technical jargon that you probably have a vague understanding of, but that you now have to base the biggest financial decision of your life on. Suddenly all that small print and legal nuance matters, and you don’t know anything about it because nobody has ever taught you, so you end up googling things like, “What actually is a mortgage?” shortly before agreeing to commit to one for the rest of your working life. I have a theory that most of us are never taught this stuff because the people who’ve done it before us knew about it for 6 months while they were buying a property, and then immediately forgot everything as soon as the keys were in their hands. At least, that’s what I intend to do.
Having said that, there’s an aspect of buying a property that’s weirdly easy. For the most part it’s done through emails and phone calls, so essentially you contact a bunch of people and declare your intention to buy an honest-to-goodness, actual, real-life building and they say, “Sure,” like that isn’t an inherently bizarre thing to do, and then you’re away. You’re really doing it; that flurry of emails back and forth is you buying the property. But because it isn’t like any purchase you’ve ever made before, you can feel strangely disconnected from it all. Like it can’t really be possible to just send some emails and fill in some forms and then end up with the biggest thing you’ve ever bought, can it? Well, yes it can, and you just have to accept how weird it is that, quite often, the process of buying a house can look similar to an average morning at work.
A big part of the legal bit of buying a property (called ‘conveyancing’) is getting searches done. Your solicitor (‘conveyancer’) will check all sorts of things – the history of the property, its legal ownership, its environmental impact, the land it’s standing on, etc, etc. They will then send you the results of all these searches, and you have to read them and decide if you’re happy with them. Obviously this is wild, because how the hell would I know whether it’s important that my flat is or isn’t subject to a civil aviation charge (once again, thank you Google), but it also means that you end up worrying about the strangest things. Because there’s so much new information coming at you, it’s hard to work out what’s really important and what isn’t, so you end up scouring a flood map at 9 o’clock at night, wondering whether that big flood in 1873 means your new home might one day slide into the river. Or fretting that Japanese knotweed is, as we speak, tearing up the foundations. Or freaking out that because there was once a mine within 30 miles of your property, you’ll wake up one morning to find that your kitchen is at the bottom of a sinkhole. These are not things a person normally has to think about, and most of us would comfortably shrug off such obscure, remote risks – but when you’re essentially being asked to bet hundreds of thousands of pounds that your flat won’t succumb to landslides or aggressive plants or the ground collapsing beneath your feet, it’s much less easy to just wave those worries away.
Obviously this is a bit of an understatement, because there are so many stressful things that come with buying a property. First, it’s a massive expense and a significant, long-term financial commitment (surreally, I’ve got a 35-year mortgage, which means I’m committed to paying it off for longer than I’ve even been alive). It’s also a massive logistics project – you have to find people to help you, check they’re legit, make sure everyone’s kept up to date and hasn’t forgotten you, and keep an eye on deadlines. You will be asked to dig out private documents from, potentially, years ago and send them to people you’ve only spoken to once on the phone. These people will then look at these documents and decide whether you can be trusted to keep up with your mortgage payments, and this feeling of being constantly and quietly assessed is pretty nerve-wracking. There are so many stages to buying a house that it feels like you could quite easily fail at any one of them and watch the whole thing fall apart. Of course, good old impostor syndrome is always there (you think you can buy a house? Don’t be ridiculous!), and you pretty much always feel out of your depth (and therefore not quite in control) most of the time. Which, as a control freak, I do not enjoy.
Let me lighten the mood a bit by pointing out that, throughout all the stress and worry, there are moments that are absolutely thrilling. Every now and again you catch yourself and think, “I’m doing it! I’m really doing it!” You imagine a future – one that is becoming more real every day – in which you are sitting in a home that you own, drinking a cup of tea on a sofa you chose, and you think about how warm and secure and amazing that will feel. You start to think about things like paint and wallpaper (as a long-time renter, changing the colour of a wall is an almost unthinkable pleasure to me); you pick out furniture you like and consider how you will lay out your rooms. You wonder how long it will take to feel settled in this new place, and you hope that one day you will realise that you’ve forgotten all the stress it took to get you here, and notice that you do, finally, feel at home.
My experience of the never-ending-ness of buying a house may be slightly more extreme than most people’s, because for me there were FOUR MONTHS during the worst of the Covid lockdown when basically nothing happened, and from one week to the next I could quite easily forget that I was buying a property at all. But even without the world coming to a screeching halt halfway through your purchase, buying a property is a very long process, because there’s so much to do and so many different parties involved, all of whom have to coordinate to make this thing happen. In my case, there was me, my solicitor, my mortgage broker, the seller, the seller’s solicitor, the estate agent and the bank. And this was to buy an empty flat, without a chain, as a first-time buyer, so I didn’t have to think about selling a property I owned, or wait for the people who owned my flat to complete on their new home and move out. If you subtract the four months of waiting I had because of Covid, there were still three months between having my offer accepted and finally owning the flat. And when you’re in the weeds of paperwork and emails, it can feel like the whole thing is going on forever. You reckon you’ve paid every fee? Haha, nope, time to dip into your savings again. You think you’ve filled in every form and photocopied every document? You haven’t – you are now required to send us your teenage diary, 17 photos of your first pet, and a handwritten novelisation of your life, in triplicate. You think you might actually see the end of the road? That may be true, but the road gets steeper the further along it you go, and you are required to drag yourself the last few metres using your fingernails. Ha ha ha isn’t this fun!!!
I’m not a naturally anxious person, but the last few days before I actually completed on my flat were among the most anxiety-inducing of my life. This was because the more likely it was that it would go ahead, the less I believed it could actually happen, and so I slept badly, couldn’t concentrate on anything and constantly felt a little bit sick. However, there were a few things I did that helped me through that last ridiculous week:
- Deep breathing
- Long cycle rides
- Cooking elaborate meals
- Watching the John Wick movies
- Telling everyone I spoke to how stressed I was
- Listening to a lot of ABBA
If you’re going to take just one thing from that list, make it ABBA.
It is, in the end, all worth it. The feeling of holding house keys, and unlocking your own front door, and knowing that nobody can kick you out at short notice or raise the rent on you EVERY SINGLE YEAR is like sliding into a warm, bubble-filled bath. Of course, there are still stresses (moving is a massive faff and you’ll be living out of boxes for weeks), but all that chaos doesn’t feel so bad when you know that at least the roof over your head is secure. In the week since I moved into my new flat, I have walked around it every day, saying to myself, “This is my house. I live here. I own it.” They say that buying a house is one of the most stressful things you can do, and they’re right – but the reason we do it is because the security and freedom you get is wholly worth what it takes to get there.
*There is obviously a lot of moaning in this post, because buying a property is extremely stressful. But let me add this caveat to everything I say here: I am extremely lucky to be able to buy a property at all, and I acknowledge that this is an incredible privilege and it was only possible for me because of my completely wonderful family.