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Wednesday, March 21, 2007


Reflections on house hunting

I have finally, after a long and complicated multi-dimensional haggle that has left me a broken woman, exchanged contracts on a house. I am moving! I am leaving ugly Stratford and going somewhere where there are parks and greenery and restaurants. I am going to be a lady.

This is what I have learned in the lengthy house-hunting process:

- Whoever invented stone cladding should have been shot before he could tell anyone about his new idea.

- Whoever invented pebbledash should have been stabbed and then shot several times in the head, heart and spine to make perfectly sure he was dead. Then his children should have been hunted down and threatened with solitary confinement if they ever attempted to carry on their father's work. Seriously. Pebbledash has mutilated London. It covers up beautiful Victorian bricks, it looks hideous, and you can't get it off once it's on. What the Blitz began, pebbledash finished.

- That, and tacky plastic windows. In fact, seventies exterior designers in general needed a good kicking.

- The general age of decor is thirty years out of date, because that's how long people stay in their lifelong house before they decide to move to be nearer the grandchildren. Just now it's avocado bathroom suites and textured ceilings. Give it a few years, and eighties interior design will come under the 'needs some cosmetic updating' rubric.

- The avocado sink of the nineties and noughties (ie the thing you look at and say 'I can't believe anyone ever thought that was a good idea') is going to be wood laminate flooring. Take my word on this. Synthetic materials designed to imitate real ones never age well.

- The kind of decor that apparently sells to overpriced lifestylers at the moment is hotel-style impersonal. Beige marble bathrooms, cream carpets, chrome door handles, glittery overhead lights, and white white white. It all looks fairly expensive, but I find it depressing.

- Don't talk to me about packing.

- If you want to buy a property in a fast-moving market, you have to make an offer on the spot. Offer at once; you can always change your mind tomorrow. If your partner isn't there with you, still offer - just make the offer conditional on your partner seeing it.

- When scoping out areas, listen to your gut. If it's supposed to be a rising area, but it depresses you to look at the buildings, then don't buy there. People can install new shops and streetlamps, but nobody's going to knock down a building just because it's butt-ugly, and you'll be living next to it. For years. However much an area is being tarted up, if there's too much bad housing stock there, then that will cap its capacity to rise.

- And check out the littering. If there's litter all over the streets, forget it. People in that area don't care about keeping it nice. Even if they do decide to tart their property up, they won't do it attractively.

- Sometimes areas are touted as the Next Big Thing, which is why I moved to Stratford, but if you don't want to live there, don't buy on the assumption that it'll get better. It might not. Or it might, in ways you don't like. Scruffy with potential to smarten up is on thing, but depressing buildings will remain depressing until the day they collapse. And that probably won't be in your lifetime. Pick an area you could actually stand to live in.

- Don't live somewhere with no trees. It's too sad.

- If a seller has removed all the light fittings from their house, you can be pretty sure it'll be overpriced whatever they ask for it. It's called being cheap. But then again, if you can't find another house you like, you may just have to swallow it.

- Be wary of mirrors. Too many of them in a house you're buying are a sign of trouble; would you want to do business with someone whose idea of fun is looking at themselves all the time?

- While some estate agents drive fine, it can be dicing with death. One woman drove as if it was a competition between her and the road, and the road had cheated in the last five rounds and wouldn't admit it. She was angry at the road, and made the car dive towards it as if to scare it off; I kept expecting the tarmac to scatter in different directions like a flock of startled pigeons. In a neighbourhood full of winding streets and speedbumps, this produced a sense of loose-jointed nausea that took about an hour to wear off. I never want to go in a car again. In fact, it put me off buying any of the houses she showed me, because all I could think was a silent whimper of 'I want to go home...' That is, back to the house I was selling, because it had my bed and books and aspirins in it. This is not the spirit of house moving.

- If you see a house that's been repossessed, would it always be sad to live in it, knowing its owners never wanted to leave?

- Books taken off the shelf and put in boxes instantly grow to about five times the size they were on the shelf. This is a fact of physics.

- Don't let an estate agent set the date of contract exchange. That's your lawyer's job. The estate agent is not on your side.

- Don't talk to me about packing. Not now, not later, not ever. I have a houseful of cardboard boxes and I hate every last one of them.

Oh dear,

Never mind Kit, it all be over soon, won't it? And do look on the bright side: since you don't have children, the only things you've got to worry about regarding packing/leaving behind are inanimate...

And speaking as a former plasterer, who's pebble-dashed a few houses in his time, you should know that pebble-dashing was invented as a (relatively) cheap way of covering brickwork problems, not because it looked nice (flint or granite-chip dashing on the other hand looks lovely, but is very, very expensive).

Once Victorian brickwork starts to decay you have to cover it with something, and the easiest way is to get a friendly spread in to lash on a couple of coats of render and sling a few stones in it. Then the selling estate agent tells you it looks great (in the same way the sky looks lime green). The seller has protected his/her investment and can move on thinking, "Yep, there really IS one born every minute". You can remove pebble-dashing, but it's not easy...

Anyway, good luck with the move. Can you do us a small favour? If your new chum Dave says he's going to your house-warming party, and that he's going to be bring a few of his mates and maybe a truckload or two of other stuff, PLEASE let us know so we can gatecrash, there's a dear! ;-)
Pebble-dashing decaying brickwork is one thing. Pebble-dashing perfectly good stone-built cottages is a crime.
Couldn't agree with you more. Often brickwork can be repaired with some decent weather-pointing, but brickies usually charge a fortune for that because it doesn't pay for them to do it (and a lot don't know how).

Good quality Victorian/Georgian bricks will last centuries with proper maintenance (pointing), but I always ran into the home-owner that wants to leave their "mark" on the property, so they got me to pebble-dash it. It looked terrible, but I had a mortgage to pay, and who was I to judge their (dreadful) taste?
Which is why I stick to my point that the person who invented pebbledash should have been thoroughly murdered, sparing plasterers the possibility of having to do it and stupid people the option of buying it. It was the only possible solution, but it's too late now.
I can relate to the whole "Oh, we'll live in this torn-down neighborhood now but it'll be so much nice in a few years" syndrome. New York is constantly undergoing that kind of social-demographic revolution. Greenwich becomes the new Soho, which becomes the new Tribeca, and they keep coming up with names that squish together several neighborhood titles, as if we're all too lazy to actually say the whole words. And then there's rent control on places where you need bulletproof windows and grandmothers won't move out of their 300$ apartments where thy've lived for 60 years while everyone else is paying at least 1500$ a month.

Yeah. I do miss Colorado housing.
Having been to New York, though only as a tourist, I have the suspicion that their architecture isn't quite as horrible as post-Blitz London architecture. After the bombs took bites out of every street in the East End, houses got put up any old how; doesn't matter how it looks as long as it keeps the rain out ... and now they'll be there for centuries. I get the impression New York buildings weren't designed with that kidn of reckless short-sightedness. But am I wrong?
The biggest issue in NYC is space. While stuff may be all structurally sound, everything is pared down to get the most living area out of the least square footage. The apartments all kind of interweave and interlock railroad style, often without making much sense for any kind of liveable conditions. Rent tends to shift according to neighborhood, where Park Slope brownstones are $3k+ a month, whereas you can sleep in the living room of a Williamsburg loft for 700$ if you're on a budget. The city is already so bursting at the seems that people are just overflowing into Brooklyn, Queens, and braving longer commutes...and I think the building within Manhattan itself is for expansion's sake right now, with little thought as to what we might want to use that space for in the future. We can only build towers so tall before the topple.
Once I gave the Mayor of New York a quote to pebble-dash the Empire State Building, but I blew him out because he wouldn't agree to mask up the windows... Oh no, that was a dream. Sorry.
Thanks for that decision post, I really enjoyed reading it and wanted to say that every lady deserve to live like a lady, so your decision to move to a better place is a great one.
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