Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Homework:- What's Been Keeping Me?

So, this is why my online productivity has taken such a monumental dive. I’ve been renovating a period property in the English countryside.

The period in question is the turn of the last decade of the last century. Actually, there’s a little confusion as to how old the place actually is; the deeds indicate that parts of the structure date back to 1989, but the kitchen cabinets had manufacturers stickers for 1991, so there’s a shred of possibility that the place sat in limbo, uncompleted, for a few years.

None of which is even vaguely interesting to anybody, you usually fetch up on this website expecting to read something at least tangentially related to cars. Well, actually, it is. It means that, finally, I have somewhere to keep my fleet. All two vehicles of it.

Nicola and I looked at a great many houses online, setting a very strict budget that excluded most of the houses that were actually worth looking at, and including masses of properties that will probably remain on the market until they either disintegrate or the owner gives up altogether and resigns himself to living in it for the rest of his life.

This particular house appeared on our radar one fateful day in November, last year. We had been agonising over every single property search engine we could find on and off for several months, but had never chanced upon anything that tickled our fancies enough to actually see them in the flesh. Then, suddenly, as I was processing a particularly involved (and hopelessly optimistic) warranty claim, a text message rattled onto my phone screen. “HOUSE!!!” it shouted, together with a website address, which I looked at immediately.

Now, those of you who live in America will find the following description somewhat underwhelming. Indeed, those of you who live in the UK will find it humdrum enough, but considering our expectations at the time the Estate Agents particulars read like manna from on high. There were three bedrooms! It had double glazing! Central heating! But what really switched me on, and further sold it to Nicola was that it had its own garage.

We’d been finding houses with parking hard to come by, but an actual garage was another matter entirely. We had lowered our hopes to such an extent that, as far as we were now concerned, garages were the preserve of the elite, to offer shelter to cocooned Ferraris in gated estates. Me and she were simply not garage material. But no, there it was, in the photo. I texted her back:- “I’ll arrange a viewing”.

It was Sunday when we visited the house. It was slightly awkward when we got there; the doorbell didn’t seem to work and even feverish rapping at the door failed to elicit a response. We could hear the sound of a television from deep within, and the window immediately above the front door was open. What gives? We had an officially arranged appointment to view, where the bloody hell was everybody?

Several more minutes passed, and then suddenly a metallic groan happened and the garage door was hauled up by a teenage boy. He seemed slightly sheepish, and a little the worse the wear for having been dragged to face the outside world for probably the first time that day. He explained that his mother was out but should be back soon. We asked, reasonably we thought, if he wouldn’t mind showing us around. He agreed.

There was some kind of problem with the front door, he reckoned, so we would go through the garage. We did, passing walls lined with crap, (but noting the existence of a relatively recently installed heating boiler) and emerged into the garden.

This was nice. Smallish, compared to our parents houses but big enough at about twenty-five foot by thirty-nine to get us excited. It was largely occupied at that time by a circular trampoline, as are most suburban rear gardens today if Google-Earth is to be believed. The patio door was open so we entered the house via the dining-room end of a fairly large lounge. I paused briefly to say to the young lad “nice bike…” of the little Honda sports bike standing outside the patio door. “It doesn’t work”, he admitted.

We peered round the door and into the kitchen, which was quite frankly disgusting and would probably have put any normal soul off the house there and then. Every viable work surface was covered in once-edible matter of some description, washing-up was stacked in piles that teetered in the draft, and a there was a bowl heaped with a bright orange material the likes of which I have never seen before, nor do I ever again. But we had become gripped by a mysterious force of optimism and we saw past the grime to a basically sound, if small kitchen. We moved on.

We loved the lounge. It was flooded with light from the patio doors, and the front aspect was of the small primary school opposite the house, not just rows of identical houses. It had a pleasant atmosphere, despite the signs in the room that the house may well have been host to flared tempers in the past; the lounge door had a gaping hole in one side of the panel, exposing the egg-crate ribbing within. It could only have been from a fist.

Aside from a six foot by three-foot-six entry hall by the front door, that concluded the downstairs tour.  Thirteen stairs run past walls of inexpertly applied peach-coloured eggshell paint, together with many grazes and pock-marks, and a set of balustrades that don’t inspire any confidence whatsoever. Opposite the top of the stairs was the small family bathroom.

If you go abseiling, or you walk along the edge of a tall cliff, you are advised “Don’t look down”. Yet you do so anyway, either for the feeling of danger and cheating death, or out of mere morbid fascination. The same phrase is equally valid in our bathroom, particularly when addressing the toilet. The problem with this dusky-pink item wasn’t in the bowl, which had been cleaned with the efficacy it deserved, but in the throat; the underwater section. Don’t look down! Too late, you’ve seen it and now you can’t un-see it. A black, lumpy crust has developed in the sub-bowl area, reminiscent of the build up of barnacles, algae and weed below the waterline of a long-serving oil-tanker. It marked the lowest point of a pretty diabolical bathroom; one that must have been sub-par in 1990 and certainly hasn’t improved with age.

Next door along was the master bedroom, pleasant enough with a big south-aspect window and views over the garden, and boasting a vast built-in wardrobe with mirrored sliding doors. Then the airing cupboard, then the second bedroom, painted in an extraordinarily lurid purple and pink livery, appallingly messy and bedecked with the worst of teenage girl paraphernalia, and finally the third bedroom. To be honest, this is scarcely a bedroom at all. You can fit a bed in it, that much was proven by our visit. But to do that and allow people on board was to push things slightly.

Despite this the teenage resident had seen fit to install a 42” Plasma television to one wall, into which was piped FIFA on the Xbox 360. It was the sound of this we had witnessed as we waited at the front door earlier, while marvelling at the small pyramid of cigarette ends that had built up beneath his window.

After a little polite chit-chat about the area (which he claimed was too quiet and couldn’t wait to move away) we descended the stairs and left the house. As we were about to pull away, the owner and her daughter arrived and parked on the driveway. I opened the window to greet her, I can’t remember what was said in the exchange but I’m sure it was something to thank her for letting us look around. I vividly remember, though, hearing her say to her daughter when she thought we were out of earshot; “how embarrassing”.

I wonder if the teenage son received a clip ‘round the ear that evening for having done nothing to tidy the house for the potential buyers coming round? No matter, for as we drove off Nicola asked me what I thought. I pondered for a second before replying with what my heart truly believed; that it was a house with loads of potential just screaming out for some attention. Nicola, it transpires, believed exactly the same thing.

We arranged to view a second house in the same road later that week. It was five grand more affordable and in a far better decorative state. We spoke with the owners and made all the right noises, yet in the car on the way home all we could talk about was how the shabby house with the health-hazard kitchen had so much potential. It was the first house we had actually seen, and we genuinely wondered if anything better would ever come up.

We had researched the area pretty comprehensively and now knew that the little road we had visited two properties on was the only road in the area with the sort of house we wanted. There was another development the other side of the village, but the houses seemed too densely packed in too much of a warren of streets, all littered with cars, two or three outside every house. No, we knew what we wanted: We were going to make an offer.

It was rejected. The house was offered with a “guide price” figure and our offer was two and a half thousand below the lowest number. I felt I had ample justification for the offer, considering that the decorative condition was so poor, but that point was lost on the vendors. So we let it go. We would let them stew in their own juice until the morning.

Next day I was beset with the disappointment of non house-ownership, and was constantly running through all kinds of psychoanalytical simulations in my head, trying to gauge the mindset of the vendors and their agents. The problem was that, no matter how much theorisation I tried I would never truly know their position. Our bid for the property may have been thousands of pounds short, or it could be bang-on what they were expecting and now they were trying to push it up a bit. We’ll never know.

All I can say is they had us beat. Nicola and I made the decision, in the early afternoon, to increase our bid. I channelled my best school-age amateur-dramatics hamminess and put on a very earnest display of us trying to stretch our finances, and eventually gasped a further offer at them. It was two thousand pounds more than we had previously tried, a number calculated to arrive just far enough beyond the closest significant figure to make it look like we were trying, but small enough to suggest that we couldn’t go any further.

By six o’clock I was bemoaning Estate Agents lack of the ability to communicate, much in the manner of a car salesman who hates calling his customers. Been there, done that. Anyway, my mobile phone erupted at about half past six, when I had actually just about managed to purge thoughts of the house from my system. I pulled off of the road, well, just stopped driving there and then, and pulled my phone from my back pocket. Despite having been crushed under my colossal weight, it still worked and I greeted the voice at the other end of the phone. It was the Estate Agents, telling me that our offer had been accepted.

This was excellent news, and very quickly became terrifying news when we acknowledged that it would mean our combined financial power being tied up for the rest of our lives; yeah, just like everybody else. In all honesty I was, rather naively looking forward to the responsibility. I’m 30, now, time for me to choose my own wallpaper (or, rather, time to let Nicola make all those decisions).

That was then, this is now. The house is ours, the payment schedule is there every day to remind us. Be sure to join me next time for more thrilling home-ownership adventures. Or, rather, tales of me running around with a sodding great big sledge hammer smashing stuff up and trying to undo the tortures it has endured in the twenty years since it was first built.

More stuff about cars on its way, soon….