Robert Heaton

Software Engineer /
One-track lover / Down a two-way lane

Buying a first home

25 Nov 2020

This year my family and I moved from San Francisco to New York to London. When we landed at Heathrow we went to stay with my parents for a few weeks that became seven months thanks to COVID. In February, before we knew the way that the world was going, we started looking for a place of our own. We rode on public transport and touched fence posts and shook hands. It was hard work. We had a new baby and no sense of style.

When COVID hit the housing market shut and we finished unpacked our suitcases into our wardrobes at my parents’ house. We forgot about moving for a while. When the market started to contemplate opening again we read about how COVID was causing people to re-evaluate their priorities. If they didn’t have to shlep into the office every day then they didn’t want to live in a smoggy city, including the smoggy city that we planned to live in.

However, these reports failed to account for the fact that my best friends and my mummy all live in a smoggy city, and that after six years on the other side of the world I didn’t have enough imagination to start again, again. Still, Gaby and I did realize that we hadn’t been paying enough attention to our specific situation and its specific constraints. We had wanted to be close to a train station because this seemed useful, plus it’s a good way to boast about how desirable your place is without seeming inelegant. “Oh yes it’s lovely, it’s an X-bed that’s a Y-minute walk from the station.” But we both work remotely and enjoy cycling, plus trains are now poisonous, so for us the station proximity premium probably wasn’t worth paying.

Instead we realized that trees were more important than trains. In San Francisco we lived right next to the Legion of Honor and a few blocks from Golden Gate Park, and it was wonderful. I walked through the golf course on the Legion of Honor almost every day. Golf strikes me as the Dark Souls of sport. I spent hundreds of hours sat on the stone wall outside the museum watching hundreds of punters take thousands of shots, and without exaggeration I can only think of two that warranted a shout of “nice!” from my seat in the peanut gallery.

When the housing market tentatively opened up again we looked at one house in an entirely new area that was a two minute walk from 3,000 acres of parks. We bought it immediately. I don’t know if we overpaid or underpaid. We’ll move on with our lives and regularly check how much our neighbors’ houses go for. I recently read that property prices in cities have held steady and those in the countryside haven’t exploded. It’s easier to say you want to move than to actually move, or at least it takes a bit of time.

Most estate agents were weirdly keen to show us unattractive properties that were miles out of our target area and price range and that we were never going to buy. I don’t know why they kept doing this. It was a waste of their time as much as ours. Maybe it’s always good to spend more time with potential buyers. Maybe a sizable portion of definitely-nos become actually-yeses. Most likely, maybe one of their performance metrics is “number of viewings” and they don’t get to clock off until five pm either way, so what have they got to lose?

We had most of our viewings with an agent who was either a lovely person or very good at her job. I couldn’t figure out which; I suppose she could have been both. I was initially determined that we should fully hide our feelings as we looked round houses with her. “This is an OK room.” However, I quickly decided that, while it was probably worth suppressing our soppiest gushes, a full poker face was a waste of time. The truth comes out quickly. “Yeh we don’t really like it very much, it’s one of the worst properties we’ve seen, but we would still like to offer you hundreds of thousands of pounds for it.” We didn’t actually buy our house from our favorite agent, which we both felt bad about.

We did see some stinkers, or at least some stinky presentations. Trying to sell a house while it’s empty or poorly furnished must cost the seller at least a few percent off the sale price. It’s easy to visualize little Oscar reading books on the rug in a room that already contains books and rugs. But, even though I know that we would be allowed to add books and rugs of our own, visualizing little Oscar playing with HDMI cables and dust on a scratched stone floor did not make me want to stretch our budget to its limit.

“House-dressing” companies will gussy up bald houses with a toupee of furniture and knick-knacks in order to make them sell faster and more dearly. Their services are expensive, but they surely pay for themselves if you’ve already moved all your stuff out or have bad taste. This industry has a late-stage-capitalism feel to it, but so do a lot of things that feel weird but make sense when you think about them and that take a Tweet to criticize and an essay to defend.

As far as I can tell, the price of a house depends more on the state of the economy than on the house itself. There’s no sense in which a house is intrinsically “worth” anything. It’s worth whatever someone will pay for it, which is usually whatever the bank will give them. This means that you have to resign yourself to the broad level of the market before you can assess an individual property. When we walked into our first viewing I thought “this is nice but I have no idea if we should buy it.” It’s probably sensible to commit to seeing at least five properties before even thinking about making on offer. In a pinch or a pandemic clicking around Zoopla can substitute, but this only goes so far. The camera doesn’t lie but it certainly does mislead, especially in real estate listings.

When you buy a house you make the biggest financial transaction of your life based on 20 minutes of wandering around and a few taps on the walls because you’d feel stupid if they turned out to be made of cardboard. I felt like a cretin asking if we could hire someone to go up a ladder and check whether the roof worked. What I really want to know is “who do I sue if someone goes wrong?” But unless someone was provably drunk while performing professional services, the answer appears to be “no one”. The survey that we commissioned said that our new house was fine. It also said that it was a dilapidated pile of junk for this reason and this reason and this reason, and made it clear that we couldn’t sue the surveyor if they’d missed anything. The survey put a damper on my excitement. When we walked in for the first time after completing the purchase I was surprised to find that everything did basically work.

We accompanied our opening offer of seven percent below the asking price with an emotional email about how much we loved the house and how we could already see ourselves bringing up our beautiful baby boy in it. The sellers replied that they were very grateful for our offer and our letter and would love to pass the house onto a young family, but we must surely understand that they couldn’t sell for anything less than four percent below asking. We thanked them for their kind reply and reiterated our love of the house and other things that we thought they probably liked based on the contents of their rooms, and we lied that we were fiscally incapable of offering anything more than an extra half percent. The sellers appreciated our willingness to work with them and said sure.

We made our offer conditional on “the house being taken off the market”. When we asked the agent to follow through on this he said that he had marked the house as “Under Offer” on all the listing websites, but wouldn’t completely remove it until contracts had been exchanged. He said that he was legally obliged to pass on any further offers to the sellers, but promised that he wasn’t going to show anyone else around. He said that this was how it always works. We grumbled but didn’t have any leverage or experience, so we rushed to get our paperwork done, exactly like he planned.

Just before we completed the transaction the British government temporarily cut stamp duty, a sales tax on property transactions, in order to stimulate the housing market. Having already agreed to buy our house we didn’t need any extra stimulation, and having already agreed a sale the market didn’t have the opportunity to inflate our price by the amount of tax that we saved. I think that the idea is that we go and spend our savings in the real economy, but I already have a second-hand comfy chair and a second-hand PlayStation and we need to save all our 2020 vacation days to look after Oscar, so I’m fresh out of ideas.

When we completed the transaction the agent handed us the keys and a bottle of champagne and wished us good luck. I had been hoping for a little more ceremony. Presumably if it weren’t for COVID there would have been at least a modest guard of honor. I’d have liked to be asked to sign something official-looking. Nonetheless, I was happy to have it all done with. Gaby and I had felt rather gauche spending so much time talking about floor plans and distances to public transport instead of the war in Yemen.

When we lived in San Francisco we always knew we were going to leave soon. I was therefore very militant about not buying anything that we’d have to get rid of when we moved. You don’t need a bed frame or a bookcase when you can just put your mattress and books on the floor, and you don’t need a toaster when bread does the job just fine. We did find a free bookcase on the street that we sold for fifty dollars on Craigslist when we moved.

Now that we’re in our long-term resting place we can set about acquiring things with a forty or fifty (dear god I hope not much more than fifty) year perspective. The internet is fantastic for finding free or nearly-free furniture. New sofas are expensive, but most second-hand ones are free. I have several theories for why. Thinking like a buyer, sofas are big and bulky and require a self-hire van to collect. This means that a buyer has to factor in the cost of transport into their price. They also have to be nearly-certain that they will want to follow through with the purchase when they see the sofa, even if it’s smellier than in the photos. This pushes prices down.

Thinking like a seller, there might be people in the neighborhood to whom your sofa would be worth several hundred pounds or more, but it’s hard to target advertising at them and there’s not enough of them to sustain a competitive market. Sofas can often only be disposed of during a small time window. If you’re moving away in a few days or have a new sofa coming next week then you have a hard deadline for when you need your old sofa gone. On the flip side you don’t want to get rid of it too soon, otherwise you’ll have a weird hole in your living room and will have to watch Netflix from the floor. Out of all our shopping trips, our most expensive purchases were two low-quality bar stools. They’re light, fit inside any normal car, and are easy for a seller to store in the corner while they wait for a buyer to come along. We bought an upright piano for the same price as one of these stools.

When you buy furniture new, a large part of what you’re paying for is the first few years of the item’s life while it’s pristine and shiny. Once it starts to age you’re instead paying for the knowledge that any weird odors and seepages at least came from you. You’re also paying for the fact that you get an item that fits your exact specifications. If you have space and flexibility and no flair for interior design then you may be able to take whatever’s available for free on the internet and make it do the job. The more constraints you have, the more you might need to spend real money on finding the exact right model.

I like to think that Gaby and I are pretty frugal and non-materialistic, at least by the standards of the Western middle class. Almost everything we own has some practical use, and the closest we get to decorative is a couple of picture frames. But we still have what feels like an incredible amount of “stuff”. We’ll recycle and reuse what we can, but a lot of this stuff is going to end up in landfill within the next few decades. I don’t really have a point, other than a functioning planet might not be compatible with lifestyles that include his and hers foam exercise rollers.

On moving day we packed up our stuff and moved out of my parents’ house. I reflected that when the time comes for my siblings and I to squabble over my parents’ estate, the item I most want is the orange extension cable that has been in the family for the last three decades. My dad replied that they like to think that most of their legacy isn’t in their material possessions. I nodded sagely. Cash and other highly liquid assets are a much safer asset class for this time of high uncertainty. I felt sad leaving my parents’ house, even though we’re only moving fifteen minutes down the road. It felt like I was leaving home for good for the eighth time. I’m going to be a mess when Oscar goes to space university.

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