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Dead Money, Dummy (revised)

by  Tamsin

Posted: Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Word Count: 2425
Summary: This is the revised copy of the first article i posted a week or so back. I have listened to your commets and am much happier with this.

Dead Money, Dummy

It has come to pass lately that I have become a woman of property. I bought for two reasons- financial greed and the conviction that with time, and the right portfolio, I may become both a career woman and a paragon of domesticity. Without turning in to Nigella. Someone like, say, Beatrix Potter, Sylvia Plath, Charlotte Bronte, and, at a pinch, Catherine Cookson- I would keep home and write fantastic novels. No matter how famous or rich I became, my family would always return to a hot chocolate on the Rayburn and a cosy, dimly lit parlour. My husband and I held this fantasy before us as doctrine as we explored the housing market with joyful abandon. For my husband, it was more a case of wanting to avoid the looks of pity and concern that he got when he revealed that we don’t yet own our own home. This is always followed by questions about his age, as they frantically work out how many years you have left before you totally lose the prospect of being financially solvent by the age of 50. They kindly inform you that the prognosis isn’t good.

Those who rent will be able to understand what I mean. If you rent you are guaranteed once revealing this information to be treated to pitying, condescending looks – especially I have discovered, by rough–hewn Yorkshire men over the age of 55 who are obviously so tight that when they fart only dogs can hear. You are told with relish that renting is a waste as if you thought that your money was in fact being sent to an unknown benefactor aka. Magwitch to be then reimbursed at an unspecified time of dire need. Like when you buy a house. Because renting is dead money, dummy.

Not that the minefield is clear when you inform your friends of your intentions to join the landed classes, oh, no- you will inadvertently trigger a domino effect as your friends all try to buy within the same six months, desperately anxious not to be outdone. It then becomes a competition over mortgage rates and negotiation techniques. During these first six months, each of your friends and indeed every first time buyer in the UK had told themselves that their house purchase and mortgage application will go without a hitch- obviously, the horror stories they have heard on the grape vine that expose house purchases as messy, expensive, infuriating and unfailingly ugly, were told by unprepared and naïve idiots who had absolutely no discernable brain.

This attitude isn’t surprising when you consider that my generation have been brought up on endless TV programs on property development- ranging from the embryonic ‘Changing Rooms’ and the hundreds of spin-offs it has spawned over the years where an irrepressibly cheerful wanker paints some unsuspecting fools living room lime green and carpets it with orange fun fur, to the now fully fledged ‘Location Location’ where Jonty and Abigail, who always work in the city, require a bijou second home off the M25 for a paltry £650,000. The problem is that throughout these programmes, the house sale, purchase and mortgage process are severely glossed over and constitute no more than 35 seconds of any given airtime. This has led a generation to believe that the process is not just as easy as pie, but to the brave (never mind the foolish) there awaits a huge lump sum payout requiring minimum effort. Two months and one house later, you will have made £50,000 free and clear and be able to give up work. To the easy money, personal debt-laden, put-your-balls-on-the-line, gap-year-in-Tibet generation this has proved an utterly irresistible concept.

I exaggerate. There was one exception- one show I remember called ‘The Chain’ followed two families as they buy and sell as part of a massive chain, one house reliant upon another for its sale. Suffice to say, it wasn’t pretty. I haven’t seen it since series one. I suspect the network realised that it wasn’t entertainment to watch people’s mental state crumbling before the audience’s eyes. Whilst this would normally have been fun to watch, there was something about watching this particular process that hurt the British Public very deeply. We clearly love our castles so much that to infer that the process is totally bogus, hateful and unreasonable is as good as treason. Perhaps this is why first-time buyers have such unstinting optimism at the beginning- their first purchase has yet to be tarnished by the predestined car wreck of previous experience.

The cautionary tales that are now woven into the fabric of urban myth are clearly there for a reason. I know not of one single friend who went through the process without a needing both a counsellor and anger management classes for six months after the sale went through. One particular story springs to mind. One beautiful and sunny day, a friend from my university years prepares to buy a modest house with her long-term boyfriend, lets call them for the sake of argument - Janet and John. John, who still at that point was living at home, joyfully leverages £5000 of his very hard saved money and gets them a great mortgage deal. Two months of careful planning and research later, they put an offer in on their dream home. Well, not dream exactly, but it fits the bill easily enough and it is proclaimed perfect. They put an offer in. Their offer is gladly accepted and promised a swift completion they the start to spend an awful lot of time in IKEA, buying KLOMMEN SPARGS and LAKORS to furnish their castle. Eight months later, when they are still yet to exchange contracts, doubts start to creep in. They would have to do something soon or they will risk not only falling behind their friends but being collected from work by the men in white coats because Jane’s bosses just can’t stand anymore sob stories by the photocopier. John would also like to be able to stay out beyond his 9PM curfew. A well-worded ‘imagine my client’s dismay and concern’ letter from Pitts and Potts Inc, Solicitors, and it transpires that the seller is a mental wreck who has covered all of the furniture in tinfoil and sits alone everyday in her metallic living room biting on a leather strap to stave off mania. She never had any intention of a quick sale, will not exchange contracts any time soon and is still waiting for her divorce to come through. Suffice to say, they were none too pleased- so much for optimism.

Several months into our search for our own piece of forever England, we happen on the cosy, picturesque village of Haworth on a tourist trip. Perfect, I thought as I mentally checked off the list: Countryside! Leeds! Unrivalled Literary Pedigree! This place was Rayburn-tastic! We could afford to buy there- this; you understand was only the last part of the puzzle. Having approached several building societies donned in anti-riot armour we settled on a high street bank who could give us a reasonable amount of money as long as we pay it off over 100 years and give them our first-born child as collateral. It was all fitting together so nicely. Who were these people who found the process so stressful? Idiots.

Still fabulously enamoured with the idea of country living, we returned the very next weekend to view what appeared on the estate agent’s details to be a quaint two bed roomed terrace with both a front and back garden. There it was- my vegetable garden. Was that Peter Rabbit complete with blue jacket peeping out from underneath the radishes? Glee Glee Glee. As our moderately priced Volvo pulled up at the address, we were acquainted with rule number one- if estate agents details were a newspaper they would be the equivalent of The Daily Sport. They push the truth as far as possible without actually lying. A well-sized front plot was actually a patch of scabby, scorched earth, festooned with Gnomes, upturned and burnt. God knows what had transpired there. The scene was Biblical. Lesson learned- never trust a house where the best picture taken of it is from behind a hedge.

We were greeted by a woman in a lemon acrylic cardigan with brass buttons and huge knitted puppies embroidered on it. She blinked at us with watery eyes behind hugely think jam-jar glasses. Smiling, she revealed teeth so rotten a picture of them should be stuck up in every school next to the fizzy drinks machine. She ushered us inside and invited us to sit down on her chesterfield sofa. We, so horrified and taken aback by the sheer awfulness of what affronted us stumbled backwards in to the doorway. Rooted to the spot, we cast our eyes around. The crumbling lurid walls were adorned with a massive vile oil painting of a Yorkshire Terrier. Underneath which was a plaque which read:

‘Dearly loved, Dearly missed, At rest at last- FRANK 1990-2006.’

Beside the fire stood a fetid rug on which sat a porcelain Yorkie and a small brass urn. We could guess what was in it. All about the house there hung a smell so stale and offensive its origins could only be a matter of speculation. Determined to make the best of it I raised my arm, pointed to the window and asked if a view could be seen on a clear day. It was then an evil squawk came from the corner and, out of the gloom an immense apparition of colour, dust and claws launched at my arm. I jumped and it was several seconds before I was able to discern that the vision of hell was in fact a large parrot hanging, by its beak, from my cashmere cardigan. There I was, the female equivalent of Captain Birdseye. The claws rasped my skin and tore my sleeve, and screaming, I started to move my arm up and down in a vein attempt to disengage the creature from my arm. My husband, valiant to the last, made flailing actions at the bird, which then let go and fell, stunned, to the floor. “Bronte!” The old dear shouted, “Pick him up, Fred, pick him up!” An old and greasy gentleman, presumably Fred, rustled in his gloomy armchair and, leaning back, gently shuffled his foot underneath the birds limp wing. “Get up, you theatrical bugger!” he shouted, “You’re nowbut a lal mouse!” His prodding wasn’t having much success and, with a shredded piece of cashmere about it’s scaly beak, the parrot breathed it’s last. “He’s dead, Norma” said Fred- for once, it seems, lost for words.

After this farcical scene, we were asked if we’d like a cup of tea and to see the rest of the house. Fred wrestled the ex-parrot in to a shoe-box; and while the kettle was boiling Norma showed us the rest of the house. Hardly daring to breathe, we ventured on. Upstairs held the answer to the smell- damp patches so obvious it was laughable. ‘What’s that smell?’ I ventured, unable to stop myself. ‘Oh, that’, she said, ‘It’s just pot-pourri. I love my pot-pourri, I do’. ‘What variety of pot-pourri smells like that?’ my husband whispered, “H5N-1?”

One hour and forty minutes later we stumbled, blinking, back in to the sun. We had, unsuccessfully, been politely trying to get out of a conversation about kidney stones and piles for most of that time. As we discovered, there are no polite ways to get out of conversation about piles. Especially when the man of the house sits straining and wincing on a rubber ring on the chesterfield armchair. The dramatic and quite fitting death of Bronte was not mentioned, and we left feeling entirely confused and soiled. Renting wasn’t so bad, after all, was it?

From that day forward, we were so traumatised that we were unable to consider buying a house that that been lived in- by anyone at all. The prospect of finding a stash of rotten rusty tubs of Anusol or a parrot graveyard under the floorboards was too much. A new-build for us, please! Many, many viewings later, having found our modestly priced, modestly sized new house, only slightly too near to a council estate where there was a constant tyre-fire, the sale went through. Then, of course, we are suddenly shiny-new and more interesting. More than that, we have made it. We are Gods.

Any first time buyer will confirm this truth. As testament to your new status, in your first week you are guaranteed to have several ‘new home’ cards from previously unheard of relatives due to the fact that your mother has been furnishing them with the happy news - a house-owning offspring is the ultimate brag. Not since the days of swimming badges have your parents been so proud, and indeed so willing to talk of your meagre achievements, and seem to think that the only reason you have bought in the first place is because you heeded their advice. They atomically grant themselves the credit and bask in the reflected glory. The most infuriating thing about this process has been the assumption that you have bought a house because you have finally learned the eternal truth. The eleventh, and ultimate commandment of adulthood is to own your own home. To achieve this is to ascend to heaven on a ticket to ride, signed, sealed and delivered. This will forever confuse me. Why are so many stores put behind buying a house anyway? I think behind every peace-corps PHD student, every paediatric AIDS caseworker, every UN goodwill ambassador, there is a back biting, bitching mother in a twin set barking on about owning a three bed-roomed semi in Surbiton. Every other fantastic achievement is nothing to this. Wouldn’t they rather we were good people? It seems not. I can murder, pillage or be an estate agent as long as I own my own home.

So, now we know the reason why we are all so desperate to get on that bottom rung of the infamous property ladder. Better to go through mad parrot hell than risk being a social leper. Or could it be that we are sick of renting over-priced, damp, cramped hovels with fetid carpets? Sick of being at the mercy of satanic landlords and crazy lodgers? Sick of living with stinking kitchens, broken fridges, damp patches and leaking pipes? Nope. It has to be that renting is dead money, dummy.