October 19, 2002

how we bought our house in time: a property primer

it was crazy.

every wednesday evening, at my cosy little one-bed house in uxbridge, i would wait for the dull thud of the free weekly tabloid, dropped at the doorstep. that evening, and through the week till the next wednesday, praveen and i would comb through the 40-page-or-so almost sandpaper-like musty smelling property section, looking for a home that we could afford.

i loved that one-bed house we used to rent. it was the perfect space for a couple newly wed, to learn about each other, for love to blossom. despite my reputation back home for being a very career-minded, and rather anti-tradition or the not-so-family-sort girl, it did not take me any extra effort to make it ‘feel’ very homely — with its terracotta wallpaper and rather tiny kitchen, spiral stairs going up to the bedroom and huge bathroom, the only place in the house that was blessed by sunlight, the only place where i nurtured my new love for gardening. it was also enough to squeeze in six friends (two on their honeymoon tour of europe!) visiting from india, all of who landed on the same day, and stayed overnight!

soon however, with each passing day in the house came the need for space that we could call our own, ask friends and family to visit more often without having to worry about whether we could accommodate them comfortably. with that also came the realisation that our lovely home was not worth the 600 pounds that went into the landlord’s pocket every month.

like most people here in the uk, praveen calculated that if we ‘owned’ a property, it would turn out to be a far better investment than renting a house. apart from the fact that we could invite home more family members without having to get on each other’s toes, we could perhaps even rent a part or whole of it later, thus being able to repay the mortgage and perhaps earn a little extra income too.

but we had very little time. the house prices had been steadily rising, playing havoc with families in the country. we did not know whether to wait for it to collapse, or take in the plunge right now. we decided it had to be now. and so the search began.

wednesday evenings were suddenly filled with fresh purpose. it wasn’t enough to simply select a house…it had to ‘click’ for both of us. apart from the features of the house itself, it had to have easy access to public transport and the town centre, it also had to be close to praveen’s workplace.

i spent one entire afternoon walking into every estate agent’s shop on uxbridge road (19 of them!) registering ourselves and telling them what we want: two/three-bed house, end terraced, small garden, nice and homely. ‘house agent’ visiting cards multiplied. at night we would both scour web sites offering houses for sale, followed by my phone calls to them the next day. in most cases i was to learn that the house we chose was already sold, or the web site had not been updated since a week, and so on. we found a few houses, but we lost many more. the closest being one we both had instantly liked…and lost at an auction.

in my ‘just-arrived in the uk’ mind, the house-hunt excitement had begun to resemble the likes of the dotcom mania that swept the world not too many months ago…property prices in uk were soaring higher and higher, and everyone who (already) owned a house wanted to make the most of it. many trends began to emerge…

trend#1. pamphlets from estate agents were being distributed everywhere, everyday. on the piece of paper would be the picture of a certain house on a certain street, with the estate agents asking “do you have a property like this to sell?”
sometimes, the question would be the other way around — “would you be interested in this property?”, with specifications of the house and contact details of the agent below. sometimes the agents would just be “looking for landlords with a property to sell”

it was interesting to see how each time the message would be different, and sometimes five or six of them, all varied, would land on our doorstep on a single afternoon.

trend#2. another housing community undergoing a silent change was the council home. in spite of the larger space that these homes offered, i was told that these were often located in areas that had a poor reputation — something one normally would not go for…but now since the increasing prices, attitudes were changing fast.

trend#3. trying for houses outside the ‘central’ london parameter was an alternative most buyers were beginning to consider. so did we. and that’s how we discovered this town. having spent one evening just looking around the area (it was a 40-minute drive from where we lived), we decided we liked it. but going through every agent also would involve painful waiting periods (for the agent to get to the house owner, the house owner back to the agent and the agent back to us), and hopes and disappointments again.

so we did it our way…

early one sunday morning, after our homework with all the estate people (luckily most of them were lined up along the way to the town centre), armed with a lot of enthusiasm, notepad, pen, the town map, praveen’s excellent sense of direction and brochures of prospective houses for sale, we drew up a search route all around the town. having shortlisted about 19 houses spread all over the place, we then numbered them in terms of proximity, affordability and how much we favoured it in terms of house specs. since this was also going to be our investment, we had to make sure the house was in a decent area, so we didn’t have problems in the case we had to sell it or rent. so there, that was going to be our main house-qualifying value for money factor.

towards late noon, hungry but still excited, we had driven all around the county, and were left with just two houses we needed the agent to book for a ‘viewing’. the rest were disqualified either because the area seemed unwise for investment, or because the house was too far from the town centre. two days into the week, the other two houses went off our list too. apparently, they were put up for sale only because the estate agents had offered a ‘free property-valuing’ if someone was selling a house!! and that, was another rising trend. trend#4.

two weeks later however, we received a call from one of the hemel agents, asking if we would like to view a property that evening. the house was freshly marked for sale. it was at a very short notice, but we decided to cover that 25-mile 40-minute distance one more time. five months later today, we are glad we did.

as we soaked in some of the rare sunshine this morning sipping our coffee, and browsed through the ‘properties for sale’ pages in the (hemel hempstead) friday tabloid, we looked at each other and smiled. within the last three months that we moved into our new home, its market value has had an appreciation of a little over fifteen percent already!

we smiled, because even today, we cannot help turn to the property pages every time we pick up a newspaper.

because today, we are on the other side.

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