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Upping Sticks: Part 2 – the Faithless and the Fickle

July 24, 2021
No, this is not our house….

In many countries, selling and buying a home is a relatively simple transaction. But in England, it’s a nightmarish rollercoaster fraught with bear-traps and multiple opportunities for carpet-chewing rage.

This is a story about why it took a year for us to sell our home and find a replacement – something that might have taken no more than three months in earlier times. The antics of Fluffy and Mr Pratt, of whom more later, were major contributing factors.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, the property market in England is a rat’s nest. With a few honourable exceptions, it’s infested by oleaginous estate agents and manipulative property websites that give you false expectations as to the value of your house, media pundits who contribute to buying frenzies or prophesise doom and gloom, leaden-footed lawyers and unscrupulous service providers who feed on the market.

Then there are the buyers and sellers themselves. Lax regulation allows them to jerk you around on a whim, to pull out of transactions for no valid reason, or hold you to ransom on price after you’ve incurred big costs in the run-up to contract exchange. That’s not to say that all people behave this way, but when so many deals depend on other deals, it only takes a few to send laboriously constructed buying and selling chains crashing into the dust.

Add to these beartraps the fact that the housing market is currently going through a highly volatile phase. For a number of reasons, property prices in England are rising rapidly. If your sale takes six months to complete, your house could well be significantly more valuable than it was when you agreed the price. So do you sell for the original price, or try and negotiate an uplift before exchange?

When we bought the house we’ve just sold, on the morning of contract exchange, with no prior notice, the seller informed us that the deal was off unless we came up with an additional 10% of the purchase price. All our ducks were in a row – our buyers ready to go – and she was effectively putting a financial gun to our heads. She gave us six hours to come up with the extra money. After a negotiation to whittle down her demand and a frantic scrambling to raise the additional cash, we managed to save the deal. There is no better way to behave badly when you’re engaged in an arm’s length transaction.

Fast forward three decades, and we come to Fluffy and Mr Pratt. Fluffy is the name we gave to a potential buyer, a lady of a certain age, who was blonde, bubbly and convincingly sincere. When we put our home on the market, she and her partner were among the early viewers. She loved the house, she said, and though she hadn’t sold hers she could buy ours because Daddy was prepared to provide a bridging loan. If anyone thinks that the Bank of Mum and Dad becomes defunct once its customers enter their fifties, think again. Often as not, as long as its executives continue to draw breath, its funding will be required.

So Fluffy made an offer, we haggled a bit, and we arrived at an acceptable price. We then made an offer on a place not too far away. It was also accepted. At which point the lawyers, on our side at least, whirred into action. The money began haemorrhaging. While we were pressing forward with our purchase, our garrulous buyer seemed to be moving at a more leisurely pace. After two months of messing around, we started getting worried. We spoke to the estate agent on a regular basis to find out what was going on. His input was vaguely encouraging but non-committal. It was only after several weeks that he admitted that he’d dealt with her before and that she was, to use his words, somewhat “fickle”. By this time, we were ready finalise our purchase. At which point she informed us via the agent that unfortunately she couldn’t go ahead, because Daddy had changed his mind. Yeah right.

So Fluffy cost us a lot of money. She also wasted months of summer selling time. Thanks for warning us, Mr Estate Agent. It would have been nice to know of her vacillating personality before we accepted her offer. We duly pulled out of our purchase, much to the annoyance of our seller. By this time the second COVID wave was starting to crest, so we decided to put the project on hold until the following year.

Come the Spring, we were half-thinking of staying put, when another of the early viewers put in an offer. Not great, but we had come to realise our house’s one weakness was a relatively small kitchen. This was a more significant factor than we originally thought.

But it seems, on the evidence of website postings and estate agents’ shop-window ads (see the picture above, which is NOT of our house, by the way), that people who buy large houses these days are obsessed with having kitchens the size of a Gordon Ramsay restaurant, but minus the sweating, cursing sous-chefs. Islands surrounded by acres of shelving and expensive equipment. A dining area nearby, with the potential to go alfresco by opening enormous doors that lead out to an equally well-provisioned patio. It’s called lifestyle, apparently.

Voluminous kitchens are a must even if the occupants use them for little more than boiling the occasional egg or warming up Tesco ready meals, while guests sit around close by, guzzling prosecco and talking about the joys of Brexit. And in many estate agent windows, all you see of a property is the bloody kitchen. Which must tell you something about the state of Middle England’s health, as waistlines expand and middle-aged livers pack up in despair.

My approach to cooking, by the way, is somewhat different. When I’m in the middle of some complex operation such as a Christmas dinner, all I want is for our beloved guests to get the hell out of my face.

Anyway, in the interests of getting on with it, we accepted an offer slightly below the asking price and re-started our property search. By this time, the property market was going into a frenzy, at least in the imagination of the media. The government had temporarily reduced stamp duty (a wicked little tax on house purchases) to aid the post-COVID recovery. People were scrambling to get their deals done before the deadline, after which the tax rate returned to normal levels. The dominant ethos was FOMO – fear of missing out. The rise in house prices was also partly due to the fact that there weren’t many sellers. Not surprising that during a pandemic people are reluctant to have hordes of prospective buyers tramping through their homes.

After a few near misses, including a place whose owner was “insulted” by our opening offer and still refused to sell to us even when we came up to the asking price) we found another place which, contrary to all the media hype, had been on the market for a few months. Its owner, whom we shall call Mr Pratt, had been letting the property to long-term tenants, but now wanted to sell because, if the tenants were to be believed, he had a few financial problems. So we duly put in an offer slightly below the asking price, which he accepted.

Finally, all seemed set fair. Our buyer was moving ahead at a reasonable pace, and so were we. Back onto the merry-go-round of surveys and searches, our agent, lawyers and other advisors were again rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of yet more lucrative funds from our direction.

As the moment of contract exchange approached, Mr Pratt put a spanner in the works. Out of the blue, one day after we had been discussing with him the logistics of moving in, he sent a curt email to the agent saying he wished to withdraw from the sale. No reason given. We gathered that he’d being talking to his mates, who told him he was selling too cheaply.

Fortunately, we’d already spotted another property nearby that was far more enticing than his, but for a similar price. Because we’d committed to Mr Pratt, we hadn’t looked into it further. But as soon as he dropped his bombshell, we immediately viewed the other place, loved it, and within a day had put in an offer, which the seller accepted.

Meanwhile, Mr P. turned out to have been bluffing. Within a couple of days he went back to the agent to tell him that he would, in fact, be prepared to sell, but only with a significant uplift of the asking price. We then had the delicious pleasure of telling him to go forth and multiply. His tenants had moved out and now, thanks to his cupidity, he’d lost his sale. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy, we thought.

With our new seller we set a deadline for completion. Our buyers agreed to hang on a little longer, provided we completed before the end of the tax holiday.

And so, miracle of miracles, despite all the Jeremiahs in the media telling us that it currently takes up to six months to buy a house in these interesting times, with the help of a cooperative seller we completed our purchase within four weeks.

Thus ended our journey to a new home, eighteen months since we first started thinking about a move. We encountered many strange characters on the way, of which Fluffy and Pratt were but two examples. In the end, all the costs involved, including those incurred through the false starts, amounted to an additional ten percent on top of the asking price for our new home. Compare that with Australia, for example, where the average cost of buying is around half that figure.

Which causes me to reflect what a dumb way we English have chosen to run our property market. Weak regulation, opportunistic sellers and capricious buyers who can jerk you around at no cost to themselves, service providers such as removal companies who will jack up prices at times of high demand. Anecdotal evidence suggests that our experience is far from unusual. But at least it had a happy ending.

Why, you might ask, did we put ourselves through all this grief? As we explained in Part 1 of this little saga, in common with many people whose kids have left home and who rattle around in houses too large for our needs, we were downsizing.

For all the fun and games involved in putting a quart into a pint pot, as we Imperial English say, I shall shortly be posting Part 3.

From → Business, Social, UK

  1. “…putting a quart into a pint pot…” (never heard that before, but I love it!)
    I take it your cup runneth over?
    House hunting and moving are among the hardest things I’ve ever done. Not only the high jinks you talked about (greatly reduced in this country) but the psychological toll of finding out how awful the consequences of getting into the market too late can be.
    Money has never been my focus or my strong suit, but I’ve had the tremendous good luck of strong support, and a willingness to be very flexible simply because the decisions I had to make effected only me.
    I managed to dump most everything before my move West, arriving with only what would fit in my car–clothes, books, records (yes that long ago) and a small box of tools.
    I deposited “stuff” all across the country and arrived with the car only half full.
    Whew. Glad I don’t have to face doing this all again.

    • Thanks Debby. Yes, if it was just me, I suspect it would have been much easier. A piece of cake, you might say. But then I would have been spared the fun of arguing about where to put stuff, and I would have missed out on the privilege of functioning as the offspring’s storage repository. I guess it was the knowledge of what a massive exercise it was going to be that spurred us to do it sooner rather than later. In fact, if it hadn’t been now, it might have been never. And yes, we have about 150 records, but no deck, unfortunately. Time to get rid, because most of them we have on CDs. Three weeks on, we still have many boxes unemptied. The fun continues…

  2. three weeks on and many boxes unemptied…
    I moved from a four bedroom home in the suburbs to a condo in the city in the early ’90s.
    When I was preparing to move out in ’05, I had to start by going through the boxes that still stood untouched behind the couch in the sitting room.
    Three weeks on, hunh? And you think that is slow?

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