It’s been said to the point of cliché that buying a house is one of the most stressful things you can go through in life - right up there with bereavement and divorce. I’ve just experienced it for the first time and can vouch for how gruelling the process is. But in the end, if you manage to get the home you want, it’s most definitely worth it! I learned a lot over the course of the journey, which will hopefully help if I have to go through it again (I just hope that’s not for a while!).
Be wary of estate agents
This might sound obvious. Estate agents don’t have the best of reputations. Often with good reason. It’s important to keep your wits about you and be clear about what it is you want. They’re just doing their job at the end of the day, and their job is to sell, sell, sell! So the clearer you are about what you want to buy, the less you’ll be given the run around. A lot of the time estate agents need to be seen by their vendors to be getting in the viewings, so chances are they’ll want to show you a whole bunch of places - and a fair number of those may not fit your remit. If you’ve got the inclination, then they may well broaden your horizons and show you properties you might not have considered otherwise, but if you’re busy and you know what you want, then be firm and don’t let them waste your valuable time. Once you’ve had an offer accepted the agent will want you to complete as soon as you can. Don’t be pushed around. Moving house is a huge undertaking, so do it in a way that works for you. My wife and I completed pretty quickly in the grand scheme of things, but the agent still hassled us about how slow the process was going, even though our paperwork was up to date with our solicitor. This brings me to point two:
Leave it to the experts
As much as you can anyway. I’d never seen so much paperwork or been hit with such a huge amount of jargon and legalese. It was exhausting - not only trying to understand it, but trying to care about understanding it too. And you have to care because it’s important. You’ll have a solicitor whose job it is to make sure all the necessary forms are completed correctly (ours was suggested by our estate agent and was great). If you’re unsure of anything run it past them and get their opinion - this is their job after all. Be honest about it being your first time - usually people are glad to help. When we had the survey done on the place we wanted to buy, there were plenty of things I didn’t understand in the final document. The surveyor was more than happy to go through it all with me over the phone and make suggestions about our next course of action. When your head’s swimming in certificates and clauses, contracts and covenants, it’s extremely reassuring to get a human being to explain it all.
Property money is not real money
A friend of mine told me that when my wife and I were considering how big an offer to make on the house we wanted. It really helped take a lot of the stress out of it. No other time in life will you spend so much money in one go. And in no other transaction (unless you’re buying a premier league footballer) do the sums involved seem so arbitrary. Five minutes’ walk closer to a tube station and properties can go up by 25K. Identical places next door to each other might have a 50K difference in their final selling price. One of the houses we viewed sold for nearly 400K less than it had originally been put on the market for! So many different factors come into play - and they’re not always relevant to the property itself. It could be the current political climate; it could be just the luck of the draw. Find a property being sold by a divorcing couple for example and you might pick yourself up a bargain (although this perhaps isn’t the most morally-scrupulous method of house-hunting). The great thing about sites like Rightmove and Zoopla is you can get a grip on the market yourself. Transport links, quality of the local schools, square-footage, outside space, general upkeep - they all add up to a ball-park figure which you can quite quickly develop a nose for. If you like a property but its price seems over the odds, don’t be afraid to come up with your own offer. Neither the vendors nor the agents know exactly what a place is worth. As big as the sums involved are, it’s still pretty much guesswork. As I heard one agent say: a property is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it.
Be ready to compromise
I’m a Londoner through and through and would have stayed if I could. We just didn’t want to pay too much for the privilege, especially not with a baby and another one on the way. When it came down to it, a good-sized house and garden was more important. It was a tough decision to make - I always felt more suited to the urban life than the suburban one (I can still be in central London in half an hour on the train, it just takes a bit more planning than it used to). House prices the way they are, it’s unlikely you’re going to be able to get your dream home in your dream area. Something’s going to have to give. One thing my wife and I found helpful was to play a kind of property top trumps. We had a list of the factors that were most important to us and each time we viewed a house we marked it out of ten on the list and totalled up the scores. It can be less tangible than that. It could be a gut-feeling; how you feel when you walk through the door. At the end of the day, can you call the place home? And are you excited at the prospect? From deciding we wanted to move to being in our new house has taken nine months. There have been many ups and downs - the sale nearly fell through several times - but we made it, and in the end we got the house we wanted. So hang in there. We’ve been in our new place a week and it already feels like home. And that makes all the work and the stress beforehand feel worthwhile.
I’ve noticed as I’ve got older that I’ve started finding my brands. In my twenties I never really thought beyond the item itself. If I liked it, I bought it. I never considered repeat buying. In fact I went out of my way to avoid it, as if it showed a chronic lack of ambition and a paucity of imagination. I might have bought a great pair of jeans, but I couldn’t possibly buy the same pair again when the first wore out. It seemed an alien concept, up there with having the same meal on the same day each week, or blocking out sex time with my girlfriend in the diary. Some things just aren’t meant to be regimented.
Now I’m in my late thirties I’ve realised just how much time and effort it saves when you just know what you like. And how much more pleasant it is to be surrounded by the things that you like. I guess in my twenties I moved around so often and lived in rented houseshares so much of the time, that there wasn’t a great deal of point putting too much thought and effort into nice things. There were other priorities. Like drinking, clubbing, and trying to have spontaneous sex.
Since life has become more settled I’ve realised that I like certain brands more than others. I know the deodorant and aftershave I like to wear. I know the shampoo and shower gel. I’ve been repeat buying the same three styles of jeans for the last few years. The same goes with shoes, tops, coats. I’ve settled on a look. I even know what washing up liquid I prefer to use in the kitchen, what kitchen roll and what detergent.
As a writer stationery is very important, but again for a long time I didn’t pay much attention to the kind I actually liked. This seems really strange to me now. Take pens for instance: I’d mix things up the whole time. If I picked one up that felt good in my hand, which wrote smoothly, then great. I’d spend a few weeks enjoying my long hand and note taking. If not, then I’d found a dud. I’d suck it up and wait until the next time I was in the stationery shop to get a replacement. But again it would largely be pot luck. I never considered trying to find my brand.
When I was in Los Angeles a couple of years ago I visited a bookshop on Sunset Boulevard. I found a couple of books I wanted to buy and I thought I’d buy my girlfriend Laura a little present while I was there. She really likes dogs and I saw on display a bright orange pen with a dachshund along the clip, so I bought it for her. Little did I know at the time that this was to prove the start of an obsessive love affair. Between me and the pen.
It was smooth and shiny. I loved the way it felt in my hand. It wrote like a dream. I loved the bright orange colour and the cute dachshund picture and two little doggy bones on the side. I loved the way the clip curved like the contours of a sports car. I loved the way the pen twisted on and off with a deeply satisfying click.
The pen in question is a Seven Year Pen made by Seltzer, so called because apparently they can produce up to two metres of writing per day for seven years before they run out of ink. What stamina! Environmentally friendly too. The average person would only ever need eight in their lifetime!
I found ways of using the Dachshund more and more frequently until Laura allowed me, charitably, to adopt the pen as my own. Writing had never felt so good. But it didn’t stop there. Seltzer pens aren’t available in the UK but I went onto their website and discovered that they had numerous other designs, most of them as appealing as the Dachshund. I went Seven Year Pen crazy. I’ve now got twenty-six of them, each one with a style, look and – I honestly think – personality of its own. I’ve got a bee one, an elephant one, a lobster one, a whale one, a guitar one, a peacock one, the list goes on.
For a while I felt a little overwhelmed by them. I felt like I needed to come up with a system. I felt like some pens were going to be neglected in favour of others. I couldn’t rest easy with that thought, not after they’d brought so much joy to my life.
What I’ve decided to do is use a different pen each week, so each pen has two weeks each year of writing time. At the start of every week I make a note in my diary of which one I’ve chosen and I also keep tabs on just how well I write over the course of the week. Not that I blame my own poor performance on the pen, but I do feel a bit warmer towards that week’s pen if I feel like I’ve produced some good work.
It’s made writing a much more pleasurable, more tactile experience. And at this rate I’ll be able to keep writing for another 182 years!
One of the things that’s struck me most about becoming a dad is how much less of a big deal it is than I expected it to be. That’s not to say it isn’t hard work, or life-changing, or sometimes a bleary-eyed, uphill slog, but I was expecting more of a fundamental shift in my worldview, something deeper and more profound.
I’ve often noticed in life that what can seem like a huge cliff face one side, looks little more than a bump in the road the other. I think a lot of us often underestimate our ability to cope with change, to just get on with it and roll with the punches.
Before Ottilie was born I thought I was in store for the biggest moment of my life, the biggest, most fundamental change I’d ever gone through. I felt like the world was going to be a completely different place when I became a dad. I thought I’d feel very different to the person I was before.
As it’s turned out, all those deep and meaningfuls have been booted aside by more immediate concerns, like making sure she’s looked after properly; making sure she’s well-fed, well-rested, clean, entertained, happy.
To be honest, I don’t really get it when I hear new parents talk about how much in love they are with their babies or how they just can’t stop looking at them. I haven’t felt like that, not in that sort of gushing way anyway. That’s not to say I don’t care – it’s not that at all. We had to take Ottilie to the hospital twice in her first three months and it was horrible seeing her prodded and poked and examined while she didn’t know what was happening to her. I felt extremely protective. And I felt extremely proud of how well she coped. She’s a real water baby too – she loves the bath and we take her to baby swimming classes on Sundays. It’s such a great feeling seeing how much she enjoys it – and she reacts an awful lot better to being dunked underwater than I ever have!
I want to be the best dad that I can be. I want Ottilie to grow up feeling loved and secure and free to express herself. I want to help her learn about the world and get the most out of it that she possibly can. But for me that takes removing myself and my feelings from the picture. I want to do those things for her, because I’m responsible for bringing her into the world and I have a responsibility to look after her.
My favourite times so far have been when I’ve seen her develop and grow – the first time she smiled, the first time she used her hands to grab a toy, the first time she rolled over. It feels like a privilege to be there when she makes a new discovery, a new leap in growth and understanding.
The hardest parts are the mundane things like dealing with a lack of sleep and the lack of free time. Parenthood feels more like a job than I expected it to. I feel less of a sense of warm, fuzzy, oh-isn’t-she-wonderful love than I expected, and more a sense of duty and responsibility. Again, that’s not to say I don’t love Ottilie – but it’s a different kind of love than I expected. It’s the kind of love which puts her first. The kind which urges me to just get on with it and roll with the punches.