Since January of this year, we have viewed over 70 properties in the south west of London. We have seen overpriced tiny flats, reasonably priced fixer upper maisonettes, and outrageously prices terraced houses. We even managed to make offers on several properties that, although not exactly what we were looking for, were not too bad and were within our meagre budget. These properties, it turned out, were well beyond our reach. Despite a 20% fall in London housing prices since the start of the recession, sellers in London are holding out. Sellers in south west London, taking the advice of their cunning estate agents, are expecting offers for the full asking price. Full asking price! In a recession where credit is very hard to come by. We cannot offer full asking price so all our offers were declined.
We realised after 6 hard months of house hunting that we quite simply cannot compete in the current climate. This realisation came to us when we were viewing a property that was a huge compromise on what we wanted. Everyone looking for property needs to compromise on some things, because you simply cannot have it all. The compromise here was that the area had no railway station and we would need to catch a bus to the train every day, twice a day. But is was cheaper. So we got sucked into viewing it.
When we arrived our estate agent was finishing showing the property to another couple. As they came through the door to exit the property my heart sank. They were all smiles and they were both men. Right. That’s the end of that, then. These men will be able to offer full asking price, and we cannot. Because these men have two 30 something male salaries and we do not. I held it together long enough to view the lovely flat that we would never get and afterwards completely broke down in tears.
After that episode, we cooled the jets on the house hunt. It was simply too soul destroying. I began deleting the emails from estate agents without reading them and convinced myself that we needn’t worry about this right now, we are renting a great flat and the time is simply not right. But something caught my eye last night – a 3 bedroom terraced house with a garden within half a mile of a rail station direct to London. Just within budget. I was intrigued.
As I met my husband at the railway station 20 minutes before the appointment I knew we were in for a long night. It was pouring down with rain and we had both had long hard days at work. Husband’s shoes were not waterproof and he made a point of mentioning this every 20 feet or so. And he forgot his umbrella. So we had to huddle under mine and walk the 5 blocks to get to this property. As we walked we noticed that the street we were on was rather nice, lovely Victorian homes with large front gardens and mid range cars (because you can always tell about the area by the cars in the street). However, it soon became evident that the further down the street we walked the worse the properties were getting. Soon, the slightly rusting cars were parked on the paved-over front gardens rather than in the street, and the frontages of the houses were looking tattered and neglected. When we finally found the house we waited in the rain for the estate agent, who was inevitably late. Waiting, we got to witness several young white men in hooded jackets carrying beer cans racing down the street shouting at each other. In the distance there was a faint car alarm. When the estate agent finally arrived we were already put off the property.
The house, as it happened, was being rented by the local council from a private landlord… to asylum seekers. When we entered we were greeted by a middle aged Afghan man and his 2 young sons who smiled as they welcomed us into their home. Our shoes lined up neatly by the front door, we were shown around the kitchen and lounge that made up the ground floor. The house was what you would expect a property that for 30 years had not been properly looked after. The wallpaper was stained and peeling, the kitchen was barely functional, and the carpets were trodden into a matted mess of dirt and grime. But all these things can be fixed and we tried to focus on the structure of the house: good sized rooms, decent layout and a door leading out from the lounge to the back garden. Husband opened the door to peer in the darkness and make out the size of the yard. He noticed a lean-to outbuilding to the right and wanted to see if the same had been done on the left. To his surprise there was no lean-to, but rather a very young startled girl hiding behind the back door.
"Oh, excuse me, I didn’t realise someone was there". Husband replied and quickly shut the door.
We continued upstairs where there was more of the same. The bathroom was abysmal - the tiles were grotty and cracked; the walls were covered in damp and mould. The master bedroom was averaged sized but it looked larger because there was not a speck of furniture in the room, just a pile of foam mats leaned up against one wall. We'd seen enough. We made our way back to the front door and said our goodbyes. After discovering that 'no, the estate agent cannot give us a lift back to the train station', we began our rainy march back the way we came.
"Oh my god, that was the most extraordinary house I have seen yet." said Husband.
"I am at a loss for words. The worst part is that that house was actually at the high end of our budget. We cannot even afford a house that is currently housing asylum seekers! It would need 20 grand’s worth of work." I said.
"Yes, I know. Tonight is a write-off", he said. "but I am more interested in the people who were living there. I tried to have a chat with the man but he did not speak English well. It reminds me of the marriage in the novel 'A Thousand Splendid Suns' by Khaled Hosseini. I wonder how old the wife was? Her eldest son must have been at least 5 years old. She didn’t look a day over 20."
"Yes, I thought of that too. I hope you did not get her in trouble by finding her hiding place. She was out in the back yard because she is not to be seen by anyone but her husband." I said.
"Yeah, I hope not."
And as we walked back to the station, huddled together under one umbrella, we both quietly contemplated the reality of their situation.
When we finally got back to the station, there was a 29 minute wait for our train. Irritable, cold and wet we argued whether or not to wait or get the bus home. The bus won. By the time we got home, 50 minutes later, we opened the front door to our building, walked up the stairs and unlocked the door to our flat. Even though it is only a rental, it was warm and cozy and felt like home.
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