Friday, 18 November 2016

Buying the House


I never imagined I would buy a house. The timing of my birth led me to anticipate an adult life of smart suits, cheap rented accommodation, and meeting girls in coffee shops with Ricky Nelson on the juke box, something in the approximate tradition of Joe Meek, Billy Liar, Hancock and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. The promise of living in a socialist country seemed to be that I need not worry about having somewhere to live.

For American readers who don't actually know what socialism is, or who think they know what socialism is but don't - like my idiot neighbour with his lawn sign proposing we choose freedom not socialism - for those people, here's the short version.

If you're reading this, you almost certainly live in a civilised society by some definition, and a civilised society with an infrastructure provided for the benefit of everyone. Your willingness to contribute to the infrastructure is implicit in your choosing to remain in civilised society. Your contribution will usually take the form of taxes by which roads, healthcare, and public works are financed. If you don't wish to contribute - keeping in mind that you also benefit from this system - then nothing is stopping you pissing off into the wilderness and living in a cave on nuts, berries, and whatever you can catch. Living in a civilised society doesn't mean you get to decide the worth of the infrastructure based on what you're getting out of it, what you've decided you should be getting out of it, or what you think other people are getting out of it but shouldn't. If your main concern is what's in it for me? then you don't belong in civilised society, or at least are yet to achieve adult status therein.

Unfortunately socialism was on the wane by the time I left home. Rents were going up, wages were going up but not at quite the same rate, and the possibility of buying your own council home meant that those who, like myself, had never really seen the appeal of buying a house were increasingly obliged to rent accommodation from private landlords or letting agencies with rates dictated by the almighty market. In 1984 I rented a room in a shared house for ten pounds a week. In 2009 I was renting a tiny single room flat in Camberwell for ₤750 a month. It was the cheapest place I'd been able to find and it cost roughly two thirds of my monthly wage. By the time I came to understand the desirability of buying a house, I knew I would never be able to afford one.

The problem was eventually resolved when I came to get married and moved to Texas. My wife, who was at the time just my girlfriend in another country, lived in a first floor apartment in San Antonio. The apartment was a decent size, but too small for us as a family with myself added to the equation. She began looking at larger places to which we could relocate, preferably somewhere with a garden for the sake of the kid. Then about a month before I was due to fly, she sent me an email with the attached floor plan of a house.

What do you think? she asked.

It looks fine, I told her.

Actually it looked about four times the size of anywhere I'd ever anticipated living, which was nice. I wasn't overly bothered about where we ended up so long as it wasn't too shit and wasn't actually smaller than my Camberwell rabbit hutch had been.

A month or so later we were shown around the place by some relative of the owners with a view to renting. I'd never even considered renting an entire house, but it worked out at about half the monthly cost of what I'd been paying for my south London broom cupboard. The place wasn't perfect. The owners hadn't bothered cleaning it or fixing anything before showing us around. It could have done with a lick of paint and a couple of the air conditioning units had seen better days. The yard was a barren football pitch of sand and dead plant matter. A few of the doors didn't quite close or wouldn't stay closed, and a hole had been punched in the kitchen wall for some reason. Best of all was the knackered metal frame of a large glass-topped table rusting away in the garden, the sort you can buy at Walmart for about twenty dollars, but with no glass in it.

'You could have a circle of glass specially cut for that,' our man suggested optimistically, because that shitty rusting frame of a cheap piece of crap from Walmart was - you know - such a lovely piece.

In spite of everything, I loved the place. It seemed huge to me, and owing to the way San Antonio sprawls across our corner of Texas, it didn't even feel like it was in the city. We said yes, moved in, and got married.

Over the next five years I transformed the yard back into a garden. We made little improvements here and there, rolled the skeletal Walmart table around the side of the house along with the corpse of a propane grill so as to present an impression of having nothing worth burgling. We acquired cats and paid rent.

Eventually, once we noticed how settled we'd become, my wife suggested that we might like to see if we can buy the place from the owner, reasoning that it wouldn't be significantly more expensive than renting, and it would mean we could make our own improvements. This seemed desirable because getting our landlady to fix anything - like what a landlady is supposed to do - was never easy, and it was getting ridiculous.

Her name was Mrs. Species, which is as close to her actual surname as is practical for the purposes of this essay.

Our kitchen sink developed a drip which eventually turned into a steady trickle, and the pipes beneath the sink had seemingly fused solid meaning that repairs were beyond my admittedly limited powers. My wife phoned Mrs. Species, who seemed mainly concerned about the terrible expense of getting a tap fixed, apparently missing the point that this was her job regardless of how much it cost. When a couple of blokes finally came to effect repairs, an undertaking which took all of five minutes, I noticed that the plumbing company was actually owned by Mr. and Mrs. Species with their name on the side of the truck and everything, which really begs the question of why all the whining over expense. Mr. and Mrs. Species weren't the worst of landlords, but they were nevertheless pretty crap, and her phone manner suggested that she seemed to believe we were living in a mansion for which we should be eternally grateful, the sort of dwelling in which one might reasonably expect to encounter Trump or Liberace or Puff Daddy.

The gold-plated taps were fixed, but we knew the air conditioning units weren't going to heal of their own accord, and so my wife made Mrs. Species an offer based on other houses of similar size and repair in our neighbourhood: ninety-thousand dollars.

Mrs. Species said no.

One year later, my wife tried again.

This time it turned out that Mr. and Mrs. Species had indeed been thinking of seeing whether we might be interested in buying the palace from them. They couldn't possibly accept ninety-thousand dollars, but we'd work something out. So the wheels were at last in motion, and they took us to the figure of one-hundred and twenty thousand. We didn't bother replying, it being thirty thousand more than the place was worth; and then came a reminder pointing out that they had always intended to sell the house, and would be selling it soon, and it would be nice if we could buy it seeing as we were already living in it, and maybe we might like to think about getting around to accepting their generous offer before the place was sold to some other lucky couple - no pressure or anything.

My wife paid an independent appraiser to take a look at the house. The independent appraiser valued it at ninety thousand dollars.

Mr. and Mrs. Species couldn't possibly accept ninety-thousand dollars, but we'd work something out. So they paid for a second independent appraiser to come around and take a proper look at the place. By amazing and happy coincidence, this one valued the house at one-hundred and twenty thousand, the very sum which Mr. and Mrs. Species had been hoping for. The first appraiser must have been mistaken or something, but to be out by thirty-thousand dollars - gosh! What a silly goose!

We went along to where Mrs. Species worked as some sort of guidance counselor. Mr. Species turned up, and we all spent a couple of hours signing forms. We had the usual conversation about my being from England, and how they once went to London.

A month later we signed another load of forms, failed to get the thousand dollar deposit returned as our rental period ended, and  became owners of the house. I looked up Mr. Species on the internet and learned that he was a high court judge of some description and considerable reputation, recently retired to sit on the board of some massive company. He's buddies with the governor of Texas and all sorts of important people.

One way of looking at it is that we were seriously ripped off, and that the massive coincidence of the sum produced by that second appraiser doesn't say much for the legal system here in America, nor the worth of your average high court judge. My wife reasoned that whilst ninety-thousand dollars might have been a fair price, we might reasonably have expected to pay another ten on top of that, and we've saved the expense of having to move, and we're also paying for never have to deal with Mr. and Mrs. Species ever again; so that's the way we've chosen to look at it for the sake of a quiet life.

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