The world turn’d upside down
This is my first blog entry for some considerable time, and with good reason. My life has gone through a major change – perhaps not before time.
As you will know, I had been looking for permanent work for nearly a year after my last contract ended. My financial arrangements meant that I was not eligible for Job Seekers’ Allowance, and I am of an age where signing on for NI credits was fairly pointless, as I’d got sufficient contributions to get the state pension anyway (though I have to wait until age 66 to get it). My Civil Service pension, plus the money I was making from self-employment, was insufficient to pay the mortgage, but enough to live on otherwise – though over the months even that position eroded as work dried up. And my mortgage lender was rapidly losing patience with me; their idea of “helping customers in difficulties” basically amounts to giving you a short payment holiday, and once that’s expired, you’re on your own.
So it was a race against time for me; could I secure a job that paid sufficiently well to meet my outgoings before my house was repossessed?
Well, the job happened, as I’ve said elsewhere (after a remarkably weird day); and I came to Leicester to work for a facilities management company, based in a 1960s office block like something out of The Power Game or Reggie Perrins’ Sunshine Desserts. But two things remained as issues: the mortgage and the commuting.
The commuting didn’t at first seem like a problem., After all, I’d been happy to keep running off to Burton-on-Trent whilst I was doing contracting, and that was 35 miles each way. Leicester was a good deal closer to Fillongley – less than 25 miles – but for some reason people never seemed to think about heading in that direction for work and leisure. (There’s a geographers’ thing called Central Place Theory, which addresses the reasons why people gravitate towards one place and not another for work and leisure. I was a little odd, for Fillongley, in gravitating towards Birmingham, 16 miles away, rather than Coventry – only six miles distant – but at least the focus in North Warwickshire generally was to look eastwards towards the big city as a major hub, or north-westwards towards Lichfield, Tamworth and places further afield connected by the A38 and the M42. Looking in the opposite direction, at places like Hinckley, Earl Shilton, Lutterworth or Leicester was just off most people’s radar, partly because the transport links are less well-defined – as I was to find.)
I’d gotten into the idea of looking at Leicester as a possible place of employment whilst I was doing estate agent photography. I’d had a few assignments in Leicester, and found myself surprised as to how quickly I’d been able to get there, using either the M69 or the A47. But most of those journeys had been made out of peak hours. And the one problem was Nuneaton, a busy town with no bypass. Even an unofficial bypass route used residential roads which at peak time rapidly filled with local traffic. The school holidays weren’t so bad, but during term time, what was a five-minute segment of my commute could take between 25 and 35 minutes: more on dustbin day, when the refuse collection wagons were added to the mix as well.
All this urban driving was adding to my travel costs. The Mercedes is quite capable of returning a fuel consumption figure of 45 mpg or better; but in traffic, that came down to barely 40 mpg at best. My daily commute, I worked out, was costing me £10 a day; and whilst this was not impossible, it looked a lot when you added it up for the month.
Meanwhile, the house was continuing to be a problem for me. I loved living in Fillongley – I had a lovely location with no neighbours, I looked out onto trees and fields, and I had finally succeeded in making the house comfortable in all seasons, but with considerable impact on running costs. And the maintenance of house and garden was frankly getting away from me as the Day Job took up so much of my time for not too much reward.
So I decided that I had to move. After all, I’d been applying for jobs up and down the country, and indeed had had fairly favourable interviews for jobs in Nottingham and Sheffield. So I had come around to the idea that a change of venue was quite possible. And if I was careful in the sort of properties I looked at, I might realise considerable savings in my monthly outgoings. Rents on flats in the area I had chosen started at less than half of what I’d been paying in mortgage, and there would be other savings too. But that gave me a dilemma; now I was earning again, should I start paying the mortgage once more? My back-of-envelope calculations gave me the answer. If I started paying the mortgage again, what with the additional amount I would be levied for clearing the arrears that had accrued plus the high cost of living in Fillongley and commuting, I would not be able to build up the amount I would need to put a deposit on a flat and pay for removals for at least a year, possibly more. If, however, I cut my losses and went straight into a rented flat, I could start realising savings almost from the outset, and look to selling the house to eliminate my debt. Two different estate agents gave me valuations on the house which turned out to be very favourable, even given its rather down-at-heel condition (which gave me comfort when some people called it ‘overpriced’; it’s not as if I came up with that price myself, and indeed I even knocked £10k off the valuation when it went on the market).
So started a procession of people, coming to view the property. I had about eighteen in two months (for comparison, a friend who sold a modern detached property on a private cul-de-sac in Redditch only had five viewings in six months), but these ranged from timewasters (in and out in ten minutes was about the norm for them) through to people with quite ambitious plans – which would, of course, take money. Then there were the ones who came with totally unrealistic preconceptions, such as ‘Two bedroom country cottage, in need of some redecoration = ideal starter home’. Epic fail, as they say.
The sixth person to view actually put an offer in, though it was a little on the low side and was dependant on their selling their property and getting a mortgage. I provisionally accepted this, but as time was not on my side, I did tell the estate agent that if a better offer or a cash buyer came along, I would be obliged to accept that instead. Indeed, a couple of cash buyers did materialise, but one wanted to buy a parcel of land at the back of the house from the local farmer to provide additional car parking (he was a collector), and getting old farmers to part with land – even if they aren’t using it for much – is rather a tall order. Another buyer wanted to make major changes to the bathroom, to enable a shower to be put in. He said he’d come back with a builder, and I think he did because when I got home one day, I could see that things had been moved on and around the drive. But I never heard anything.
Then a couple turned up who wanted to build two extra bedrooms on the back, and where the lady was delighted that I’d got an overgrown garden. “I like a challenge”, she said. But this was late in the day, and the court took the (to me, somewhat unrealistic) view that I ought to have been able to conclude a sale in 56 days. Sadly, “Having an unrealistic view of the reality of selling within the UK property market” aren’t exceptionally strong grounds for appeal, even if I could afford to contest the matter in a higher court – and if I could afford that. So it was that on 11th September, I was required to hand back the keys to my house.
In the meantime, I’d been looking at rental properties. Again, my experience photographing properties came in handy; I’d seen a number of flats and apartments in my time, and some had been quite pleasant and I’d found myself thinking “I could always put a bookcase there…” Others had been shockingly poky, and indeed one property in Hinckley was quite difficult to photograph through being so small, and it didn’t even have enough space to have a door on the one bedroom. And sure enough, when I did my first internet searches for rental property in the area, a flat came up in the same block. I didn’t rush to view.
There had been a good range of properties along the A47 corridor to choose from: yet after I came out of court, I went straight into Hinckley to sign up with four lettings agencies, only for them all to say “We haven’t got anything this minute; you should have been here a fortnight ago, we’ve had a rush on them since…” The next day, I went online during my lunch break, and because I probably entered slightly different search terms, I got to a website I’d not seen before, with properties closer to the office; and almost the first property listed was a one-bedroomed flat on the ground floor of a converted Victorian villa, at a reasonable rent, and in the village of Kirby Muxloe, only two miles or so from the office!
I viewed it at the earliest opportunity. The flat consists of a living room with entry from an outside porch, a kitchen, a small bathroom, a cupboard under the stairs (though it’s not quite clear if there are any stairs there now for it to be the cupboard under!) and a large bedroom. As soon as I saw it, I felt that I could easily live there. The transition from a 200-year-old cottage to a 140-year-old villa immediately struck me as a far easier proposition than moving into some modernist shoe-box in a trendy (or worse still, faux trendy) apartment block. And I had seen very few other flats in period buildings. So the very same day, I handed over money and in due course I was in, measuring the rooms up and beginning to visualise how certain items of furniture would fit in.
I was able to arrange for a removal firm to come to carry out my move on the 10th September. I spoke to them in some detail and sent them a list of the furniture involved, including the item “seven bookcases”. I also indicated that there would be a lot of boxes, and told them the size of the biggest. Now, you’d think that having mentioned “seven bookcases” and a lot of boxes, that might indicate the presence of a lot of – well, books. Not a bit of it. When the removal men arrived, the boss announced that he had no idea there were going to be so many books, and indeed he professed doubts as to whether they could achieve the move. We compromised: I asked how long he’d allocated for the loading, he said “3½ hours”, and I said “OK, load what you can in that time and I’ll worry about the rest.” To be fair, I hadn’t completed packing up to 2:30 that morning, and the guys worked wonders in the time allotted. Everything that was packed and marked for the flat got on the van, though in the rush to dismantle the unit shelving and the model railway, a lot of things got left that I wanted to take.
The van left at about 1pm, and I followed very shortly after with a car-load; they stopped for a sandwich, so I got to the flat before them, had opened up and was offloading when they arrived. A bit of a problem arose when I found that the model railway, “Ruritania”, wouldn’t go into the room where I wanted it. There was enough room for it, but it wouldn’t go around the necessary corner to get into that room. So we had to go to Plan B (which didn’t actually exist until that moment), making Ruritania the centrepiece of the living/dining room. It fits remarkably well, in fact!
Almost as soon as the empty van was away, I was back into the car to head back to Fillongley for a further load. And then the next day, I had to attend at 10:45 to hand the keys over. I set out early, and arrived at about 8:30 with the aim of getting a load up to the storage unit. By the time I got back, the locksmith had arrived, and we had a chat; then the court official turned up about 10:15 and I had a chat with him. I described the process as “Scant reward for 30 years in the Civil Service”, and the official – also, of course, a civil servant – agreed.
It turned out that even though I handed the keys over, the bank changed the locks anyway. But as the locksmith also had a list of things to do – drain the central heating and hot water system, and immobilise the alarm amongst others – he had a good couple of hours’ work before him, and as I’d not made life difficult for them, they were quite happy for me to continue loading whilever they were there. It also looked as though the bank was going to hand the property over to a different estate agent, despite the progress that I’d made towards a sale; but in fact, it turned out that the agency they have placed the house with is the parent company of my own estate agent; so after a handover period the sales that I had already lined up may be in a position to continue with the same potential customers.
I was able to go back to retrieve further belongings from the property, though that only happens with the agreement of the bank and under the supervision of “a representative” (who turned out to be the bank’s locksmith who attended on the repossession day anyway).. Then it will just be a matter of waiting to see what price they get for the place. Not the way I ever envisaged things going; but then again, I never ever saw myself in a house.
Let me explain.
Back when I was a child, watching Gerry Anderson shows on the television such as Stingray and Thunderbirds, I thought a lot about the future. I did the maths, and worked out that I’d be 43 years old in the year 2000. What would life be like? What would I be doing? I had no idea. I knew even then that these shows were projections of what the future might be like, not predictions; that what was being shown might not be possible, or that things might just not turn out that way. And I had no idea what I’d be doing; I didn’t even have any vague suppositions over what I might be doing as a job. The only thing that I could dimly imagine was that I would live in a flat somewhere. I didn’t see myself as a house owner, let alone a family man; so the time I spent in Fillongley was a bonus. Yes, I’m sorry to leave; the house was in a lovely location, and it was the last place my parents lived in. I had some severe bouts of emotion at different times up to leaving (it seems that when a coming change is clearly visible, I do my grieving in advance). When my father died, people in the village asked if I was staying on in the house, and I replied that I’d stay “as long as I can”. Well, that gets to be a habit; and I’d gotten so used to fancy financial footwork that I kept on doing that far longer than I ought to have done. On reflection, I probably ought to have moved away from Fillongley possibly five, six or even seven years before I’ve had to. The savings I’m now realising in paying less rent than mortgage and having reduced outgoings might even have made staying at Ofwat through the years of austerity possible (though as I said way back when I started this blog, there were a whole range of other reasons for my leaving Ofwat not connected with money). And my sister has pointed out that things have worked out for me so well with the flat and the change of job that I couldn’t have planned it better if I’d had full control over my circumstances. (Well, I could. I could have done without the court appearances; but let’s chalk that one up to experience. Even the locksmith said “Sometimes these things happen for the best” when I told him why he was there that day, and certainly Fate was something that my father believed in.)
So now I am starting on a new phase of my life. I’m pleased with the flat, though the bathroom could do with being a tiny bit bigger; there is enough room to get the car off the road, and there is plenty of space to get more furniture (in the form of other bookcases, most likely) in. I now have the luxury of gas central heating, which gives me instant hot water on demand, and once I get my desk built I can finish off getting the computer set up and finally see how many books I have left over. I have met my new neighbours and spoken to the landlady; I have had a walk up to the castle at Kirby Muxloe and made enquiries at the local hotel to see how much it would cost for people to stay over. I can walk to work in thirty minutes or so, and there are shops, a post office and even a garage that looks as though it knows a thing or two about Mercedes’ on my way there. All in all, I can see why my sister thinks I’ve landed on my feet. Let’s see if she’s right!
And as Cathy keeps telling me (and she’s usually right, of course), my landing a new job at the age of 56 is no mean achievement these days, and I have to admit I’m pretty well chuffed about it as well. I had some junk mail the other day about ‘gracious retirement apartments in Coventry – designed for the over 55s’, and I have to admit I sneered at that big time. Another of my Facebook friends commented on my move that it took a considerable degree of courage and “real stones”, which I found somewhat heart-warming…