Sunday 2 September 2007

House Tourist

In England house hunting is a national sport; and it’s best to start from the armchair position. I have come on the scene at the peak of a ten-year boom where house prices have doubled, tripled, even quadrupled. My nose, lately, is all too often an inch from the window of a local estate agency, jostling with the other wannabes, sniffing at the photos of houses and flats beyond my reach.

Every week I splay out on my coffee table a new collection of glossy brochures for properties with too many digits after the pound sign. After diligent practice I am able to decipher the descriptions written in rosy agent-speak. For example, the phrase ‘in need of some modernisation’ means the electrical wiring is pre-war - and that's first world war; similarly the phrase ‘perfectly proportioned bedrooms’ means a double bed will only fit in the master bedroom if you stitch it together in situ, while the second bedroom can comfortably fit a baby’s cot – which of course is ‘perfect for families’.

I should stop here and admit straight up that I have taken the next step on from mere window shopping – I am a House Tourist. I started off looking around properties that I couldn’t quite afford, and moved on to looking at ones in the next price bracket, but soon enough I threw all sense of realistic finance out the window and now I trawl internet property sites late at night restricting my searches to houses one million pounds and above.


Some years ago I became a hotel tourist (as opposed to a tourist in a hotel). I can casually saunter into to 5-star hotel feeling like I have taken the presidential suite. I affect a haughty look directed towards the reception desk before perhaps deigning to have a word with the concierge about where one could partake of a bit of Tiffin so late in the afternoon.

A cup of tea in a gilded lobby may cost a tad more than a Starbucks Cappuccino Grande, but I just love the monogrammed china and the little biscuit they give you on the side; oh, and the obsequious backwards shuffle of hotel staff dressed in ridiculous livery just tickles me pink. If ever I am asked for my room number I simply dither for authenticity and then say, hmm, I think I will pay cash for this one. Of course Madam, they say, knowing very well that I am not a guest at all.

I don’t want to give the impression that I am out of control. I don’t strip nude and wander into the steam room muttering something Swedish (well, not as yet, I must get that phrase book). But I do enjoy the opportunity to use a well-appointed loo. The best ones have perfumes beside scented hand creams and little cotton towels you can toss into hand-woven baskets. The hotel loo experience is infinitely preferable to joining the all too common line of women with crossed arms (or crossed legs) snaking out from the shopping centre conveniences and it is the primary reason I became a hotel tourist in the first place.

Its a sad fact that once you have become addicted to 5-star tea and loo breaks it is difficult to go back. I now feel perfectly at home in any hotel of decent quality and I believe I am somewhat of a connoisseur in some cities of my frequent acquaintance.


Now, hotels are one thing, but private homes are a different kettle of fish. After some practice I feel I am now fully conversant with the unwritten rules of the house tourist game. I am mindful that people selling their house don’t want to have their time wasted, and that many of them are both extremely proud of their home as well as quite desperate to sell and move on, so they are not to be trifled with. I am never deliberately late, I always wipe my feet, I am polite to the extreme and I am careful to compliment without effusion.

The trained house tourist observes the correct etiquette when conversing with vendors. It is important to murmur positively about the generous size of a room or the ample light. Don’t be overeager as you are supposed to be cagey when you like a property.

It is also important to keep curiosity on a tight leash. It may be appropriate to ask why they are selling as they will have a prepared answer for this, but photos on the dresser should not be scrutinised too obviously, nor is there any need to peak in the bathroom cupboards, or ask blatantly what they do for a living. If you really must, these things you can ferret out discretely when they leave you alone to take your time before coming down.

With an agent you can be less delicate; they may even make a few sardonic comments themselves on the décor. Some agents require assertive handling; and indeed many will try to take the initiative. They might ask questions on whether you are looking to invest or are buying for yourself, and they will especially want to judge you by where you are living now. It is best to answer vaguely, a gauche slip up can give the game away, so be on your guard.

Agents can be annoying guides as they take every opportunity to put in a good word for the property even commenting that the box room is a real asset to the property or pointing at some mould and suggesting it is actually an unusual wall paper detail. In turn you are expected to delicately probe a bit by asking if there have been many viewings, how long it has been on the books, and, if there has already been an offer, whether it was below or above the asking price. Naturally all questions will be answered guardedly, but it is suspicious if you don’t ask.


I should give fair warning that this pastime should only be attempted by intrepid types as it can be both uplifting and depressing. It can give you concrete examples of decorating dos and don’ts; it can give you insight into other people’s lives and make you reflect upon your own; it can show you how the other half lives or it can make you glad you don’t live somewhere so sad. It’s a rollercoaster of status, style and identity comparison.

I recall looking around one house that was straight out of a magazine – wall to ceiling wine racks, fluffy rugs, huge designer globe lighting, walk in wardrobes and a spectacular art deco bathroom – it was a dream home. And the owners were only in their early 30s! They were both professionals, possibly lawyers, recently married, and they wanted to move on to somewhere where they could have horses. We were glad we parked the ten-year-old VW Golf some way up the road.

A real house hunter would try to block out the impression of an outlandish feature wall or dated kitchen units. It is important to separate the contents of the house from the physical structure when you know the present owners take all those interesting possessions with them. The serious buyer makes a concerted effort to ignore the tat to concentrate on room size, orientation and layout. But as a house tourist I am more interested in the software than the hardware.

One house I visited had a virginal harpsichord in the front room built from a kit ordered off the internet. Another had an African theme with zebra print rugs, wooden face masks, and a well-thumbed guidebook for every African country there is. An elderly couple in an enormous place occupied about 15% of the space; she spent her time in a tiny larder next to the kitchen pouring over cook books, while he was tucked away in the eaves tapping away on his computer. My visits afford me a fascinating window into such different lives.


People’s houses say so much. They can say this house revolves around two adored children, a boy and a girl, and now the family wishes to move because they need a bigger garden. Or it can say the kids have all grown up and moved out, and Mum and Dad are looking to down size and buy a place in Spain. However the houses that shout the loudest are the ones where a musty smell greets your nostrils, your eyes strain due to half the bulbs being blown, and the bath and toilet have plastic hand rails. These houses make you shiver from the ghosts.

At one dusty old house the agent pointed out the ‘Mezuzahs’ on the door frames. These are Jewish prayers encased in a small metal or wood case and nailed flush to the doorframes at shoulder height on an angle. Mezuzahs are blessings to God. I have since seen them in many houses in this area once noted for its sizable Jewish community, it has since diminished, many moving on, many more passing on.

I viewed a house which was occupied until recently by a single Jewish family for a hundred years. The last of the family to live there was a 97 year old man who occupied only on the ground floor and was legally blind. We were guided around the house by his nephew who had promised he would not put his uncle in a home before he died. You could imagine the old guy shuffling around guiding himself by the familiar walls.

The house was crammed with period features: enormous skirting boards, carved fireplaces, hand-blown light fixtures, ceiling roses, servant’s bells and dark tatty furnishings. The nephew said the tall windows still had blackout curtains from the war. He pointed out the pulley system for drying clothes over the fire and the mangle in the basement as well as a pre-refrigerator system for cooling perishables on a sand table.

It was a house full of history. The nephew told us it belonged to his grandmother, and how it used to be full of people at family gatherings in his youth, and now it is so big and empty and there was no one left to live in it. He said that his family had shrunk. The days of having six kids had long gone, they have one or two now.

I asked him about his unusual accent and he said cryptically that it was from all over; he pointedly avoided saying he was Mancunian-Jewish. When my boyfriend mentioned the Sufi house that was just behind the garden wall he remarked that he had no idea what Sufism was. When told it was a Muslim Mystic sect, he winked at us and said wryly that there were no Muslims around here.

Sadly, I couldn’t afford this house full of history, but I did enjoy looking around it, hearing about what went on and picturing it full of life. I pass it often on my route to work and it always draws my eye, it is an acquaintance. Some houses are like that. They are brimming with stories and with the sense of time passing. It won’t be long and there will be a sold sign on it and a new chapter will begin. I hope the new owners will treat it with respect.


England has been described as a nation of property developers and there are dozens of daytime TV programs on how to buy a dump, do it up and reap the rewards. Shocking things have been done in the name of development; period features ripped out, gardens cemented for car parking space, and bits added willy-nilly so that you just shake your head in consternation for what must have once been so grand.

Thankfully some houses have been done up sympathetically and some of my favourite house tourist experiences have been in houses like these. Big, old, detached houses in the best areas on the best streets with astronomical prices attached.

We had one vendor show us around one such lovely home. We were buzzed in through electric gates, told to come around to the back past the 4x4s, walk on over the decking into the open plan kitchen dining room that opened out through sheer glass concertina doors to view the garden. What a place for a party! You’re not joking, said the vendor, his friends come around unannounced and he can’t get them to go before dawn.

He made us a latte before giving the tour. Everything was done up to a high spec. The furnishings in the sitting rooms were of lush hotel quality. The rooms upstairs had mod-cons like a ceiling mounted flatscreen over the bed and a remote control so you could switch on the shower and adjust the water to the right temperature before you entered the ensuite.

The vendor’s personality was everywhere – he had a framed cheque for $54,000 from Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas; in another room he called the ‘Al Pacino guest room’, a large canvas print of Pacino in Scarface was mounted at the foot of the double bed. You couldn’t help liking the guy. He took us around the kid’s rooms upstairs, saying they had their own bathroom with spa; it was a long way from his own upbringing, where 6 people shared one bath. His kids didn’t know how lucky they were.

Back in his poker room he showed off how the piped music system worked – it could be isolated or consistent through the house or separated into zones. He pointed out the table had special poker lights on the ceiling and lovingly caressed the carved wood replica Hemingway stand up bar. He clearly loved this house, why was he leaving? The strain of doing up the house had caused his marriage to collapse. He had to sell now to settle the divorce.


I have been to so many houses now I can pinpoint the price to within 10K just by glancing at the map and the floor plan. But it has had an unfortunate side effect – I can no longer seriously look at anything in my real price range; I have been indelibly spoilt by looking around all those fabulous places. A pokey little semi-detached seems like a doll house and I have to be cut down to size to fit into it.

Real house hunting is all about compromise – something has to give between price, location, condition, size and potential. I look around my boyfriend’s house where I live, and I think actually its pretty nice, it’s comfortable, close to the bars, convenient to the office… perhaps its not a good idea to move after all – its so much better being a tourist.