Sunday 18 November 2007

Settling down in Britain

From a life of whim and indolence (as my boyfriend would have it) I am now suddenly and dramatically interested in all things fence-picketed. My carefree single life has devolved into slightly ill-fitting domesticity. I remember in the over-baked days of my youth in Tamworth wondering whether I was headed one day for domestic bliss or slavery; pessimistically I believed it would be the latter and so spent many pleasant single years doing just as I pleased, wandering through Asia, contracting intestinal bugs and divesting myself of bulky possessions as I moved from one relationship to anther, one job to another, one country to another.

Now I am definitely ‘partnered’ I am as happy as can be, but the realities that others have faced for years, such as mortgages and parenthood have given me a rude slap in the face and made me thoroughly ashamed of my tardiness in the school of real life. I have been thrust into frantic catch-up study of adulthood and this blog of late has become a record of all my crammed homework. I beg your indulgence as I will now produce a short series on the terrors of home renovation that will be familiar to many but which has come to a shock to my sensitivities.

The importance of buying, renting and renovating homes in the UK can’t be underestimated. In Australia there were lots of home improvement TV shows and magazines, but the emphasis over here is much more on hardcore property development – i.e. not so much the Australian ‘my home is my castle’ philosophy, but more along the line of ‘chuck in your day job and strike it rich through property development’.

Even the home improvement shows here seem to have an emphasis on money making schemes. If a flat won’t sell – what do you have to do to impress the buyers? Can you make big bucks if you gamble and buy a dump from auction sight unseen? Even when the focus is on personal lifestyle choice, the programmes here more often follow the pattern of how to buy overseas than how to renovate what you’ve got.

Whether they are empty-nesters downsizing or people choosing between the countryside or moving to Spain, the emphasis seems to be about moving on, whereas in Australia it seemed to be much more about improving what you’ve got through extensive decking.

Recently, on UK ground level (not TV-land), prices of flats and houses have topped out, the listings at the real estate agents have stagnated, interest rates have skyrocketed and everyone has a skip parked outside rather than plans to sell up and move on. It is not reflected as much on TV, but it is endemic on my street and elsewhere in the neighbouring suburbs.

Lately, I have to admit that I have not been reading modern literature in translation or seeking out the latest work by of a worthy playwright or modern artist. Instead I have been checking out bedroom and bathroom showrooms and leafing through magazines and brochures I would normally only glance at in a waiting room. I am no different than so many others; I have officially joined the brigade of the house proud. This is because we are in the throes of a house renovation, with side and back double story extensions and a loft conversion. We are trying to turn a four-bedroom Edwardian semi-detached suburban home into… a four-bedroom semi-detached suburban home.

It is true! After doing everything possible to extend the available living space, we have ended up with exactly the same number of bedrooms as we started with! But they are all large bedrooms now, instead of two large, and two tiny rooms. And we have three bathrooms instead of one, and most importantly of all we have made a small kitchen into a very large kitchen/dining room with double doors leading out to the garden. So, it is not all in vain, but it is difficult, trying and expensive. And so I am now going to share my experiences with you. Read on.


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