My odd, intimate relationship with the Irish property market began in 2005; the first job I got when we came back from Louisiana was in a building site office. I can’t exactly say what my job was but I sat at a desk and did some things with Excel spread sheets and maybe I answered the phone a few times? Whatever it was, I got paid really well for it.
The next job I got was with a property investor in an all-glass, all-chrome office. This, too, was part of a building site—a very large building site, being built by a man who had “vision,” according to my boss. This vision included blocks and blocks of tiny apartments fitted out with Italian marble bathrooms and designer kitchens that had two ovens, because why would you have just the one?
I used to ask questions like “but who’s going to live in these apartments?” My boss would joke that I sounded like one of those “doom and gloom economists.”
Despite everything—the clearly insane property prices, the obvious unsustainability of a boom property market—everyone told us: Buy! You should buy now! You should definitely buy now!
And so, in 2006, we applied for a mortgage and within a week, we had approval. With this approval, we could afford a run-down shed on the outskirts of Dublin. Maybe. If we were lucky? We decided to be dead sensible, continue to rent, and save for a deposit.
Two year later, anyone that had ever told us that we should buy were now saying: You were so right not to buy! Oh, you’re so lucky you didn’t buy!
Then, in another two years, when we decided to try house-hunting again, with a deposit saved and a more reasonable market in place, we were asked: Are you mad?!
Now, in the long two years of house-hunting since, I have wondered if we really are mad. At other times, I’ve wondered if maybe we’re just materialistic or snobs or both. But I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not that mad to want to buy a house—it’s just that it’s mad to try and buy a house in a city that thinks it’s Manhattan, New York, instead of what it really is: a small town on a small, soggy island in the middle of the Atlantic.
We’ve had three major rounds of house-hunting. That’s three rounds of applying for mortgages, combing through property listings, setting up viewings, attending the viewings themselves, getting depressed, or, worse, a little bit excited, making offers and having them refused, making offers only to be outbid. Up and down, up and down. I think the term I’m looking for here is emotional rollercoaster. Honestly, it’s been one of the most difficult and stressful things I’ve done as an adult; big life events like getting married and having a baby (via induced labour without any pain relief) pale in comparison.
Oh, how I used to snort at the people on Location, Location, Location. They have such notions about themselves! How can they be so unrealistic?! Why are they always harping on about not getting “that feeling”? Well, I can fully empathise now, to the point where I can’t watch the show anymore because it feels like piggy-backing on someone else’s misery. Plus it reminds me of all the viewings we’ve been to. I don’t really want to think about the number of places we’ve seen but it’s probably close to fifty, if not a hundred. Ask the local estate agents, they know our faces well enough.
In accordance with the market, our budget has swelled and plummeted and as a result, we’ve seen it—all. We’ve seen the “executor sales” aka dead granny houses; you know, the ones that come complete with original features with those original features including vintage electrical wiring, and those adorable little light switches that are bound to give you a thrilling shock every time you touch them; the ones with carpeted flooring in the bathroom and surrounding the bathtub; the ones with kitchens that were really just a concrete lean-to with a cooker thrown in. More depressing was the fact that these poor dead grannies had to live in this dangerous squalor, with all of those ghosts behind the walls just waiting to announce their surprises of damp and woodworm. Worse still, there was always a young couple (sometimes that couple was us), having an intense conversation in the second bedroom, each convincing the other that it was a good idea to buy the place.
Then there were the cleaned out and “lightly refurbished” dead granny houses. These were the ones with odd remnants of a life left behind: a cardboard box full of useless cables and a corresponding computer from circa 1992, poetically set just left of centre on the floor of one of the bedrooms; a single framed photograph on a windowsill; three wire hangers in a wardrobe. If everything else was cleared out, then why leave this box of ancient technology? Why this particular photograph—was it devoid of meaning? Or did it have too much meaning?
Worst of all, however, were the houses whose sellers were alive, well, and still living in the very houses they were trying to sell. These were their houses, full of their memories, their lives. There was always that smell of other people’s hair oil and dead skin cells, the washing on the radiators, the hand drawn signs on the kids’ bedroom doors “Adam’s Room: Keep Out!,” in bubble letters, for crying out loud! Then there was the time we went to a viewing and walked, not into wafts of fresh baked goods, but a cloud of cigarette smoke, probably because there were two very disgruntled looking tenants sitting at the kitchen table, smoking. Upstairs, the child of the disgruntled tenants was taking station in her bedroom, guarding her Jedward posters and other personal belongings because this was her home, after all, and all these strangers are walking through it of a Saturday morning.
Despite all of this, we managed to wade our way through and have gone “sale agreed” three times. On the day we paid the booking deposit on the first place (an apartment in the complex we’re renting in), we asked the agent how long the process should take. Six weeks, he said. Ha! HA! We had to withdraw our offer six months later because the seller was “not in a position to sell.” As in, he was the developer and up to his eyes in litigation because he owed money left, right, and centre. He was also an asshole.
Round two and house prices were falling. We could afford a house! Except once our offer was accepted on a three bed semi-d fixer upper (with a strong emphasis on the fixing upping), the bank decided to take sixty grand off the approval they had given us just two weeks before.
This knocked us back but last year we decided to do it all again, just one more time, except this time with feeling. So, round three, we hired a mortgage broker. We first met with him last October. We got approval in June. THIS IS IT! we said in capital letters. We became kamikaze house-hunters, zeroing in on listings with stealth, organising viewings for every spare moment of our lives. Then, one Saturday morning, we went to view an apartment that I didn’t even really want to see and I found myself whispering “I love it” in the bathroom. I wanted to stuff the words back into my mouth and down my throat again but it was too late. I’d broken the never-fall-in-love-at-a-viewing rule, big time. Joseph started bidding on Monday and a nerve-shattering week later, our offer was accepted.
Week after agonising week, we waited for the approval to come through. The agents started putting the pressure on. Joseph had to tell them to cool it. We began to hear rumours through the agent/mortgage broker/solicitor grapevine that the sellers were “difficult.”
Last Tuesday was tense. The estate agents’ branch manager called us to say that the sellers had phoned them at least ten times that morning, demanding that the deal be done by tomorrow. Or else! The fact that there was nothing we could do to speed up the process eluded them. They were threatening to pull out. While an empty threat, it was a threat all the same.
And then, nine o’clock that night, the intercom rang. I saw two older women on the screen. I didn’t want to believe my subconscious when it told me it’s them, it’s the sellers, so instead I let the thought strike me that maybe they were TV license inspectors? They asked for me by name and said they wanted to know if we were still interested in buying a slightly mangled version of the address of the apartment that we’re neck-deep in the middle of buying.
I hung up the intercom, stormed down the stairs, my blood boiling.
“Oh, well, you see, Sheila Carmody is my name and I saw that apartment a couple of times before and I really want it!”
“But we’re buying it.”
“Yeah, but I really want it! Because, you see, two of my friends live there and I was talking to Pat the caretaker in the car park the other day because I was visiting my friends, you see, and I asked him had anyone moved into that apartment and he said he’d look into for me. Because, you see, I sold my house in Greystones and I have the cash! I can go straight to Sherry Fitzgerald in the morning and put cash on the table!”
There was about five more minutes of this drivel but I didn’t hear it because my ears were deafened by rage.
“Where did you get my name and address from?”
“Well, I was in the car park, talking to Pat, you know, the caretaker . . . uh, the management company was it?”
The only people that would have our names would be the estate agents and the sellers.
I realised that I was facing a deep well of crazy. I saw everything—the chrome and glass of the Celtic Tiger, the now abandoned building sites where I used to work, the years of house-hunting, all those mortgage applications, the apartment itself—flash before my eyes. I was not about to let this one go now. There was only one thing for it; go just that bit deeper into the crazy. This is how I ended up carrying out a conversation with a fictional character.
“I’m very upset that the management company would give my name out like that because from my position, what you are saying to me, that you’re a cash buyer, could be construed as . . .”
Sheila politely filled in the blank: “harassment.”
It was at this moment that the seller of the very first place we tried to buy (oh! did I forget to mention that he now lives in the apartment below ours?!) walked out the gate very slowly and deliberately, as he does, the creep. It was a David Lynch nightmare. I heard the White Giant say “Noooooooo.”
“Oh, God no! We didn’t mean to upset you! Oh, we wouldn’t want you to think that. It’s just that I sold my house in Greystones and my friends live in those apartments . . .”
“But we’re in the final stages of buying it. It’s been stressful and taken a long time and the sellers have been putting a lot of pressure on. But all the major stuff is done. It’s sale agreed to us, we’re buying it.”
Sheila’s face pinched a bit when I mentioned the sellers.
“But I really want it, you see, because I have two friends in there and the area is lovely.”
“Oh, I know it’s a lovely area—that’s why we want it!”
They seemed to soften a bit when I mentioned how lovely the area was—you know, the one where they live—because then it was like I really understood just how lovely the area was, so I think that meant that we were worthy of the place somehow and serious about buying it after all; not because we’d paid a deposit, hired a solicitor and had the structural survey carried out or anything.
We parted on amicable terms, me wishing them the best on their own house-hunt, going so far as to let them know that I’d seen another apartment for sale in the complex. I commiserated with them on how long and complicated the whole process is.
“You never know, we could be neighbours!,” said Sheila. “I could be saying yoohoo in the window to you!”
Tempted as we have been by this crazy, not to mention illegal, behaviour to pull out ourselves, we just want it to go through because I don’t think we can do this house-hunting business again, either with or without feeling. Please, please, let it go through!