‘I don’t get it…?’ I said, squinting up at a brick cube sat on top of Wandsworth’s only Screwfix.
It looked so alone up there, like a tiny Lego brick that’d lost its way and ended up at the top of the Tower of Isenguard. This was, I assumed with a sinking sense of dread, the ‘stunning panoramic penthouse’ our estate agent had encouraged us to view lest it be ‘snapped up in seconds like other premium properties in the area’. In a blind panic, I’d booked a day off work to beat the crowds of other hungry punters desperate for a slice of this one-off listing. Even the fridge-sized estate agent looked small in the concrete carpark wasteland. ‘…How are you meant to get up there?’. I was squinting into the sun. I had sudden thoughts of having to scale the side of Screwfix with carabiners and pick-axes with bags of shopping to reach the front door, or putting out an extremely long extendable ladder when friends came to visit, like some kind of weird Glastonbury break-in attempt.
Those were in my naïve days, when the thrill of house hunting had just begun and estate agents ringing you was akin to getting asked out on an actual date, but with the outcome of actually going back to theirs… or someone else’s for that matter. Every tab on my laptop was a Pinterest page – one featuring loads of different geometric cushion prints, another with Arabian Nights-meets-minimalist Scandi-chic room inspiration. I had invested in things like an extendable broom and plastic sushi cubes. My run-in with Mr Screwfix was the first indication that this was actually going to be quite shit, and shit it most certainly was.
Over the next few months, I became more and more familiar with the pitfalls of a wide-angle lens, the pictured garden that was actually ‘the bloke next door’s garden but he seriously wouldn’t mind you using it’ and, on two separate occasions, the ‘sorry that there’s not a fourth room but have you considered bunkbeds?’ fiasco.
One particularly bad incident came close to the end of my six-month house-hunting debacle. My housemate Amy had ‘gone direct’ through Gumtree and we had high hopes despite the flat being in the wrong location with no available pictures. When we arrived, a boy opened the door and beckoned us into a dim interior. It was so dark it genuinely took me a good minute to realise that there was an old lady in the corner of the kitchen.
"Hello?" I said, trying not to sound too taken-aback. She didn’t say anything. It was like a horror film where she would retreat further and further into the shadows and then appear in ghastly ghoulish form from of one of the upstairs cupboards. Later, after an awkward house tour in which I crunched my foot into the centre of a giant completed jigsaw puzzle in one of the darkened bedrooms, it transpired that the boy had put his grandmother’s house up for rent without her knowledge, before appealing to the world-wide web to take it off his hands.
One house in Earlsfield came very close to being the one. The kitchen reminded me of a Muller yoghurt advert. There were actually four bedrooms, each one getting bigger and bigger and the estate agent was almost running out of superlatives to describe the ‘chrome light fixtures’, the ‘Quooker hot-water hose’ and induction hob. I started to imagine off-handedly telling people to help themselves from left-hand wine fridge, the tinkling sounds of ice from our ice dispenser a constant accompaniment to all the gin-infused summer events we would be hosting in our ‘feature’ garden. The estate agent opened the door to the forth bedroom, 'and Voila ladies! Your sauna awaits!'
A sauna. What the actual hell. A great hulking block of pine barricaded the door. He opened the sauna door, it was like some horrible inception into hot and very dark hell. He was holding the wooden sauna ladle in one hand and a plastic laminated floor plan in the other. ‘Ladies night starts right here girls!’ This was creepy and weird and I had sudden visions of his locking us all in there and cranking up the heat. He gestured wildly with the ladle at a tiny camp bed cowering in the sauna’s immense shadow: ‘and bedtime starts there!’ We fled.
Suddenly realising how genuinely crap my house hunting experience had been in writing this article, I messaged my school and Uni WhatsApp groups to see if it was just my curse and the response was overwhelming. One friend recounted the time she had been to see a flat and had been kissed by the estate agent after the viewing, another had been shown into a house with what can only be described as ‘cat mangers’ hanging from the kitchen ceiling.
Another friend had been shown a flat with a room the size of an acorn. It was not the advertised ‘large double’ but a tiny child’s room for a cot and everyone knew it- including the estate agent who looked like she’d seen the end of a very very very very long week, like a wrung-out flannel. Seeing her commission slipping, she resigned herself to the last option she had- lying spread-eagle on the floor to measure out the bed. Though small, her neck compressed at an awkward angle against the wall, one heeled foot protruded out the door. ‘See! See!’ came muffled squeals from the carpet. I’m surprised she ever got up.
What fun that summer was – the summer of exploring other people’s houses with no purpose whatsoever aside from realising that maybe University Halls weren’t that bad and my sweet, sweet bedroom at home looked liked Heaven’s pearly gates. Three things I’ve learnt:
1. chrome light fixtures do not make a house a home
2. floor plans are like Sudoku: fun for a while yet full of numbers you can’t trust
3. bunkbeds come flat-packed should you need an emergency delivery.
Written and illustrated by Laura Wotton