It’s 1.15 a.m. Connie Bowskill should be asleep. Instead, she’s logging on to a property website in search of a particular house: 11 Bentley Grove, Cambridge. She knows it’s for sale; she saw the estate agent’s board in the front garden less than six hours ago.
Soon Connie is clicking on the ‘Virtual Tour’ button, keen to see the inside of 11 Bentley Grove and put her mind at rest once and for all. She finds herself looking at a scene from a nightmare: in the living room, in the middle of the carpet, there’s a woman lying face down in a huge pool of blood. In shock, Connie wakes her husband Kit. But when Kit sits down at the computer to take a look, he sees no dead body, only a pristine beige carpet in a perfectly ordinary room . . .
In my latest psychological thriller, Lasting Damage, the heroine Connie sees a woman’s dead body on a property website, in one of the images included in the virtual tour of a house for sale. While writing the book, I was trying to move house, spending a lot of time on property websites myself and having a bit of an identity crisis. Like Connie (to whom I kindly donated my crisis, so that she could have even more to be distraught about) I knew that whatever house I chose would say something about the sort of person I was, or thought I was. The trouble was, I had no idea who or what I wanted to be, or where I wanted to live, and that was pretty scary. I thought about houses I’d chosen in the past, and why I’d chosen them, and I soon found myself writing this, which I think of as a kind of companion piece to the novel:
How to Make Sure You Don’t Buy the Wrong House – Psychological Traps to Avoid
For most of us, our home is the most expensive thing we will ever buy. Fear of making the wrong decision is enough to paralyse anybody. Sensible people might say, ‘Make sure you’ve weighed up the pros and cons, and then make the best decision you can based on what you know at the time.’ Wise though this advice might sound, it puts the focus in the wrong place – on the house, or houses, and their specific attributes. What is far more important is the house-buyer’s state of mind. If you want to make sure you buy the right house for you, stop thinking about kitchen size, south-facing gardens and Jack-and-Jill bathrooms, and think instead about your own psychological agenda. I believe that if you can successfully identify and avoid certain psychological traps that lie in wait for any house-buyer, you are more likely to make a buying decision that you’ll be happy with long term. So, what are those traps?
TRAP 1 – Lying to yourself about the kind of person you are
Don’t buy a house for the person you wish you were, because the chances are the real you will hate it as soon as she moves in. In psychotherapeutic terms, the house is widely regarded as a metaphor for the self. Most of us are unhappy with who we are on some level, and when we fantasise about our wonderful new life in a wonderful new house, it’s extremely tempting to cast an idealised (not to mention wildly inaccurate) version of ourselves in the fantasy. So when I look at beautiful country piles with acres of land and not a shop in sight, I immediately think, ‘Ooh, I want’, and I quickly construct an image of myself cooking lavish meals for twenty houseguests at a time, designing and creating a stunning garden in which I can sit and enjoy the privacy and tranquillity… And then I remind myself that I am not that person. Even when I’ve had tiny gardens, I’ve employed gardeners to maintain them. If I ever stumble upon tranquility by accident, my proximity to it immediately renders it non-tranquil. I have never sat calmly in a garden and probably never will. What I actually do is race round the house with a phone tucked under my ear and a laptop under my arm, having one frenetic conversation after another. As for lavish cooking – what a joke. Anything more than a spaghetti carbonara for four people is too ambitious for the real me, and at least three nights out of seven, I hear myself say, ‘Let’s nip out to a restaurant.’ I’ve learned that, however tempting they might look, houses in the middle of nowhere are not for me. I now look out for certain key words, and when I see them I force myself to turn away – ‘paddocks’ is one, ‘equestrian’ is another.
TRAP 2 – Buying a house that someone you love would love
Most of us like to please, and emulate, the people who impress us. The trouble is, we don’t always stay impressed with those people for ever. If you’re looking for a new house at a time in your life when the person you most admire happens to live in a red-brick Edwardian former rectory, you might end up buying a very similar former rectory yourself for all the wrong reasons. Trust me, you will not admire yourself any more if you mimic the home-buying choice of your idol-of-the-moment. Deep down, you will always know your choice was a silly one, not a real, bona fide choice to live in an Edwardian rectory for the right reasons. Of course, your idol might have bought her rectory for the wrong reasons too, but you won’t know that. (It’s worth mentioning too that this trap has a specifically romantic variation: ‘Oh, this cottage is so romantic – X and I would be so happy if we lived here. Imagine us sitting up in bed and looking at that beautiful view…’ To which the obvious answer is usually, ‘Yes, but you don’t actually live with X, do you? And nor will you, ever.’)
TRAP 3 – Buying a house in order to impress people, or prove you’re better than them
An acquaintance once uttered the following shocking words to me: ‘What I really love about my house is that when people see it for the first time, they say, “Wow! You’ve really done well for yourself, haven’t you?”‘ I hope I don’t have to explain why this is a ridiculous thing to love most about your home. Guests might glance at it for the first time and be impressed, but if its appeal is purely superficial, you’re the one who’s going to be keenly aware of that as you live in it, day after day. Yes, it might look like a mansion as you drive up to it – but at some point you’re going to have to come clean and explain that actually you don’t, er, own the whole building. And even if you do own the whole pile, and it’s an impressive pile, so what? The guy living in it is still the same shallow idiot he was before, as evidenced by the fact that he needs his home to impress people. Remember, you are buying a house for yourself and possibly your family too, so don’t let your needy ego make the choice for you. Equally, you might buy a 7-bedroom house because you want to prove to your friend with a five-bedroom house that you’re a bit better than him. In your haste to win the how-many-bedrooms competition, you might buy the only gigantic house you can afford – and then realise that, actually, the fact that it’s right next to six lanes of traffic really does matter. Or you might take on more debt than you can afford, or lumber yourself with more rooms than you need, all of which will need to be kept clean and tidy.
TRAP 4 – Buying a house because it’s the same as a house you had before
When I decided in December 2008 that I wanted to move from Yorkshire to Cambridge, I started to look at property websites. After a few months of unsuccessful viewings, I realised the mistake I was making: I was only setting up viewings of one kind of house: hundreds-of-years-old beam-strewn cottages with agas, and cosy fireplaces. I was gravitating towards this kind of house for one reason only: it was the kind of house I had in Yorkshire. I am, naturally, quite scared of change, and uprooting my family to move to Cambridge for no other reason than that I loved the city felt very risky. Without realising it, I was hoping to make the change as un-change-like as possible by trying to find a house that was the body double of the house I was leaving. The trouble was, after years in semi-rural Yorkshire, I knew I wanted to live right in the heart of the city, and one noticeable thing about the centre of Cambridge is that there aren’t many cute beamy cottages in it. Eventually I told myself it was okay to make a completely different choice is this entirely new place, and I found the perfect house the same day. It couldn’t be more different from my Yorkshire cottage if it tried.
TRAP 5 – Buying a house because it’s different from what you had before
Never buy a house just because it’s different. If you feel miserable and dissatisfied in a Victorian semi, it doesn’t necessarily follow that if you move to a modern detached house, all your problems will be solved. True, there might not be that draughty stained glass window, but what about the low ceilings? Whatever house you move to, remember that you’re going to have to take your personality with you – if it’s a grass-is-always-greener model that imagines that the opposite of what you have is what you absolutely need to make you happy, you’re going to end up moving house a lot and paying a lot of stamp duty.
TRAP 6 – Shouting down your inner voice
If you find yourself explaining to people rather stridently why the house you plan to buy is so ideal – ‘As I said before (and before, and before) we actually love the fact that most of the space is devoted to the part of the house that we’re actually going to live in. I mean, it doesn’t matter if the bedrooms are small, because we’re only going to be sleeping in them.’ – the chances are you’re arguing with your inner voice and trying to shout it down. ‘But I’d really love a big bedroom,’ your inner voice is whispering, and you’re ignoring it. If other people’s opinions of the house really matter to you, that often means you’re not sure you like it. You need others to like it to convince you that you ought to. When you’re buying a house you love that’s the right house for you, you won’t care if friends say things like, ‘Don’t you mind that there’s no off-road parking?’ You might find you can’t even be bothered to answer them.
TRAP 7 – Allowing posterity thinking to triumph over practicality
There are some similarities between this and Trap 3, because both are about ego, but there are crucial differences. Trap 3 is all about how you look to others, their reactions to you and your status in relation to them. Money, or evidence of money, tends to be the driving factor, and Trap 3 people tend to be openly boastful and smug. Trap 7 relates more to one’s inner sense of pride. It’s subtle, and those likely to be most susceptible to it go to great pains to hide their vanity and ambition. They always make sure to present themselves as modest and unassuming in public. If they have money, they certainly don’t want it on display. Typically, they buy beautiful but shabby several-hundred-year-old ruins that they then only partially modernise. They ‘just happen’ never to buy newbuilds, or bungalows, or houses without character and history, but if you ask them about it, they would always pretend that it’s just a coincidence that they’ve ended up in a heritage-soaked listed doer-upper. In fact, they like the idea of themselves as an important part of the world’s history. A friend of mine, who falls squarely into this category, admitted to me that house-hunting was particularly difficult for her because she had to reject any house that she couldn’t imagine a plaque outside. ‘You know, one of those plaques saying that I lived here from 2010 until whenever.’ She knew it was ridiculous, and made sure to laugh at herself while telling me, but at the same time she was deadly serious. She wasn’t yet plaque-worthy, but she certainly hoped to be. I said, ‘But surely if one is plaqueworthy and happens to have lived in a boxy newbuild, the plaque still gets put up? I mean, it’s not the house that’s getting the plaque, is it?’ No, she agreed – or pretended to agree. In the end she bought a house that was hopelessly elegant but completely impractical. It’s very difficult for her to lead her present-day life from this house, but who cares? In years to come, the plaque telling people that she lived there will look truly fantastic on that formidable Victorian facade.
TRAP 8 – Swearing Allegiance to your mistakes
Many of us buy the wrong house, and only realise afterwards. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking it matters all that much. If you can’t afford to move again, then just say to yourself, ‘I bought the wrong house – oh, well. At least it’s got the right paintings and books and rugs and clothes and children in it.’ It’s amazing how quickly you’ll start to feel better the minute you stop trying to force your new house to be the perfect forever home that we’re all supposed to dream of. Say out loud, ‘Buying this house was a terrible mistake,’ and your inner voice will leap in to defend your new home – often it will end up convincing you. And, if you can afford to move again, then do. A good friend of mine realised she’d made a terrible mistake on the day she moved into a new house. ‘It’s just too glamorous,’ she said. ‘I feel like I’m living in a trendy sushi bar.’ That same day, she went out for a walk, saw a house she liked the look of on the next street that had a ‘For Sale’ sign outside it, and rang up and made an offer without even setting foot inside. The offer was accepted, and she’s now lived in that house for more than ten years.
Lasting Damage is published on Thursday 18th August, 2011 by Hodder & Stoughton.