The darkest hour is just before the dawn (attributed to Thomas Fuller, 1650)

2 am or thereabouts. I’m wide awake. Not exactly just before the dawn, but sadly typical for me in recent days.

I usually settle down around 10:30 pm. But four hours on, there I am, lots of anxious thoughts swirling round my mind. I’m sure we’ve all been there. 

I’ve had my fair share of sleepless (or sleep-interrupted) nights in recent months. However, since we sold our house and moved north to Newcastle upon Tyne last September, I’ve been doing so much better. But now I feel as though I’m regressing to where I was four months ago. Why, for heaven’s sake?

When we sold our house, we hadn’t had opportunity to find and buy a new home (because we were moving 230 miles north, and because of the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, arranging house viewings from a distance was never an option). Instead, we took on a six month rental, sufficient time we envisaged to find and complete the purchase of a new home. Given that we were cash buyers, and no mortgage lenders were involved, we calculated (naïvely perhaps, on reflection) that purchasing a house under these circumstances would be pretty straightforward compared to the conveyancing trials and tribulations we experienced when selling our home. And, for the house we eventually chose, there was no chain of sales and purchases contingent one on the other.

So why the sleepless nights and increasing anxiety? Well, once again we are up against the inscrutable legal machinery (or conveyancing) of selling or purchasing a property.

Let me back up a little.

Just a few days after arriving in Newcastle and once we’d found our bearings, we began the search in earnest for a new home. We already had a list of houses of interest that we’d identified on various online sites, and made appointments to view several of these (observing, of course, the strict Covid-safe guidelines). It didn’t take long to settle on a particular house (not far from where we are renting), just two years old, and built to the latest insulation and other specifications and standards (important for two ‘old fogeys’ like Steph and me). In fact it was the third property we viewed. We quickly made an offer—a little below the asking price—that was accepted immediately. Even so, we did view some other houses afterwards as well, just to ‘validate’ our decision, in terms of location and price. 

The vendors of our new home (it’s not ours—yet) used an online estate agent (realtor), Purplebricks, to manage the sale of their property. We made our offer online as well, and were assigned a law firm to handle our side of the transaction. It seemed like a great deal. The fees were no greater than we’d had to pay a solicitor in Bromsgrove although, for a purchase, there are more fees involved than on the sale side.

The other feature that we found attractive was an online conveyancing system (eWay) that logs every phone call, email, signed document, and all other information related to the purchase. We receive regular messages telling us to check actions to complete and, in general, just keeping track of where we are in the whole process. So, in theory, we can track how our purchase is proceeding, and what steps are outstanding before contracts can be exchanged with the vendors, and a completion date agreed when we take possession of our new home.

As I said, our offer was accepted immediately, and property searches and title documents were all assembled within a month. We signed contracts ready for exchange and title transfer. However, our solicitor raised a whole series of enquiries (issues that might affect our ownership and enjoyment of the property) for the vendors and their solicitor to answer, most of which were responded to satisfactorily by the end of November.

But now we are stuck! How to cut the Gordian knot? Here’s the problem.

It’s common practice nowadays for the communal areas of a new housing development to be maintained by a management company, since local authorities often don’t have the financial wherewithal to take these on. Where we are moving to is no different. For reasons that neither the vendors or ourselves can fathom, the vendors’ solicitor has stalled on obtaining the necessary documents from the management company or their agent here in Newcastle that are needed before the title deeds can be registered in our names.

The clock is ticking. Under the terms of our rental agreement, we have to vacate our rental by 31 March. Yet my solicitor still can’t give us a date when we might exchange contracts with the vendors (which would then legally bind us to the purchase) nor when completion will take place and we can move into our new home. It seems like one obfuscation after another. Neither the vendor (whom I’m in contact with almost daily) nor I can fathom just who needs to do what, who to contact, or precisely what documents are needed. And when we ask our solicitors for clarification? Silence!

Before we moved north, it was a race to find a rental property, or else have nowhere to stay. Okay. There’s still ten weeks to the end of March, and a lot can happen—and probably quite fast once the final documents have been sorted—between now and then. Yet I can feel the pressure starting to mount, the stress increase, and a general feeling of anxiety and malaise creeping into my everyday life.

My elder daughter who lives in Minnesota is flabbergasted when I try to explain the intricacies of the house retail market here in England and Wales (there’s yet another legal system in Scotland; not sure about Northern Ireland), and just cannot understand why everything seems so complicated. While I completely understand that the legal transfer of title deeds to land or property must be executed correctly, I cannot understand is why conveyancers make such a mystery of it all.

This is my current mood. I need happy thoughts . . . 


 

Moving house: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Selling and moving house is, they say, one of life’s more stressful episodes. And, from personal experience, I can vouch for that. But it has not always been that way.

Steph and I have moved house several times, and across continents: from the UK to Peru in 1973; from Peru to Costa Rica in 1976; from Costa Rica back to the UK in 1981; and to the Philippines and back in 1991 and 2010. However, none of these moves was as stressful as our most recent one. That’s because we never had a house to sell as well.

As I’ll relate later on, the actual move out of our home of more than 39 years in Bromsgrove and move into a rental property in Newcastle upon Tyne, was really rather straightforward. It was all the months and weeks leading up to the actual sale of our house, and particularly the last month, that caused all the stress, almost a meltdown even.

Let’s go back to the beginning
Since July 1981 we have lived in Bromsgrove, a relatively small market town in north-east Worcestershire, just 13 miles or so south of the center of Birmingham. But with our two daughters grown up, married, and with families of their own, and Steph and me not getting any younger (we’re both in our early 70s) we took the decision about a year ago to move away from Bromsgrove, and relocate in the Newcastle upon Tyne area of north-east England where our younger daughter Philippa lives with her family: husband Andi and sons Elvis and Felix. Moving closer to our elder daughter Hannah and her family was not an option. They live in St Paul, Minnesota!

Philippa with Elvis and Felix outside our rental home in Newcastle on Steph’s birthday, 8 October.

So, in early January we asked several estate agents (realtors in US parlance) to tender for the sale of our house, eventually settling on a local firm, Robert Oulsnam and Company that had a branch in Bromsgrove’s High Street. We chose this firm not only for its very competitive quotation (at just 0.5% of final sale price) but because we felt they put the client first. They were interested to know what we wanted to achieve whereas other agencies just gave us the ‘hard sell’ why we should choose them, their fantastic record of sales, notwithstanding that they valued our house significantly lower than did Oulsnams. We would never have achieved the price we did had we gone with one of the other estate agents. 

By mid-January, the details of No. 4 had been posted online, featured in the local newspapers, and circulated to a list of prospective buyers. A sign went up in the front garden: For Sale!

Viewings were not brisk, to say the least, which rather surprised us given the excellent location of our house: within five minutes walk of two of the best first and middle schools in town, and 10 minutes walk in opposite directions to the town center or the newly-refurbished rail station.


Pandemic lockdown . . . and recovery from the first wave
I guess there were about ten or so viewings up to mid-March, by which time the Covid-19 pandemic was beginning to surge. By the middle of March Steph and I had already begun to self-isolate, and decided not to take any more viewings. Except for one. Before we self-isolated we had received a request for a viewing a week hence, so decided to honor that one. In any case during most of the viewings we had not been in the house, and had taken the opportunity for a daily walk.

Then, that was that. The Covid lockdown came into force, estate agents closed up shop for the time being, and all went quiet. We did wonder whether it would in fact be better to forget all about a move in 2020, and park the idea until 2021.

As the first wave of the pandemic passed towards late May, and parts of the economy were allowed to open once again, estate agents resumed their activities. And almost immediately we received a request for second viewing: from the couple who were the last ones to view the house before lockdown. The next day they made an offer, at a price much lower than we were prepared to accept. I made a counter offer, and within an hour this was accepted. Sold! Things were on the up. Or so we thought.

Our solicitor told us that the conveyancing process would take six to nine weeks. We never expected sixteen. That’s because there was a ‘chain’ of three buyers below us. And unforeseen delays.

We had already decided that we would sell our house first, then move into rental property in Newcastle, using that as a base to look for a new home. Even without the pandemic making life and travel difficult, trying to look for a house 240 miles away from home was almost impossible.


Getting ready to move
Did we jump the gun? By the end of June we had selected a removal company, under the impression that the sale would go through by the beginning of August. This wasn’t a bad idea, because we then began to go through our many years of accumulated ‘stuff’ and discard what we no longer needed, and boxing those we intended to take north, books in particular. Boxes and boxes of them. We also decided to dispose of the large (and very heavy) leather sofa and armchair we had acquired way back in August 1976 just after moving to Costa Rica. It was not only beginning to show its age, but we knew it would probably be too big for a smaller house that we would move into. Reluctantly we also gave away the dining table, six chairs, and sideboard, all made from cristobal, a tropical hardwood found in Costa Rica. Fortunately our next door neighbors were interest to take these off our hands. We had to send the sofa and armchair to landfill. I wasn’t able to upcycle those.

Our neighbor Dave (center) with his brother Nigel and nephew after we’d removed all the pieces of furniture from No. 4

July came, as did August and there was no movement in the chain below us, as the buyers at the bottom of the chain and in the middle negotiated for mortgages. Our buyers were keen to move in by 1 September, which would have suited us fine. No one could agree on a date to exchange contracts, the point at which a house is legally sold. Because we were still looking for a house to rent, we asked for three weeks between exchange of contracts and completion, the day we would have to move out. 

I’d had my eye on one property in Newcastle for a few weeks, which I knew we could rent on a six month tenancy. Six month tenancies are as rare as hen’s teeth; landlords mostly want tenants for a minimum of one year. I negotiated the tenancy aware that we could not sign any agreement until our house was sold, i.e. we had exchanged contracts. So, around 14 September I proposed to everyone in our buying/selling chain (through solicitors, of course) that we should agree on a completion date of 30 September. This would allow just two weeks for us to complete the tenancy background checks and the like. 

Finally it was agreed that contracts would be exchanged on Wednesday 23 September, even less than the two weeks that I had compromised to. So, with anticipation and some nervousness, the 23rd dawned and we sat around waiting for confirmation that this next important stage had been completed, leaving us free to sign a tenancy agreement. You can imagine my reaction when, around 4 pm, I received a phone call from my solicitor telling me that the exchange had fallen through. There had been a last minute ‘glitch’ involving the sale of our buyer’s house. I felt desperate.

By late afternoon on the Thursday, it seemed as if the ‘glitch’ had been resolved and we were promised exchange of contracts the following morning. By 2.30 pm that Friday afternoon we’d still not heard anything, and concerned that the exchange would ‘fail’ once again, I phoned my solicitor who was as perplexed as we were why things had not gone through until then (all handled through phone calls) since the ‘exchange’ had begun that same morning around 9.30 am.

Then, around 3.10 pm there was another call: exchange completed! Having already carefully scrutinised our tenancy agreement line by line over the previous couple of days, I immediately digitally signed my copy and submitted it online. That generated a copy for Steph to sign, and once she had submitted her digital copy, the tenancy agreement was wrapped up. Relief all round. We’d have a roof over our heads after moving out of No. 4 on the 30th.

I also had to confirm the move with our removal company, Robinsons Relocation. I guess we’d given them the run around over the previous couple of weeks, pencilling our removal date for the 30th but not able to confirm this until the last moment.

On my 70th birthday in November 2018, my bank manager had sent me a bottle of Moët & Chandon Brut champagne. We never could find a good excuse or opportunity to open it. Until that Friday night.

Over the next few days, we completed our packing, and clearing the last remaining items in the garage and garden that I needed to take to the local waste disposal and recycling center. 


The move
It felt strange at No. 4 the night before the move. Our last night there after more than 39 years. Over those decades Steph had created a lovely garden, so we enjoyed a bottle of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, and wandered around the garden. Steph had taken cuttings from many of her favorite plants and these had been crated up in anticipation of the move. 

We were up with the larks next morning, the 30th, and after a quick breakfast, we packed away the final items that were still in use in the kitchen. 

Our removals company was due at 8.30 am, but they actually turned up fifteen minutes early. And got immediately to work, despite the rather dank and dreary weather. It began to rain more or less as they arrived, but fortunately had cleared within the hour.

The removals team were three: Paul, Kyle, and Harrison (aka ‘H’). Since we’d already done all of the packing ourselves, Paul and his team only had to load everything on their truck. I say ‘only load’, yet some items were quite heavy and cumbersome, and one large Ikea bookshelf had to be dismantled (yes, they are as complicated to take apart as assemble!).

By 11.30 am everything had been loaded, the van closed up and they were off. I say ‘off’, but back to base in Redditch as they intended to drive up from the West Midlands to Newcastle early the next day.

Then it was time for Steph and me to have a final check around an empty No. 4, make sure everything was ship shape and Bristol fashion as much as we could, grab a quick sandwich, lock the front door, and be on our way. That was about an hour after removers had left, and by then there was a removals van parked outside waiting to move our buyers in. They had to wait until around 3.30 pm to get access to the keys once bank transfers had been confirmed.

Grabbing a quick sandwich after all had been cleared. And a final photo in front of No. 4.

With that, we hit the road heading for Newcastle, and arriving at our Premier Inn in Shiremoor (less than a mile from our rental property) just after 5 pm. I enjoyed a couple of large beers that night.

The move in . . . 
Around 9.30 on the following morning, 1 October, I had a voicemail message from Paul of Robinsons letting me know where they were, and at what time they expected to arrive in Newcastle. We met up with an agent of the lettings agency to gain access to our rental home, check the utilities and inventory. It’s a strange experience moving into a property that you’ve never seen firsthand, but only through online descriptions and photos. However, it turned out just fine. We have a compact, three bedroom house, very close to excellent transport links, shopping, medical services and the like. So we knew we could settle very easily there.

The removals crew turned up just before 1 pm, and immediately set to work. And just before 4 pm they were on their way south once again.


Thus ended our house sale and move saga. So what were the good, the bad, and the ugly?

The good
On reflection, I think our estate agent served us well, with a good discount on their fee, and continual follow-up on what was happening down the chain. The promotional materials they produced were of a high standard. Also the service we received from Robinsons Relocation for the actual move north was excellent.

The bad
What frustrated us most was the lack of transparency in the legal aspects of the sale. Once we had instructed solicitors to handle the sale, it was like sucking blood from a stone to find out what was happening throughout the chain. No-one was proactive, keeping us updated. It was always us having to make enquiries. Now I am the last person to deny anyone their annual vacation, but I was extremely annoyed on two occasions to find that two solicitors in the chain had taken off for a week or more at critical times in the sales negotiations without letting their clients know. In any case the whole sales process seems arcane and convoluted, and the lack of information and transparency only made the whole thing more mysterious and stressful.

The ugly
Selling a house is stressful at the best of times, as I’ve already mentioned. Selling one during a pandemic just adds to the stress, and anxiety. And the last month, as deadlines came and went without apparent progress, and the pressure to find a rental property in Newcastle increased, my stress levels increased seemingly exponentially. There were a couple of occasions when I came close to a breakdown, and I’m a pretty level-headed sort of chap. Just the uncertainty, and not knowing whether we’d have a roof over our heads once we’d sold No. 4, were awful. I don’t think I slept more than three hours a night for over a month, and I’ve lost quite a bit of weight (which, on reflection, can’t be a bad thing!).

It was a relief when that call came through that contracts had been exchanged on 25 September, opening the door to so many other aspects of our move such as finalising the rental contract, confirm removals arrangements, and the like.

But we did it. We have now been in Newcastle for just over two weeks. We are settled, and relaxing a bit more. And we have already found our next home. But that’s for another blog post in due course.