Friday, October 27, 2006

by the way...

we are homeowners in England as of today. Better put, we are now indentured to an English bank...

Home is where the gazumping isn't - part the second

So let's say that you miraculously find something in this mire that both you and your spouse/partner like, or at least are willing to live in with a little fixing up. You need to make an offer. How can you make an offer that is likely to be accepted?

Well, first you have to offer a decent price, and that determination is the same as the US (do you think there's another bidder? How high are you willing to go? Is anything negotiable? blah blah blah). But there are other things you can do to be an attractive bidder (a visit to the salon?). First and foremost, not having to sell your own house before you can afford to buy is important here, unlike in the US. The English might be surprised to hear this, but in the US, it doesn't matter so much if you haven't sold your house yet. Here, however, they have these monstrous chains, dependencies on selling before buying. You could have a chain of 5 selling/buying players, and the tricky thing is, they all have to close(complete) AND MOVE on the same day. It is a preposterous proposition, but the English just put up with it. No bridge loans, no rent-backs, no human considerations. Therefore, not having a chain at your end as a buyer is an incredible advantage.

Another advantage which is similar to the US is getting a pre-approval for a mortgage. It's called something else here, in fact it's called 2 things, a DIP (Decision In Principle) and a something-else-I-can't-remember-the-acronym-for-but-it-was-enough-to-confuse-me-further. It helps because it is not unusual for people to make a high offer, and then be unable to actually come up with the money. How can that be? Well, you see when you make an offer and it is accepted, there is no contract signed, and nothing is binding. This actually contrasts dramatically with Scotland I am told, where your word is apparently a contract. Or in the US, where the process of making an offer includes the signing of a lengthy contract. But not here, and this is where the gazumping comes in. You've made your offer, had it accepted, put everything in motion to move forward, and some interloper comes along, makes what looks like a better offer to the seller, and WHAM! you have been gazumped. Your £650 house survey(inspection), £250 in legal fees to the solicitor(lawyer) for searches and such, and all that forward looking and goodwill, out the window. (Note that the exchange rate is nearly 2 to 1 US dollars to pounds sterling - we are talking lots of money here.) And there's jack(bugger all) you can do about it, except go on the Internet and denounce the estate agents or some such. Or near as I can tell.

I mentioned solicitors - yes, here it is necessary to engage a solicitor (as it is in Connecticut, but not in California). They do or see to the various searches for you, which can be numerous and are very interesting. Some of the more interesting information they obtain is whether there are old (usually coal) mine shafts and tunnels in the area, and possibly under your property (sinkhole, anyone?) Another interesting one was the Chancel Check, a preliminary check to see if your property is subject to assessments from the local parish containing a medieval church. It's related to some ancient rights of the Church(of England), which will apparently be corrected by 2010, or somewhere in that timeframe, to do with the maintenance of the older churches. One search report on water or sewer or something like that had a clear mapping, and then proceeded to say there might be lines they don't know about which are public. O Kayyyyyyy, soooo, what does that mean to us?

Since the offer isn't written in stone (or even on paper, though we did receive a written confirmation from the estate agents), the amount can change, based on the results of the survey, the searches, or any other new information the buyers (and maybe the sellers too) receive before the exchange of contracts. In a seller's market, of course, the survey would have to show up something really major to warrant the sellers accepting a lower amount, unless they're in a hurry to sell. Our sellers were originally in a hurry to sell, that is, to their previous buyers, because there was a house they wanted. Their previous buyers pulled out due to a sudden serious illness, and so they put their house back on the market. That's where we came along, made an offer in a hurry, and then the prior buyers proceeded to bid against us, or so they say. And the previous buyers weren't going through the estate agents, so they could offer less because if they bought, the sellers wouldn't have to pay commission. So we had to offer significantly higher just to be even. }sigh{

Obviously we got the house. But did I mention the taxes associated with buying a house? No, not a property tax where you have to pay ahead of time to be held in escrow, oh no. The equivalent of a property tax is council tax. What I'm talking about is something called stamp duty, possibly named that because when you find out how unfairly the scheme is meted out, all you can do is stamp your feet (personally, I think it should be called stamp and curse duty, but I digress). You see, if the house price is from £60K to £250K, the stamp duty is 1%. However, from £250,000.01 to £500K, it jumps to 3%. Not for the amount over £250K, but for the entire sum. Oh yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I guess they figure that anyone buying a house for a penny more than £250K must have money to burn. Never mind that the
median house price in England is £160K
(as of first quarter 2006), or the amount of borrowing is increasing, or that interest-only mortgages are quite the rage (in which, at the end of your 15-20-25 years of paying, you still owe the entire principal; but mortgage description is a whole nother kettle of fish and chips). I think these duties are not indexed to house price increases, nor even cost of living increases.

So I repeat this mantra "it's only money" and prepare to pay the bill. But wait, it ain't over till it's over, or as we like to say, till we have the keys in our hot little hands. We wound up in a chain of 2, that is, our sellers were buying a house, but their sellers were going into rental property. As it happened, however, the renter decided to push it at the last minute. I got a call from our solicitor on a Friday afternoon, saying that our seller's seller wanted to exchange contracts on Monday or the whole deal was off. Now, this may not sound absurd until you know more about what exchanging contracts means. It is at this point where you are legally obligated to buy/sell the house at the agreed price with the agreed contents and the agreed agreements. And just to show how agreeable you are as a buyer, you're to back it up with 10% of the purchase price. That 10% must be liquid assets to your solicitor at the point of contract exchange. Which means that if you are handing over a bank check here in the good ole UK, you need to give it to your solictors 3 business days before the contract exchange, since there's a 3 day waiting period. For a bank check. From a UK bank to a UK bank. Yep. 3 days. (Banking here may be another blog on another day.) So, now you understand what a ridiculous request this person made. Isn't there some saying like "Lack of preparation on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part" or some such? That's basically what I told our solicitor, who was a very reasonable and practical person, I must say. We decided to offer an exchange of contracts with a nil(nought, zero, nada, bupkus) deposit (I offered a pound, just as a token, in the American style). Well, the seller at the top of the chain didn't think that was so great, so we agreed to exchange contracts 2 days after that with a 5% deposit, which was all we could offer on short notice. That happened, we went down and signed papers on Monday morning, on Wednesday we were obligated to then complete the transaction last Friday (9 days later), which we did. (There was more to do with money movement, but it is not relevant to buying a house here, unless your money is not here, as ours wasn't.)

And presto, we are English homeowners. Easy as cake. Piece of pie.

How was that, Norbert?

P.S. Incidentally, your presence is needed neither at the contract exchange nor at the completion, in fact, I'm not sure there's a place at which to be present at either event. It is something of an anticlimax compared with holding that very big check briefly in your hand before handing it to the sellers as we've done in the US.

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A Day in the Life

This is not my usual format, but today I'm going to do a diary of a rather uninteresting day that is today. Why am I doing this? Well, there is a project spearheaded by the History Matters folks called "1 Day in History". Those who want to participate are to write a diary of their day on October 17th, then upload it to the History Matters Web site.

This is just in Britain, so I guess history only matters here. As an American expat, I figure I can skew the results a little }wink{. So here I go:

Rude awakening to my Palm Zire playing a tinny "Flight of the Bumblebee" at 7:45AM - snooze. And again at 7:55AM. Off. Must - get - up, aargh, I need to take Lauren to nursery school. Still have remnants of the cold I brought back with me from the flights last week. Lauren's in a worse stage of the same cold. Quick ablutions and go downstairs to make some tea. Pour out an apple juice into a yellow sippy cup, grab my tea and back upstairs to wake Lauren up. She is not a morning child, rolling over and pulling up her pyjama top for a back scratch. She is such a cutie pie, I cannot resist her. But we must get dressed, have some breakfast, and get going. I put together an outfit for her and toss it on the bed, throwing some clothes on myself while, dare I say, nagging her to put her own clothes on. She is easily distracted, and so must be told over and over again to keep putting her clothes on, keep moving, we don't want to be late.

Finish with the upstairs routine, downstairs for some breakfast. Nasty tasting chewable vitamin (I'm not buying that brand again) and a bowl of Cheerios (possibly Honey Nut), both for Lauren. No time for anything for myself, I must retrieve the stroller out of the shed 'round the back, gather some change for the piggy at school (supplements their funding for more supplies for the children), and put her empty nylon portfolio in the basket of the stroller. Over the course of the week, the teachers put all the children's work into their portfolios and they bring them home on Fridays. Since Lauren missed school yesterday due to this cold, she'll bring her portfolio in today.

Miraculously, she finishes all the Cheerios in time for me to put a raincoat on her and head out the door. She climbs into the stroller under the clear vinyl raincover while I don my new high tech rain jacket and lock the door. And we're off. It's about a 10 minute walk if you keep a reasonable pace, a little bit downhill until the last block which is back uphill. I take a slightly longer route through the neighborhoods, where there are fewer cars and a bit less litter. I will probably blog on the litter problem here at some point.

We actually get to the nursery just as they're opening the doors (they open them at the last minute and leave them open for the first 15 minutes of the session), so we're not late. 9AM. I drop Lauren off and almost walk out with the portfolio but her teacher, Mrs. H, asks me if I meant to leave it. And so I make my exit, running into Rachel, one of the few parents I chat with, and offer to wait for her so we can walk home together with her 4 month old son, Ethan. I put the stroller around the side of the building and wait. Rachel returns and we walk until she turns off for her home, chatting about breastfeeding her son and switching to formula.

Move on home the quick, noisy, and littery way. Back in the house, no-one else has made it downstairs yet. The mail is on the floor under the mail slot in the door. There is a birthday card for me from my friend in Providence, I smile - I look forward to opening it later. Upstairs I change into my exercise gear, and come down for a workout. Put on my Stott Pilates "Strong and Streamlined" DVD, and work out with Moira, Beth, and Max. Phew. Time for some breakfast, feeling pretty hungry since I hadn't yet had anything to eat.

Muesli with blackberry and apple yogurt, both organic. More tea. Read the birthday card and enclosed letter. It's a nice prelude to my birthday. But there is no time to lose, I must shower in time to dry my hair before I have to go pick up Lauren from school at 11:30. Back upstairs I check on my husband, who is home sick from work with the same cold, and my MIL, who also has my cold. Both want tea, so back down I go to make tea, return upstairs, warn everyone I must shower, and finally get to shower. By the time I'm out of the shower, moisturized, deodorized, dressed, and combed, there is no time to dry my hair. Back I go to pick up Lauren, thinking I'm a few minutes late, but the doors aren't even open when I arrive, so I wait with the other parents, saying hello to Josie, another foreigner in this country (Filipino) whose son, Bradley, started nursery the same time as Lauren. The door opens, the line of children progresses down the ramp, and my beautiful little girl is directed towards me. She runs to me with a smile and shows me her latest creation, a "model", that is, an oblong cardboard biscuit box with little pieces of white shiny paper glued on, along with a flap of navy fabric. "It's a bus" she says, as does the tag on the model with the teacher's writing. I ask her who's on the bus, and she says it's Bradley and his mom - Josie laughs.

[I do realize at this point that this is far more detail than the History Matters folks want, indeed, perhaps far more than anyone wants, but I shall plod on, attempting to stem the tide of details where I can.]

We head home, with Lauren walking and me pushing the empty stroller. She picks some flowers on the way, one for me, one for Daddy, and the rest for Nanny. Arriving home, Lauren is a little surprised that Daddy is there, and happily distributes the flowers. I reconnoiter with Richard, as we need to transfer some money into our solicitor's account today to meet the requirements of our house buying contracts exchange tomorrow. He says we'll go after lunch. I call our solicitor to verify some other points, and then set to the task of getting lunch for me and Lauren. One cheese-on-toast (wholemeal) with cherry tomatoes and cucumber bites on the side later, Lauren runs off to the front room to play with her toys. Having finished my mediocre steak and kidney pie (and the rest of her tomatoes), I clear off the table and get ready to go to the bank. I put a large plastic garbage bag full of plastic bottles into the old car to take to the recycling bins by Lauren's school.

Not long after, we get going. The recycling truck is collecting at the moment we arrive, so they just take the whole bag, which saves us some time. We park and walk the block to the bank in the High St (equivalent of downtown, or Main St, the commerce center of town). I fill out the form while Richard sits and sniffles, and then double checks all the information. The nice lady behind the glass wall takes it, explains some fields we clearly did not understand, then gave us the carbon copy and assured us it would go out that day. It is now 1:30PM.

Outside it's started to rain lightly, though it picks up on the way to the car, so I pull out the high tech hood of my new coat and gloat while Richard pulls his fleece over his head. As soon as we get home, I run to the butcher's to get a dozen very large free range eggs - not very chatty there today. Back home again, it's time to get some things done for the house. Check email to see if our US financial guy, Joshua, had answered my questions - he has. Richard calls the solicitor and gives her more information. I begin to prepare some forms to move US money to the UK for the final house closing, called completion here. With any luck, we'll be UK homeowners in less than 2 weeks! I am really looking forward to it, though not to the move.

I also check the National Trust Web site, where I find out about this "1 Day in History" thing, but my main thrust is to find out about a Halloween-themed event at Tyntesfield on October 28th. It took some navigating, as the event was not listed with the other Halloween events, but I found it and wrote down a phone number. I answered a quick online survey as well, and looked at a couple of the other events.

I also looked up the etymology of fib, discovering in the process an online etymological dictionary Web site. At least I don't remember seeing it before, but then, maybe I have.

3PM, Richard and Lauren are up in the attic, and I join them to fill out some forms and fax them to Joshua in the US. It takes some time, and Richard is also trying to get something done, I play with Lauren a bit while I can. I finally get everything done, convincing Richard to sign the forms, we fax them to the US, and email Joshua. He calls back and Richard talks to him. I guess everything's OK. In the meantime, I take out a box of clothes that were too big for Lauren before, and rifle through them to see what she can wear now. She has more clothes than any one child has a right to, since we are the last amongst our peers to have children and Lauren is so small. We get beautiful clothes, some of them with the tags still on! Since she was born, we've probably bought 5% of her clothes, including diapers (in fact, diapers, underwear, and socks are pretty much all we get to pick out :-).

But it has suddenly turned 7PM, and it is time for dinner. Tonight we are eating leftovers from the fridge, since there are lots of them and everyone is sick anyway. Assembling a little plate for Lauren, I warm up some pork sausage from the local butcher, cauliflower and broccoli, and Richard makes some instant mash. For myself I take some leftover pilau rice, Bombay potato, and lamb madras from the local Indian takeaway, heap it into a bowl, and heat it in the microwave. It is incredibly hot, but very good. Clear up, play with Lauren a little more, start this blog.

At 9PM it was time to put Lauren to bed, so I save my work, give her a little milk, and take her upstairs. Go potty, wash hands, take medicine, brush teeth, and then get the jammies on. She is pretty good about taking medicine, though sometimes we have to bargain with her. 3 books tonight, all in French: Au lit, petit monstre; C'est moi le plus fort; and Petit Ours Brun prépare son sac. She has to gather several of her stuffed animals to listen as well (Pinky the poodle, Boo the cat, Google the spider, Tinky Winky, and a teddy bear backpack), and make sure each one sees each illustration. Then a little lullaby, and a kiss goodnight. She is amazing, snuggling down with all her friends.

Back to this blog at about 9:45PM, and now it's 11PM. I must do the dishes and hang the load of laundry I did earlier on the indoor rack.

Gee, I think this is more than 1000 words, maybe I shouldn't bother to upload it to History Matters. What do you think (that is, if anyone has read this far...)?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Dazed and confused

I return from Texas, having not had Internet access, catching up on my emails and such. In my semi-conscious state, I read the answer to a question I asked of a commenter on my blog, that is, who are you? (You know who you are, I did not post the latest response to protect your privacy.) I got the answer.
The name is the same of someone I knew in high school. But it seems unlikely that it is the same person, for a number of reasons.
The problem is, there is no way for me to communicate directly with this person. So I continue to be in the dark, with the exception of a name, which is too common to Google.
I guess this is one of the hazards of blogging. I must say I am complimented that there are people reading my blog that I have not expressly given the link to.
Here's to you, Mystery Commenter!