How does buying in the UK compare to buying here?
How does buying in the UK compare to buying here? We talk to Ciara Elliott about the hunt for her perfect home - a 200-year-old artist's house in the English countryside - and how she found a novel way to finance it
'Looking for a house over here was a completely different experience to home," says Ciara Elliott, an Irish journalist, stylist and magazine editor who moved to the UK five years ago. A fashion editor at the Sunday Tribune before leaving Dublin, she now works at international publishing company Hubert Burda Media (they publish magazines such as In Style and Marie Claire in Germany) and edits the high-end interiors magazine Essential Kitchens Bathrooms and Bedrooms (EKBB).
Having already been through the process twice in Dublin - she had previously bought and done up period cottages in Kilmainham and North Strand, neither of which she could sell at the time due to the downturn in the economy - she was reluctant to get involved at all with property again. "But then we needed somewhere to live and it's that same old story about renting. Until there are major reforms in the law you can just never relax when it's not yours. So eventually, after two years of pounding pavements looking for the right place, we went for it."
So how was the process of buying in the UK different to here? "Well, the first thing that I found weird was the fact that every time I turned up for a viewing it wasn't the estate agent showing the house, it was the homeowner. So often while you were being shown around, you would not only be seeing a house but getting somebody's life story as well. I must have heard 50 intimate tales from people down-sizing, up-sizing, wanting somewhere more modern, yearning for a period property, suffering bereavement, divorcing, going bankrupt, etc, etc. Half the time I walked away from a viewing feeling like I'd just been through a counselling session! At the time the recession was still raging so most people who were selling were doing so under duress and the stories were never happy.
"I also couldn't get over just how long it took to actually find something," says Ciara. "There was literally nothing moving on the market for so long and it wasn't like they'd been through the massive dip in prices that Ireland had - it was just that there is such a lack of housing here. So while some houses were on the market for years, people often refused to discount the prices. They would rather wait it out so as not to make a loss, which makes sense if you can do that. There definitely wasn't the panic here that there was in Ireland.
"After two years, to be honest, we'd sort of given up. But then my neighbour told me about a house that had been intestate for years and was finally coming on the market. That day we rang the estate agent and arranged to see it. I think we were the first with our offer too, which luckily was accepted. The house was definitely beyond our budget and involved so much more work than we'd ever imagined but it was such a diamond in the rough, we fell for it instantly. And with almost half an acre around it and its location nera Colchester, which is in a protected conservation area of beautiful Georgian houses on a train line with direct trains to central London, we could clearly see the potential for development."
At the same time, her partner Ben's mum retired from work and offered to help with childcare for their two daughters Edie and Astrid, who were four and six.
"When Liz suggested that we could all go into the house buy together, building her a self-contained area within the house, we all danced for joy as it made the whole thing do-able. We had so little savings and anything we did have was already paying off the houses we'd bought in Ireland so we really needed an alternative plan. We couldn't have done it without that extra push.
"The house hadn't been modernised for about 40 years. A lovely couple - a Royal Academy artist called Peter Coker and his wife Vera - had lived here all of their married lives, and while they had maintained it to a certain degree they had spent nothing, so the windows were all rotting, there was rising damp, dry rot and peeling wallpaper. It really needed the full works. He was big into the garden and had that landscaped in the French style, with a lily pond and lavender and all that, but the house was sort of falling down around them when they died."
The family continued to rent around the corner while the initial renovations, which involved gutting the house and installing new plumbing, electrics and gas, got underway. They needed a new roof as well as a new heating system and even had to get the gas connected on the national grid.
"Even though it was stressful as we kept finding more problems as we stripped the house, it was also such an exciting time. Every day we felt we discovered something new about the house," says Ciara. "We found old newspapers from the 1920s and there were floors underneath floors - we eventually uncovered the old original Victorian floor tiles in our porch. Also, as the walls were stripped down, some of the layers of paint and wallpaper were fascinating. There was also an amazing bell system for maids which is very Upstairs Downstairs and we got that working again.
"We worked out that in Georgian times the house had actually faced the other way as the spine of a central staircase was found when we took up the floorboards," recalls Ciara. "I am a big history buff and love old buildings so all of this sent me into lots of daydreaming reveries about who had lived here before and what the house/land/area must have been like. I'd love to write a book about it some day."