Househunting: one of the worst nightmares of every Londoner, including yours truly. Once again, and for the fourth time since moving to the UK, I’m on the hunt for a new home; the challenge is finding it before my landlord manages to sell the current one. Not the easiest of tasks, in a city where finding a place you can afford often means compromising on your most basic needs for space and comfort; still, I’m determined to not give up. It’s not like I have a choice, right?
If you know me, you’ll know I’m not exactly a master at the art of keeping calm. My survival strategy involves more swear words than I’m comfortable to admit, comfort food binges, and the one thing I’m good at: seeing the fun side of things. So here are three househunting truths I’m slowly learning to accept, and one of the recipes that gets me through the drudgery of long searches and fruitless viewings. Thought I’d share it, in case you’re banging your head against the wall of rental prices, and feel you need it too.
1) The definition of “one-bedroom flat” is very loose
Property search engines seem to be getting worse instead of better. It used to take a couple of clicks to come up with a list of relevant results; now it takes at least five steps. Maximum set budget, no less than one bedroom, and wooden floors, please. What? There’s no option to search for wooden floors? You Brits are crazy. One day you’ll explain me what’s with you and those dirty, scruffy carpets, and I still won’t get it.
Despite setting the most restrictive search criteria on all the websites I could find, I’m still sifting through pages and pages of flatshares, student halls, converted warehouses in Hipstertown – or, worse still, studios. Studios are not the “bright”, “attractive” or “cosy” nests property adverts try to flog: they’re hotel rooms in disguise, only without the daily cleaning service and health and safety certification. That some humans are cynical enough to divide up big houses in dozens of cramped bedsits, and other humans are ready to pay a fortune to come home to them at night, puzzles me to no end. Wherever I end up living, I know it won’t be a self-contained cell with a mattress perched on a “raised sleeping area” (as in: a mezzanine the height of a hen-coop). That’d be the end of my relationship. (*)
2) Estate agents are a necessary evil
Private landlords seem to have disappeared from the face of the earth. Gumtree and Spareroom used to be their stamping grounds; now they, too, are flooded by agency adverts, preluding to the estate agent antics we all know and love (not).
The flats we like the most are, without exception, the quickest to go off the market; we sometimes wonder if they ever existed at all. Landlords are portrayed as a bunch of charitable folks: estate agents love telling the dream tale of the home you can rent for £50 a week less than the asking price, and somehow, my gut feeling tells me I shouldn’t believe a word. Seemingly innocuous pictures conceal unthought-of levels of creepiness, the latest example being a nauseating stench the agent conveniently forgot to mention until we stepped into the flat (“Ah, yeah, the tenant’s been here over a year and never opened a window. He’s got some kind of disorder, y’know”). Still, a few out-of-focus pictures are a luxury, for some adverts have none at all. Every time an agency posts an ad with their pixelated, out-of-proportion corporate logo as the only picture, a Labrador pup dies. Just saying.
3) I fall in love with houses easily
If there was a property equivalent of Tinder, you’d have to physically restrain me from swiping right. It takes as little as a pretty garden outside a house to make me blind to blatant faults on the inside; as little as a newly refurbished kitchen to get me daydreaming about entire afternoons spent baking beautiful things. My partner is much better than me at spotting windowless bathrooms and minuscule living rooms, and telling which house lies on a quiet, leafy street…in zone 5. Our conversations are along these lines:
– This one’s in Denham. I don’t even know where Denham is.
– Trust me, you don’t want to know where Denham is.
*looks up Denham on Google Maps*
– Ah, there’s Denham.
That’s when I shut my computer down, and go make a nice dinner to cheer us up; pizza never fails to hit the spot, especially when it comes with my favourite topping from my favourite pizzeria back home. Pan-fried aubergines are the real deal on a pizza: anyone who feeds you grilled aubergines is trying to lower your standards, like the estate agent who pressures you into signing for a studio when you’ve made it clear that you don’t want your bed anywhere near the kitchen hob. A dash of ricotta right before serving is the wow factor that seals the deal: the extra storage cupboard the advert hadn’t mentioned, or the cute cafe next door you hadn’t noticed on Google Maps. Good food that gives you hope for more good things in life; that’s what you need when you’re househunting. And a kitchen with drawers that don’t fall apart when you pull the handle, too. (**)
Aubergine and Ricotta Pizza
(makes 2 large pizzas with a thick crust)
- Pizza dough (see ingredients here)
- 200 – 250ml tomato passata
- 125g mozzarella
- 1/2 aubergine, sliced
- 50g fresh ricotta
- 1 – 2 tbsp olive oil
- Salt, pepper and oregano, to your taste
- Prepare the dough, according to my recipe for homemade pizza.
- While you roll out the dough, cook the aubergine slices in a pan, with a little oil. Season with salt and pepper to your taste.
- Top your pizza base with the tomato passata; sprinkle with salt, pre-heat the oven to 220°C, and bake for 10 – 12 minutes (your pizza base should be golden in colour).
- Remove from the oven, and top with the cooked aubergine slices, mozzarella and oregano.
- Bake for 3 – 5 more minutes (or until the mozzarella begins to melt), then remove from the oven.
- Add the ricotta on top before serving.
(*) Want to know the secret for romance between a sleeper and an early riser? Ditch that issue of “Cosmopolitan” and listen to me: it’s a separate living room.
(**) If you think that should go without saying, you haven’t seen my kitchen. Peeling painted wood barely held together by year-old sellotape. The joys of renting in London, right?