Squeezed Middle: The horrors of house-hunting

"Quarter of a million quid for a wreck," he huffs…

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

‘‘You’re not going to do better than this for £240,000,” says the estate agent as he opens the door. There is definitely pity in his voice.

The estate agent’s face is almost as shiny as his suit, which is in turn only marginally less shiny than his large, lustrous patent leather shoes. It’s as if he is holding up a man-sized mirror to show me beyond dispute how pathetically poor and needy a muesli-muncher like me is, in comparison to a dynamic wheeler-dealer like him.

The estate agent has already told me he owns five antique shops and a four-bedroom house in Epping, Essex. He thought about applying to go on The Apprentice, but decided against it because “the prize is only a quarter of a million quid. It’s nothing when you think about it – I want to be a multimillionaire.”

I nod meekly, a mere pawn in his game.

Inside the house, the hall is dark. The door is pushed up against a snowdrift of post. There are vomit-like swirls on the carpet and a strange smell is emanating from the kitchen. It could be rotting meat. Is there a body buried beneath the peeling cork tiles?

“You’ll have to use your imagination,” the estate agent says. “Just blank out what it actually looks like now, and think about… the potential.” I close my eyes. If I hold my breath as well, I can imagine I am in a nice Victorian terrace in Islington with distressed pine flooring. I can almost forget that I am in a small, grey-brick two-up two-down just off the North Circular. Almost, but not quite: the hum of traffic is audible from the living room.

I walk through the tiny kitchen and push open the back door. There, stretching into the distance, is the most enormous garden.

It is completely choked with brambles and fruit is rotting on a gnarled old apple tree.

But it is a garden big enough for my dream veggie patch, for my boys to have their football pitch… twisting, nooky, ramshackle and perfect for adventures.

By the time I get back to our too-small flat, the house has been sucked into my subconscious middle-class processor and spat out the other end. With a coat of white paint and some proper bookshelves, a wood-burning stove in the sitting room and one of those cheap but nice IKEA kitchens, the place could be lovely.

“Well, it needs a bit of work,” I tell Curly excitedly when he gets home. “But it’s got… potential.” He is busy lifting the cot back into the bedroom so we can sit down at the table for dinner.

Curly, Larry, Moe and I live in a continually shifting reality where sitting room transmutes into bedroom and back again, the dining table becomes a desk and the bed doubles as a changing mat.

“Quarter of a million quid for a wreck,” he huffs, before embarking on his favourite monologue. “Thirty-four years paying the bloody thing off… modern-day slavery… up the revolution…”

Once he’s got it off his chest we decide to put in an offer.