Moving house can turn sweet old ladies into Al Pacino, but at least you get to nose round their bedrooms

I've been trying to imagine how I would describe what it's like to move house to someone who had never done it. Everybody knows the old cliche about it being the third most traumatic event in life after a death in the family and divorce. But somehow that doesn't convey the particular pain. You need to imagine descending into a world of criminality while having a nervous breakdown, and yet having to keep the rest of your life going at the same time.

You're trying to do three things that seem impossible individually and yet you have to co-ordinate them. The actual business of transferring our worldly belongings from one place to another is as yet an unimaginably distant (and horrific) prospect, and if we ever get to it, it will be the subject of a howl of pain in a future column. First we have to sell our place and then find somewhere else and buy that.

For most people this involves dealing with larger amounts of money than they've ever seen in their life, so suddenly this nice couple you've come to an agreement with start behaving like Al Pacino at the climax of The Godfather. You think you've made a deal and suddenly the phone rings: "I think we have a problem," a voice says. One very kindly old woman did to us, metaphorically at least, what Pacino had done to his brother-in-law with cheese wire in order to show him what happens when you let the family down. "It's not personal," I can imagine her saying. "It's just business."

And then there's the estate agents. Don't they know that the eighties finished nine years ago? I have a proposal for a reform of the housing market. When an estate agent comes to value your house, they should by law have to buy the house from you themselves. Then it would be their house they were selling instead of yours. That would wipe the smile off their faces.

Obviously it is strange to have people looking around your bedroom and bathroom with an obscure expression of disdain, but this is made up for by the strange perverse pleasure of looking round other people's houses. Almost all the time, you know within 30 seconds that you would rather spend five years strapped to an oar in a Roman slave galley than live there, but there remains the interest of examining in detail the bizarre things with which people surround themselves. One couple had artistic erotic etchings in their bedroom (which is presumably off-limits to normal visitors) and I inspected them closely while pretending to examine the walls for cracks or signs of movement or whatever it is one is supposed to be looking out for.

Another hopeful seller was moving and retiring on doctor's orders to somewhere deep in the countryside in order to reduce stress after having had two heart attacks. While showing us around the house, he lit up a cigarette. I was tempted to point out to him that he would be better off if he stayed in his job, or indeed retrained as a lion tamer or a bomb disposal expert, just so long as he gave up smoking, but just in time I recalled what my own reaction would be if somebody rooting through my bedroom started offering advice on my personal life.

Occasionally you also get touching vignettes from people's lives. The same man told us how he used to sit by the little stream that ran through his garden with a glass of wine (and, regrettably, a cigarette) and watch the brown trout swimming up to spawn. He had also owned the second-oldest horse in East Sussex (sadly deceased, but buried on the property).

The only two questions I ask the sellers are, first, why are they moving? I don't listen to what they say. I just try to look for a tell-tale twitch or a guilty shift of gaze which suggests that they know that a supporting wall - which they have just had repainted - is about to collapse. And second, where are they moving to? No fewer than three of the sellers were moving no further than the end of the garden. One of them was building a cottage next to the workshop where her son builds replicas of medieval swords.

We haven't found a house yet, but we've found material for a career's worth of novels.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A prejudice as American as apple pie