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6 March 2024updated 07 Mar 2024 11:47am

I’ve learned to love the Disaster House. But will it love me back?

When we moved in there was a sadness in the crumbling walls. Now, the house seems able to breathe again.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Almost a year since we first went to view what quickly became referred to as the “Disaster House”, we have finally moved in. The project  that has consumed every spare shred of emotional energy and driven me to tearfully suggest cutting our losses and moving to a remote Pacific island is by no means completed. There’s a hole in the bathroom wall where a sink should one day be; open plug sockets abound; the dishwasher, it turns out, is connected to the electricity but not the water supply. (This, I am told, is harder to fix than you might imagine.)

Still, having been gutted and renovated to within an inch of its Victorian terraced life, it is now liveable again. And, more importantly, it is ours.

I realise how fortunate we are to have left behind the hellscape that is London renting, particularly at the moment when horror stories of demonic landlords and bidding wars for mouldy house-shares are at record levels. But knowing that didn’t make the Byzantine chaos or extortionate cost of selling one property and buying another any easier.

Oh, the things I learned about the property industry. Getting a mortgage post Liz Truss was only the start. There were the solicitors who charged us up front for “information packs” they were required to purchase on our behalf, who then kept the money and forgot about it. The buyers who waited until the moment of exchange to clutch their pearls at it being a leasehold flat (as had been clearly advertised) and threatened to pull out unless we gave them a hefty discount. The enterprising estate agent who informed us that the sellers of a house we were looking at “didn’t really want to pay inheritance tax”, so how would we feel about paying part of the purchase price in cash, to keep it off the books.

Eventually, though, the Disaster House became legally ours. And then the real work began. Caveat emptor: the previous owners (who, I should stress, are not the would-be inheritance tax dodgers) had not been fully candid about the state of their property. The surveyor’s report discovered they had illegally removed the chimney breasts without consulting the local council or a structural engineer – but at least we knew that. What we didn’t know was the rest. 

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From the dodgy glass in the windows to the leak they had left unfixed for so long it had rotted the floor joists, every room presented its own safety hazards. They had been letting it out as a multiple-occupation property (yet further evidence, as if it were needed, for proper regulation of the rental market). When I found out the most recent tenants had had a small child, I cried. This house, I said, was clearly cursed, if not actively haunted. It had negative energy, a pervading sense of sadness and despair in the crumbling walls and sloping floors.

Over the past six months, thanks to a team of builders who enjoy a challenge, the house has been reincarnated, phoenix-like. It’s nothing special, no Grand Designs extravaganza, but the scale of the transformation has still astounded me: new floors, windows, doors, kitchen, bathroom, even internal walls. Slowly, the sharp smell of fresh plaster and sawdust has banished the whiff of hopelessness. The new windows let in so much more light. The house seems able to breathe again.

Our first night there was surreal. This was a space I knew so well, that I’d watched being stripped down to its bones and rebuilt, familiar and alien at the same time. We had spent so long trying to turn it into a home, a place where there could be dinner parties and lazy Sunday mornings and collapsing on the sofa with a takeaway. A place where we could laugh at the cat – who remains confused by the concept of stairs – learning to jump through the banister. Was it enough?

“What if the house doesn’t like us?” I asked, thinking about the decades of neglect it had experienced. 

“It will take time,” my husband told me. “It has not been treated kindly in the past. It has been sad. But we have given it lots of love and care and attention, and slowly it will start to love us back.”

In other words, our house is a stray cat. I wonder if it will be friends with us.

[See also: A magic mushroom trip in Amsterdam triggers a revelation]

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This article appears in the 06 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Bust Britain