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Buying your first flat on your own

So, I bought a flat. Well, the bank owns a huge bit of it, but you know what I mean. As the process was a massively steep learning curve for me, I wanted to put down a few thoughts and things I thought other people may find helpful while it was all still fresh in my memory.

  1. It is a tough process, especially if you alone are ultimately responsible for the decisions. Give yourself a break every now and then. Book the occasional Saturday off flat-viewings to go and do something fun. Otherwise it can become a misery treadmill.
  2. It can take between 2 and 18 months for the whole process to happen. Give yourself time and breathing space. (NB - I gave myself three months. It took six, with three months camping out at my ever-patient boyfriend’s and sister’s houses. Thanks guys!)
  3. Be realistic. It’s not going to be your dream home - it’s just going to be your first home. Obviously you need to love it, but it may be in a different postcode to the one you wanted, or on a different tube line or five minutes further away from transport.
  4. Sign up for a few different searches on property websites. I set up my ideal area (Finsbury Park), and area that I liked and could afford (Walthamstow), an area I would kill to live in but it’s justnevergonnahappen (Highbury) and a wild card (Peckham). It meant I tempered my expectations about where I could actually afford without compromising on the things I really wanted to have.
  5. Prioritise early on and go with your gut on this one. Do you want a garden? A good local pub? Space to expand? Keep these in the front of your mind.
  6. Ask friends, family and the wider social media for advice on areas, roads, estates and estate agents. They’ll know individual areas, annoying neighbours, dodgy roads and noisy traffic spots.
  7. The first few properties an agent will show you are likely to be ones they’ve had on their books for a while. Try not to lose heart - there may be a hidden gem in there, or you may strike it lucky with a flat that has come on that week and you’re just in the right place at the right time.
  8. Questions you should ask when looking round a property
  • Is it leasehold or freehold? If it’s leasehold, how long is left on the lease? Anything under 80 years devalues the property. Freehold (or share of freehold) is ideal, but will cost more.
  • What chain is involved? (NB: mine was ‘practically no chain’, in that the massive chain was in place, and then collapsed.) Find out as much detail about that as possible.
  • How long has it been on the market? If it looks ace, but has been on the market for a while, there may be hidden problems such as damp, a short lease, a difficult vendor, unregulated building work…
  • Has a survey been done previously? If so, did it turn up anything nasty?
  • Why are the owners selling? The agents may not know the honest reason, but it’s always worth asking.
  • Are there tenants already there? If so, what’s their notice period?

I hope this helps in a small way. My way is certainly not the only way. @ me or e me anything you think I’ve missed! There’s a whole other set of information for when you find somewhere and have an offer accepted, which will follow shortly!

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From the archives: On volunteering

This was a post I originally wrote almost exactly a year ago, while I was living in New York. I still agree with most of it, with the slightly regretful realisation that I no longer have enough time to do any voluntary work. Must rectify that soon:

Ok, this one may be a bit worthy, but I have been thinking a lot about the whole volunteering process given that that is what I am spending my ‘work’ time doing here. The systems are different, of course, but it is also having more time to commit to these things that have got the cogs whirring.

The voluntary projects I have taken part in at home have had varying degrees of success. The two [EDIT
: now 3] London Twestivals were very hard work, but rewarding - in terms of the money raised but also the sense of achievement and the chance to work with some truly inspiring, excellent people. This is probably the only way I have ever actually ‘networked’ and I didn’t even have to try. Working with the Monday Club at the Camden Society (a social club for adults with moderate to severe learning difficulties) was doubly hard work, given that it was every Monday night, but the adults I worked with showed real progress over the six months I was there, and I was completely touched by how much I was appreciated and valued. Honestly, if you get nothing else out of volunteering, the sense of self-worth it inspires is reward enough.

Other projects I have tried to be involved in have never got off the ground. If there’s one thing a charity should get right, it’s volunteer relations. While this is easier for bigger charities (who will have people dedicated to this very task), smaller charities are often missing this aspect. I don’t mean you have to have someone dedicated to this if your resources need to be used elsewhere, but even a sign on a website saying “We are a small team and it may take some time to get back to you.” and then someone actually getting back to me. It is similar to companies who underestimate how far good customer service goes - even if someone can’t immediately help you, being told that someone will help you soon placates and removes the feelings of being ignored.

The American system of volunteering is very different to the UK system. In the UK I have waited up to six months to start a volunteering post, mostly due to the systems of obtaining a clean Criminal Record check for each different volunteering post. Maybe because I have kept a squeaky-clean record (not even a speeding ticket, guv), I am pretty much invisible to the Criminal Justice system. In the US, despite my not being a citizen here, I tick a box on a form declaring that I have no criminal record and start volunteering the next day. This is a huge improvement on my part. There are obviously arguments for and against this system in terms of security, though I am never left alone with any vulnerable people. I am sure they are checking my background, though I am not sure how much they will find internationally.

I have been lucky to be pointed in the direction of 826NYC and the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company, a mere block from my house. They provide free after-school tutoring, homework help and workshops about creative writing, film making, script writing, journalism and all sorts of other things for 6-18 year olds. The space is inspiring and fun, and the atmosphere relaxed. The idea is to inspire children in surroundings that are completely different to their school or library in order to make them more inclined to learn and create. It is a wonderful idea, replicated in many locations in the US, and soon to be arriving in London. I hope to be involved with that project on my return to the UK. [EDIT: the rather wonderful Ministry of Stories, which I have been involved in]

Recently, I did a stint with Meals on Wheels in hip Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This was useful to me in many ways, not least that I got to see an area that I am not familiar with and was taken to see ‘projects’ - the equivalent of UK council estates - that were socially miles away from the uber bars, galleries and music venues the area has come to be known by. My guide on this sunny morning was a Puerto-Rican ex-gang member. He had been in prison, and part of the condition of his parole was that he do community service, so he reluctantly started delivering Meals on Wheels (on foot). This was three years ago, and he now works six days a week for them. He credits the volunteering system with keeping him on the straight and narrow, and seeing the genuine affection he shares with the old people he delivers to, I can completely believe it. There must be hundreds of volunteering stories like this one - where the joy and recognition you get from helping basically (and apologies if this is twee) makes you want to be a better person.

I wonder if the system in the UK could be changed to make it easier to volunteer? With widespread cuts to the public sector becoming a depressing reality, volunteers will need to pick up the slack in areas such as mental health, childcare and help for the elderly. Everyone is tightening the purse strings, so monetary donations are inevitably going down. Without the means to employ people, charities will need more volunteers to help with the administration and practical aspects involved, not to mention marketing, social media etc. This can be done remotely in a lot of cases, so anyone with a computer and minor admin skills can help. Those with specific skills in PR and marketing should check out Bright One - an agency helping small to medium charities set up by the ridiculously-motivated Ben Matthews (also a Twestival co-founder).

This post is not meant to be a rallying cry to make more people volunteer, but I know I have got an awful lot out of it. I am lucky in that I do not have a demanding job [EDIT: this may have changed now], or children to look after, or studies to complete, so I know that these things complicate matters. But if it has inspired you or nudged you, feel free to visit a site such as Timebank in the UK, or I use New York Cares in the US. Your fellow countrymen need you!

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Internet dating advertising must die (part 3: Zoosk)

Zoosk is a new one that has snuck up from nowhere (or maybe another country. Yes, I could Google). The first time I was aware of it was when it started advertising on my phone between rounds of Scrabble very cool streetdancing.  These adverts showed a pretty girl looking out at me invitingly, which perhaps shows that my phone thinks I am gay. Or a boy.

But now they have fully-fledged, badly-dubbed television adverts to assault me with. In one particular example, a girl appears to point out a potential date online to her friend, who refuses as she prefers the ‘athletic type’. Though – ho,ho – last time she dated an athlete, her friend points out, he turned out to be a darts player. Can you IMAGINE anything more MORTIFYING, girls?! Personally, I would marry a darts player any day – have you seen their wives? All the sovereign rings you could eat! Darts wives always look like they’re having so much more fun than footballer’s wives, or tennis wives, or even pie-eating-champion’s wives.

Also: Zoosk. ZOOSK. A name surely invented for search-engine reasons. Romance.

(Watch them slagging off my favourite athletes here)

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The joys of internet dating site advertising (part 2)

(Part 1 is here)

eHarmony.com has a different approach to Match. They tell us how much they analyse your personality to get you exactly the right match and find someone who “loves you for being you”. Well, I do hate boys who love me for being Sarah Palin. Anyway, the advert consists of photos and video of happy couples, who I assume are real-life happy couples who met through eHarmony, though we are never told this. For all we know, we could be being shown pictures of complete strangers, maybe even people who HATE each other. They could even be related. I’ll let you ponder on that one.

The parade of images reminds me of those dinner parties or weddings you go to where everyone is in couples except you, and while they aren’t laughing at you and throwing rocks like they do in my anxiety dreams, they are *pitying* you, these eHarmony couples.


eHarmony also seems to feel like it’s only for people who want a relationship and this makes me very wary. This doesn’t feel like a site for people who want to keep their options open until they’ve made their mind up, oh no. The very “I want another half to complete me!” air of desperation has me running for the hills. Sorry, eHarmony.

(You can watch them feeling sorry for your sad, single life here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1CSSB1Ucqug)

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On internet dating, and the advertising thereof (part 1)

Sure as night follows day and twice a year I will have the overwhelming urge to consume Angel Delight (butterscotch flavour), I only have to be single for around six months to allow the thought “I should do internet dating again” to flash across my brain. Careful readers will note the use of ‘again’ there – yes, I have dated boys via the internet before, and this piece is by no means meant to trash them. The ones that stuck are lovely characters, and I am still friends with them, so they are exempt from this.

ANYWAY, once you have entertained the notion of “Why the heck not?”, you start to wonder which site would be appropriate for your needs. One way to do this would be to assess their advertising to see what that may say about them.

Match.com recently started an advertising campaign featuring two suitably quirky and attractive individuals singing to each other in a musical instrument shop, discovering that – gasp! – they weren’t that strange after all. She’s impulsive, he’s impulsive. She laughs in her sleep, as does he. She doesn’t wear make-up on weekends (slattern!), he doesn’t….wake up on weekends. I assume he doesn’t wear make-up on weekends either, though this seems to suggest that maybe he does. How lovably wacky. I have three comments on this advert:

1)      The very tweeness of the whole thing makes me want to eat my own fist. It’s saying “Hey! You probably like flea markets and record shops and Michael Cera and Zooey Deschanel and fey indie music! This is the site for you!” I do like all of those things, but I don’t like Match.com

2)      She quotes the fact that she likes “Old movies, like the Godfather 3”. Who thinks The Godfather 3 is an *old* movie? Teenagers. And teenagers don’t need internet dating as they get all the heavy petting and coldsores they need from real life

3)      As Match.com is so vast, according to anecdotal evidence, finding a Cera-loving, whisky-drinking, swishy-haired indie boy in the haystack would be nigh on impossible.

NEXT!

(If you can bear it, the ad is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-z4aguu4Ex0)