Flat viewing and house hunting: we’re back to negotiating estate agents and the souls of residents past - Gaby Soutar

When we bought our flat almost a decade ago, working from home was never part of the vision. Now I’ve been sitting at the desk in our small living room for over three years.

If our HR department could see the mountains of flammable paper and my Crazy Frog-esque hunch of a typing position, which is carpal tunnel syndrome waiting to happen, they would be horrified. The wheels on my swivel chair have worn a groove into the floorboards and the lounge is so gloomy that my blue steel squint has become a permanent facial feature.

Thus, we’ve been thinking about moving.

It’s probably one of the worst times in history to do that, but, also, YOLO. Last time, it took us a couple of years to find the right place, so this isn’t going to happen fast. We are a glacier and sloth in human form.

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At least we have got the ball rolling, by beginning the flat viewing process.

This is the fun bit, when there are endless possibilities. Edinburgh, Glasgow, East Lothian, Fife… I wouldn’t say the world is our lobster, but Scotland is definitely our shrimp.

As someone with a childhood fantasy of owning a skeleton key, so I could creep around other people’s houses, and whose hobby is peering into lit-up tenements from the top deck of an LRT bus, I’m in my element.

But some things have changed since our last hunt.

After Covid, these sessions tend to be mainly by appointment, rather than visits to open houses on Thursdays or Sundays, which were easier.

You can’t be anonymous anymore.

Estate agents seem really keen on harvesting all your details before you’re allowed to browse. First they do that by online form, which is instantly binned into a cyber space vacuum, then they take all those details again by phone, just for something to do. I feel that I'm one step away from telling them the name of my first pet and offering up my retinas on a Petri dish.

The market seems to have slowed down with the cost-of-living crisis and the approach of winter, so many of the properties are being sold out of necessity.

The ones we’ve seen have been the homes of elderly folk who’ve died, or moved into full-time care.

Maybe I ask too many questions of their grown-up children, who show us around.

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I recognise them by their youthful portraits on the walls. They tell us about mum or dad.

I can’t help probing. Instead, it might be better to ask where the boiler is, find out the council tax band, and politely accept a printed schedule.

However, it feels worse to ignore the indelible imprint of the previous inhabitant, who is notable by their absence.

They’ve worn decades of routine into the brickwork.

I always remember when a friend went to view a Bruntsfield flat and there was a halo on the wall behind the headboard – a memento mori silhouette of where the owner had sat every day to have their morning cup of tea in bed.

In one lovely property we view, there is a large collection of Lladro porcelain in a corner cabinet and, in the conservatory, encyclopedias with their spines bleached by the sun. Out in another place’s garage, we spot lots of half-finished woodwork projects, plus fishing tackle, waders and box-fresh hiking boots. The main bedroom’s cupboards are still full of pressed shirts, with their matching ties wound round the neck of the coat hangers.

The interior decor of this space is all retro pale pink and tiny floral sprigs on the wallpaper, although his wife passed away a couple of decades ago, their daughter says. There’s still a white dressing table by the window.

The garden is beautiful. There’s a topaz blue hydrangea and a Douglas fir that’s probably packed with as many squirrels as there are nuts in a brittle. This outdoor space is a legacy, though we shouldn’t be allowed to put an offer in, as we would only ruin it with our non-green-fingered neglect. Still, the place has a soul.

Once someone has lived anywhere long enough, I think there should be a blue plaque outside with their name on it. You don’t have to be famous or have invented the telly to be significant. Maybe it’s enough to have existed there.

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In our current flat, the longest term resident, who lived here from the Thirties to the Nineties, is very much still a presence.

It’s part of the reason I was drawn to the flat.

I don’t believe in ghosts, but he definitely lives here. I only mention him, and not his relatives, since he’s the practical one who left tiny notes in neatly looped handwriting on the fuse board and the original lights.

We recently took out the Eighties-era fake coal fireplace, to expose the original sooty brickwork behind, and there was a chicken bone in the hearth. Him.

The increasing heights of his children are marked on the wall inside an airing cupboard, with the dates alongside. I could never paint over that. In the shed, there are ancient empty seed packets with his scribbled notes on them, and his custard-coloured roses in the garden. Some species of this flower can live up to 50 years, so I’m pretty sure he’s responsible.

We’ve not been in this property long enough to be remembered.

Mind you, at the rate us sloths move, I may eventually still qualify for my own blue plaque scheme.



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