When it comes to traumatic experiences, selling a house is pretty high on the list. Buying one too, which is why I’ve never been able to understand why buyers and sellers can’t figure out small issues by themselves, why lawyers have to be involved in every detail. Sometimes, the result is that the simplest of tasks can snowball into the most stressful experiences.
As has proved with me. Because if you think selling a house is stressful, try doing so whilst caring for a 93-year-old father who is confined to hospital. And this week I discovered something that trumps even that — feeling helpless as the new owners and their lawyers spend the money I’ve set aside for his care on some gardening. Honestly. £2,000-worth of gardening in a single day.
Here’s what’s happened. I recently sold the family home I grew up in. A wonderful five-bedroom, three-floored, semi-detached home in one of the most sought-after streets in Finchley in North London. Opposite a tennis club, close to some great schools, easy access into town, a great family home.
My parents owned it for more than 40 years, buying it for £50,000. It was a haven, their chance to enjoy the kind of middle-class life their parents aspired towards. It sold for £1.2m. Apart from the need to refurbish the property throughout, the only drawback reported by prospective buyers was the very small front and back gardens.
The profits from the house sale are in my father’s bank account. Sadly, after my mother died three years ago his health went downhill and he’s now unable to look after himself. The care is eye-wateringly expensive and, as should be the case, I’m using the money — after settling debts — to pay for the best.
However, not all the money is going towards his care. In fact, some — almost £2,000 — has just been spent by the new owners on some gardening at their new home. Pruning trees, cutting grass and the like. The reason they’ve spent my father’s money is because there was a £5,000 retention fee arranged when the house was sold. After the emotional turmoil of clearing the property, packing boxes, reminiscing over the endless photos and saying goodbye to an unforgettable part of my life, I neglected to arrange a professional clean. The house had been emptied but it was dirty. My fault, a lot on my plate.
My last-minute offer to correct the problem and pay for things out of my own pocket was flatly refused by the solicitor of the new owners, so I put aside £5,000 as a goodwill gesture from which I imagined quite a few hundred pounds would be spent on a team of cleaners. The actual legal wording was for ‘cleaning the property…not maintenance or repair.’
The money had been put there for a purpose, it was not a gift to spend on frivolous things — and call me old-fashioned but, when compared to hospital care, tree pruning is pretty frivolous.
Part of the reason for agreeing to sell the property to this couple — and even though it is an enormous sum, they got a bargain — was that they’re a young family with two small daughters. I’m certain they want to make a comfortable life for their family in the suburbs. In a road where so many homes are being knocked down to be replaced by soulless flats, this seemed like the right fit. The kind of people who’d make good neighbours.
Admittedly I made a bad mistake. There was no malicious intent, merely forgetfulness. Having a full-time job, caring for an elderly parent, securing power of attorney through the complex legal system, looking after my own kids in exam hell, and selling a house at the same time takes its toll.
But people don’t see it like that. Human nature makes us want to believe the best in people, that they will do the right thing. Which is why I agreed to put aside £5,000 of the house sale to correct my mistake.
Today, I’m left wondering what sort of person, advised no doubt by a certain kind of lawyer, uses almost half of that amount to cut two tiny patches of grass? The new owners of our house, that’s who. A bitter end to what has been a thoroughly traumatic experience.
I’ve made contact with all the parties concerned, hoping that there could be a resolution, but no one has even dignified me with a reply. The remainder of the £5,000 has just been plonked into my father’s account after I made a fuss and wrote this article. If I hadn’t been an annoying journalist I wonder how much more they’d have spent.
So if you are planning to sell a house for which you have a deep emotional attachment, here’s my advice — interview the prospective new owners. Far better to look people in the eyes than rely on the legal process.