Why everybody needs good neighours…
PUBLISHED: 09:02 29 October 2019 | UPDATED: 10:54 30 October 2019
Good neighbours are key to happiness at home – but it’s not always possible to know what you’re going to get until it’s too late. Richard Burton investigated.
The curtains twitched as I drew up outside a bungalow I was seeing for the first time one evening after work. They twitched again as I left. And when I returned with my wife the following day, they were fully open and two faces were pressed hard against the leaded light windows.
To be fair, they were elderly. Ted was approaching his seventies and Evelyn not far behind him. And the drive was quite long, so we'd have been hard to see clearly with ageing eyes.
When we came back out, she was still there, rooted inside the bay window and he was out front, giving his car one of those hankie wipes chauffeurs do when they're bored.
I said hello to him and beckoned her out. She was at his side in a shot and made no secret of her intrigue. When I told her we were going to make an offer she placed a hand on her chest and made a thing of being relieved.
Ten minutes later, she was all Darjeeling and doilies and warming the pot. We'd passed the audition. Late twenties, soberly dressed, no tattoos. In her world: respectable.
"It's only..." she ventured... "that we've had a few, you know... other types looking. And, well, at our age ..."
"Other types?" There was mischief to be had if so minded. But my wife cut it short and agreed instead that "you can't be too careful".
It was the first and only time the neighbours had checked me out when viewing. But I went on to make a habit of doing it when buying, usually on the second visit when things got serious.
It's a habit more people wish they'd adopted, according to a survey flagged up on Zoopla last week. It suggested that almost a quarter of us spend less than 30 minutes viewing a home we will go on to buy, noting that 60 per cent spend more time choosing a holiday.
It may be something to do with spending a career knocking on doors, but my checks have usually been fairly upfront with a few what, where and whens.
There's a place opposite me on the market at the moment. A dad with a baby sling crossed over to my side last week to check out the roof.
We got chatting and he asked a coded question about "the sort of street" it was. Piece of cake: "Two doctors, a BA pilot, a Swiss banker. One elderly, two retired, the lady over there knows all about mums' groups and the bloke up the hill moans if you park on the corner?"
A few years ago, the banker had been lots more upfront and knocked on my door. I gave him the same rundown. Apart from the banker bit, obviously. I told him we were lucky. When the teenage girl down the road had her party she popped a note through all our doors with her mobile number lest it got too noisy.
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Interestingly, the 2019 annual report from the Home Owner's Alliance included a YouGov poll which revealed that the thing most of us find the least satisfactory about the process of buying a new home is problems with getting defects sorted.
As many as nine in 10 new build homeowners and more than seven in 10 overall support the idea of a snagging retention fee on new build homes - the basis of the HOA's Hold Back Cash campaign.
But when asked which factors most contribute to positive mental health and a sense of wellbeing, 62 per cent of owners and 42 per cent of renters cited nice neighbours - friendly and not too loud - as being important.
To be honest, we are legally entitled to know that upfront. Anyone who has problems with their neighbours is required to disclose them when they sell their house. Opinions vary on what constitutes a dispute and they can be tricky to prove. But common sense suggests that, if you've had to, for example, write to your neighbour or there is a record of a complaint to anyone in an official capacity, it needs to go on the SPIF (Seller's Property Information Form) your solicitor will get you to sign.
In a few decades of journalism in both local and national papers, there has been one consistently recurring topic guaranteed to justify a place on a page: a good old barney between neighbours, be it the inconsiderate parker, the heavy metal fan with a dodgy hearing aid or the retired general who "goes to war" over an oversized Leylandii.
The strangest one I ever visited was a house in Liskeard, Cornwall, where a divorcing couple were refused a second home by a council who insisted it was more efficient to get builders to put up a stud wall, giving him the upstairs and her, the downstairs.
He was the one who spoke out. When I went downstairs to get her comments, he shouted constantly through the plasterboard "Don't print that!" You couldn't make it up. Thankfully, I've still got the cuttings, lest anyone thinks I have.
I asked Citizens Advice in St Albans how these scenarios played out here. In a snapshot two-month period they looked at, 24 interviews they conducted concerned homelessness and 17 involved eviction. But they represented only about 14 per cent of the total involving housing issues.
While staff agreed they rarely see people with mortgage problems - only two in that period - they do see a few complaining of boundary issues and the like but many more concerning private landlords - particularly over tenancy deposits and repairs, 37 in all.
One case in September involved a private tenant who'd suffered months of noise from the flat upstairs. He had reported this every month to the letting agents who advised him to keep a log of times and dates.
The agent wrote to the noisy tenants, including a warning letter, but to no avail. Advisers were forced to suggest they got St Albans District Council involved, consider involving the housing charity, Shelter - and even told them how to make a complaint about the agent.
If all else fails, they said, they had a legal right to be given the name and address of the tenants' landlord, if they do not know it, so they could take the complaint directly to them.
Back to the survey. Many of the responses were fairly predictable but not altogether practical, which I suppose is why it made good reading.
Twenty-four per cent of new homeowners said they wished they'd checked all the doors, windows and roof and 10 per cent regretted not checking all electrical sockets and plugs.
Thirty per cent wished they'd monitored how warm the house was in winter, a bit difficult if you're viewing in June, but there you go, and 16 per cent said they "wish they'd spent the night at the property to discover how noisy the neighbours are".
So, there you go. If you really want to clinch that sale - just make up the spare room.
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