It’s June – the birds are tending their chicks and re-feathering their nests and that sense of movement and new beginnings is tangible among the human population too. Yes, it’s property-hunting season. Now is, according to estate agents, the busiest time of year for buying and selling properties. This brings me great joy – because there will be even more houses, penthouses and mansions for me to look at.
But I’m not a millionaire, or investor building up a property portfolio. The truth is I’m addicted to snooping at property and have been for years. While other people are still snoozing at 5am, I wake with a start and reach for my phone. While my eyes are still half-shut, I tap in a website address and my heart starts to pound.
It’s a property website, and I can’t get enough of it. I love the thrill of seeing another new property added in my local area – drinking in the interiors, how many reception rooms and bathrooms it has, how big the garden is – and then I snoop even further at ‘sold prices’ to see what it went for years earlier. When I’ve exhausted Rightmove, I’ll move on to Prime Location, then Zoopla, then start on the local estate agents’ own websites ‘just in case’.
My obsession with houses has been going on for decades. Of an evening when other people are winding down with a box set and a glass of something cold, I will be sitting in front of the computer ogling property websites. I focus my search on Hampshire where I live, but I never set a maximum price or even search for a particular type of property. One night I’m lusting over sprawling stately piles on the banks of the Beaulieu River in the New Forest (I saw a rather nice one for £8 million the other evening), the next it’s luxury town houses in Winchester.
But now, my obsession with property websites has gone beyond dreams and on to a whole new level – because we’ve just put our own house on the market. We’ve decided the time has come to fledge from our (much-loved) three-bed semi-detached home in Dibden Purlieu, on the outskirts of the New Forest, and that, with regret, we need a fourth bedroom and a bigger outdoor space for our children to run about in. We’ve done our sums, seen the mortgage company and are setting our sights on a four-bed detached house with a decent-sized garden.
But since listing our own property online and beginning a ‘real’ search, my obsession with houses has become even worse. Whereas before I’d browse for fun, ogling everything from bizarre lighthouse conversions to chocolate box country cottages surrounded by meadow flowers, now I’m serious. I have set alerts to audibly buzz whenever a new property is added online in our price range and in the location where we want to buy. My phone is only ever an arm’s length from me. My husband rolls his eyes whenever my phone bleeps and mutters sotto-voce: ‘There are three of us in this marriage – you, me and property websites.’
He’s completely right, of course. The only time I do put down my phone is to tune into the TV programme Escape to the Country, where fellow property-obsessed folk search for that perfect house. Whenever Hampshire appears on the show, woe betide if anyone in my household so much as utters a word to break my concentration. But trying to buy ‘the perfect house’ for a budget of under £500,000 in Hampshire is like trying to find the Holy Grail.
Hampshire’s a sought-after county for many reasons. We’ve got the coastline from Highcliffe on the border of Dorset right through to Chichester Harbour in West Sussex. Then there’s the county town and old capital of England, Winchester (which was recently voted the best place to
live in the UK.) Then there’s the New Forest National Park which covers South West Hampshire extending to Wiltshire and Dorset.
So, by default, this county is expensive. Hampshire has an overall average price of £306,565, according to Rightmove – that’s £90,000 more than the national average of £218,255*. Detached properties had an average sold price of £486,304 and even flats averaged at £178,617 in the past year. House prices in Hampshire have risen six per cent in the last year too – despite any uncertainties and wobbles about the housing market after the Brexit vote. So with Hampshire’s popularity – still being ‘commutable’ to London with the M3 and M25 and mainline train stations to Waterloo, yet near the coast and with the New Forest as the jewel in its crown – it’s no wonder my property obsession keeps me awake, because the minute something decent comes on the market it’s snapped up.
I’ve become envious when friends tell me they’ve found a new house in the county and are moving. Whenever I get someone’s address – whether it be to drop my son off at a friend’s party or to pop a birthday card through a door – I will rush home and tap their address into a property portal and then find out all the important stats: what they paid for their house, what it’s worth now, where it’s located. It’s terrible but based on that information, I will then pigeon-hole the homeowner into categories such as ‘posh’, ‘nasty area’, ‘up and coming’ or ‘yuk.’
Once, a mum at my son’s school gave me an invitation to her son’s birthday party. The address was on there – priceless information. I went online to check out her house – how much she paid, how many bathrooms it had…It was huge, in a beautiful location. Instantly, I respected her more. How terrible is that? Another time a glamorous acquaintance gave me her address. This woman always looks incredible. Surely her house would match? Yet my property snooping told me her home was a tiny one-bed ex-council property. She fell a few rungs in my esteem immediately. How is it that a house can define someone like this?
Clinical psychologist Dr Claire Halsey says that looking at bigger, better and more expensive houses isn’t bonkers but merely human nature. ‘In terms of looking at houses we can never afford there are several possible reasons, for example we might be looking for a home to aspire to – whether it’s size for a growing family or features which make life easier,’ she explains. ‘Another motivator is to get ideas that can apply to our own home to make it more comfortable or add a feature.
‘Property sites feed our natural human curiosity and a certain drive to check our social status in comparison to people we know,’ she says. ‘One measure of which might be the neighbourhood and the sort of home others inhabit.
‘Of course there are very many other markers of people’s standing from their personal qualities, values and behaviours which are more subtle and perhaps a more meaningful way of considering others – but that won’t interfere with a quick browse to see how others live.’
My obsession is not something I’m proud of. But, sadly, as the saying goes ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’ – and for me, the home speaks volumes about the person who lives in it. Maybe that’s why I enjoy snooping at other people’s properties on websites so much – it’s a way of seeing how the other half live. I love seeing how they’ve tiled their bathrooms and I enjoy having a look at interesting kitchen layouts and colour schemes.
And I can’t be alone in my addiction to ogling properties – images are everything when it comes to selling a house, and, according to Rightmove, 1.5m images are uploaded to its website every single day.
As for me, I’ve tried weaning myself off lusting after impossible properties and widening my Hampshire property search – but that doesn’t work either. I’m still yet to find our perfect next house without having to resort to highway robbery. The closer you get to the coast, prices go up. The closer you get to the New Forest, prices go up. The closer you get to commuting routes to London…
you guessed it. I suppose this is the price we Hampshire folk pay for living in one of the most beautiful counties in England. And with that blessing and curse in mind I’m off now because my phone alert is bleeping furiously. Rightmove is calling…■