City to Country: WANTED - Nest for one
Moving back home is inevitably fraught with difficulties and tensions... Or at least, this is what I anticipate discovering if I ever manage to find a place to live.
I’ve been looking for a house to rent in the central Borders for 7 months now, and despite several near misses, have had distinctly no joy. It would appear that around the same time I decided to fulfil my rural dream, so did everybody else.
The competition is surprising, not least because I’ve long been led to believe that Scottish rural populations were unanimously declining with the only incomers being retirees looking for a quiet life. In fact, so it appears, there are quite a number of folk wanting to move to rural parts of the Borders – perhaps attracted by the recently installed railway - and they are not all looking to settle near a good tea room and one of the many fine golf courses. Conversely, according to a chapter from the recently published Scottish Life and Society*, they are often my age (safely tucked between quarter and mid-life crises), self-employed, or looking to set up rurally based hospitality or tourism businesses.
It is perhaps irrational to feel as indignant as I do that others are stealing my ideas. Of course, it's potentially great news that so many young(er) people are apparently moving to a previous economically troubled area. But for years I’ve been reassured by Borders based friends that I’d be a pioneer by moving back to the homelands. My own furtive glances at real estate always confirmed that with such low competition, great deals were plentiful in both the sales and rental market. But those deals now appear to be like ripe gooseberries – slow to appear and then snaffled by other creatures before you can get your mitts on them. All remaining available options are not ones you’d want to eat, or even put in a pie. If you follow me.
It’s still true that you can buy yourself a shop in Hawick or rent a spacious flat in Galashiels for what seems like scandalously little money, and overall, property prices and availability are distinctly reasonable in comparison to Edinburgh. [Although, as a good friend of mine who is persistently keen to burst any romantic bubble I may be nurturing, recently pointed out, country living incurs all kinds of other expenses. So even if your rent is half what you would pay in city, you’re also driving three times as much, in need of wood fuel, paying higher council tax and potentially responsible for an expensive menagerie of dogs, chickens, goats, etc. (*sigh*, keep dreaming, Charlotte…)]
Anyway, even before such dreams can be dashed by costly realities, you’d need to actually find a place to rent. And as I have found, should you want a cottage in the country of any size or shape, you will have to employ considerable skills in sneakiness to get yourself a viewing. And then, should you succeed in seeing the damn place, you will certainly need to sharpen your elbows in order to fend off the competition. Who'd have thought it?
On several occasions when great places came up, I'd call the estate agent within nano-seconds of the post appearing on RightMove only to be told the relevant rep was on holiday/sick/missing. Then after a week of cat and mouse, I'd eventually be told the cottage had been let.
I had a particularly dishertening experience just before Christmas when having actually got a viewing for a promising spot, I found myself admiring the rooms, chatting with the amiable neighbour and wandering the lovely garden on a crisp, sunny day. It felt just like home. I was pretty sure I was the first to view the place, too. The letting agent smiled at me, handed me an application form and said, ‘This place does seem right for you. And remember, what’s for you won’t go by you”.
I filled out the form, frowning only slightly at the rather intrusive questions about my relationship status and income, then sped around the Eildons – heart soaring at the thought that these magical hills would be on my doorstep.
It wasn’t until after New Year that I found out – after much chasing – that the cottage evidently wasn't 'for me', as it had definitely 'gone by me'. I began to wonder if there was more to this than just being unlucky. It struck me that every time I’d spoken with estate agents, they’d asked me the same questions: employment status? Smoker? Pets? - all fair enough. But they’d also always asked about my relationship status. Was I being rejected because I was a single woman looking at large 2 bedroom houses**? I couldn’t help the rising suspicion that the SUV driving, outfit coordinated couples who’d shared most viewings with me, were being given preference. But why? Are single women seen as somehow unreliable? Financially less viable? Or is there another reason this is so difficult?
Various friends have offered to be my ‘partner’ next time I view a house, and in the meantime, buying a patch of land and building my own house is becoming increasingly attractive… (although THAT is a whole other adventure of interesting complications).
Nevertheless, I had never expected it to be this tricky to go home.
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* BRYDEN, J., 'Rural Community Life in 21st Century Scotland', in FENTON, A et al ed. Scottish Life and Society: Farming and the Land. John Donald.
**OK, so I’m picky. But if I’m going to live sustainably in the country, I will need to be able to have guests. And a dining space is non-negotiable. Most farm cottages have nowhere to eat.