‘They got rid of our oak doors!’ – the story of Britain’s national property obsession in one housing chain

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The first link in the chain was forged when Alf Thompson, an elderly widower, felt short of breath. It was October 2021 and a district nurse happened to be visiting Alf at his home on a cul-de-sac in Shepshed, Leicestershire. Paramedics and family members were summoned. Alf’s daughter Emma Lowe, 51, arrived just in time to follow the ambulance to a hospital in Loughborough, about five miles east across the M1. Alf did not say goodbye to the home he had lived in for 35 years – its rooms laid with shag carpets, a beloved portrait of HMS Warrior above the fireplace – because, that day in the autumn, it did not feel like a final departure.

In Britain, around 350,000 homes are on sale at any one time. Between 1.2m and 1.5m are traded annually. The country is thickly, invisibly crisscrossed by chains of sellers and buyers, some eager to move, some dragging their feet; some wealthy, some very stretched – all tethered together by half-made deals, waiting on a conclusive word from an agent or a solicitor before their hands can close around an unfamiliar set of keys.

Ever since the Covid pandemic briefly froze and then adrenalised the UK property market, headlines about the industry have been giddy. “UK housebuying in 2021 poised to be busiest since 2006,” boomed this newspaper last December, around the time that Alf Thompson, by now moved on from his hospital bed in Loughborough, took up residence in a Shepshed care home. He was too ill to return to the cul-de-sac.

Buying a home is a big life event, often prompted by another one: a promotion, expanding a family, or mourning a loved one

The bean-counting and bombast tend to obscure the human realities that underpin our housing market, those billion-odd instances of health woes, inching ambition, deepening romance or plummeting personal contentment that fuel the frantic trading. Buying a home, for those fortunate enough to be able to do so, is a big life event, and one that has most likely been prompted by a bigger life event, whether that is getting a promotion, losing a job, expanding a family, or mourning a loved one. When Alf Thompson died in December 2021, he had already been making plans to sell his home to cover the cost of his care. Now his daughter Emma had to juggle her grieving and the funeral arrangements with a decision about what to do with the house.

She spoke to family members. She contacted a few estate agents. It was agreed they would carry on with Alf’s plans and put the family home up for sale, with Emma as the seller. When it went live on the market this January, Emma became the top link in a housing chain – only selling, not buying, and, as such, waiting for other people in different circumstances to join together in a sequence of deals beneath her. There were countless other housing chains jangling around the UK that month, but this is the story of one of them.

Liam Cape, 31, a community nurse, grew up riding his bike on the narrow green-belt path that ran behind Alf Thompson’s garden. His parents continued to live nearby. Liam is a busy, financially conscientious father of three, someone who kept up several paper rounds when he was a teenager and heeded his own father’s advice to put aside a chunk of his earnings for the future. “When you’re a kid, you wanna spend all your money on clothes and cigs and booze, right?” Liam said. “Not saving for a house. But looking back, I’m glad I did that.” At 19, Liam was working in a Shepshed care home when he met Alysia, two years his junior, who had taken a job making sandwiches for residents. She remembered him telling her that he had enough money saved up for a mortgage deposit. Who says that, at 19? A few years later, the couple bought their first home together.

They got married, started their family and began a steady uphill journey through ever more expensive Shepshed properties, taking on better paid and more time-consuming jobs within the NHS in order to cover their ever larger mortgage repayments. By the late 2010s, Liam was working nights and days in nursing. Alysia had two jobs: as a health administrator and a teaching assistant. They lived in a spacious four-bedroom home that backed on to a huge, grassy park in Shepshed. You could have put the Capes in an advert, emblematic of Britain’s beloved image of itself as a place full of sensible, frugal, happy homeowners. Except for one thing. The Capes weren’t sure they were happy.

Kids don’t care if a house is detached or semi-detached. Home is where their toys are

In order to stay on top of childcare and their jobs and the monthly mortgage payments, Liam and Alysia barely saw each other. “One day a week as a family?” Alysia guessed. In mid-2021, as Alf Thompson was spending his last summer in the home on the cul-de-sac, one of the Capes’ children became critically ill. Although their child recovered, there were dreadful weeks in hospital, and Liam and Alysia were irrationally guilt-stricken afterwards. They felt that as trained healthcare workers, they should never have been caught off their guard like that. “We decided: no more.” Their four-bed by the park was put up for sale in January 2022, at the same time as Alf’s. The Capes wanted somewhere smaller and cheaper. They wanted to work fewer hours and reclaim a sense of themselves as a family.

“Kids don’t care if a house is detached or semi-detached,” Liam said one day, when the couple were at Alf’s house for a viewing. “Home is where their toys are.”

“Yeah,” Alysia agreed, “they care because it’s where they can make their memories. They care cos it’s where they can … where they can throw their biscuits.”

She said this distractedly, chasing across Alf’s shag carpet after their youngest child, who had just launched a half-eaten Rich Tea biscuit. Alf’s daughter Emma was present, apparently enjoying the spectacle of young children running around her old home, leaving crumbs, making a racket. With her family’s help, she had spent Christmas gutting the property, storing or destroying furniture, and taking internet-friendly photographs of the emptied rooms. An agent with the online estate agency Purplebricks, Chris Ball, came and had a look around. Ball, a pleasant 30-year-old who has a romantic way with words, summoned the sort of tempting descriptions (and cloaked admissions) that could be used to lure buyers. Many possibilities, thought Ball, of Alf’s old place. Requires modernisation. Fantastic potential.

View image in fullscreenEmma Lowe sold her father’s home in Shepshed, Leicestershire, for £206,000 to …View image in fullscreen… Alysia and Liam Cape, who were downsizing to spend more time with their children

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Ball doesn’t see himself as an estate agent long term; he is training at nights to be a surveyor. But he was glad to have been a part of the housing industry during such a frenetic, spiky era. He spoke of an explosion of sales on his Leicestershire patch, all through 2021 and into 2022, mirroring the much-reported national boom. Activity was starting to plateau and Ball had a theory about the boom. “As early as 2020, when the government was warning people to stay inside, we saw these mini slumps and spikes,” he told me, between viewings. “At first, with lockdowns and furloughs, everybody feeling uncertain about the future, nobody wanted to buy or sell. But then we were all stuck indoors for months.” As lives were curtailed, Ball speculated, people felt hungry for change. Desires sharpened. “And people spent a lot of time on their computers. They had a look at what was out there.”

Ball priced Alf’s house by eye, telling Emma that, given its many possibilities, it might fetch as much as £210,000. Along with other agents who visited the property, Ball advised Emma to put it on for slightly less – say £200,000. That way they might lure in dozens of interested parties and prompt a bidding war. Liam and Alysia Cape had decided to price their house by the park at £290,000 – Ball thought of this one as a charming family home. A few miles away in Loughborough, sitting in the kitchen of what Ball was calling a well-executed modern take on the classic two-up, two-down terrace house, a woman called Meghan Beesley looked online at pictures of the Cape residence. She liked what she saw and arranged to visit, bringing her tape measure.

It is one of those big, unexamined rules of modern Britishness. Queues are sacred. Milk must go in tea. And a home is better off bought, not rented. Margaret Thatcher started all this when she pulled government levers through the 1980s to make mass home-ownership not only feasible but, in the Tory worldview, something tantamount to a citizen’s moral duty. Over time, the housing market was fed and fattened by the generous economic legislation of successive governments, Labour and Conservative. Banks played their part, offering 100% mortgages until chastened by the 2008 financial crash. (Briefly chastened, with similar mortgage packages being offered once more in recent years.)

At the start of the 00s, just as “location, location, location” entered the lexicon via a popular TV show, property websites began to make it easier to scour farther, wider. Later, social media did its thing, adding a sense of competition and inadequacy to the mix, heightening tendencies already in place. By the time the current government introduced a stamp duty holiday, setting off the market surge in 2020, we were a nation of bricks-and-mortar obsessives, trusting our savings to it without hesitation, unapologetic when checking on Zoopla to see how much the neighbours got for their place, daydreaming of dormer extensions and knocked-through side returns. Not for nothing is the British Olympic team now sponsored by an estate agent.

Meghan Beesley represented England and Great Britain for many years, competing as a 400m hurdler in international competitions. A 32-year-old with a brisk, positive attitude, Meghan returned from the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 with several clear intentions. She wanted to retire from sport, get a tattoo of the Olympic rings, get a more stable job (she ended up a business controller at Rolls-Royce) and get a bigger mortgage in order to buy a better home. “I’m goals-based. If I see something I want, I make a plan and I go for it,” Meghan told me. When she visited Liam and Alysia Cape’s house by the park, she knew it was the one. She hustled around the bedrooms and open-plan kitchen-diner, making plans – poking a head with some distaste into the couple’s blue ombre-painted bathrooms, thinking of better colours, stepping through to the conservatory and making a quick decision to tear it down. Those old radiators? She had their number. That ugly boiler? It would be gone soon.

View image in fullscreenTo reduce their mortgage, the Capes sold their old four-bed home for £285,000 to …View image in fullscreen… Meghan Beesley, a Team GB Olympian who wanted a better home after retiring

Meghan was doing that thing a lot of us do when visiting someone else’s home. She was mentally napalming it, ridding it of personality, all the better to refit it to her taste. Moving home for whatever reason excites us and unsettles us at a lizard level. Often it will mean leaving an established nest because that nest is now in the wrong spot, or it’s too cramped, too costly, it’s no longer habitable, available, or viable – because something has fundamentally upset the fit between person and place. Moving home almost always asks of us a frightening leap, voluntary or otherwise. So no wonder we go in hard with tape measures, notebooks, kneejerk redecoration plans. These things act as safety nets. They stop us from chickening out entirely.

Meghan wanted more room. The Capes would take less for a different sort of life. Emma hoped for a fair price on her late father’s house and, beyond that, to come away from any deal with a sense of having passed her inheritance on to worthwhile custodians. All were active players in the property market that January, so they could afford to make choices in the interests of their circumstances and sensibilities. The property market is not a meritocracy, though. Not everybody gets to play.

Wages have been in aspic since the 2008 crash. The cost of a home is now so high – about £274,000 on average, up more than 170% in two decades – that swathes of society are priced out completely, prevented from buying a home of their own by historical and economic influences far beyond their control. As well as class, ownership rates also vary dramatically by race. Young people used to be told: “Be ambitious: buy if you can.” Now we may as well tell them: “Be realistic: buy if you’re jammy, if you can wangle it, if Mum and Dad will assist, if you can find some other ruse to upset the forces ranged against you.”

Charlotte Savory, a 28-year-old from Leicestershire, took a job as a zookeeper when she finished university in the mid-2010s. She was renting a place in Plymouth with her boyfriend at the time. Most of their wages went to an anonymous landlord. By her own calculations, Charlotte might have stayed a renter for the rest of her life unless she dramatically altered course. At the start of 2020, she and her partner decided to stay together (romantically) but to separate (geographically), each moving back to different parts of England to live with their parents again. Record numbers of young adults have been doing this recently, something in the region of 3.5 million people in their 20s and 30s boomeranging back to their childhood homes. Charlotte, back in her old bedroom, took a job as a veterinary nurse. She was at home with Mum and Dad at the age of 26 – “a big shock,” she recalled, “after years of independence”.

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But after two years with adulthood on hold, Charlotte and her partner were able to save £30,000 from their wages as a deposit. Now their bank would lend them enough for a home worth £210,000. Charlotte browsed the Leicestershire area. Meghan’s terrace house in Loughborough was available for £200,000. Should Charlotte offer that? Or less? Or more? A property is the most expensive purchase most of us will ever make. By a mile. The sums involved can turn foggy, Monopoly-like, and although everybody has their own private threshold – a line after which the total sum of money brings on cold sweats – I think a lot of people entering the property market do so while quietly asking themselves: is this the decision that will sink me? It is hard to back out. It is hard to admit a mistake when it’s made. Putting in an offer can be heady, exciting, but in a casino-like way, an abyss clearly in view.

View image in fullscreenMeghan Beesley sold her two-bed terrace house in Loughborough for £200,000 to …View image in fullscreen… first-time buyer Charlotte Savory and her partner, who had saved a £30,000 deposit

Somebody with an interesting perspective on all this is Meghan Beesley’s boyfriend, a metalworker called James Rutherford. A little older than her, a little more hesitant and knocked about by the topsy-turvy experiences of his early 30s, James told me he was proud of Meghan for the speed and efficiency with which she had swapped her life as an athlete for that of a salaried employee, on the brink of a move to a dream home. But James doesn’t see home ownership in itself as a purely bettering or worthwhile thing. Like Liam Cape, he had grown up being told: “Buy if you can.” So he did, climbing on to the property ladder with a former partner. When that relationship ended, he fell behind on payments and wound up in financial straits so severe, it took him years to regain his economic footing and confidence.

Since then, James said: “I’ve learned that I like to go to work. I like to work hard when I’m there. And I like to forget about work.” The model of working to pay a debt to own a house did not suit him. He was trying a different model. “One where I try to feel proud of myself for who I am, not because of what I own.”

He was helping Meghan cook a Sunday night risotto in January when her phone buzzed. Charlotte Savory had just made an offer on Meghan’s house. Others had come in with lower bids, including someone who promised to pay in cash. Charlotte matched the asking price of £200,000 and included a note to boot: “I could see myself living here!” It was enough for Meghan. She clicked a button on the Purplebricks app to agree to the deal. The risotto rice hadn’t even finished cooking.

Housing chains can feel like actual chains. People back out, or succumb to side offers. They tell outright fibs or lie by omission

Before she went to bed that night, by now too shaky to sleep, Meghan wondered how much to bid for Liam and Alysia Cape’s charming family home beside the park in Shepshed. James went to bed listening to Meghan swear that she wouldn’t offer them more than £280,000 … But by the time he woke, she confessed she had upped the bid to £285,000 overnight. This offer was accepted by the Capes. The next morning, it was their turn to strategise. After frantic texts with Liam, who had gone off to work, Alysia sat cross-legged in a playgroup with their youngest son, trying to concentrate on the nursery rhymes while also trying to put in a winning bid on Alf’s home with fantastic potential on the cul-de-sac.

They had an offer of £285,000 from Meghan. In order to enact their plan to live more or less mortgage-free, they had agreed not to offer more than £205,000. In playgroup, unable to get through to Liam, Alysia went rogue. She offered £1,000 more than the couple’s theoretical limit, and that bid of £206,000 was accepted by Emma. Kerplunk. A housing chain was in place: Emma at the top, Liam and Alysia next, then Meghan, then Charlotte. Not all of them had met, but immediately they had to trust that everybody else in the chain would stay financially liquid, stay punctual and keep to their word.

This lot, yoked together by their accepted offers, would end up being well behaved, their estate agent, Chris Ball, told me. Housing chains can quickly come to feel like actual chains, should you happen to get unlucky with your fellow chainees. People back out, spooked, or they succumb to side offers. They tell outright fibs or else lie by omission about damp, sinkage, noisy neighbours. Some refuse to take offers from buyers already in chains. Some did so well from the recent stamp duty freeze that they can freelance on the sidelines, darting in with seductive cash offers, collapsing dozens of codependent moves in the process. People who would never otherwise jump a queue, or keep a wallet someone had dropped on a pavement, find themselves behaving with almost criminal self-interest.

Is it any wonder, though? Over decades, we have been encouraged to find magic moral weight in home ownership. What is a gazumping, what is a broken promise, what is a suitcase of cash, if the final goal of ownership is such a pure one?

Moving day! Meghan, a doer, was up at dawn. The house she had lived in since her mid-20s had felt less and less like hers ever since she had pressed that button on the app to accept Charlotte’s offer. Weird, but it can be a feature of changing address: we think our great sentimental farewell will come when we shut the front door, but in fact we watch the rooms turn neutral and soulless as soon as we take down photos, fillet shelves, box up the PlayStation or the lamp inherited from Gran. In Alf’s old lounge, his beloved painting of HMS Warrior had been removed from above the fireplace – and that was when it started to feel like a space-in-waiting to Emma, a lounge in limbo. At the Capes’, the hot tub had been unplumbed and covered with a tarpaulin, ready for transit. Meghan unstuck her collection of novelty magnets from the fridge.

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These magnets gestured to the places she had travelled to in her former life as a hurdler. The World Championships in Beijing where she ran a personal best. The European Championships in Berlin where she won bronze. Unboxing her possessions in her new house, Meghan noticed that the fridge was hidden behind wooden cabinets. Crisis! In the end she compromised, sticking her magnets one by one on the metallic casing of the extractor fan. There were explosions of personal taste. With James’s help, she painted the fireplace black. Sensitive to the lingering smell of the Cape family’s labradors, Meghan tore up the carpets and let her own dog – a more aromatic breed altogether, in her view – run around on the bare floors. Quickly, she got someone round to smash up the conservatory. She threw out the Capes’ bathtub, leaving it in a skip on the drive. She replaced all the doors.

You have a relationship with a property. You’re its custodian. But it’s not yours. Not for ever

When Liam and Alysia heard about the doors, they were shocked. They were living at Alysia’s dad’s place at the time, the only people in the chain left homeless, caught out by other people’s timetables. Their nerves were frayed. Heard about from a distance, the removal of the doors felt like a personal slight. They were oak! Brand new! Even as the Capes made return visits to Alf’s empty house, imagining changes to the property that would soon be theirs, they couldn’t help but be appalled by the changes Meghan was rendering in their own vacated home. “Don’t get me wrong, she can do what she wants,” Alysia said. “But those were solid oak doors.”

One day she said to Liam: “Shall we go and have a nosy?” and they drove over, inching the car as close as they dared to see if the doors had been chucked in the skip along with the bathtub and everything else …

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That same weekend I spoke to Emma about the strangeness of our attachment to homes, their setups, their contents. I had noted how sanguine she was, watching on as Alysia and Liam rushed around making ambitious noises about renovations, brightenings, enlargings. “Oh, I’ll drive down and have a nosy myself,” she admitted, “once this lot are in, once they’ve put their stamp on it. You have a relationship with a property. You’re its custodian. But it’s not yours. Not for ever.”

Maybe it is a necessary part of the process of moving on, not only adapting the next lair to suit us, but seeing the old lair changed to suit strangers. Maybe it helps us surrender a piece of our past. Liam and Alysia had been proprietorial about the house on the park; and why not, they had raised children there. But driving over for that illicit snoop in the skip seemed to cure them. Seeing that Meghan had even replaced the front door, a spell broke. “I feel nothing,” Alysia admitted to Liam in the car.

“It’s not our house any more, is it?” he said.

“And all because of some doors.”

By May, Charlotte and her partner were settled in the well-executed house, the one at the bottom of the chain. Well, they were settled as much as any young couple can be, while eating meals on borrowed garden furniture and sleeping on a mattress on the floor. A pregnant stray had recently been brought into the veterinary surgery where she worked. So two new kittens roamed their lounge. One link up the chain, in her charming family home by the park, Meghan spent a contented weekend painting, peeling and plotting her next changes. A bedroom that once belonged to the Cape girls, and that would become Meghan’s study, was for today a makeshift tile-cutting workshop. She and her boyfriend, James, had discovered that if they sat low enough in their chairs at the kitchen table and looked out the back windows, the iron fence that marked the start of the park was completely obscured. It made it look as if this new garden of Meghan’s rolled on and on for acres.

Only Liam and Alysia remained in limbo. Because Alf Thompson had died when the process of selling his house was under way, there were probate hurdles to clear before the sale was official. (It would be another three weeks before they finally moved.) Looking tired after weeks as campers, the Cape family gathered one morning with Emma on the shag carpet. Cups of takeaway coffee were passed around Alf’s former front room. Legally, the place still belonged to Emma and her family. Emotionally speaking, Liam and Alysia were already in residence. It took a lot of rapid, cheerful chatter to mask this unusual social dynamic, and when Alysia made too giddy a reference to knocking down a wall, she turned and said to Emma: “No offence?” Any awkwardness was smoothed over when a toast was proposed, several coffee containers raised: “To Alf, who loved this house.”

“To Alf.”

After that, Alysia went upstairs to poke around in the eaves. Liam took the kids to the room that would become a play area, considering the feasibility of excavating a tunnel back through to the lounge. A swing set was already in the garden, beside the tarpaulin-covered hot tub. Alysia had driven over a black bin from their old house, a good, big bin that, in the manner of all inexplicably hoarded objects, she could not bear to leave behind. Liam shouted from one room to another that one of the kids needed the loo. Emma reminded everybody that the water had been switched off for weeks, so Alysia shouted back: “Take them into the garden for a wild wee.” She glanced apologetically at Emma and added: “It is nearly ours.”

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