Confession: I’m a member of the community of property website Rightmove, er, enthusiasts. It would be nice to find a kink-positive name for us cornicing-botherers and square-footage fetishists (Belgians call property obsession being born with a “brick in the stomach”), but I accept it’s a sordid little vice, on a par with reading the Daily Mail sidebar on women having secondary sexual characteristics while wearing clothes.
Fantasies of home are especially potent at the moment, because nothing clarifies your thoughts and dreams about home as much as the long, dull reality of being stuck there. Even though no one and nothing is moving at the moment, property fantasies are especially potent, because nothing clarifies your thoughts and dreams about home as much as the long, dull reality of being stuck there.
I still find myself opening the app (slogan: “Find your happy”, if that doesn’t put me off, nothing will). Not often; but now and then, for old time’s sake, scrolling with narrowed eyes and muttering “No, no, hideous, overpriced, no, ooh, call that a garden, no.”
Actually, my fantasy house-shopping is no more unrealistic now than it ever was. I can still look at ordinary-lovely houses that would have been achievable for someone on my income 40 years ago (my particular self-harming predilection) in lockdown world. OK, I can’t actually view them, though I see estate agents are trying to make “virtual viewings” happen. Imagine! Video calls are dreadful, but surely they could never replicate the particular exquisite in-person awkwardness of pretending you’re worried about the poky second bathroom of a house both you and Fiona from Foxtons know with absolute conviction you can’t afford.
The ruin with the rambling garden I’ve been eyeing up is back on the market: there’s enough space for a survivalist vegetable plot and three working fireplaces! OK, the neighbours have a right of way across that garden and it’s less a house than a nightmare of sodden wood, rat babies and asbestos, but a girl can dream.
I know I’m not the only girl (or person: house perversion is not a gendered pastime) dreaming. I’ve seen listings of Cumbrian manor houses in acres of grounds or seaside modernist masterpieces with their own orchards shared longingly. My French husband, prey to his own Normandy farmhouse obsession, forwards me the largest and cheapest, with killer email subject lines: “Room for a donkey” or “Chicken coop”.
This collective reassessment of what home means and how it feels has thrown up surprises. First, there was the wave of 20- and 30-somethings returning like homing pigeons to parents whose houses still turned out to be home in some instinctive way. Then there was the existential questioning of where we’ve chosen to settle and why. Big city life has lost its logic for some, now all the reasons they love the city are off limits. The surge in demand for places with gardens is no surprise: Rightmove reported rental searches for gardens 26% up on last year. The shiny glass cubes they are building near us with no opening windows have surely lost some of their lustre. Since we can’t go elsewhere, many of us are trying to improve what we have: loud DIY – drilling, sanding and banging – has been fuelling a rise in neighbour complaints.
I made my own big reassessment two years ago when we moved back to my home town – York – after 12 years abroad. I was desperate to leave in my teens and 20s, and astonished how happy coming back made me. Family and friends were part of it. Pre-corona, I saw my stepfather regularly (whether he welcomed this interruption to his monastic schedule of reading Turgenev is unclear); my mum is buried up the road and I spotted familiar faces most days. But more than that, living in York made me happy on a cellular level. The quality of light, the river, the occasional smell of the chocolate factory (“pollution”, my soulless sons call it) and the soaring glory of the minster, sun on old stone and glass, does something inexplicable to my heart.
I have been happy – very happy – in other places, but here I feel at home; rooted. I don’t much like how that sounds, the uneasy echo of blood and soil patriotism but, equally, I’m old enough to know that when happiness shows up you don’t check its teeth: you grab it, gratefully.
I still have that happy sense of belonging. So why can’t I kick my Rightmove habit? And why is the place that slows my thudding heart on these endless anxious nights our old place in Brussels? Recalling the cracked tiles and dusty corners; the scrubby patch of grass and the maple tree we planted, I realise for some part of me, the house where my children grew up is still home.
Maybe it’s not surprising. Home – where you “find your happy” – isn’t simple: it never was. It’s a mess of aspiration and history; emotion and economics. If the place where you live makes your heart sing, you are exceptionally lucky. If it makes you feel safe, I remind myself, maybe that’s enough.
Follow Emma on Twitter @BelgianWaffling