Last autumn, I told you all about our new dream house in Worcester, minus one minor detail: we didn’t actually own it. I suppose I didn’t mention it because I thought it would only be a matter of time before we did and because I didn’t want to bore you. We had arranged to rent the house from the seller’s family for what was only meant to be a short period of time while we waited for it to be registered with the Land Registry. Then the seller passed away just before we could complete the sale and we had to wait ten long months for probate.
The final hurdle came when we were asked to sign a covenant on the house called an ‘overage agreement’, which enables the seller to retain a commercial interest in the property after they have sold it. Overage agreements or clauses are usually placed on land or commercial properties, not on individual family homes, and they typically last around five to ten years. This one lasted for forty years and meant that if the house were to be converted into flats or the garden sold off or built on during this time, we, or the next owners, would owe the seller’s family 20 percent of the increase in value. Their consent would also be required to sell the property in the future should any of these things be done.
Now, of course, we had no intention of building bungalows all over the garden or splitting the house into flats, but 40 years is a very long time and who knows what life, the world or the property market will be like in that time? The UN has projected that the world’s population will reach 8.5 billion in 2030 and 9.7 billion by 2050. Meanwhile, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that a 1.5-degree average temperature rise above pre-industrial levels is inevitable by 2040, even if emissions drop to net zero in the next 30 years, while we are currently on track for a 2-degree rise by the 2060s. And, another international group of scientists has claimed that human activity threatens one million plant and animal species with extinction.
When you consider the increase in extreme weather events, the threat to food security, the rise in the cost of living, and the influx in refugees that the population, climate and biodiversity loss crises will bring, it is not outlandish to envision a world in which old folk rattling around in large houses are forced to either sell up or split their homes into multiple residences. Not only would we then owe the seller’s family a chunk of money, but we would need to get their permission to sell the property, and it’s not clear exactly just who and how many people would be required to provide their consent. Whatever happens, we would also need our buyer to agree to take on the overage agreement from us if we were to sell within the 40-year timeframe. To allay our fears, the seller’s son promised that he would always “stay in touch” but I’m not sure that that is a promise that anyone can make for as long as 40 years. After all, no one lives forever.
Oh, then there was the small snag that it’s virtually impossible to get a mortgage, let alone one with a decent fixed interest rate, on a property that’s subject to an overage clause.
Mr Rixon and I had known that the sale of the house was subject to the agreement all along, however; we didn’t fully understand the implications of it until we were advised to seek legal advice from the seller’s solicitor on the point of completion. We tried our very best to negotiate the terms of it to give us peace of mind that we would be able to sell the house in the future but sadly the seller’s family wasn’t prepared to listen to our concerns, and we learned on the first day of our summer holiday that we would no longer be buying the house.
We were staying on an eco campsite in Pembrokeshire, surrounded by meadows and woodland, beside a trickling stream and beneath a starry sky. Stargazing, roasting vegan marshmallows over a campfire, and listening to the eerie calls of hunting owls gave us the distance and perspective to realise that we had made the right decision (although I did spend a few nights crying into my grassy pillow).
Every part of the house needed renovation, from the uninsulated roof, to the damp cellar and the ancient heating system; unlevel floors; rotting lintels; dodgy decor and draughty windows in between. The project would have taken years of our lives to complete, cost a small fortune and caused a great deal of stress too. And while the house would have looked spectacular when it was finally finished, it would probably never be terribly energy efficient – at odds with our dream of living sustainable and financially independent lives.
Our kids took the news remarkably well and have enjoyed attending property viewings with us, although we keep having to remind them not to touch anything. On one of the viewings, Josephine managed to lose a teddy – in the one house that it just so happens we might make an offer on! (So perhaps he has just moved in early.)
It will be strange moving out of the house that we have spent the last year dreaming of how to make our own. We had not been able to make any major changes to it but Mr Rixon did spend a huge amount of time and effort ripping out the lath and plaster from the attic ceiling, in preparation for insulation. In the garden, we dug a little veggie patch, planted bulbs beneath the ash tree and sowed some wildflower seeds into sections of the lawn, including yellow rattle, ‘the meadow maker’.
I wonder what will become of the house when we are gone. We were initially told that the purpose of the overage was to ensure that it remained a family home for as long as possible and was not converted into flats like the two next door. The seller’s son later admitted that his late father had also intended it to be an investment for his grandchildren’s future. But I’m not sure they can have it both ways.
Perhaps, they will be lucky and find a family who are cash buyers and aren’t daunted by the overage agreement. Or perhaps, they will decide to sell it to a developer for a big profit after all. Or else, maybe they will do up the house themselves and let it out. Or perhaps, it will stay empty for many years and fall derelict, while wildlife flourishes in the garden. The yellow rattle will suppress the grass, allowing wildflowers dormant in the seedbank to emerge, transforming the lawn into a meadow. Hazel, ash, field maple and hawthorn seedlings will sprout up where their seeds have germinated in the soil and reach to the sky. Foxes will move into the shed and bats into the roof. The end of the garden will be overcome by nettles and brambles and birds will feast on the banquet of berries, seeds and invertebrates. Perhaps…