Choosing a home

Building your nest

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At best, decorating your home can be a creative and intellectually rewarding task. At worst, the tyranny of the visual age we inhabit can lead to a great deal of worry about keeping up with your neighbours, and being seen as someone with good taste. I would counsel resisting the temptation to read too many homes and gardens magazines, with their perfect pictures of perfect houses in a perfect world. It’s relatively straightforward to decorate a house so that it is fit for purpose, without being overwhelmed by acquiring masses of new things and spending money you haven’t got, or slavishly copying mass produced trends such as flourishes of twigs and pebbles everywhere. Apart from anything else, the time and effort involved in having a perfect house can be exhausting, and there are surely better ways of spending your life.

The basic minimum furnishing requirement for a modern household might be:

  • A proper cooker and hob in good, clean condition, with a non-stick oven lining sheet at the bottom to catch spills, and a decent cooker hood or extractor fan.
  • A fridge, preferably with a large freezer compartment
  • If you have a young family, a reliable washing machine (the only thing in your house it is probably worth buying a long warranty for).
  • A kettle that is reasonably scale-free, and a toaster relatively free of crumbs and detritus
  • A hoover with crevice nozzle, upholstery attachment and dust attachment, with plenty of spare bags to hand if you need them.
  • A dining table and chairs (to encourage sociable and healthy eating habits, and can also be used as a desk or homework area)
  • A sofa that supports your back, a coffee table and an armchair or two, all grouped together so you can be sociable
  • A bookcase or two, or some shelves in a recess
  • A bed per person, a bedside table and lamp
  • Somewhere for each person to store clothes so they are easy to find and keep tidy (either a wardrobe or a rail in a recess with a curtain in front, plus ideally a chest of drawers or basket for folded things and underwear)
  • Somewhere for each person to store toiletries (a cupboard or pull-out basket on a bathroom trolley)
  • A kitchen starter set (2 or 3 saucepans, frying pan, sieve, baking trays or sheets, ceramic ovenproof serving dishes, knife set, chopping board, mixing bowl, grater, juicer, teapot, coffeepot or cafetiere, jug, sugar bowl, plastic storage containers, corkscrew, cooking tools, garlic press, scissors, tin opener, scales and so on)
  • A dining starter set (plate, bowl, mug and side plate for four or six, along with necessary cutlery, a wine glass and a tumbler each). If you are a few years down the line, you might want to invest in an additional ‘best’ set for dinner parties and big family occasions.
  • A bin for landfill waste and a bin for dry things that can be recycled (to be sorted out the night before the refuse collectors come).
  • A rotary washing line and cover or folding washing stand
  • Large ironing board with both foam and felt padding, good quality steam iron, plenty of pegs and refillable water spray

If you have run your own home for ages, and possess many more wordly goods than this, it may be useful to consider culling your supplies where you can, to free up extra space and to make your home easier to organise.

Image: Ambro /


The great outdoors

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It’s very difficult when faced with estate agents’ windows and property search engines not to feel wholly and utterly inadequate when house hunting. You are faced with very many houses that are out of your price range, yet they all seem to represent a lifestyle you aspire to and possibly secretly think you are entitled to.  Estate agents are very good at encouraging these feelings of insecurity so you spend more on houses than you might otherwise want to.

I am going to ask you to put all that aside for the time being, and strip your thinking about housing back to basics. There are a number of more important things to consider when looking for a house than whether it looks like something out of a magazine feature or whether it will impress people. Ultimately you are looking for a home, not just a property, and these principles also apply to improving the home you are in, if you would like to live more comfortably but don’t quite know where to start. Making your outdoor space and environment work hard is one of the best ways to start.


We often forget that the layout of the home in relation to the direction of the sun really matters. If you can, choose a house (or flat) with both a front and a back door, preferably with a bit of garden or back yard as well in which you can dry your washing, doing away with the need for a tumble dryer or having wet washing hanging around your head semi-permanently like some sort of refugee camp scenario.  If the house faces east-west, it will get the sun on both sides.  If you resist the temptation to let slimy, abandoned household detritus ‘waiting to go to the dump’ take over the outdoor space, it’s relatively cheap and easy to set up a table and a couple of chairs out there, along with a potted shrub or two, effectively giving you what amounts to an entire extra living room in the better weather.  If they stand ready for action, you are bound to use it more. Use pea shingle to cover unsightly concrete, and think about bordering the area with old bricks or low willow edging panels, for an attractive effect. Potted lavender, rosemary bushes, geraniums and white hydrangeas are all plants that offer colour and sometimes scent, without needing too much care.

If you can’t manage to find something like this within your price range, and you end up going for a back-to-back house of some kind, or a flat on an upper floor, look for something that faces south or south west if you can. As the wise headmistress Wilena Hitching pointed out in 1910 to her schoolgirl readers, this means it will get the sun for a large part of the day, which is, and I quote, “the home manager’s friend”. As our continental neighbours will testify, the addition of a small, well-designed balcony to a flat can be a real asset for drying washing, as well as sitting out. With careful planning it is even possible to create a safe play area for young children in a limited space. Everything is possible, if you apply some old fashioned principles to the modern condition.

Image: Simon Howden /

Doing your own survey

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If you are investing a lot of money in a house, it makes sense to engage a professional surveyor to make sure everything is in order structurally. But this will only come at a later stage in the buying process when you have put in an offer on a house. In the meantime you should take trouble to examine the condition of the houses or flats you are inspecting, to minimise the risk of the surveyor finding nasty surprises and you having to call the sale off whilst still having to pay your surveyor anyway. If you are renting, the same applies apart from the fact that you will be more concerned about whether the house will be comfortable to live in than whether it is likely to fall down at the first puff of wind. Look for the following commonsense issues as you go around (we are into checklist territory here once again):

  • Do the windows fit well, or do they rattle or have draughts coming through? Can you open them easily, to air the house? 
  • Are there any cracks in the wall big enough for you to put your finger into? If so, there may be a subsidence problem. 
  • Are there any damp patches in the upper parts of the walls? If so, there may be a problem with the roof or the guttering.
  • What state does the plumbing and wiring seem to be in, as far as you can tell? Dark sooty patches around sockets or light fittings are a giveaway that all is not well with the electrics, and funny smells indicate drainage problems.
  • Ask about whether the house has cavity wall insulation and whether there are any other energy saving measures in place.
  • You should also check older properties have what is known as a damp proof course, or a layer of waterproof membrane a couple of bricks up from the ground (you can usually see evidence of this from outside with the naked eye). If things have been built on breaching the damp proof course, or there is a lot of soil in the form of a flowerbed pressed up against the wall, then the property might have potential problems. Check whether you can smell damp, as this is also a giveaway.
  •  How recently was the boiler serviced, and is it likely to need expensive repairs in the near future? What will it cost to heat the home? If you are going to have to rely on storage heaters, you will need to cost their use particularly carefully, for example.
  • Do the neighbours seem friendly and compatible? There is no worse fate than to live underneath a party animal when you need your sleep, or next to someone wanting peace and quiet when you have three under fives.

Image: Simon Howden /