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Home In Conversation with …. An Expat moving back home to the UK, but not back to their old life


In Conversation with …. An Expat moving back home to the UK, but not back to their old life

expat househunting at home whilst abroad

Mr & Mrs T  and their family have been expats in China for 5 years with a Midlands-based automotive firm.  As the employment contract was coming to an end, they decided not to extend and to return home to the UK, but not to their old house.

“We had embraced the experience of living in a totally new culture with young children fully, and we’d made some great friends whilst we were in Shanghai.  If it was just the two of us, we would have been totally up for staying longer or maybe moving to a different country again, but with secondary school looming for our eldest, we stuck to our original plan and wanted to come back to the UK for their schooling.”

Sounds straight-forward, just give your tenants’ notice and to come back to your old life – what was the difficulty ?

“Our house in Coventry had been rented out for the duration (with varying degrees of success!!)  but whilst we’ve been away, our family has grown, and to be frank, we’ve become used to the space we have had as an expat family : basically we’ve outgrown that house.  Added to that,  living in a city like Shanghai has been the ultimate ‘city-living’ : we had a hankering for the English countryside for the next stage of our – and our children’s –  lives.  We also met many other  families working for *** who live all across Warwickshire , Northamptonshire and even Oxfordshire which made us realise we actually did not know the countryside around Coventry at all.  We felt stuck on the other side of the world, trying to plan a life remotely and reading the internet runes on where would be a good place to build a new life, in a property market that had moved on from when we last paid attention to it (10+ years ago).”

Hence the need for professional help : how did you come to get in touch with Stacks Property Search ?

“When bemoaning the agonies we were experiencing amongst our friends, some of them were amazed that we were so stuck – “That is what a Buying Agent is for!” they would cry.  For them, being from Australia, Canada or the US for example, the ingrained obviousness of having your own ‘Phil & Kirstie’ doing the property search for you was not even worth debating – it is just what you need to do.  It was especially true when you need to maximise your precious in-country time and only see the homes that absolutely make the shortlist in terms of location, school run and catchments, commutes and amenities.  A brief online search revealed that Stacks had over 30 years of history in providing this service and covered our search area with its Regional Directors, Rachel and George, so we picked up the phone to them.”

How did a Buying Agent proceed when you were so far away ?

“We got in touch and organised a Skype call during which we set out our situation, our priorities and our wishlist.  Stacks asked searching questions, drilling into such things as our personal knowledge of areas to give them insight into both our tastes;  where our families and friends are located that we need to have access to; potential future career paths for both of us etc. It was very much about ‘how do we want to live’ once we got back and were settled, rather than ‘how many bedrooms do you want’.  It sparked some interesting conversations our end – it was particularly revealing how our tastes differed between the two of us when you have to say it out loud to a third party – and by our next call we could set some more specific parameters and adjust the priority of some factors.  By the end of that call, we were happy that Stacks had understood our family dynamic and drivers and so signed up and proceeded to put our Coventry house on the market.”

When did you start seeing properties ?

“Some Stacks clients have apparently bought ‘sight unseen’, however that was not going to be us, so timing was important – we couldn’t fall in love with a house that would be sold by the time we got back to see it.  We were due back for a family event a couple of months later, and we wouldn’t be able to view anything till then.  Stacks began assessing the properties on the market with a view to our brief, and reached out to the relevant estate agent contacts : the relevant offices numbered upward of 60 in the wide area we were considering.  They physically viewed potential houses, and got to hear about off market houses, before they were publicly available on the internet.  We were unable to resist browsing online of course, and if anything caught our eye, we forwarded it to them to put into the mix for assessment.  As time grew nearer for our visit, we set a viewing date and the limits to the time we could leave the children with their grandparents.   This meant we could pack in as much as possible into the day, but all of the stress of making appointments, working out the most efficient route, etc had all been taken away – we were just picked up and driven to the appointments, fed, watered and informed all day.  Whilst the flight over gave us too long to speculate, not knowing which houses we would be seeing on the first day in reality meant that Stacks could see our initial reactions as we pulled up to each house, as we walked in the door, giving them a much better handle on our real opinions.    As we went along, Stacks put each house into our overall picture – it goes far beyond estate agent details, factoring in school commutes, village amenities, etc.  The variety of houses explored things that we hadn’t even realised would be factors, for example we found that the edge of a village ‘within screaming distance’ of neighbours would be our ideal location.”

What next ?

“By the end of that day we had found at least one potential property, but given that it was the beginning of our search, we didn’t feel able to commit instantly to a specific location. We were, however, totally comfortable that Stacks were evaluating property from our point of view and wouldn’t ‘miss’ anything, and so we went back to China invigorated and feeling that progress had been made.  From that point on, Stacks reviewed properties as soon as (if not before)they came on the market.  As they inspected them we received full emailed reports putting the houses into context for us, often with additional photos and video of aspects that would be relevant to our decision making.  I am an avid Pinterest fan, and we made innovative use of the private boards : Stacks could pin a property with a comment or a question and we could reply specifically without losing track of which property we were referring to and we didn’t have ‘you know, the white one with the green door in Blakesley’ type conversations which saved loads of time.”

How did you decide which was the property for you ?

“Gradually  we honed in on locations that appealed – AND met our criteria – and then drilled down specifically into each property as it came available.  On a work trip home, my husband validated a couple of online decisions to discount certain properties, again with minimal impact on his time and attention as Stacks made all the arrangements.  At a certain point there were 2 real contenders that were worth looking at in person, and in order to not to lose out to competition, we made arrangements to see them both.  As validated Stacks’ clients, the estate agents on one of the contenders advised their vendors to wait to make a decision on an alternative offer until we had seen it – an advantage that we would not have had unless we had professional representation on the ground confirming our seriousness.  Once we had seen both houses, Stacks took us to the catchment secondary schools for visits, and by the end of the day, we knew which was the house we wanted to go for. After that, it was very like an episode of ‘Location Location Location’ where phonecalls were made and anxious waits were had over a glass in the local pub.  When we heard our offer had been accepted, we were totally thrilled and relieved – the flight back to China was the most relaxed we’d been !”

Did the house purchase go smoothly ?

“We instructed our solicitor to liaise directly with Stacks, and we could sit back whilst she and Stacks ensured that the process moved along.  Whilst it was certainly not a breeze in terms of holding the chain together, the fact that Stacks were there in the same timezone, nagging the relevant parties and chivvying it all along meant that the whole house-buying process was as stress-free as these things can ever be.  It meant that life for us could carry on as normal whilst someone we trusted had their eye on the ball : at one point, when we were on a Chinese mountain-top with no wifi, Rachel was photographing lawyer’s  emails and texting them to us so we could make decisions in good time !  We also began discussions with the Council about extension plans, and again Stacks’ local professional contacts helped us choose the right planning consultant and architect.  This meant we could move our plans forward from China, getting the approvals as quickly as possible and allowed the eventual building works to be promptly started once the purchase was final.  When the purchase finally went through and we were the new owners, Stacks represented us on the day, accepting the keys, checking the meters etc – they even stocked the fridge for when we arrived the following night.”

Are you content being back in the UK ?

It has certainly been a massive gear-change for us.  Our expat life was totally convenient – a driver, an ayi, no weekend DIY – and it brought us closer together as a family, as we only had each other to rely on in a foreign culture.  Coming back to the UK feels like coming back to ‘real life’ – with all the attendant annoyances, but also it is relaxing to understand your surroundings instantly.  Perhaps oddly, the children are the ones finding life more limiting back home : within our neighbourhood in Shanghai, they had freedom to roam and ‘hang out’ much more than they do here – a combination of distance, opportunities and weather, no doubt.

What would you say to anyone expats thinking of trying to move home without a Buying Agent ?

“From the comfort of our new home in the English countryside, we can honestly say it was the best decision we made – because it allowed us to make the best decision possible, even whilst not in the UK.  They added so much to the process – we thought we were only buying practical, professional  in-country support  – what we got was that AND allies, defenders, counsellors and friends!  ”