No Place like Home

I’m hunkered down in my car across the road from a block of flats. Watching. My eyes trail carefully over the walls, the windows, the washing on the lines, the cars in the driveway. My ears strain to identify the music I can hear. Is it Nick Cave? (Good.) What if it’s ZZTop? (Very bad.) Is it a cosy nest-in-waiting or a potential descent-into-hell?

I’ve just spent eight weeks looking for a place to live in Melbourne. New to the state, I expected it to take two, or maybe three. Now in my 40s, I’ve always been able to afford a roof over my head, food in my belly and enough alcohol to keep me sweet but not fermented. I always clean up a place before I move on.

Secure in my ignorance, I set off each Saturday in search of the perfect abode. I plan my itinerary and prepare to take on unfamiliar roads and suburbs. In the early days it’s an exciting quest. By week six it’s anything but.

Constant, fruitless searching in this high-pressure rental market is crazing me. I’m turning into a stalker, as I try to gauge more about a potential home than the brief and crowded inspection time allows. I behave obsequiously towards agents, many of them much younger than me. They get to decide how long my life stays on hold. Some use their power kindly; others are carelessly cruel.

One day, I’m sitting in a park, feeling glum. I’ve been to a place so small there’s not enough room for a deep breath. A friend rings and I burst into tears, not sure I can go on. A snivelling hour later, soothed by her call, the pig-head in me arcs up. “Right, I’ll just drive until I find a place to live. As far as Perth if necessary. I don’t have to stay in this stupid place.” Being able to reject Melbourne makes me want to stay. I go on.

The lowest number of people I counted inspecting a flat was 11; at the busiest one, a quirky two-storey place, I stopped counting at 60.  People were tracking up and down the staircase like ants, focused, intense, no time for chat, except to connect with the all-important agent. How do you stand out among that many, in that short a time?

One agent I came across, from the kindly camp, said, “Don’t take it personally; it’s a nightmare for everyone”. Another bucked the system. He rang me in week five. It threw me. “Sorry, who are you? An agent? Calling me? And you want to show me a place this afternoon? Of course I’ll be there.” I applied, but missed out, second on the list apparently.

My thick notebook fills up with addresses and post-inspection comments – yuck, maybe, forget it, THAT MUCH FOR THAT HEAP?

When I find a place I can see myself in and can afford, it’s on to the application – a plethora of paperwork that’s tricky to pull together when you’re living out of a suitcase in someone’s spare room. Then it’s the waiting game, while you worry deep in your guts about whether you’ll get picked.

You also start to wonder whether it’s a fair process. You’ve heard rumours of people offering more rent or paying in advance. You can’t afford to, and anyway you don’t believe it’s right. But if they’re doing it, maybe you should too? Just this once? Brilliant, now you’ve got an ethical dilemma to mull over, on top of everything else.

Over the last few months The Age has reported lots of statistics about Melbourne’s tight housing market. Numbers aren’t really my thing; I prefer the words of the academic who said, “Statistics are people with the tears washed off”.

If you see someone hanging around your neighbourhood, behaving oddly, don’t be spooked. It might be me, stalking an apartment, willing it to be mine.