Travel

+ 10 Lessons of a First-Time Buyer

For the past five months, my boyfriend and I have been in an emotional whirlwind of failing to buy one property and (in the end successfully) purchasing another. While we had both said we wanted to buy a place together in the near future, it was my drunken clicking of the "arrange a viewing" button for a place we both loved that sped up the process slightly! Long story short, the flat we tried to buy between March-June ended up being a no-go, so I wanted to share my learnings with other first-time buyers, specifically in the bubble that is the London property market.

1) Be Head Over Heart, Not Head Over Heels

When Ned and I viewed the first flat of our dreams, where we saw warning signs we instead saw 'quirkiness' and 'character'. It was only after a supremely negative mortgage valuation and a super-expensive but thorough homebuyers' report that our cute coal vault/bedroom became quite obviously a barely legal spare storage cupboard.

We had so wanted to believe that all the little doubts in our minds were just first-time buyer nerves, but now we realize we should have thought with our heads and not our hearts. Ideally, walk around with the surveyor at the time of the homebuyers' report. This really helped to bring the report to life for us. I'd recommend choosing Gerry Brown (gb[at]consultantsurveyor.co.uk). He's pricey but we trust him 100%!

2) It's Not Over Until the Fat Lady Sings

Our estate agent emailed us saying "I am just waiting for [the seller] to confirm the date for completion. When it is, I will email both solicitors and let them know that’s the agreed completion date." This all sounded fabulous, but we didn't 100% realize what was around the corner.

The day of exchange/completion came upon us, and ONLY THEN did we find out that our solicitor's queries had been ignored and instead a proposal was put forward for an "indemnity policy"... roll on lesson #3!

3) Be Wary of Indemnity Policies

The flat we wanted to buy had works done to it that were never signed off by building control. This essentially made the second 'bedroom' invalid and brought with it the risk of the local council asking us, as the new owners, to be financially liable for either completely re-doing it and (even worse) stopping us from making any further improvements to that part of the flat. For example, even trying to apply to the council to make the room legal would have INVALIDATED our mortgage. This means we were effectively buying a 1-bedroom flat for a 2-bed price. Also, most policies only protect your mortgage lender and not you so be very careful when agreeing to one!

4) Don't Hand Your Rental Notice in UNTIL Completion

At the end of May, we had no reason to suspect that the flat purchase would hit an obstacle. Yes, the seller's solicitors were taking a frigging age to answer the pressing issues my solicitor had raised, but we thought was standard practice. We tried to create a buffer of over 3 weeks between us completing and the confirmed end of our rental contract.

This would have been great if we had completed the flat purchase. But instead, the estate agents had already found a replacement couple for our flat and so we effectively were due to be homeless. If you learn one thing from our mistakes, just cough up the extra rent and don't make yourself homeless!

5) Consider Getting a 'Mortgage Agreement in Principle'

Before we had even placed an offer, we got an "Decision in Principle" arranged over the phone for us with London & Country Mortgages. What's great about them is they offer free, impartial advice and can serve as a broker with (seemingly anyway) your best interests in mind.

Yes, the estate agent will still ask to speak to you and go through details to substantiate your offer, but having this agreement a) helps clarify what your best offer can be and b) should put you  in a stronger position if you're up against another buyer with no financial details ready to share.

6) Sign up for a 30-day free trial with Experian

I had no idea how many addresses were attached to my name until I had a free trial with Experian. It was also really useful to trawl through Money Saving Expert's website for tips on how to boost your credit rating.

7) Instant Property Alerts Are Your Best Friend

A London property can be under offer in just a couple of days, so you really need to have your wits about you when searching for prospective homes. Some estate agents deliberately withhold their listings from Zoopla and Right Move, so it's best to also sign up to the dominant agents in your area as well as the big search sites.

Other good sources of new properties are Tepilo (quality over quantity!), Prime Location and On The Market.

8) Know your LTV Ratio

A mere 1-5% difference in your loan-to-value ratio can open up vastly different interest rates from the big lenders. If you have any spare cash at your disposal (e.g. selling shares, waiting for a few more paychecks until you buy to fatten your deposit) my advice is to put as much as possible into the mortgage. Obviously, you'll need to ensure you have money left over to actually maintain your beautiful new home, but it's worth checking with the lender how even an extra £1000 deposit could change your mortgage terms.

9) Keep Your Mouth Shut

During one viewing, I was very open with the seller about our situation "oh yeah, we pulled out of our other property" and "we're just in the process of sorting out a different mortgage now based on a different deposit".... in hindsight, you should really be selective in terms of what you say to the seller as it can completely change their opinion of you. If in doubt, pipe down!

10) Be Cautious of Requests for Cold Hard Cash

We had placed an offer on a different property via Hampton's in London, and as this sale was in a chain of 4/5 other properties, they told us in no uncertain terms that we'd need to be willing to put down a £5000 payment ASAP. This was without any guarantees of getting it back should something happen outside of our control, and zero paperwork to sign. In the end, not immediately pandering to their requests cost us the flat as another couple were willing to cough up, but I'm glad we were cautious and didn't sign away a big chunk of our deposit without any guarantees.


+ Positano Travel Guide

What do you do when you need to be at the airport by 5am? Don't go to sleep at all, that's what! Yes, we were shattered but at least the trip to Positano (taxi, plane, two shuttle buses) went quickly as we dozed the whole way. After a transfer from positanoshuttle.com, we were shown to our apartment, Sirena 1 at Residence AlcioneThis place is even better than in the photos. We paid more for a superior suite, and I'm so glad we did as we essentially got private use of a large terrace with sun loungers, beautiful plants and a patio table to boot. What really sets this place apart is the complimentary continental breakfast which is hand-delivered to your room at a time that suits you.

Residence Alcione - Sirena 1 superior suite
The terrace of our superior suite at Residence Alcione

Collina Bakery was our first taste of authentic Italian pizza, and it didn't disappoint. The pizzas were so big we got two meals in one go, and ate the leftovers on our terrace that evening! The next day, Ned and I decided to pass the beach and keep edging along the coastal path to see what was there. We weren't disappointed! For the first time we were able to appreciate how clear the emerald ocean was (although didn't get a chance to go for a dip that day). La Marinella is a rustic beach bar/restaurant with a charming waiter who has quite the way with words! 

Us at La Sponda
Ned and I at La Sponda restaurant

That evening, we got to La Sirenuse a bit early for our 8pm dinner reservation at La Sponda and so ended up at their champagne and oyster bar. This rooftop terrace dripped with elegance and made me feel every inch the celebrity! After ordering a round of drinks, they brought us almonds, crisps and bountiful green olives unlike any I'd ever tasted. (side note: I need to find out what olives these were as they were SO tasty!)

Once our drinks were done with, we went down the staircase to La Sponda. Ned decided my trip-planning skills deserved some reward, and proceeded to pay for the chef's menu with a selection of wines with each plate (picture of the tasting menu here). The food was some of the best I've ever tasted (especially the veal sirloin and coconut macaroons at the end!) but what made it for me was the candlelit view accompanied by two men playing romantic music for the majority of the evening.

Someone paragliding over Positano beach, looking from Caffe Positano
Someone paragliding over Positano beach, as seen from Caffe Positano!

 

The next day, we were looking for something cheap and unfussy and Caffe Positano fit the bill perfectly. This place had slow service, but the view of Positano beach from high up on the hill made it worthwhile. We shared a buffalo mozzarella salad and a courgette tagliatelle, both of which were divine. One thing I really noticed in Italy is the tastiness of their cherry tomatoes. Each little bite has more taste than an entire box of salad tomatoes from back home! What made the meal even more memorable was witnessing some guy paragliding over Positano, and what felt like dangerously close to where we were eating!

Tagliata wine, our starting dish and the view of the coast from Tagliata

La Tagliata was our destination for the evening. This family-run restaurant is almost nestled in the clouds it's so far up! As it's quite difficult to get to, upon reserving your table they ask where you're staying so they can pick you up in a complimentary shuttle. At 7.15pm, a shuttle turned up and we began ascending the mountains. We were greeted by Vincenzo, who explained to us upon arriving that there was no need to choose what to eat as a set menu cooked by "mama and papa". Thankfully another couple got up and left so we nabbed a table with a better view of the coastline. Despite the thunderstorms, there was an awesome, brooding tint to the evening that was a beautiful accompaniment to the great food and (even better) homemade 'Tagliata' wine. Oh, and if you're in any doubt, they do drop you off home at the end of it! For a price of ~35 Euros each, the food was well worth every penny.

Saturday was spent walking around the town once more, however by this point of the trip I had succumbed to a weird, odd, disgusting skin rash. "Polymorphous light eruption" basically means my porcelain white skin had forgotten that UV light can tan my skin.. instead, it thought it was being poisoned and initiated a way OTT response to protect my skin! To be fair, we couldn't tan much anyway as the thunderstorms started to descend late afternoon. And, before we knew it, we had to leave Positano behind for our one-night/one-day stay in Naples before our flight home.

You can track the places I visited in Positano using the nifty map below!

Naples

We went with the dependable www.positanoshuttle.com to get back to Naples on Sunday evening, and our hotel of choice was Ciliegina Lifestyle Hotel. This hotel is pure luxury with a jacuzzi hot tub on the roof terrace complete with sun loungers, and also a jacuzzi bathtub in the bedroom. Even better, we were greeted with a free glass of prosecco. The hotel is also f***ing good at continental breakfast, delivering it to your room with beautifully made cappuccinos.

Pasta shop in the historic district

Although my first impressions of Naples were in stark contrast to the dream that is Positano, I really warmed to it as we meandered through the narrow streets and started to soak up the culture. I would really suggest just getting lost and finding your own 'Naples'.

So we were given two main recommendations by friends (not to mention our taxi driver!) which were a restaurant called Sorbillo and another nearby called Di Matteo. When we walked past, Di Matteo didn't seem to be a good place to dine in, as it looked like it was solely takeaway pizza. So, we decided to walk back up towards Sorbillo.... however, we ended up in the copycat restaurant!!! Not to worry, the pizza was 6 euros and tasty, but trust us to get pizza wrong in Naples :/

For others looking for a good pizza place in Naples, I would probably err on the side of caution and go to this Sorbillo, and only try the 'copycat' if the other one is busy :)


+ From Highbury to Highgate: Parkland Walk

From Highbury to Highgate; Parkland Walk (South)

Having lived in Highbury, North London for almost a year now, I'm still astonished by how little I know about the surrounding area. As part of my quest to use my time more wisely in 2015 (less couch potato time, more time exploring), I decided to spend my Sunday afternoon walking along the southern part of Parkland Walk Local Nature Reserve, from Finsbury Park to Highgate. We live just a few minutes' walk from Finsbury Park, which is where the southern part of the walk begins (Tired of London, Tired of Life have a handy map here).

THE ROUTE

1) As we live south of the park, we took a quick detour through it, past the flying rats (aka pigeons):

2) To get to the start of the trail we headed across the Oxford Road Gate from the north-western part of Finsbury Park:

3) Turn right and you'll see a sign, with the next stops listed as Upper Tollington Park, wih the walk ending at Highgate via Crouch Hill.
Route along Parkland Walk - South

4) Along the way towards Crouch Hill, it's basically mud, mud and more mud.... and some vibrant graffiti:

Graffiti along parkland walk

5) One of the best finds along the route was the former train platforms of Crouch End railway station. While the train station building has since been demolished, it was really surreal to walk through:
Abandoned railway platforms of Courch End railway station on Parkland Walk

6) Following from this awesome find, you'll see a plaque which tells you a bit more about the history of the park itself:
History of parkland walk

Once you've completed the walk, I would formally suggest a quick drink at the Boogaloo, or if you walk up Jacksons Lane you'll get to Highgate High Street where you can pop into the Duke's Head or the Angel Inn for a well-earned lunch! We'll definitely visit Parkland Walk again in the spring, and next time aim for Alexandra Palace :)


+ Things to Do in Paris - Weekend Break

Long weekend in Paris

Last week I had no plans for 2015, and yet now I have two works trips abroad booked and a Paris city break planned with my boyfriend. The trip I'm most looking forward to is Paris, of course! There's still over two months to go, but that doesn't stop me from wanting to plan where to stay, what to see and most importantly what to wear.

What to Wear

Miss Pandora (i.e. the queen of Lookbook) has a whole page dedicated to French chic - think sailor shirts, berets and red stockings!
Caroline de Maigret shows us that a Chanel bag is mandatory in Paris
Utilising the arms of your coat is very passé in Paris!
If in doubt - dress in red, white and blue!

What to See & Do

View of Ile de la Cité
View of Ile de la Cité
evening: latin quarter
Quartier Latin
Arc De Triomphe (Paris) in 1000 MegaPixels (Zoom in)
Arc de Triomphe is such an icon of Paris and I cannot wait to see this one evening!
Louvre at Night
Louvre
Le Canal Saint Martin
Le Canal Saint Martin
Rue Galande
Le caveau des oubliettes: A jazz bar set in a 12-century cave
Christmas Tree
Galeries Lafayette
  •  Catacombs: Twenty metres below ground are the remains of ~6million Parisians... I had no bloody idea anything like this existed! Because of the existence of this ossuary, Paris has very shallow foundations and that's why there are few tall buildings in the city.
  • Giverny Tour: Technically this is outside of Paris, but the chance to visit Monet's house and gardens is worth a shot, even if we are going in freezing-cold February!
  • Sandemans Tour: I went on a Sandemans tour in Berlin and it was absolutely phenomenal. They have a 3-hour free walking tour, and what's great is you can pay what you think the tour is worth.
  • I've found an amazing walking tour, both in podcast and map form. Even better, there's a 2-hour guided walking tour plus French wine tasting!
  • Le Petit Prince de Paris is meant to be a must-see and has plenty of 4/5* reviews on Trip Advisor
  • Pont des Arts: Don't forget your padlock!
  • Jardin du Luxembourg looks absolutely beautiful during the winter months, as seen in this blog post here.

 Where to Eat

medium
Le Relais de l’Entrecôte
Christmas Lights at Rue Cler, Paris, France
Rue Cler: This pedestrian street is home to a wide array of greengrocers, rotisseries, fromageries, delis and fishmongers. I cannot wait to try out L'Éclair, Tribeca and Le Café du Marché.
Berthillon ice cream cone
Berthillon apparently serves some of the best ice cream in Paris.
La Conserverie: Just look at this place!
  • Le Restaurant: This restaurant is hands-down one of the most beautiful restaurants I've laid eyes on (well, in photos online). I've booked a table for our Friday evening, hope it's all it's cracked up to be!
  • La pâtisserie des rêves
  • Angelina's Tearoom
  • Café de la Paix: A pricey but beautifully elegant Parisian institution
  • Falafel Valley (L’As du Fallafel): Apparently the best way to tell if you've found it is the inevitable massive queue outside!

 Where to Stay

  • Hotel Plaza Athenee: A Facebook friend reviewed this as 5stars... the only thing putting me off is the price tag!
  •  Hotel Empereur: You can request a room overlooking Les Invalides
  •  Hyatt Paris Madeleine: This is where we decided to book as there was a special 20% offer via Trivago. It's 5*, with a beautiful spa and views of the Eiffel Tower
  • Relais Christine: A hidden hotel in the Latin Quarter with a private flowered courtyard

Some other Resources

10 Things You Must See in Paris - Hopeful Wandering

City Guide to Paris by Eleanore Bridge (Le Blog De La Méchante)

The Five New Tenets of French Girl Style

Using Your Phone to See Paris in a Whole New Light

In the Footsteps of James Joyce, Paris

YTravel's blog post on Paris

Foodie Lover's Guide to Paris

Ten of the best bars in Paris

Top Paris Lookbook looks


+ Highbury Area Guide: Things to do in N5, London

It's been almost a year since we moved to the N5 area (between Highbury and Finsbury Park). In that time I've seen a few new businesses pop up and seriously think it's only a matter of time before it becomes the next up-and-coming London neighbourhood to watch.

What I love most about the area is that N5 has only a handful of chains and the majority of local businesses are one-off London gems. The N5 area is also super close to the hip and hippy Stoke Newington, and Clissold Park is just two minutes' walk away too. See below for my Highbury area guide:

Green Spaces: Within the grounds of Clissold Park is the impressive Clissold House, as well as a deer enclosure, butterfly dome (although it's currently devoid of butterflies), tennis courts, a skate park and two large lakes. Ok, it's absolutely pissing it down outside right now, but I firmly believe it's one of the best places to run in London when the sun is shining! What's also great about N5 is that you have Finsbury Park about ten minutes' walk up Blackstock Road, so there's no shortage of greenery, and absolutely no excuses for not heading out for a jog (of course, with exception of the rain)!

Brunch Heaven: Since we moved in, a couple of very on-trend cafés have opened up in the local area. On Blackstock Road is Frank's Canteen, which I've reviewed over at Yelp as well. As you can see from the photos below, the food is pretty extraordinary.

Also recently opened is the unique Fink's Salt and Sweet Deli. I walk past this place everyday and while they have a loyal lunch crowd (especially at weekends), it also welcomes a few local trendsetters in the evenings for some low-key glasses of wine.

Another fave of mine (which I don't have photos of yet) is the Blackstock Kitchen. We always go for the chicken & avocado sandwich and a tuna & sweetcorn toasted sarnie to share. Very friendly staff, a nice local feel and some space outside to enjoy the sun, whenever it comes out!

Furniture Shops: Gathering Moss is a beautifully kitted out shop featuring shelving units and bench tables made from reclaimed wood, trinkets, candles and general boho chicery. Ned and I actually found our much-loved bench table from this shop, and the shop staff actually delivered it to our flat within 30 minutes of purchasing! There's also a hidden-away furniture shop called Bennet & Brown which sells gorgeous pendant lamps, 20th-century trinkets and wooden furniture.

 Other Places to Try:

Primeur - This place was initially hard to book as you had to go in person days before you'd decided to eat there, but they now have a Twitter account to take bookings (@primeurbookings). I haven't been to this restaurant yet, but will definitely take advantage of this and book asap!

Garufa - An Argentine grill that does the best brunch, as per my Yelp review, and they've also recently started advertising Malbec Monday's where they offer all wine bottles at 50% off. I hate Mondays but love Malbec so need to give it a go.

Exeter Street Bakery - I spotted this when I walked north of Finsbury Park the other day, and the bread looks world-class!

 Cafe Vintage - The food varies in quality but even so I really appreciate having a quirky, multi-purpose business down the road. This non-chain cafe always has great seasonal window displays, nice coffee and the odd piece of clothing to buy too.

Seasons and Blossoms - Kaleidoscopic selection of organic fruit, veg and they even sell 'biodynamic' bananas! Will definitely go back again to try out their coffee.

La Fromagerie - They often have events, but of course the main draw of this place is their locally made cheese and wine selection.

For more info, you can see all my Yelp photos and reviews.