I will never own where I call home

The cottage where I live used to be owned by a woman named Joyce. I don’t know much about Joyce, other than that she was an extremely particular gardener, with an inexplicable fondness for everything spiky. 

I can only imagine the horror Joyce would feel about my amateur attempts to keep such a garden. I’ve been in this house for almost four years, which is the longest I have ever lived in a single home. My parents owned a house when I was born, and two more before they went their separate ways. I grew up mostly with my father, who was on what was still the Invalids’ Benefit.

Dad is a gardener. He has a qualification in landscaping and an unmanageable addiction to Mitre 10.

His green hands – definitely the whole hand, not just a thumb – kept a roof over our heads. Rental insecurity is not a new issue, particularly for beneficiaries. We moved a lot, house-sitting in exchange for looking after rich people’s gardens. I got to experience everything, from a bizarre shoebox where we put my bed on stilts because my room was otherwise too small to fit anything in, to a mansion where I had an entire floor to myself. We never stayed anywhere for long. I’ve called over 30 houses in three countries ‘home’ in my 34 years of aliveness.

Housing security is something I therefore saw as extremely desirable – and attainable. In my early twenties I was healthy and hard-working and lucky. I saved and planned and dreamed. My dreams were not big – or they didn’t feel so at the time. I hoped to own a home very similar to where I live now.

It’s the middle house on a shared driveway. It has warm brickwork exterior, a little conservatory, and the same lino in the bathroom that my grandmother’s house had. There are two bedrooms, an open plan lounge, and original 80s carpet which is glorious until the cat pukes somewhere and then the charming pattern becomes far less so.

This house first sold in June 1983, for $79,100. A whole new house for less than $80k.

Ten years later in 1993, it sold again, this time for $160,000. More than double the previous sale, but still an almost laughably minuscule price.

By 2012 the Rateable Value Assessment (RV) rose to $340,000, and $365,000 in 2015.

It sold two years later for $505,000, and I moved in. I believe I am its first ever tenant. And it’s the first place that ever came close to feeling like ‘mine.’

But, of course, it is not. My landlord is a pretty good guy, as far as landlords go. I am grateful to be able to deal directly with him and not a property manager. He doesn’t live in Nelson and we talk rarely. That probably adds to the illusion that I have some sort of stake in the house, some sort of say.

We are friends with our neighbours. Carol* at the end of the drive is my font of knowledge regarding Joyce. There are many tales about Joyce, most of which relate to her garden. When Carol moved in, there were two fences between her house and Joyce’s. The one on Carol’s side was ugly corrugated iron. She suggested to Joyce that she (Carol) replace it. Joyce’s response was polite and icy; “I don’t want to get off on the wrong foot,” she said. “But absolutely not.”

Nothing to do with Joyce’s garden was to be touched.

So Carol shrugged and built another wall to hide the iron – and in the process discovered that ‘Joyce’s fences’ were in fact within the boundaries of her property. I learned this after my own discovery that, absurdly, all three walls still stand. Carol and I maintain a joint battle against the jungle that arises from this outlaw territory.

My father warned me four years ago that this was a high maintenance garden. “I don’t mean to be sexist, but I’m certain this was an old woman’s baby.” Having cared for the ‘babies’ of elderly people for many years, he spoke from experience. And, being his daughter, I ignored him to my own peril.

I am, quite literally, allergic to this garden. I do not like to speak ill of the dead (especially when it is not clear where exactly Joyce shuffled off this mortal coil*), but it appears it was not just Joyce’s personality that tended towards spikiness.

There are roses that are more thorn than flower. There are what appears to be acres of hard-ridged succulents. There are enough cacti to put the set of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner to shame. One such cactus has grown up through the middle of a tree and is roughly three metres high, with spikes to match. And there is the hedge that repaid my loving trimming by burying its poison in my forearm, resulting in an allergic reaction that ended in minor surgery and a scar I swear throbs every time I look at that monstrosity.

I get other people to trim prune it now.

Despite the extremely questionable planting choices, I love this garden. I have slowly removed some of the more vicious occupants, and now nurse a swan plant cluster taller than me and experiment with vegetables every summer. I am not gifted with my father’s green fingers. This year I grew seven pea pods and was embarrassingly proud. My butterfly emporium – monarch caterpillars I foster in a kitset greenhouse away from murderous paper wasps – is far more successful.

Our neighbours to the front are English. He is an engineer who built a boat from scratch and asked her to sail away with him 22 years ago. We are therefore their first neighbours in over two decades. I have officially added them to my stable of adopted grandparents. We get invited over for ‘sundowners’ – an apparently nautical term for any sort of drink consumed with others as the sun sets.

That house is smaller than ours, directly open to the street, with no conservatory. It was valued at $380,000 in 2015. It sold for close to $700,000 last year.

Meanwhile, this property was valued at $365,000 in 2015. It sold for $505,000 two years later. The market price is now estimated to be $690,000.

Given that many places are selling for far more than even high market value, I expect this would easily go for over the $700,000 mark.

During my tenancy, I have paid approximately $80,000 in rent. That’s more than the house originally sold for. It’s what I’d need for a deposit. Add to this the many hours devoted to maintaining the garden (not including surgical expenses) and the house itself, and the illusions start to shatter.

I don’t have the energy for moral outrage. I believe it is possible to be both a landlord and a good person. If I’d had the opportunity, I would have invested in property myself – by which I mean, buy my own home. But I got sick. My savings drained away. Meanwhile, the place I call home, a place which could be taken away at any time, has earned my landlord a theoretical $200,000 return on investment.

It is for all these reasons that I, like many others, will be closely examining the impacts of Labour’s new housing policies on the market in the coming months. I’m no expert in any of this. I don’t want a crash, I don’t want negative repercussions for any tenant.

I just want to live somewhere no one can make me leave.

However. For now, spiky garden aside, I will continue to attempt to grow peas and butterflies, and when the time comes, I have planted them all in convenient pots, and I will take them with me.

I’m sure Joyce, at least, will be happy to see the back of me.


*Name changed, obviously

**I am now pleased to be able to blame every accident and misadventure I’ve had in this house on ‘the ghost of Joyce.’ Burning my face with coconut oil? Joyce. Two concussions? Joyce. Falling into the bench and spraining my ribs? Definitely Joyce.

I guess I never should have messed with her garden.

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