TOM UTLEY: Finally, the youngest of my four sons was ready to fly the nest until… ‘Computer says no’
Fingers crossed, it’s looking as if by this time next week, the youngest of our four sons will finally have flown the family nest, leaving Mrs U and me alone in the house for the first time since our eldest was born 34 years ago.
Well, not quite for the first time. As readers with long memories may recall, I wrote a column on this page eight years ago, describing my mixed feelings when the boy left for his university and we briefly had the house to ourselves.
Much as I loved Harry (and all three of his brothers, I hasten to say), I had thought I would be happy to be rid of him, foreseeing countless blessings from his departure.
For example, green peppers and mushrooms could make a welcome return to the menu in the Utley household (I loved them, Harry couldn’t stand them). After my morning shower, there would be warm, dry towels hanging on the rail, instead of a heap of wet ones on the floor.
Best of all, there would no longer be any competition for my favourite spot on the sofa in front of the TV — and Mrs U and I could watch whatever we liked, without facing a barrage of groans if we dared switch over from the wretched football to the latest Andrew Davies adaptation of the classics.
Much as I loved my youngest Harry, I thought I would be happy to be rid of him. There would no longer be any competition for my favourite spot on the sofa and I could watch whatever we liked, without facing a barrage of groans if we switched over from the wretched football
Yet far from rejoicing over my new-found freedom, I found to my great surprise that I suffered from Empty Nest Syndrome — a condition more usually associated with mothers than fathers. The house seemed eerily tidy and quiet.
But I didn’t suffer for long. Before I knew it, son number three had boomeranged back to the nest, followed soon afterwards by our eldest.
Then, when he finished his course at Sheffield, Harry himself was back. And though the others have since gone their separate ways again, he’s been on the premises ever since.
It’s an experience that will be all too familiar to countless parents of my generation — particularly, though far from exclusively, in the South East, where the housing crisis has pushed rent well beyond the means of so many of our young. Indeed, it must surely be fair to say that the cost of housing affects our children’s lives more than any other political issue of our time.
After all, in these days of near-full employment, they have jobs aplenty to choose from, all the clothes and electronic gadgets they could wish for — and with air fares cheaper than ever, they are the best-travelled generation in history.
On all these counts, they are far better off than we were at their age. But when it comes to housing, my generation were the lucky ones.
We didn’t have to be mega-rich to own a home, while for those who couldn’t afford to buy there were plenty of places available to rent without breaking the bank. Not so these days. No wonder so many twentysomethings conclude that the frustrations of living with their parents are preferable to the crippling expense of renting a cupboard-sized room in a slum.
Add the attractions of mum’s cooking, and I was beginning to think that Harry would be with us for the rest of our days.
Before I knew it, son number three had boomeranged back to the nest, followed soon afterwards by our eldest. Then, when he finished his course at Sheffield, Harry himself was back. It’s an experience all too familiar to countless parents in the South East, where the housing crisis has pushed rent well beyond the means of so many of our young
But then a couple of weeks ago, the boy announced that he had come to a momentous decision. His oldest brother George had found a new flat to share with a friend, he said, and they needed one more tenant to cover the rent. Harry, now 25, had volunteered to join them!
There was just one problem. With an employment history that can charitably be described as chequered, he needed a guarantor to underwrite his rent. Oh, and George needed one, too. The letting agents insisted. Was there any chance that dad might oblige?
Well, it would be wholly unfair to say I was prepared to sign anything to see the back of him.
But after eight years, my memories of Empty Nest Syndrome were long forgotten, while my dreams of dry towels and a rest from football on the TV had come to the fore again.
So with an alacrity he may have found hurtful, I told him: ‘Of course I’ll be your guarantor. And George’s, too. Nothing would make me happier.’
Little did I realise what I was letting myself in for. I’d imagined I would just have to scrawl my signature on a promise to pay the boys’ rent if they defaulted.
But then I was brought up in the days when all it took was an honest face and a couple of weeks’ rent in advance to seal the deal.
How times have changed. By agreeing magnanimously to stand as the boys’ guarantor, I appear to have walked into a bureaucratic labyrinth full of box-tickers eager to tell me: ‘Computer says no.’
First, I was contacted by a ‘tenant referencing agency’, which had been hired by the boys’ estate agent to check out my credit-worthiness.
I filled in the required form, revealing everything about my employment history and financial circumstances — healthier now, I’m happy to report, than at any previous time in my life. A manager at the Mail kindly agreed to act as my referee, confirming to these nosey investigators that I’m paid a generous monthly sum for my Friday columns.
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But the next I heard was from the estate agent herself. Apparently, the referencing agency had rejected my application to be a guarantor, on the grounds that I was no longer employed by the Mail.
Well, yes, I said, strictly speaking that was true. I became self-employed when I retired from my staff job on the paper at the beginning of December last year. But as I thought I’d explained on the form, I remain under contract to write this weekly column, which for the time being gives me a secure income quite large enough money to pay my sons’ rent if they do a runner (which they won’t).
The estate agent wasn’t convinced. As a self-employed person, she told me, I’d have to send in a copy of my latest tax return. Just one catch there: since I’ve been self-employed for only three months, the tax return for the last financial year covers a period when I was employed full-time as a member of the Mail’s staff.
So once again, computer said no. The estate agent said she’d get back to me.
When she rang again, she told me that as a special concession, her firm was prepared to accept me as a guarantor, but only if I sent her a recent bank statement confirming how much I was in credit. This was becoming exasperating, but I did as I was told.
I called up the statement online and emailed it to her. Computer still said no. The trouble this time was that all my earnings go into the joint account I share with Mrs U.
But since it was she who signed up for online banking, our statements are in her name, not mine. Damnation!
At this point, I had a brainwave. I sent the agent a photograph of my chequebook, which has both our names printed above the account number.
I had no idea what I was letting myself in for when I agreed to be my sons’ guarantor. I’d imagined I would just have to scrawl my signature on a promise to pay the boys’ rent if they defaulted. But instead I appear to have walked into a bureaucratic labyrinth full of box-tickers eager to tell me: ‘Computer says no’
In desperation, I added that if she still refused to believe I’d been under contract to the Daily Mail since my semi-retirement, she should click on the ‘columnists’ tab on Mail Online, where she’d find all my weekly musings.
To cut a ludicrously long story short, this appears to have done the trick.
That is to say I’ve had a message from the agency, saying: ‘We have completed your financial reference.’ Does this mean I’ve been accepted as a guarantor?
For our sons’ sake and ours, I certainly hope so. The joys of an empty nest beckon — until the next time the boys boomerang back to the nest.
But my God, what a bureaucratic palaver Generation Rent has to go through these days, just to find somewhere to live.
If Theresa May cares about her party’s long-term future, may I suggest she moves the housing crisis right to the top of her agenda — always assuming she doesn’t have other things on her mind?
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