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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Olivia Petter

‘It’s a constant sense of displacement’: The mental and physical toll of moving house six times in two years


When the email arrived, I dropped to the floor. Swear words aimed at no one in particular followed. Then came the tears. And soon I was struggling to catch my breath. After just a few months, I was being kicked out of my house. The reasons were complicated and unprecedented, and I won’t go into them here. But needless to say, it was a low blow. Made more so by the fact that it would be my sixth time moving house in two years.

Given how frequently I’ve moved, you’d think that by now, this is a process I’ve become accustomed to. And in some ways, I have. Sell things you don’t need on Facebook Marketplace and try not to get scammed. Cancel all of the bills far in advance – and also try not to get scammed. Make sure the cat is OK. Order the packing boxes as soon as possible and organise them by room. Book the van to collect everything and make sure you ask for two people, not one. Check the cat is still OK. Don’t put all of the books in one box because the movers are not superheroes. Give some clothes to friends and donate others to charity. Check on the cat again.

And that’s just moving out. Moving in is an entirely different set of headaches. Register with the council and all of your new energy providers. Order the wifi box so that it arrives in time for work. Try not to get into a public spat with the internet provider on Twitter when the wifi box doesn’t arrive on time. Register with a local gym that has showers so you can save water. Make a mental note to bring a towel next time so you don’t have to air dry in the changing rooms. Delete the passive aggressive tweets you inevitably send to the internet provider after a glass of wine. Order a calming spray for felines because the cat is not OK.

I’ve got the routine down to a tee. And yet, each move has been harder than the last. This is partly because every time I’ve had to up sticks, the reasons for leaving have become more personal and complex, ranging from landlord issues and family matters to being priced out. But it’s also because of the increasing sense of exasperation and upheaval.

Every move is defined by an underlying sense of displacement, one that spreads slowly like a disease each time. And when you’re changing homes once every few months, that feeling starts to take hold of your mind, body and spirit. The move consumes you.  Fundamental feelings, like safety and stability, start to fade. The nomadic lifestyle might suit some but it certainly doesn’t work for me.

Then there’s the sheer amount of time it all takes. Hours are lost to logistical nightmares and negotiations. You become a slave to estate agents, SpareRoom, and AnyVan. You can’t remember the last time you spoke to anyone outside of customer services. Work inevitably takes a toll, too, along with your mental and physical wellbeing – who has spare time to exercise when you’re constantly juggling deadlines and house viewings?

Then, of course, there are the crippling costs to consider. It’s no secret that landlords have hiked their rents up by inordinate amounts, particularly in London. In October, the average rental price in the city hit a record £553 a week, while roughly 30 applicants were said to be vying for each property in September. The homelessness charity, Shelter, estimates that one in five Londoners are currently behind or struggling to keep up with their rent. Based on my own experiences and those of my friends, I suspect that figure is much higher. And don’t even get us started on trying to get on the housing ladder.

Finding a rental property has been harder this time than ever before. On SpareRoom – my usual go-to – it was slim pickings, particularly because very few people were willing to take on a capricious cat. Meanwhile, the few properties that did fit the bill were in such high demand that the adverts began with pleas begging applicants to stop getting in touch.

There were a few occasions where I got so close to finding something I could almost smell the clean sheets. Perfect homes within my price range with lovely, normal-sounding people. We’d exchange pleasantries, numbers, and even photographs of the cat. Then they would disappear, ghosting me with more brutality than anyone I’ve met on a dating app.

Things weren’t much better when I involved estate agents, either. Almost every property I’d enquired about online had already been let – “sorry, we haven’t had a chance to take it offline yet” was a common refrain. Meanwhile, putting in an offer, I was told, was completely pointless unless I was willing to go well above the asking price.

Nothing makes you question your life choices quite like having to constantly box up all of your belongings. Everything becomes a relic, a memory from another home you once thought you’d live in for years

Eventually, I did find somewhere. Of course, it came with compromises, like its location (far from family) and the fact it was entirely unfurnished (the only furniture I owned was a desk).  It was also, unsurprisingly, way above what I was willing to pay. But in the end, none of that mattered. I had found a home. So I signed the lease and breathed a sigh of relief.

I also decided to do some things differently regarding the move itself. Instead of packing up my items and hiring a van to collect them, I sought the help of a professional pack and move company, Davis and Mac. Something about the pastel-coloured vans seemed soothing, and the idea of having someone come to my house on the morning of my move date and pack everything for me was obviously irresistible.

Compared to hiring a van, it’s not cheap. But when you’ve done this as much as I have, you start to realise it’s a price worth paying. Nothing makes you question your life choices quite like having to constantly box up all of your belongings. Everything becomes a relic, a memory from another home you once thought you’d live in for years. A painful reminder that you failed to do so, and that you’ve lost a lot in the process. Not having to face that this time made an enormous difference.

As I write this from my new flat, I’ll admit that I am anxious about being on borrowed time. Even though I’ve signed a three-year lease with a two-year break clause (this means that technically nothing should change until 2024), it’s hard to shake the feeling that I might have to do this all over again in a matter of months. I really hope that I don’t.

It’s an increasingly common story for renters across the country but I – and the cat – have had just about enough of it.

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