Monday, August 14, 2017

The World Pipe Band Championships 2017

Well, it was a nice day. A long day, but a reasonably good one, especially once the sun came out. And that's about all that's the positives dealt with.

Our preparation for the competition actually went well, and our performance was excellent... except for one thing: there was one drone didn't strike up right, which meant it sounded off all the way through. And given just how tough it already was to qualify, that was enough to sink us.

Out of 19 bands in our qualifying group, we came 13th. That was 9th and 12th for piping, 11th for drumming, and 11th for ensemble. Though I should note that I don't think that comes close to reflecting our true position, either based on the competition, our performance, or the judge's sheets - which were extremely positive apart from that one thing. (That I think actually happens is that the judges sort their top eight or so quite carefully, and then pretty much just shuffle the rest - beyond the top eight you're not going through anyway, so who really cares?)

So we didn't qualify for the final, as I had expected. Oh well, I guess there's always next year, for the band if not for me.

There are now two minor competitions left in the season, being Peebles on the 2nd and Innerleithen on the 9th of September. Then the band's AGM on the 14th, and then I'm done.

#39: "The Secret Garden", by Frances Hodgson Burnett (a book from The List)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Worst Experience of My Life

Now that the dust is starting to settle on the house move, I thought I'd write up the tale of what is, now, the worst experience of my life. I should note that I've removed all of the names from this - it is my belief that the various people and companies involved did their level best to try to facilitate this, and that any mistakes and problems were genuinely one-offs. So while I'll most likely not do business with any of them again, I wouldn't want to persuade others to do the same.

Anyway, I would recommend settling in, because this is going to be a long one...

We had been planning to move for some time. Our trigger-point for doing this was always going to be when LC found herself a permanent teaching position, thus allowing us to position ourselves somewhere that suited both our commutes (and, indeed, our continuing family connections). Additionally, the existing deal on the mortgage on the flat expired in February of 2016, which made that a good time to move.

So, when LC found her current job, we were ready to move. And, unfortunately, that's when we made our first mistake - I argued that we should delay the move until a few weeks into the new job, to see how the commute was. If it was fine, we'd move within Falkirk, but if the commute was too much then we'd go elsewhere.

The reason this was a mistake is that there was a change to the law on Stamp Duty that came into effect in early 2016. This had the effect of cutting the legs out from under the buy-to-let market. And since the flat was ideal either for a buy-to-letter or a first-time-buyer (and that market was already depressed), we immediately hit problems.

Then the next disaster hit - when we had the flat valued, our estimate of its value was shattered. I had known that the flat lost a lot of value immediately after I purchased it (because of the financial crash), but I hadn't realised just how much, nor that it basically hadn't recovered at all. The estimate we received was fully £15,000 less than I had paid for the flat.

(That sucked really hard, but wasn't unrecoverable - basically, it meant that our target purchase of "about X" became an absolute ceiling of "no more than X". Plus, it helped that virtually all of that £15k was actually money I had received as a redundancy payment many years previously, and so wasn't really money I'd worked for.)

So, the flat went onto the market in April of 2016, and... nothing. There wasn't so much as a nibble for weeks. Then we had someone book in for a viewing... and a no-show.

Meanwhile, LC and I had found a house that we really liked. We'd made a note of interest, but weren't able to proceed with the purchase. About this time, the house was sold, so we'd lost out.

Around the summer of 2016, we went on holiday to Amsterdam. While there, we decided that we'd try a new approach - we'd look into the possibility of buying a new house, getting moved, and renting the flat out rather than selling.

Unfortunately, this turned out to be a non-starter - those same changes to the rules on Stamp Duty meant that we just couldn't swing it. We'd have found ourselves having spent every penny we had on the new place, being mortgaged to the hilt, and basically at our absolute limits. All of which is fine... unless something goes wrong. And, sooner or later, something goes wrong. (At this time, my parents made the offer of lending us some money to make this work. That would become significant later.)

There then followed a second house that we'd liked but weren't able to buy, and a second 'viewing' that turned out to be a no-show. Also, we reduced the price on the flat even further, which hurt.

Early in October 2016, we had a third viewing. This one looked like another no-show until about two hours after the appointed time, and indeed after we'd given up, I'd done the Tesco shop, and was in the process of cooking lunch. But then our eventual buyer appeared.

Things seemed to move really quickly after that - we received an offer, with the proposed date of entry in November. We had a fairly depressing day looking at houses, and then found one we really liked, we put in an offer, it was accepted, and things looked good. There would be a gap of two weeks between the two dates of entry, but we could live with LC's parents for that period. We got the mortgage arranged, and waited.

And then the delays started. First, the date of the sale was pushed back to the first of December, which actually suited us. But then that was delayed again with no fixed deadline - possibly some time in 2016.

At this point we revisited the question of buying before completing the sale. With a fairly short timescale involved, and with the promise of funds from our parents as needed, we figured that would be okay. But it meant checking with our mortgage lender. Time passed, the deadline neared... and then they said "no".

Disaster!

Anyway, our seller was not best pleased by this - they had had movers booked and had to cancel, losing quite a lot of money. (Later, they would also lose the house that they had wanted, but there wasn't anything I could do about that.)

Christmas came and went, with LC and I living amongst the boxes. It's fair to say that it wasn't the best of times. (Indeed, I'm planning to make a rather bigger production of Christmas this year to compensate - we couldn't celebrate properly last year, so let's do it right this time!)

Come the new year, we had a new estimate on when the sale would happen - the end of January. But when the first of February came, so did a new estimate, again for the end of the month. And then March was the same. And then we stopped asking.

(The explanation for this was down to the complicated ownership of our buyer's previous home - there was a co-freeholder who had to sign the release and who then died during the process. This meant that there was then an heir, who lived overseas, who had to sign off on it instead. It was all a big mess. Plus, I don't think our buyer was happy with her solicitor. Oh, we also had two more viewings of the flat, but neither came to anything.)

Anyway, at the start of May our seller decided that enough was enough, and put their house back on the market. I can't say that I blame them at all - I would have long since given up myself.

Then, near the end of May we received news that our buyer had finally completed her sale, and was ready to buy the flat! Huzzah!

But, wait! There was a wrinkle: she wanted to view the place again prior to renewing her offer. Needless to say, LC and I were more than a little concerned by this: what if she now decided against? What if she offered £10,000 less?

In the event, it was fine. The revised offer was a bit less than previously, but wasn't so bad - we grabbed it with both hands. (Truth is that had the buyer pulled out, we would probably have dropped the sale price another £3,000, which was less than the drop, so it was a no-brainer.) Our buyer's new date of entry was proposed for the 23rd of June, though we were able to push that back to the 4th of July.

At this point I made my next mistake. I sent an email to our solicitor asking, hypothetically, if our seller was willing, would it be possible to pick up where we left off? Our solicitor promptly contacted the seller and told them that we had completed our sale and did want to pick up where we left off. (Note the subtle difference there.)

Anyway, our seller got in touch, we talked it through, and they were happy to go ahead. Reading between the lines, I think they'd just received another offer but for a good bit less than our offer. We settled on a revised date of entry of the 28th of July.

There were two problems with this: (1) we actually weren't as far advanced as our seller through, and (2) our mortgage offer was about to expire.

We contacted our lender to ask for an extension, and settled in to wait. Meanwhile, our seller gave us an ultimatum: conclude missives by the end of the week or they would go elsewhere.

So we scrabbled around, desperately trying to get everything in place. And failed. Our lender again said "no" - they were quite happy for us to apply for a new mortgage, but they couldn't extend the existing offer.

We reported all this to our seller, fully expecting them to go elsewhere. But the rollercoaster took another rise as it turned out their other offer had themselves gone elsewhere, leaving us as the only game in town. Our sellers were not remotely pleased with us, and understandably so, but they were willing to go ahead. (Guilt aside, and trying to be objective, I don't think I personally did anything wrong here - I think some messages got scrambled along the way. That is, a miscommunication rather than any sort of deception.)

We applied for a new mortgage, though not with the original lender - they're not getting my business again. And we settled in to wait...

We now turn our attention back to the sale of the flat. With the dates of the moves being as they are, the team of people we would normally have called on for help were largely unavailable due to holidays. Also, since we'd be living with LC's parents for a month everything needed to go into storage. So we arranged to have a team come and move us out, store everything, and then deliver it.

The very evening we arranged all this, our seller got in touch - they'd found a new house they liked, but could we put back our entry a week, to the 4th of August, to give them time to arrange their mortgage and other things. We had no big problem with this, especially given the hassle they'd already faced, so we readily agreed.

The next few weeks were then manic. We waited for our buyer to conclude her missives, which seemed to take forever. Apparently the two sets of solicitors were arguing over some wording in the offer letter, though neither we nor our buyer actually knew what was going on - some legal thing.

Eventually, we concluded on the Thursday before the move. Huzzah!

(Never mind that that was hugely nerve-wracking. The email came through while the movers were in actively packing everything up. I dread to think what would have happened had it not gone through for any reason!)

We completed out move out of Falkirk on Saturday the 1st of July, then returned on the 2nd to give the flat a final, serious clean (which is much easier when there's nothing there). Then, on the 4th of July the sale concluded, and we were done. There was then a week of some unease as our buyer had a chance to find something wrong with it, but nothing came of that. We were done! And so we returned to the waiting for the mortgage to come through...

And wait...

Some weeks later, our seller got in touch again - why hadn't we concluded yet? After all, they'd managed to get their mortgage in two weeks!

So I got in touch with our agent, and finally got news back. Firstly, could we please sent up-to-the-minute bank statements to the lender for further evaluation. Secondly, the lender's estimate put the value of the house some £5,000 less than expected (due to the year between the previous estimate and the current). So we'd have to put in a greater deposit or accept a worse interest rate. (That's actually not a problem - we had the money, now, and borrowing less means paying less back... especially given the joys of compound interest.)

So we sent across the bank statements, and waited. Only to be told that one of the statements was no good - we'd sent it as a .CSV file (that can be opened by any spreadsheet tool, such as the ubiquitous Excel), and they wanted a .PDF. Sigh. So we sent the new file, and waited...

A week later, we got in touch again. Time was running out; what were they playing at?

Well, it turned out that they'd received the file, added it to their records... and forgotten to untick the "waiting for statements" box in the database. So they were waiting for a bank statement that they'd already received. Gah!

After the second call, that all got unlocked, and the verbal offer was made almost immediately. Then, on the other side of the weekend the paperwork came through. And all was fine. Surely now we could conclude?

(Another fun wrinkle: both our solicitor and the agent who applied for the mortgage for us went on holiday while all this was happening. Fortunately, we were left in good hands, though one of those was also about to get interesting...)

About this time, my parents returned from their annual holiday to France. However, my father returned desperately ill. I can't imagine why that detail might be relevant...

As part of the anti-money-laundering regulations, solicitors are required to verify the source of all funds used in purchasing a property. So ten days before the date of entry, we sent statements to our solicitor detailing that. But come the Thursday, there was still no sign of concluding the missives. What was going on?

Well... it turned out that the trainee solicitor who was dealing with our case wasn't authorised to sign off on the bank statements. So she'd left our solicitor an email asking her to do this as soon as she got back, on the Tuesday before the move. Naturally, I pushed back on this - I didn't expect any issues, but if there were any then we really needed to have some time to fix them.

So she had another one of the senior people at the firm look at the accounts, and sure enough there was an issue. Way back in November, in preparation for the buying-before-selling part of the plan, my father had transferred lots of money to my current account. At the start of April, I'd then moved it to my ISA, since it didn't make sense to leave it in a non-interest-paying account when it should be earning interest (and since that was the cut-off for the annual ISA limits).

Now that's fine - all that would be required would be for my father to go to his building society to get a statement showing the money leaving his account, and also to sign a statement indicating that it was a gift not a loan, and that my parents would own no equity in the house.

Oh, except that Dad had just come back from France desperately ill.

And that was the moment where the system broke me. The house move had already long-since reached the point of being my #1 worst experience ever, but that was the point where I concluded that it just wasn't for happening - even if we somehow got this mess sorted out, surely there would be another fuck up that would defeat us. It didn't help that I hadn't slept well in some weeks, had already had one night with no sleep at all that week, and then had another. Indeed, I'd reached the point where I could barely compose a coherent sentence - kept the words up getting jumbled.

Friday 28th July. A day so tough that I actually got sent home from work early out of fear that if I waited any longer I might fall asleep at the wheel and come to a terminal end. I phoned the trainee solicitor first thing, and we went through the details of the transactions - how the money in question wasn't being used, how we probably wouldn't even be using that account, how I could provide statements for my current account trivially, but that getting statements from Dad's accounts would be much more difficult. (Of course, if it had been absolutely necessary, I'm sure Dad would have rallied himself enough to go get the documentation we needed. I can't imagine that would have done him any good, but it would have been done. There are a couple lessons in all of this that haven't been lost on me.)

Well, she thought that would almost certainly be okay. They were really busy that morning, because of that week's moves all concluding, but she'd check with her senior colleague and get back to me, probably that afternoon. Cool.

Having not heard back by 4:45 that afternoon, I gave them another call, only to be reminded that they close early on Fridays. Aaaaargh!

Still, I managed not to worry about it over the weekend. There was just too much, so never mind. I was now past caring - if it didn't happen then it didn't happen.

Eight thirty on Sunday evening, we suddenly received two emails from our solicitor, newly returned from holiday and back on the case. The first of these was the last bit of documentation for us to sign and return (the original only, please - email wouldn't do it). And the second was authorisation to transfer the money, plus the details we needed. Huzzah!

And so, into the last stretch. LC went to her bank and transferred the money, getting the printed and signed receipts that the solicitors needed. Then she hand-delivered all the remaining documentation to their offices, thus removing even the Royal Mail from the chain. And I was able to reply to yet another deservedly-frantic enquiry from our seller with news that we were done on our end, and were expecting to conclude imminently. Four days to go...

Those final four days were very nervy, but they actually worked out okay - we finally concluded the missives with about a day to spare, we finally had word that the money had transferred, and everything finally settled.

Compared to all that, the move itself was a breeze - I got the key at mid-day, the movers arrived at one, and they were done by half two.

And... relax.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

The Lasagne Principle

One of the big mistakes my parents have made (especially in their old kitchen), and a mistake that LC and I had crept into in the flat, concerned the kitchen: the kitchen is probably the hardest-working room in the house, but we'd managed to fill it up with huge amounts of stuff that basically never got used. In our case, it was a huge number of mugs that we (well, I) don't want to get rid of, but which do nothing but take up a lot of space.

The kitchen in the house is actually smaller than the one in the flat. However, I'm determined that it will have more usable space, largely by adopting what I'm dubbing "The Lasagne Principle".

The principle is fairly straight-forward: anything that doesn't get used pretty frequently must be stored somewhere else. For the moment, I don't care if that's the garage, the utility room, on the dining table, or whatever else - just get it out of my kitchen.

As for "The Lasagne Principle": we have a lasagne dish that gets used somewhat infrequently - basically, every time I make a lasagne al forno, which isn't terribly often (maybe once or twice a year). That will be our cut-off point - if something is used at least as often as the lasagne dish, it can stay; if not, it needs to go.

(All that said, it looks like the Lasagne Principle is about to fail at the first hurdle - the net effect of this is that we'll have huge amounts of kitchen equipment that has been banished and a fairly large amount of unused storage space in the kitchen! So maybe the cut-off point will end up being eased a little... though "The Slow-Cooker Principle" just isn't as catchy...)

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

North Berwick and Bridge of Allan Highland Games 2017

In the competition season, there always seem to be a few weekends where we have two competitions in one weekend (and, more commonly, a gala day and a competition). I always hate those weekends - it doesn't feel like you get a weekend at all. So, naturally, this year saw the one and only two-competition weekend falling on the weekend of the house move. (Of course, I didn't think I could just opt out - we have the World Championships on Saturday, so really need to be pushing things hard for the next few days.)

In both cases, I went to the event, played, and then rushed away to do other things. In both cases this was a wise decision, as the march-past was cancelled each time. On the other hand, given the performances (and results), I needn't have bothered.

At North Berwick, our preparations were broken up significantly by us constantly being moved - while mid-way through tuning up we were told we were standing where cars were going to park imminently... and then the stewards kept telling us "you can't play there". Which sucked.

Still, that wasn't the real issue. Once again, we thought we were good to go, only to get to the line and have a bad start. After that it was mostly fine, but that bad start was enough to force us out of the prize list.

Out of 17 bands in Grade 4B, we were 5th overall (5th and 6th for piping, 5th for drumming, and 3rd for ensemble). Given the size of the competition, we were not able to play up at that event.

Bridge of Allan seemed to be a much more pleasant prospect, in that our preparation was uninterrupted. Still, we found a lot of people were having problems with drones due to the moisture, while I found my hands cramped up due to the cold (which was not fun).

Unfortunately, both of these performances were just bad from start to finish. There's no one thing to point at - it was just a bad day of work.

In the Grade 4B contest we were 9th out of 16 bands (8th and 12th for piping, 2nd for drumming, and 8th for ensemble). In the Grade 4A contest we were again 9th, this time out of 12 bands (7th and 7th for piping, 8th for drumming, and 12th for ensemble).

All in all, a poor showing for our work, and perhaps the worst possible preparation for the World Championships on Saturday. And given that we were already going more in hope than expectation, that does not look too good.

Oh well. Three to go - and 32 days until the end of the season.

Friday, August 04, 2017

The Best Line in a Bad Film

The 2011 version of "The Three Musketeers" (the version with the airships) is not a good film by any stretch of the imagination. I found it highly entertaining, but I certainly wouldn't call it 'good'. (That said, the makers of musketeer movies are always up against it - the Reed/York version is definitive.)

Anyway, much as it's not a good film, that version does have a number of good lines. IMO, the best of these is from Cardinal Richelieu as he finds Rochefort practicing his swordsmanship:

"The wonderful thing about fighting an imaginary opponent, Captain Rochefort, is that he is always greatly skilled, yet easily defeated."

I can't think why the latest book I've finished reminds me so strongly of that particular comment...

#38: "The Power", by Naomi Alderman (dear oh dear...)

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Project Tadpole is a Go!

We're still waiting for the house sale to complete, after which I will post at great length about how that all went down (the post is just about written, and it's an epic, but I'm sure there's still time for a couple more twists...)

Anyway, in the meantime there's the other big news in the world of Steph/ven and Lady Chocolat. Which, incidentally, is also why we're currently in Part Four (and a Half) and will remain so for the next few months:

We've known about this for a few weeks, but obviously couldn't share it here until we'd informed family first. Also, we wanted to have the twelve-week scan first. That scan was on Tuesday, and so now we can share the news. It's pretty exciting!