Property fantasies are quickly ruined by reality

My friend is trying to buy a flat in Bristol, and each time he sends me a link with a little question mark, I get a complicated rush. Looking at property websites has been an anti-pleasure of mine for many years now, and sometimes I browse as meditation, other times masochism, often as a sorbet-like palate cleanser before paddling into a crisis.

But this week the flat he was viewing had an oddness to it and it took a minute for me to work out what was wrong. I realised, with unsurprised shock, that the furniture was not of human size. The rooms had been staged – with a chest of drawers the width of a shelf, a single bed had been made up with two pillows to appear as a double, and so on – with a certain poetry. The decoration was to nobody’s taste, which I respect – pastel velvet cushions, many small and sharp-angled mirrors, a wide-backed chair masquerading as a sofa, a cheese plant instead of a wardrobe. The flat was furnished for an unhappy couple seen from a distance and still he was outbid, which is good because it means I can carry on looking.

I found myself two evenings ago watching a reality show about estate agents, while scrolling marvels of architecture for sale on my phone, while reading a news story about homelessness. Eva, I tutted, you’ve drifted into late-stage capitalism again, do better. It’s hard, though, to unstick the various pages of fantasy when they’ve been so water-damaged by truth. Even reality shows touch on reality occasionally – this episode of Selling Sunset saw estate agent Chrishell, a 40-year-old Disney princess whose hair appears to have its own wind machine, holding a charity auction for LA’s growing homeless population. She was hosting the auction in a house on the market for $4.4m. I watched open-mouthed and heavy lidded, unsure whether I’d accidentally passed through a shadowed portal.

There are times when, having immersed myself for too long in this semi-world of other people’s houses, that I feel myself shrinking to fit, becoming an architectural rendering. A happy houseowner, delighting in my green and sandy yard, gambolling faceless through shiny white-floored rooms. Friends and I send each other links to mad and delightful houses as if they’re memes, but alongside the daydreams there’s a hollowness, too, as so many of these friends know they will be renting forever, unable to nail up a picture let alone knock through a wall.

Over lockdown there was a period when galleries and stately homes were closed, but estate agents were still showing houses and, as my habit worsened, the idea of an hour-long holiday to someone else’s life sunk its teeth into my arm. I love where I live. I have no plans to move, beyond the general domestic speculations about our fabulous retirement home, but I am compelled to keep on looking. I emailed some estate agents, casual, breezy. Because just in case, and what if? What if I fell in love, I said to my sleeping boyfriend, with a modernist bungalow in Cheam?

I created a backstory – nothing fancy, your basic middle-aged picture-framer, one teenage daughter, hobbies include bees and fintech, wears Margaret Howell and middle-aisle-Aldi – and made an appointment to view a house by the sea. It was exquisite and definitely haunted, and I got a message to say it had sold before I even left home. So I went to see the next one down, two bus stops away from me. It felt a little bit like having an affair, as I approached the waving seller, the same dreadful excitement, the same sensation of weightlessness. But as I walked through the house and heard about the tricky heating, the way the light comes in at breakfast time, all glee fell away.

The joy of looking at houses for sale, I realise, is the idea that their emptiness could be filled by you. It’s the seductive vacuum that appears in photographs of rooms that a person has recently left, the walls vibrating slightly with the promise of a soul, the memory of a meal being cooked, the suggestion that you could be happy here, if you just slightly shifted the sofa, or slightly became better at relationships.

Though he wanted to sell, the owner also did not want to leave. This was his home, this was his tricky heating, this was his breakfast light. In real life, of course, the place looked different to the photos. Smaller. It smelled of unlit candles, books and wool, and here was where his daughter slept when she was in town, and would I like some water, and here was where he read the paper, and here was a photo of his elderly mother in Greece who needed help getting up. When he was gazing off to the garden, explaining how he was sad he would never see blossom on the row of trees he’d planted by the path, I flicked the property app open on my phone, and zoned gently into the eco kitchen of a barn in Norfolk. Bloody reality. Ruins everything.