Will the "bedroom tax" bring a rush to swap?
Having wasted my life writing novels that haven't troubled the bestseller lists, my wife and I would be unable to reach the bottom rung of the housing ladder even if we stood on unsold copies of my books.
Instead we rent a Peabody two-bedroom conversion property in Holloway with our eight-year-old daughter and son, aged six. Judging by the internecine warfare taking place at bedtime the kids will soon need their own rooms, but we won't be eligible for a three-bedroom social housing home until our daughter is 16 — by which time my wife and I will probably have run away from home ourselves. In desperation, we decided to find someone with a larger place who might be interested in a swap.
As councils and housing associations usually have long waiting lists, arranging your own swap is an increasingly popular way for social housing tenants to find a place to suit their changing needs. We are free to organise swaps ourselves to any similar housing association or council property, anywhere in the country, so long as we meet the new landlord's criteria.
Probably the largest free site is housexchange.org which was set up by Circle 33 housing association in 2005. The site has 225,000 properties registered, with a 26 per cent rise in membership since April last year. All council or housing association tenants are eligible to join.
"We want to make House Exchange as accessible as possible for social housing tenants," says the website's manager Kim Doran. "Many people may soon be looking to move to smaller homes when changes to housing benefit come into force later this year."
When the so-called "bedroom tax" takes effect on April 1, anyone claiming benefits deemed to be under-occupying their social property will have their entitlement cut by up to 25 per cent. However, with housing benefit expenditure for 2012/13 predicted to be £23.8 billion, it's clear something needs to be done.
A government spokesman says: "It's not fair for people to continue to live in homes that are too large for their needs when in England alone there are about five million people on the social housing waiting list and more than a quarter of a million tenants living in overcrowded conditions."
As we are seeking a larger property, and many families supposedly over-occupying require somewhere smaller, we imagined it would be easy finding the perfect home, but this has not been the case. Many people — admittedly including us — have ludicrously high expectations.
In the course of our search we've had some pretty bizarre experiences, from the well-to-do couple living in a detached cottage who wanted somewhere with a field for their horses, to the woman who turned down our home because she wasn't convinced her dogs would like our 20-metre garden.
We've encountered "through-the-keyhole" voyeurs who ask to see photos of our house and then don't respond, or tell you how much they dislike your wallpaper, or cancel a planned viewing two hours before they are due to arrive because they "hadn't realised where you lived".
Apart from needing an extra bedroom, we also felt we'd like our kids to grow up in a quieter place where they'd have freedom to roam. Being London-centric, we naively assumed that anywhere outside the M25 would be a bucolic idyll compared with N19, so it came as a shock to discover that sleepy towns such as Worthing or Eastbourne are full of estates the size of Nevada.
We've become experts in using Google Street View to assess the suitability of potential suitors; decoding phrases such as "semirural" (derelict brownfield), "great views" (23rd floor) and "ideal for music lovers" (above a pub), as well as the problems arising from the dreaded "multi-swap", where three or more households must move all at once in a public-sector version of the "chain".
Having long been concerned about the quality of secondary schools in London we found that even the most perfect home — we are talking a little semi in a leafy village with a large garden and great links to London — may not work because, according to Ofsted (admittedly not always the best indicator of quality), the local school resembles something from the South Bronx.
On several occasions we found properties that suited our needs then discovered those people wishing to move into our place weren't eligible. Though theoretically most council or housing association tenants are free to swap homes, landlords have different criteria, and swaps can fall through at the last moment due to unforeseen problems, such as different ideas of what constitutes overcrowding or under-occupying, whether or not dogs and other pets are allowed, and whether both swappers are assured or secure tenants.
Just as we were beginning to despair and draw up plans to turn a cupboard into a bedroom, we made contact with a couple in Chesham, Buckinghamshire.
Their house is a traditional three-bedroom semi with a large garden and excellent schools nearby, and we have now formally agreed to swap. Our new home has right to buy, so maybe it's not too late for us to reach the bottom rung of the property ladder after all...
Free social housing exchange websites include: