Hannah Drake

Expat Life

American Houses vs. British Houses

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I’ve been thinking a lot about this as we consider buying a house. It’s come up in a few conversations I’ve had with American friends who live here and especially my little brother when I post something on Instagram like my kitchen sink and he can’t believe there are two different taps. I wanted to compile a list of the differences that I’ve noticed from my experience living in Colorado (in houses and a townhouse) and in Birmingham, England (in a terraced house, also visiting flats and semi-attached houses). This is only my experience in the places I’ve lived, so it might not—probably doesn’t—apply to everywhere in the UK or the US.

THE TYPES OF HOUSES ARE CALLED DIFFERENT THINGS

We live in a terraced house, which is basically what a townhouse would be in the States. In the city, these are really common and actually most of our friends live in terraced homes. My mom moved into a townhouse in the States when I was a freshman in high school, so in a lot of ways, I’m used to that type of house. You know, not having windows on two sides of the house, sharing a wall with the neighbours, etc. My mom’s house, though, was one of five in a separate building, even though the whole street is lined with townhouses. Our house, on the other hand, is one of I don’t even know how many. The building pretty much runs continuous down the street. Unlike the States, you’re more likely to have a decent sized back garden (yard). My mom basically just had a patio with a couple of flower beds while we have a small patio (I guess you could call it that even though there’s no space to put patio furniture) and a longer yard.

In the UK, what would be considered duplexes are called semi-attached. They seem to be a lot more common than duplexes, at least where I’m from compared to where I live now. To be honest, I’ve always found the thought of a duplex a little strange. But in Birmingham, with them being so common, it’s just kind of a fact of life. To me, it feels like more of an “upgrade” from a terraced house to a semi-attached then a townhouse to a duplex. Maybe they need rebranding in the States. Or maybe I’m too judgemental. (Probably.)

And of course we all know that Brits call apartments flats, which just seems so posh, right? But like if an American called their apartment a flat it would seem really pretentious and try-hard.

THE FLOOR PLANS ARE MORE OPEN IN THE STATES

I’m not sure if this applies to older houses in the States, but most of the houses I lived in or visited had really open floor plans. The downstairs would often just be one big open space, combining the living room, dining room, and kitchen. There might be some half walls or entryways, but the rooms don’t feel completely separate from one another. In the UK, especially older houses, are more likely to have completely separate rooms. For example, in the house we live in now, the dining room, living room, and kitchen are all in a row. There are two doors into the living room, so you could close both and be completely closed off from the rest of the house. It’s come in handy when we’ve had foster cats, but it’s really annoying when we’re hosting friends, especially bigger groups. Our house just feels so small sometimes. Newer builds in the UK are moving toward more open floor plans though, from what I’ve seen.

THERE IS MINIMAL STORAGE SPACE IN BRITISH HOUSES

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: one of the things that drew me to our current house was the pantry under the stairs and the closet above the stairs. Those two things are a serious rare find. There is obviously minimal space to build on, so they often try to maximise living space and the storage place suffers. If you can fit a cupboard under the stairs, they’ll absolutely do it. (I see you, Harry Potter!) But one of my coworkers said there is literally no where in his house to put his vacuum cleaner. It seems like in the States people often have walk-in pantries, a closet in every bedroom, a linen closet in the hallway (maybe both upstairs and downstairs), a coat closet, etc. That’s right, most bedrooms in the UK don’t even have closets. That’s why we need wardrobes!

SINKS SOMETIMES HAVE TWO SEPARATE TAPS IN THE UK

This is what baffled my little brother the most. This is also something that I find incredibly annoying. Both our kitchen sink and our bathroom sink have two separate taps, one for hot water and one for cold water. So yeah, you can’t really wash your hands in warm water. Though Luke tried the other night by switching back and forth between the two taps while they were both extreme in their respective temperatures.

MOST ROOMS WILL HAVE A RADIATOR IN THE UK

Instead of vents in the floor or ceiling, there’s probably a radiator on the wall in every room. We have one in every room but the bathroom. They take up a bit of space on the wall and have to be considered when arranging furniture, but it’s also kind of nice that we don’t have to heat the whole house. In the winter, we usually just heat the living room and our bedroom.

AMERICAN HOUSES HAVE A LOT OF BATHROOMS

I never realised how much I appreciated a good 3.5 bath house! Even in my mom’s townhouse, all three bedrooms were en suites, plus there was a powder room on the main floor. In our house, which has the same amount of bedrooms, but is only two stories (it doesn’t have a basement), we only have one bathroom. We’ve seen house that have a powder room on the main floor as part of an addition or that the space under the stairs is actually a small bathroom. We’ve also seen some en suites, usually part of a renovation. But most of the time, there’s one bathroom. The idea that Luke and I could get food poisoning from the same meal haunts me and is something that I think about probably more than I should.

THE WASHER IS PROBABLY IN THE KITCHEN IN THE UK

Okay, maybe this is the weirdest one. Almost every house I’ve been to in the UK has a washer, as in a clothes washer, in the kitchen. People often don’t have a dryer and have to hang their clothes to dry. Or maybe they have a two-in-one like Luke had in the house where he lived before I moved. It obviously takes up cabinet space, but Luke says it’s because all of the plumbing is contained to one area. Just think, if your kitchen has a dishwasher and a clothes washer, that’s two cabinets gone! And they’re already precious for storage! I have seen a handful of homes with a utility room and I really wanted to buy a house I didn’t love because I was blinded by the massive utility room. (Spoiler Alert: We didn’t.) Our current house doesn’t have a dishwasher (or a microwave!), so we’re only “missing” one cabinet for our clothes washer, which does not double as a dryer. But if we buy a house without a utility room, you better believe it’ll be a part of my renovation plans. One time my father-in-law asked me if I’d rather have a dishwasher or a dryer and I think my answer still remains true. I’d rather have a dryer, but only to dry sheets and towels. I hate having the linens hung all over our house after laundry day, especially in the winter when it takes forever and we can’t use our clothing line outside.

The Expat Diaries, Vol. 17

LifeHannah DrakeComment

It’s been a bit of an eventful two months! Firstly, I celebrated two years of living abroad on June 8th. It has seriously gone by so quickly, I can’t believe it. The second year has brought about new challenges and I was more homesick over that year than the first. Maybe it’s because I visited the States a few times, but it was definitely more difficult.

We had two house guests almost back-to-back. My mom came to visit at the end of May. I met her in London and we spent the day walking around the city. During her trip, we also visited Hampton Court Palace and Balsover Castle. It was so nice having her over again. I’m still trying to convince her to come stay with us if we buy a house so she can work her magic and she and Luke fix it up just how we want it. She’s seriously a home improvement genius!

A few weeks later, my Instagram friend turned real life friend Gennean came to visit. We met in London last summer and she mentioned she might be back across the pond this year so I told her to let me know if she needed a place to stay near Birmingham! Unfortunately she was there during our eleven days of no internet, which doesn’t exactly make things convenient for someone who works remotely, but it was great hosting her. It wasn’t as busy as my mom’s visit, which she said was exactly what she needed after a busy stay in London the weeks before. I’m so glad that it worked out that she was able to come visit. I’m so glad that neither of us will end up on one of our mutually favourite podcasts, My Favorite Murder, and I’m really excited for you all to hear the podcast episode we recorded about being an expat.

We got some new fosters, picking up a mom and her three kittens at the end of May. The kittens were only about four weeks old at the time and so tiny! Toward the end of June, we took the mom, Valkyrie, back to the cattery to go to a different foster home where she could adjust to life without her babies. The original plan was to keep all three kittens, Thor, Loki, and Hela, but Thor was refusing to eat dry food when it came time to separate him from his mom, so he had to go into one-on-one care for a while to learn how to eat and get better at using the litter box. He only needed a few days away, as it turned out. He came back the hungriest and greediest of all three. The best news is they’ve all three been adopted by the same family! And selfishly, we’re slightly happy that they’re without their mom now because they’re way more affectionate with us. (Though still a far cry from our lap cat, Jake.)

I was off last week for the Fourth of July due to my normal work schedule. It was kind of a boring day, especially after my planned cake was a total disaster and unassembleable. That evening, we went over to our friend Taylor’s house for a BBQ. We had potato salad, corn on the cob, sweet tea, lemonade, and apple pie. Everyone brought their own meat to grill in typical British BBQ fashion. It was a lovely evening to hang out with friends, but to be honest, I wasn’t feeling all that patriotic or up to celebrating America. Earlier in the day, before I had given up on my cake, I was listening to Pod Save America’s mail bag episode. It ended with the question “What gives you hope?” Host Jon Favreau—not the actor/director—suggested listening to Barack Obama’s 2015 speech in Selma, marking the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. I sat down and read the speech from start to finish and even shared a few quotes on Instagram. It did give me hope and for a moment it took away my anger and my sadness about what is going on from coast to coast in my native country.

The next day, Luke and I finally joined a gym. It’s the first time I’ve belonged to a gym since living in England for 25 months. I’m hopeful that it will make a difference for me—and a good way for Luke to gently rehab his hip—because I’ve discovered that I can’t be held responsible for working out at home.

The Expat Diaries, Vol. 16

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Holy smokes! How is it even possible that as of today, I’m exactly a month away from being a resident of England for two years. Was that confusing? I’ve lived in the UK for exactly 23 months and I can’t believe it! I’ll never forget the day I moved to England. Luke was in Colorado for my last week. The morning of the move, my mom took us to breakfast and then dropped us off at the airport. We had one easy flight and one flight I would very much like to forget. (I’ll never fly Thomas Cook/Condor ever again.) We landed in Manchester and took the train back to Birmingham, where I moved into the house Luke would be sharing with three other guys for another two weeks or so. I think we had fish & chips for dinner, Luke went out to vote for his local MP, I went to bed, and woke up in the middle of the night, hours before our flight to Berlin for holiday with Luke’s family. It was a crazy week. And as cliche as it is to say it, I still can’t believe this is my life.

I still can’t believe that I like in the United Kingdom. I find it so ironic that years ago, a guy broke up with me, citing a throwaway comment I made once about wanting to temporarily live abroad someday. I remember being so confused as that being his reasoning because I barely remembered saying it. But it was like that idea continued to grow deep down inside me, so when I made the decision to move (rather than Luke being the one to move), it felt right. It felt like something I could handle. It was an exciting new adventure and I felt really at peace with that.

Thanks for indulging my little moment of reflection on the last (almost) two years. Now I’ll get to the last two months, which has included two fairly major life things.

A few months ago, I called a counselling office to book time with a counsellor/therapist. It’s an office set up in town where counsellors basically volunteer their time to meet with patients. You get a block of six weekly appointments, plus an initial evaluation where you just meet with your counsellor and determine if it’s a good fit. Per appointment, t costs £5 if you’re unemployed and £10 if you’re employed. And that’s what I think is truly amazing. I had my sixth (technically seventh) appointment last Thursday. It was really good to be able to talk to someone about all kinds of different things.

I think this second year abroad has been a bit more difficult than the first. I still love living in England and Luke and I are working to put down even more roots, so it’s not like a move back to the States is even on the table for now. (Side note: It always is. It’s always an option for us, but we’ve chosen not to consider it until it begins to feel right. We’re both open to it near or far down the line, but neither of us ever want to put a date on it until we actually need to for logistical reasons because it’s actually happening.) I have a feeling that the difficulty has been more about the personal changes I’ve experienced in recent months and less about living abroad. Maybe just the new city and country further highlight those shifts and changes. Or maybe there’s no more distraction of wedding planning and the fact that I’ve been back to the States twice in my second year and didn’t go back at all during my first. Who knows!

But either way, therapy was good. I’m able to “reapply” in the future since there’s a waiting list, but I’m also kind of welcoming the break and hoping to dig in more with the things that came up for me in those conversations, especially about my anxiety. And by the way, therapy is freaking awesome. You should try it if you haven’t and you shouldn’t ever feel ashamed that you’re in counselling or therapy or whatever you want to call it. You wouldn’t feel ashamed about getting a physical from your doctor, so why feel shame about taking care of your mind?

So about those roots we’re working on. It all kind of hinges on getting a house. If this isn’t your first Expat Diaries, you might know that we’re desperate to get a puppy and a kitten. (Yes, at the same time.) But we’re not able to have pets in the rental we’ve lived in for the last 22 months. (Woah! I can’t believe it’s been that long!) Buying a house has been on our radar for quite some time. We were hoping to buy in early 2019, but then figured we’d wait until after Brexit (at the time planned for March) to see what happened with the market and to get an additional three months of savings. In January, we decided to sign another six-month lease, taking us almost through the end of July, with hopes that we would move from our rental into our own house at the beginning of August, but with a fallback plan to go month-to-month on our lease if needed.

We started looking at houses in March, with an idea of our financials, but without confirming anything. (I’m not sure I would recommend this.) After seeing half a dozen houses, most of which were solid no’s, we finally got in touch with our bank about a mortgage. One afternoon, we sat in bed, Luke on the phone with our bank, to find out if we could be approved for what we wanted.

“Does Hannah have a British passport?” the woman asked while gathering our information.

“No, she has an American passport,” Luke replied. I got up to get it, but it turns out I didn’t need it at all. When I came back into the room, Luke was in the middle of a line of questioning about my residency. What visa do I have? How long have I lived here? It ended with a frustrating conclusion. I’m not eligible to be a part of our mortgage. I’m not on the right visa. I haven’t lived here long enough. Even as Luke’s wife, I can’t get a joint mortgage.

That was obviously not what we wanted to hear and it meant we could only go forward with Luke on the application. Because of that, he didn’t get a yes or a no right away, but later got approved, thank goodness. It would have been so frustrating if we hadn’t been able to buy a house because of my residency and we totally lucked out.

Hopefully I’ll have more information in two months in my next Expat Diaries with where we’re out with the house hunt since we’ll be close to the end of our lease (though we can go month-to-month after our lease is up), so in the meantime, send us first time homebuyers lots of good vibes!