Moving house: Nightmare or life-affirming?

Two children stare out of a window in an empty room with boxes Image copyright Thinkstock

Moving house. The two words that strike the most dread into people, but which also provoke the most envy and excitement.

Moving house is variously described as the biggest, most expensive or most stressful nightmare. It's also described as utterly brilliant and life affirming. There is no middle way, it seems, in moving house. It is never seen as easy, cheap or quick. Can't be. This is probably because it is not only costly, time-consuming, etc, but it is also emotional. Deeply. Plus, it is character-defining. Move too far, and you are accused of disloyalty. Go round the corner, you are a scaredy-cat. Move to a mansion. You are getting above yourself. Locate to a one-bedroom flat. You're a failure.

Having just spent the last six months criss-crossing the country in order to interview people who are moving house, I now feel as if I am almost inside the packing cases. Although as I have been writing about property for years, I'm quite at home.

One truism is that everyone treats moving with great optimism and excitement. At first. Whether you are buyer or seller, it is a huge adventure. The fun starts with the glossy brochure, the online description, the plush environs of the estate agent or even the adrenaline-charged atmosphere of the auction room (I have bought two houses at auction, and let me tell you, the room is overwhelmingly charged). Then there is usually a hiccup. Has to be. There is almost always a really nasty problem at some point with the chain of buyers and sellers, the surveyors, the bankers, or the estate agents involved. Or all four. Well, it wouldn't be a proper move if everything went smoothly, would it?

Moving house is so emotionally fraught partly because it is connected to the idea that your postcode defines your persona. And it, therefore, follows that if you move house, you can change your identity - that you can be this sort of person if you lived here, or that sort of person if you lived there. Whether this is actually true, or not, is almost irrelevant.

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It's understandable, particularly in the UK, where house ownership is far greater than anywhere else in Europe or the US. And becoming a house owner, providing you have the income, is easily achieved. All you need to do is take a deep breath, do the calculations, and walk into an estate agent. It's not surprising that estate agents are on the high street in pretty much the same style and number as clothes shops. The style of your house defines you almost as much as your clothes do. And it's no wonder that there are so many estate agents out there - we all move house, on average, eight times in our lives.

So how do people choose where to go? Obviously some people are obliged to move to a place because of work, schools, or family commitments. Quite a few of us find we are living very near to where we grew up. Many others find we are packing up and going just... because. None of my case studies in a new Radio 4 series The Move had a particular reason to go where they were going. They had no roots or relations there. One cycled down the entire east coast of England before plumping on Scarborough as her new home. Another couple wanted to move from suburban Surrey to live in a national park in Lancashire. A third person decided that he wanted to go to rural Northern Ireland (from Derby) because life there would be simpler.

Many people move house because they want to fulfil a dream, such as my interviewee who left his nice sunny flat in Brighton for a cottage in Aberystwyth. He knew nothing about Wales. It was his dream to live in a small stone cottage. This is a very strong urge in us all - one constantly milked by the property industry, which is always talking about "your dream house". It is always sunny, in a dream house. And spacious, and tidy.

Whole industries of books, films and plays, let alone television adverts, have been concocted out of the human search for the perfect nest. Laura Ingalls Wilder's classic series Little House on the Prairie, which has never been out of print, depicts a family whose entire life is defined by the various house moves she and her family achieve across 19th Century America. In each instance, they try to build the Dream House, even though they are pioneers staking their claim in a wild, uncivilised land.

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More than a century on, moving to fulfil the dream is still a stubbornly resonant ambition for many of us. It was one of the reasons I moved house 10 years ago, and then moved the entire family again only five years later to a house just 13 doors down the road. The new house was identical to the old one, only a tiny bit bigger. It saddled us with a far bigger mortgage - but hey! It was a little bit nearer Dream House status. (Of course, as everyone knows, you often merely have to put things away in order to make your home look tidy and also spacious, but that's not quite so exciting as moving.)

Perhaps the most seductive reason people love to move house is that it allows the great notion of a fresh start - a fresh lick of paint in new rooms. No matter that the rooms themselves may not be new, and the furniture you are unpacking to put in them might well be your old stuff.

But the aspect will be new, the views from the windows new and the whole delicious sense of starting out anew, is delivered in crate-loads, when you move. The sensation is palpable when you get a new set of keys for that front door with the - as yet - unfamiliar door number. And because it has been so fraught, and stressful, and expensive, the sense of achievement is enormous. You did it. You moved house.

The Move, presented by Rosie Millard is broadcast on Radio 4 on Wednesdays at 11:00 GMT, from Wednesday 29 October or catch up on iPlayer.

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