If I’d known last month what I know today, it wouldn’t have helped.
Four weeks ago I thought we could get off a plane in London, buy a car, and drive to Suffolk to start our big adventure.
The first three days went without a hitch. We passed our Day-2 COVID test and managed to get ourselves and our legion of luggage out of London to my friend Victoria’s house in Berkshire. Best of all was our tearful and joyful reunion with Molly.
The next week, however, wasn’t all plain sailing.
The plan was to stay with Victoria for a few nights until we bought a car. But first, we needed to transfer our money from Australia to the UK.
Step #1: Open a bank account.
We decided to go completely digital with one of those new-fangled online banks. It was a very streamlined process and before I knew it I was all set up, money transferred, with a debit card winging its way to our registered address in Suffolk.
Except now we were at Victoria’s, two and a half hours away on the other side of London. Not to worry, I thought. I can use Apple Pay. Who needs a physical card these days?
Lesson #1. You need a physical card.
Apple Pay allows you to pay for the groceries or a couple of pints across the bar, but you can’t start making purchases online without knowing the card number and expiry date. And the bank won’t tell you because you haven’t activated the card, which you can’t do until you get your hands on it.
And we couldn’t get our hands on it because we didn’t have a car to get us, our luggage and Molly to Suffolk.
Step #2: Buy a car.
We’re not car aficionados. As long as it’s not a gas-guzzler, and it has space for the dog and a set of golf clubs, we’d be happy with any old thing. Although we do insist on automatic transmission, coffee cup holders, a decent stereo, and heated seats. Like I said, we’re not fussy.
It didn’t take us long to do some research and draw up a shortlist of second-hand cars.
“We’ll get it financed,” I said. “No point in tying up a large chunk of money on a car when the interest rates are so low.”
Lesson #2. Finance schminance!
To all intents and purposes, we have dropped out of the sky onto English soil with nothing to prove our existence, except for a debit card languishing in our letterbox in Suffolk, 143 miles away.
This is how my conversation with the first car dealer went:
Me: “Hi, we’re interested in one of your cars and we’d like to part-finance it.”
Dealer: “Sure, no problem.”
Me: “Great. I’ve got the deposit in my 5-minute-old bank account, I’m self-employed and I don’t have a UK credit rating because I’ve been living in Australia for the past 30 years.”
Dealer: “We may have a problem.”
Being self-employed was the real stumbling block. Apparently, finance companies consider freelancers to be the lowest form of pond life.
I pointed out that as a full-time, self-employed content writer – with over 35 years experience and evidence of forward earnings – I was less likely to lose my job than he was.
It didn’t go down too well.
We then attempted to buy a car from an online dealership. We went through the sales process, right down to the pointy end of connecting the dealer’s payment system to our new bank account. Apparently, it’s more secure and efficient than transferring the funds.
Computer says no.
We tried five times over the next 48 hours to buy the car, rang the dealership and our bank three times (both of whom blamed the other party for the technical failure), and finally gave up.
The next day we drove six miles up the road to a local dealer and bought the first car we saw.
I transferred the full amount from our bank account and no one mentioned finance or online payment systems.
Step #3: Insure the car.
Easy-peasy. Look up gocompare.com, bang in your details, pick the most appealing quote and, bob’s-your-uncle, instant online car insurance.
How hard could that be?
Almost impossible as it turns out.
For some strange reason, gocompare.com came up with ZERO matches to my car insurance criteria. Do you know how humiliating it is to be rejected by a comparison site?
Out of desperation, with less than 24 hours to go before we picked up the car, I rang an insurance broker.
Lesson #3. Car insurance brokers view me – an ex-pat, legal alien – through the same lens as their finance counterparts. Undesirable.
This time, it’s not because I’m self-employed. It’s because I don’t have a ‘no-claims’ bonus rating or a current British driving licence. Apparently, that makes me a risk on British roads, despite learning how to drive and passing my test in the UK.
“I could probably find one company willing to take you on,” the broker said and promised to get back to me. In the meantime, I continued to trawl the online sites until I found one that was prepared to provide a quote, at twice the normal price. The broker called me back. “Good news,” he said. “I’ve got you a quote.” It was three times the price.
Not surprisingly, we decided to go with the online option. I had to borrow Victoria’s debit card to pay for it because – as you will recall – my debit card was languishing, un-activated, in my letterbox in Suffolk.
Step #4: The final paperwork.
I thought that was it. We’d paid for the car, organised insurance and the dealer was taking care of the registration transfer. But there was one more step.
“Best to get the vehicle tax sorted out before you come to pick the car up,” the dealer said with six hours to go. “It can sometimes be a problem and we can’t let you drive the car off the lot without it.”
Vehicle tax? Who knew?
“That’s OK,” he said, “I can do it for you online right now. All I need is your debit card details.”
Lesson #4. Life is never simple when you drop out of the sky onto English soil with no credit rating, no licence, no debit card and, apparently, no job security.
On the plus side, we now have a great little car with heated seats, we’re in Suffolk in a beautiful, partly-furnished cottage and this is our local pub, conveniently located across the road.
Oh, and I finally activated my debit card.