What I learned buying a house with a white man

I’ve always liked my surname. It’s the name of kings and presidents, scholars and academics. It is stately and distinguished. It set me apart at school as I would be called first for everything: exam results, vaccinations, presentations and, later, graduation. I appear at the top of most lists, be it a guestlist to a busy event, or supporters of an Unbound project.

Abdullah. It’s a solid name. Granted, it’s not ideal for US immigration, but I’ve never thought it problematic, perhaps because I spent my formative years in a community of people similar to me. I was born, raised and educated in Tower Hamlets where 32% of the population is British-Bangladeshi like me compared with less than 1% across England.

After graduation, I entered the working world and while some of the companies at which I worked were exceedingly white and middle class (Penguin, anyone?), I never felt othered by my race. The only time I gave it serious thought was after interviewing candidates for a role in my team. I made a conscious decision to consider people with ‘ethnic’ names. Most of these candidates were from abroad and, sadly, it was evident from their interviews that their language and communication skills were not at the level I needed. My fellow interviewer said, ‘I hate to say it, but there’s a British premium, isn’t there?’

It was the first time I wondered if I had ever been passed over for an opportunity because of my name. Experiments suggest that this may well be the case (1, 2, 3, 4), but I didn’t dwell on it for long. I had the education, experience and accent to demonstrate that whatever the British premium was, I had it. I thought I was therefore impervious to institutional racism.

This June, however, I started to see things differently. I began house hunting with my partner, Peter, who happens to be a white man. In doing so, I began to to see the subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways in which we were treated differently.

I noticed that when I called an estate agent to organise a viewing, I would be asked a dozen questions after giving them my name. What’s your current address? What’s your marital status? What’s your job title?  Do you currently own a property? Where is your property? Will you be selling your property? How will you be funding the purchase? Do you have a conveyancer?

When Peter called an estate agent to organise a viewing, he wouldn’t be asked half as many questions. At first I thought it coincidence. I’ve said before that I am generally forgiving when it comes to matters of race. When I’ve been mistaken for staff, I’ve laughed it off. When people ask me where I’m from originally, I tell them what they want to know. What is probably a ‘microaggression’, I call clumsy phrasing, but this particular disparity became too pronounced to ignore.

After a few days, I stopped arranging viewings and Peter made the calls instead. The occasions on which I did speak to an estate agent, I gave my surname as his.

Later on in the process, we remortgaged our respective London flats through the same broker to borrow from the same lender. Peter’s application was promptly approved. Meanwhile, the address history on mine was checked three times – by email, then phone, then email – even though we both shared the exact same addresses for the named period of time and I was always the one who ensured our names were on the electoral roll to maintain a clean credit rating.

At this point, our circumstances diverged somewhat because we had different conveyancers, but I think it’s still worth relaying the rest of the process. Peter’s remortgage was completed in nine days. Mine took six weeks. I was asked to buy an indemnity policy against a clause in my lease (which is standard for London flats and which by the way was on Peter’s lease too). I was also asked to provide documents that Peter did not have to (e.g. signed statements from my tenants to confirm they had a copy of my EPC rating).

When my remortgage was finally approved, we progressed to the purchase. Again, there was a difference in how our requests were met (mine, slowly and sometimes not at all; Peter’s more efficiently). Eventually, we decided that Peter would do all the communicating.

The process was incredibly illuminating – and depressing. It's often said that you don’t know what you don’t know and I realised just how true this is. All my life, I’d assumed that I was treated no differently because of my name, but buying a house with a white man showed me on several occasions across several different companies that I was wrong. These differences cannot be irrefutably proven for they take place in judgement calls and lender’s discretion and the shades of grey in between – but they are there.

When I first met Peter eight years ago, I remember saying to him that he was naturally lucky. Things just seemed to work out for him despite his slapdash approach to life. In contrast, I planned things with military precision, put in place contingencies and planned for all eventualities. It took eight years and a like-for-like comparison to see that it probably wasn’t luck after all.

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