As I’m sat comfortably in my mother-in-law’s beautiful lounge and begin to reflect back on the journey so far, I’m amazed at how calm I feel. How peaceful and content I am right now. It’s like a great weight or pressure has lifted. I feel quite relaxed and comfortable in my own skin, which I haven’t felt in a long time. But let’s start at the beginning because that’s only fair for you guys who haven’t been living the Wheeler Housing Adventure for the past ten months.
Ben and I bought our first property, #13, within the first year of getting married under miraculously straightforward circumstances. We had been given money (very unexpectedly) from the death of a relative that meant we could afford a deposit and we (Ben especially) didn’t want to waste paying rent if we could afford a mortgage of our own. We saw #13, a lovely open plan, two bedroom, mid-terraced, 50s ex-council house with a rear extension sometime in February 2012 (I think), fell in love with it and were in three months later in May. We knew this wasn’t necessarily going to be the home that we were going to stay in long term and this became even more apparent when we set up our photography business out of our second bedroom. Now that both bedrooms were ‘occupied’, we would want more space if we wanted to extend our family.
Once the business was up and running, we looked into the possibility of moving but all the lenders we researched needed two years of fully accounted books as we were now a limited company. Two full years of accounts took us to early summer 2017 but by spring 2017 we were keen to get the ball rolling. With May and June’s accounts predicted and signed off by our accountant, we started looking for properties within our proposed budget.
The first property we went to see was a lovely three bedroom cottage with a ridiculously long garden, in the middle of the countryside and within walking distance to the local primary school, country pub and village green. Yep, pretty idyllic! We made an offer based on our mortgage broker’s advice, which was accepted so we took the next steps to put our beloved #13 on the market. We signed on the dotted line with a local estate agent that was also selling the property we had offered on, blitzed the house and garden, bought some fresh flowers, took some (rather good if I don’t say so myself) photos of the property and honestly thought we’d have people hammering at the door wanting to come and have a look. After a fair bit of interest but no offers, we kept asking God to be with us and help us sell. We started dreaming of life in the countryside in our new cottage but still, no sale of #13. We were in a bit of a rut and going nowhere fast, so much so that the vendor of the cottage changed their mind and took it off the market after 6 weeks or so! We were shocked and rather heartbroken because we had already let ourselves start fantasising about our new home and its beautiful (but, now thinking about it, highly impractical) garden.
So we began the hunt again. The next property we were interested in was a 70s three bedroom bungalow that had already had its loft converted into two upstairs bedrooms. It was not too far from the area where the cottage was, it was secluded, it had a south facing garden and we liked the idea of a downstairs kitchen/diner extension, only if we could get it for a low enough price. So, prayerfully, we made an offer which was much lower than the guide price and held our breath, assuming that it would be rejected. But, lo and behold, it wasn’t! We thanked the Lord for the door that he’d opened and continued to pray for a quick house sale but for the right price as we were conscious that we wanted as much money as possible for the building and renovation works. But still no offers. We spent the summer praying, almost begging, God to be with us and sell our house.
During this time, we spent the best part of the first week of August at Newday festival with our youth group where we enjoyed being in God’s presence, seeing him work in and through our young people and experience him for themselves. While we were away, we received a few emails from our estate agent letting us know of a few house viewings that were taking place that week and the names of the clients looking at #13. One immediately stood out to us and, get this, her name was Miss Emmanuel. Yep, Emmanuel which is Hebrew for ‘God with us’. The Lord literally had to send us an email to tell us that 1) he had heard us and 2) he was indeed with us! I could picture him with a megaphone saying, “Ben and Zoë, I AM WITH YOU.” In other words, “Stop asking and trust that I’ve got you!” And obviously, we got excited and thought, “Oh yay, great! House sale time!” But no, the Lord was reminding us of his promises because things had only just begun.
So still no house sale and now it was late August/early September. By ‘chance’, we checked something about the bungalow on Rightmove (floorplans maybe?) and saw that it had been sold subject to contract and was no longer on the market! Of course, we got straight on the phone to the vendor’s estate agent and it turned out that, due to a seriously significant ‘communication breakdown’, we had not been notified that a higher offer had been made and accepted after the vendors were told (by the estate agent in question) that we weren’t interested anymore. Now we were angry! Who did they think they were? That was OUR home. We felt so frustrated and yet helpless at the injustice that we felt. Not only had another potential home been ‘taken away’ from us but that the way it was all handled was just WRONG. Have you ever felt that kind of injustice? We struggled to understand what was happening and where God was in all of this. We were convinced that God was opening this particular door for us that when it all went wrong, we were completely confused and disheartened.
Anyway, again we started looking for houses for the second (well, technically third) time. And we saw so many! Talk about getting yourself in a muddle. Yes we were praying about everything, but were we really taking the time to actually listen to our Heavenly Father? No. We were too busy trying to figure everything out in our heads. Too busy trying to rationalise, strategise and make sense of it all. We ended up reducing our asking price for #13 by £10k to increase interest and prayed, yet again, for a house sale. And the Lord, in his great mercy and grace, made it happen.
The first viewing in a long time resulted in our first ever offer, but it was £30k under the already reduced asking price. Hoping for more money, we declined and were met with a £5k increase on the offer. But that was still £25k less than what we wanted (and what we thought the house was worth). After a chat with our estate agent and several other trusted advisors, and another time of prayer and petition to God, we began to re-evaluate what we were actually asking for. Had the Lord provided us with a potential buyer? Yes. Had we had any other offers? No. Were we worried that God wasn’t with us or couldn’t provide for us? No. Did we have to trust him with the numbers and believe that this process was doing our faith the world of good? YES. We believed that our Heavenly Father could and would provide for us, even if the house sale was less than what we had hoped for. It had been on the market for five months without any other offers and the market was on the decline. Properties were selling for at least 15% less that the asking price and actually, if we really did believe in Provider God, we would need to take a step of faith and walk the talk. So we accepted the offer.
We did feel relieved to have the new Sold STC sign outside but we definitely now felt the overwhelming pressure to find a new home for less money. As we started again in earnest, viewing properties, spending hours trawling through Rightmove and petitioning God for wisdom, we felt our energy and hope dwindle. Around this time, we were notified that the buyer for the bungalow (the one who had been sold without us knowing) had pulled out and the owners wanted to know if we were still interested in it! This was such a curveball and we were definitely not expecting it at all. We arranged to see it again but this time, we took with us a trusted builder who we had met in summer 2017 when we had photographed his son’s wedding. And he was fantastic; he talked through the pros and cons of doing a variety of different projects on the bungalow to modernise it and make it work for our purposes as well as being realistic about the restrictions of the property. Walking round it again, it began to dawn on both of us the magnitude of what we would have been signed up to had the sale gone through. Several things that we hadn’t seen or realised first time round started to put us off. And then when we received the rough quote of the cost of the proposed building work, that confirmed to us that actually this place wasn’t for us and that God had saved us from making a (probably very big) mistake. Looking back now, it’s amazing to see that God’s hand, once again, was upon us. We were able to truly forgive those who we felt had wronged us for the first time in weeks because the Lord had granted us some kind of closure. He showed us why it wasn’t meant to be.
Anyway, in midst of all of this, we were still ploughing ahead in the property search. In one day, we saw six different properties one after the other. We were exhausted! We put offers on two more properties that didn’t end up going anywhere; we were even in talks for a potential offer acceptance only for the property to be sold by the other estate agent (yep, there were two) at the same time! To say we were stressed would be an understatement. We were trying to make solutions happen instead of spending time with the Lord. It was early November and our buyers were making noises about moving into #13 before Christmas. We really didn’t want to lose them as we had no other offers and they were first time buyers, which was more than beneficial to us as they didn’t have an onward chain. We made a few more appointments to view properties but made the decision that if no progress had been made by the Wednesday of the following week, that we would start the process of selling #13, moving in with parents and continuing the house hunt from there.
Over the next day or so, we noticed a certain property that had continued to reduce in price and was now potentially within our budget if we were able to put in a low offer. It was a large detached house with the right amount of bedrooms, an office space, a good living area, a decent garden, ample parking (yes!!), and somehow was beautifully situated down a private, higgledy piggledy lane with a handful of houses in the woods but yet, miraculously, a one minute walk from the main Tadley High Street. We went to see it and were quietly astounded at the potential of the place. We couldn’t afford the asking price so went in low. After some toing and froing, we were agreed on an offer £15k below the asking price and the vendor accepted! Praise Jesus! And get this, the offer was accepted on the Tuesday, the day before we were going to ask our solicitor to start the procedure of selling #13. God knew! He knew what we needed and he provided.
From mid/late November all the way through to Christmas, we filled out contents forms, read environmental reports and waited for our confirmed mortgage offer to come through. Because Ben and I work for and own a limited company, applying for a mortgage (even if it’s only a top up on our current mortgage) is a bit more tricky than usual and more information is required than just three months of pay slips. Information from HMRC was required and to begin with, our accountant couldn’t get the access to the information that our mortgage lender needed. We waited weeks for Ben’s information and finally it arrived but mine didn’t. Incorrect activation codes came through and still no luck. We went away to Bali from the 3rd to the 15th January hopeful that God would keep working on everything and everyone in the process. We arrived home early morning of the 15th January and went straight to bed! The rest of the day was chilled and relaxed, in our PJs, in front of the TV, without wanting to think about what was going on house-wise.
Tuesday morning we received an email from our estate agent informing us that our buyers were going to pull out if they couldn’t move in by Friday 26th. It was Tuesday 16th. We were already aware that our buyers had (without being advised to) handed in their rental notice and were essentially going to be homeless after the 26th. After seeking the Lord, we felt it was the right decision to sell our house to our buyers, move out and wait for everything to come through for the new house. In the lead up to the weekend, we had such an emotional few days and were pretty much at breaking point. My HMRC information still hadn’t arrived and I spent three days on the phone speaking to various departments who all told me a variety of things about what they could and couldn’t do. I was emotionally and spiritually exhausted, and on the Thursday I had had enough and went and cried in the bathroom for what seemed like hours.
But we pulled ourselves together to muster enough strength to go to our solicitors and sign #13 away. Exchange of contracts happened the following day on Friday 19th with the view to complete on Friday 26th. We had packed a handful of boxes by then and knew we had to get a wiggle on with dealing with the rest of the house. God’s timing astounds me because in the middle of all of this we had planned a weekend away with the rest of our youth leadership team at the Newday Youth Workers Conference up in Sherwood Forest Centre Parcs. For those of you who don’t know, Newday is a summer Christian youth festival that is part of the New Frontiers network that our church belongs to and our youth group has been going to Newday for several years.
Ben and I both arrived in need of an encounter with the Holy Spirit and feeling completely broken and desperate. And God showed up big time. He spoke to us on a number of occasions over the weekend through other people as well as hearing from the Holy Spirit ourselves. He spoke to us about his ultimate timing and that all he wanted us to do was spend time with him, listening to him and that he would look after the rest. Ben had a picture of Jesus’ face, zoomed in on his features, telling him that he was using this housing situation to re-focus us; to lift our gaze to him again and to learn again how to really trust him. And that he would have used any situation in order to do this! He broke our hearts again firstly for him and his love, but for our young people and for our friends and family who don’t know Jesus yet.
He reminded us again of the power of his mercy and also the power of mercy when we show it to others. Both of us felt the need (again – clearly hadn’t done it thoroughly enough the first time!) to forgive and show mercy to the people who had made mistakes, prolonged the process or had put pressure on us to act fast during the last few months with our housing situation. We were reminded that we are living examples of God’s grace. Who are we to deny grace to someone? We are not perfect. We need saving on a daily basis. God dealt with our pride and our hurt, which we were in such desperate need of. The last talk at the conference was a timely reminder that God is God and we are not. God is not anxious about the future! He’s won the victory through Jesus’ death and resurrection. We can pray not just for victory but also from a place of victory in Jesus. If God could defeat sin and death on the cross and if Jesus has forgiven me of all my sins, then surely he could look after a house for me and my family.
We left the weekend away feeling strong in the Lord with our faith levels increased, expectant to see what God was going to do. We arrived home to find the letter that we had been waiting for with the access information for my HMRC tax overview! Woohoo! Praise Jesus. So we sent that off to our broker straight away for him to pass on to our lender. Monday and Tuesday were spent packing the rest of the house and by Wednesday 24th, we were ready to start moving. And mortgage progress was quick to follow our Spirit-encountered weekend away. On Tuesday 23rd, we received our confirmed mortgage offer but due to the our lender’s change in lending criteria, the offer came in at £25k less than the offer in principle had been! So we had a couple of days to move out and we had a deficit of £25k to find. Praise God for the faith-filled weekend we’d just had! We asked again of our Heavenly Father for provision. £25k was impossible for us to source on our own; we needed serious help. So we asked God to provide the funds by the end of the week so exchange could happen as soon as possible. Well, why not? If we said we believed in a God who provides, we’d better act like it! Our parents very kindly gave us some money and we had some savings we could add to the pot, but we were still £10,993 short.
It was now Wednesday 24th and the day to move all of our furniture and boxes of stuff to my parents’ garage and Ben’s gran’s garage. The Lord had even provided us with free storage and our amazing friend, Sam, who very generously gave up his day off work, hired a van for us, lugged pretty much everything that we owned in and out of a van with Ben and drove it round Reading just to take it all out again and stack it in a couple of garages. What a blessing! Sam, if you’re reading this, we love you and thank you. Your servant heart and willingness to help astounds us every time. So with the furniture and boxes gone, we loaded up our two cars before heading off to Alpha (a course about Christianity which we were helping at) and then on to our first night at mother-in-law’s. We were up early to get back over to #13 to blitz the place before hopefully giving in the keys to our estate agent that evening without the need to come back on Friday 26th. Mum and our friend Anna came over late morning to start cleaning which, again, was such a blessing. Ben ran some last errands and I started packing up the last of the kitchen, fridge and freezer.
While Ben was out, Mum started talking to me about what the Lord had been speaking to her and Dad about for the last week or so. The previous Sunday, she had been asked to read a passage from the Bible in the Sunday service. The passage was from Mark chapter 12 where Jesus and his disciples witness a poor widow drop two small coins into the collection box at the Temple while the rich dropped in their large amounts of money. Jesus told his disciples that the poor widow had given far more than all the others because she gave everything she had to live on while the rich people gave a tiny amount of their surplus… it’s all about generosity of heart. And then, on the Wednesday night, the day before we were having this conversation, Mum was given a piece of paper at her church homegroup with a passage from the Bible on it. There were eight pieces of paper and she was given 2 Corinthians 8 which, again, is all about generosity and being enthusiastic about giving. As Mum was sharing these stories with me, I was thinking, “Hang on, where is this going?” And then she said that she and Dad had an investment that Mum had kind of forgotten about! (Dad had been aware as he often changes monies around to get the most possible interest.) Anyway, Mum said that this money was around the £10k mark and that if we felt it was the right thing to do, that we would have to ask them for it and they would happily give it to us.
I was gobsmacked. Not only was this ridiculously generous because they’d already given us quite a lot of money already, but it was around the amount that we needed to cover the deficit. When Ben returned, Mum repeated the story to Ben and he was visibly moved. He then shared with Mum that he had been specifically praying that God would provide but that we would have wisdom to know what to do. Earlier in the week, a friend had said to Ben about using business money to bridge the gap, which was feasible but would give us a hefty tax bill. As Ben was praying about this, he felt the Lord say to him “Ask and you’ll receive” very clearly and even audibly on more than one occasion. The Bible says this numerous times: Matthew 7:7, Matthew 21:22, Luke 11:9 to name a few but always in the context of asking for things that are in God’s will and align with his plans and purposes, rather than treating God like a genie in the sky (which we both had been guilty of doing before). As Ben had been hearing “Ask and you’ll receive” from God, he was grappling with the issue of using business money, with the tax implications, to fund the deficit. He said to God, “You’ve said ask and you’ll receive. But if I use my own business money, I haven’t asked and I haven’t received. So who shall I ask?” And immediately the reply came back, “Me. Ask me.” So that’s what Ben had been doing for the past day or so – asking God for £10,993 with no strings attached!
Radical huh? Well, no because as Ben had been praying this, the Lord had been doing a new work in Mum and Dad to prepare them for the Thursday morning to give when we asked in order for us to receive. We were all blown away. Mum told me to ring Dad to get an updated figure on the money in that account as it may have increased a bit. Dad looked it up and lo and behold, the new amount was £11,150. Mum and Dad agreed to give us £11k which was £7 more than we were in need of! We rang our solicitor straight away to say that we had been gifted the deficit and that we’d get the money over to them as soon as possible. We were all quite teary and relieved that God had provided an answer so clearly and so quickly. For the rest of the day Ben, Mum and I were filled with such faith, as was the absolute legend that is Anna Williams who scrubbed, cleaned, wiped, hoovered and blitzed the house from top to bottom so that we had time to sort out the last few bits. Thank you, Anna, for your willingness and generosity. You are so quick to put others above yourself and are so good at finding solutions to problems. We love you!
Finally, we packed up the last of our things, cleaned the last few surfaces and floors, left the new owners some flowers and a card, locked the door for the last time, said our goodbyes, thanked the Lord for 6 amazing years in #13, dropped the keys off at the estate agent and drove to mother-in-law’s.
The next day, Friday 26th, we set up our mini office in the back bedroom and went for a walk to explore our new surroundings. To be honest, we were still rather shell-shocked and just in awe of the Lord. Meanwhile, Mum and Dad had already managed to send us £5k out of the £11k that they were going to give us but that had left them almost skint because of their preference not to touch their savings accounts with a healthy interest rate. They rang the investment company on Friday to cash the full £11k amount in order to replenish the £5k to their accounts and then pay us the remaining £6k. However, the investment company said that it would take ten days which we couldn’t wait for as we wanted to exchange contracts early the following week. We told Mum and Dad that we’d have to take the tax bill hit and use business money to make up the remaining £6k. But Mum and Dad were adamant that they didn’t want us to do that. After a little while, they rang us to say that they had had an idea, checked it all out and found another source of money was available to them right then and there. So they were able to send us the remaining £6k without us waiting ten days or having to use business money! And they were willing to be virtually skint for ten days so that it could happen. Thank you, Mum and Dad! And we managed to get all of the money to our solicitors before end of play on that Friday because we had asked God to provide it all by the end of the working week. How good is our Heavenly Father?
That weekend was full of seeing family and friends, being at church for the first time since way before Christmas, eating lots of yummy food and all the while enjoying the feeling of relief and gratitude to God for answering so many of our prayers. Over the next week, we started to settle into life at mother-in-law’s as well as get back into the swing of our weekly, term time routine with mid-week church groups, Friday night youth and, of course, running the business. All that was required from our lender, us, our solicitors and the various parties linked with our vendor was in by Friday 2nd Feb so we signed on the dotted line and the exchange of contracts took place on Tuesday 6th Feb. It’s now Monday 12th and we are due to complete tomorrow. We’re not planning on moving in straight away because there’s some decorating that we want to complete before all of our stuff gets in the way.
But before the next chapter starts, I want to take a moment and reflect on all that I’ve shared and all that we’ve been through since last May. We knew that we would eventually outgrow #13 and have to move to somewhere with more space where we wanted to establish ourselves as a family and as a business. But we did waste a lot of time and energy trying to force our plans to work and praying for God’s blessing on what we were trying to achieve instead of spending time in his presence first. We were so keen to ‘get on with it’ that we kind of missed the point of “seek first the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need” (Matthew 6:33). We were too busy planning and strategizing to give the Lord time to reveal himself to us. So I want to encourage you if you’re reading this and you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, if you feel that hope is gone or you’re in the midst of something that is overwhelming you. God loves you, he sees you and he knows you. He cares about the details of the situations that you are facing. Remember the £10,993? He told us very plainly to ask him. We obeyed (eventually) and he provided. Nothing is too big, nothing is too small. But the answer may not be, in some way, what we’re expecting. The timing might be different to ours, but in hindsight we’d look back and be thankful. The specifics might change, but “we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them” (Romans 8:28).
I don’t have all the answers (I know someone who does!) but what I do know is that both Ben and I have been challenged and stretched spiritually, emotionally and mentally over the last 10 months. Our faith has increased but also our dependency on our Heavenly Father has increased. We are quicker to pray, quicker to admit our faults, quicker to ask for help, quicker to come together after a disagreement, quicker to praise Jesus, quicker to ask him to speak to us and quicker to respond to what he says. And this testimony is by no means over; we are closing one chapter and opening the next. And we invite you to journey with us, wherever it may lead. Thank you to our friends and family to have so faithfully prayed for us, those both closer to home and those of you scattered across the world. We love you and thank God for you. “And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God” (Ephesians 3:18-19).