Rosie Millard: Thrifty Living

If I had given in to property porn, I'd be rolling in it by now
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The Independent Online

i've been asked to participate in one of those "clip"-style TV shows. Essentially the idea is this; get a line of pundits, ask them all the same questions, and bolt the answers together. Add a dollop of archive, and serve up in prime time. It's an unbeatable format, it would seem. Anyway, for this one I'm speaking about property.

The interviewer offers me a pretty interesting line to follow. Which is this: in the late 1990s, our TV schedules proliferated with house-improvement shows (Home Front, Changing Rooms and so on), telling us how to have fun with our places. Presenters like that "Lawrence-whatnot" skipped about, showing us how life could be brilliant if we only dared to go for a wash of lime-green paint. Houses were seen as an extension of our personalities, as easily updated as a winter wardrobe, and the wackier the better.

By the early 2000s, however, these shows were out. They had been replaced by serious, sober programmes fronted by property professionals like Sarah Beeny. She also advocated changing the way our houses looked. The difference was that Beeny and her ilk were doing it not for the sake of personal expression, but for profit. With the galloping house-market, we should be fitting up our gaffs in order to make them more saleable.

Well, yes, people do refurbish their houses to make them more desirable at sale, but also, no. I admit I'm a property anorak who knows the value of her house at any moment – but don't we all?

Twenty-five years ago, if you had gone down any terraced street in Britain and knocked at every door, I would suggest about 10 per cent of the occupants might have been able to give a vague approximation of the value of their house. Today, every owner-occupier would be able to give you an accurate evaluation – down to the last £10,000. Most of us know exactly how much cash we are sitting on.

But do we really rub our hands with glee and call up the London Basement Company, or the Box Sash Window Company, or indeed any home-improvement company, for the sole reason that it will enhance our house's value? Are we really that cynical? And anyway, are we in a state of perpetual readiness to sell our houses?

I ask my interviewer. He looks at his notes. "You're pretty happy with risk, aren't you," he suggests. Oh, God. He'll be asking me about my permanent overdraft next.

Actually, what he wants to talk about is porn. Property porn. "Do you, ahem, indulge in property porn?" he shyly continues. "Oooh yes," I say, feeling the ghostly hand of Frankie Howerd tap on my shoulder. "Most nights, Mr Millard and I are to be found abed looking at octagonal towers and Aberdonian castles, and wondering whether life would be better if we sold up and dared to put our money where our mouth is and so on."

We aren't alone. Everyone I know who has been married for longer than five years has given up on real porn and now indulges in property porn, from Spendthrift Janie to Thrift Queen Laura. Indeed, Laura even went ahead and bought a medieval church in Suffolk to live in. (It is glorious, even if the back garden is a graveyard.) We once fell for it, too. Six years ago we were sorely provoked – turned on, even – by a small photograph of a Georgian mansion in the Evening Standard. Indeed, we were turned on so much that we drove north for five hours to find it. Eventually, somewhere amid the industrial canals of Lincolnshire, we found it. It had a paddock, a lake, a ballroom; it even had kenneling. And a clock tower. It looked like something out of Mansfield Park.

All right, it was 20 miles from the nearest station (Newark), but it had a kitchen large enough to lead a Shetland pony into. The asking price? £365,000. In the end, the deal fell through because we were unable to sell our house in Hackney. But would temptation by porn have paid off? I ring the local estate agent and spin some story about a project on local manor houses.

"Oh, yes, we have a local manor house," says the estate agent dourly. "Very smart. The recent owners have just done a fantastic job on it." How long have they been there, then? "Oh, about six years," he confirms.

Err, how much would he say it was worth? "A million." Oh. Yes, but think how much we would have spent on train fares to London, my husband reminds me.

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