Hi, how is your house?

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The Independent Online
I do believe that the property market has usurped the weather as Britain's conversation of last resort. It used to be that whenever the small-talk was dying an unseemly death it would be revived by a casual reference to the climate. Today that is a job reserved for the property market. More intriguingly it makes an appearance on any small-talk agenda much earlier than the weather ever did.

I have been subtly aware of property as a conversation piece for some time. It has not registered until now because I spend too much time in the snugbar of the Fount of All Knowledge, where we talk of little else. The new importance of the property market to the British was brought home to me last week during a brief interlude in Spain.

On the day I arrived the hotel receptionist informed me I was invited to the manager's cocktail party. This is clearly something that hotel managers learn about at hotel managers' school. They believe these parties to be informal gatherings which allow guests and staff to break down natural social barriers. Guests believe they are opportunities to drink as much free booze as they can and work out who to avoid at the pool the next day.

To my relief this one was a rather pleasant affair. But this does not make conversation flow any more easily even when champagne is the lubricant. Unless the property market intervenes as it did last week with regularity.

The thing about property is that it is uncontroversial without being banal. Conversations about weather are inane. Conversations about the property market are intellectual. What is more, it is a national and international phenomenon. It is all very well droning on about the hot spell in London, but this has no relevance to the couple from Stourbridge who have emerged from the local equivalent of the great flood. Everyone, it seems, lives in a house which is worth more today than it was a year ago. This makes people happy.

Yet property prices are also neutral in that they can be discussed without making any statement about absolute wealth. It is rather unedifying to brag about your pounds 500,000 pile in Epsom when your fellow small-talkers live in the same property in Stourbridge which is worth pounds 150,000. There is no need to brag because the property market is discussed in terms of percentages. An appreciative crowd gathers around the person talking about 20 per cent increases in prices. The person boasting of a pounds 100,000 uplift is dismissed as common and vulgar.

The property market allows you to direct inherent venom and vitriol away from traditional but less correct targets. It used to be standard practice when on holiday to make abusive remarks about the towel tactics of Germans. This is no longer acceptable. The property market allows you to make abusive remarks about estate agents instead. It allows people to show off without appearing to be a know-all. A lecture on interest rates and their historical correlation with property prices is more acceptable than one on microclimates. Property allows people to indulge their sense of history. Those who cannot compete with today's property horror stories are able to recount tales from the great property booms of the past. No one is excluded. Unless of course you happen to be me. The wannabe home owner is as unwelcome at these functions as a towel on an unoccupied sunlounger. It is a lonely feeling that cannot even be cured by another glass of the manager's champagne and a fistful of toasted almonds.