There's something about semis
Buying your first semi-detached home - with its alleyway down the side - can be an emotional rite of passage, writes Christopher Middleton
Wednesday 17 August 2005
It's a significant event in any property-owner's life. The moment when you go from being terraced to being semi-detached. Not nearly enough is made of this truly dramatic and life-altering transition, in my opinion. Think about it. One minute, you're hemmed in, enclosed on both sides - the next you're a free man/woman with your own side alleyway.
Yes, it's a rite of passage in more ways than one, as you make the giant leap from someone whose dustbins are on display at the front of the house - to someone who can keep their rubbish discreetly out of sight till collection day. And that's just the administrative side of things - there's a whole emotional world, too.
The fact is, until you can walk unimpeded down the side of your own home, you don't know the thrill of real ownership. Only when you're able to run your hands down its rough, brick flanks can you achieve full, meaningful intimacy with your dwelling-place. And if you think that's putting it a bit strong, then you underestimate the depth of the average British person's attachment to their castle - sorry, home.
"I know it sounds daft, but having five feet of space between me and next door makes me feel like I've put a bit of distance between me and the rest of the world," an old friend tells me, as we sit in the pub, repeatedly toasting his new semi (achieved at the age of 42). "It's like I'm a marathon runner and I've finally opened up a lead over the chasing pack."
A perfectly normal reaction says psychotherapist Dr Dorothy Rowe, author of numerous self-help books including The Real Meaning Of Money (HarperCollins).
"We all need significance in our lives, and for many of us, our home provides just that," says Dr Rowe. "Feeling and showing that we made a difference is our top priority, really. The idea of Born, Lived, Died, Nobody Noticed is just too unbearable for us to contemplate."
Speaking of being noticed, of course, that does highlight one of the drawbacks to semi-detached living, which is the kitchen window. If you're not careful, you can end up gazing into the eyes of your next-door neighbour while you're doing the washing-up.
"It's driving me a bit mad, really," confides a friend of my wife's. "Every time I'm washing up, there'll be one of the couple next door doing the same thing - and waving and smiling at me. I'd really like to put blinds in but I'm worried it's going to upset them."
The answer? A potted plant. Not as blatant as a roller blind, but just as effective. Mind you, though, not even the densest row of aspidistras can counteract heat loss. According to the Building Research Establishment, around £100 worth of hot air per year escapes through every side wall that's open to the elements.
Oh, and then there's the other teensiest, tiniest problem, which is the burglars. The British Crime Survey says 60 per cent of break-ins occur at the side or the back of the house, which means that a row of semi-detached houses is going to be a lot more vulnerable than a terraced street.
Which makes you think doesn't it? But not for long. Because however strong the arguments against owning a semi-detached home, they don't count for much against the great immutable rule of thin air, which is that the more of it you have around your property, the more valuable that property is.
"As a rule of thumb, you could expect to add around five per cent to the price," says Tim Percival, chairman of the southern branch of Wolsey Securities, a company which finances small-scale house-building. "I'm currently considering a scheme that would have a mid-terraced houseat £200,000, the neighbouring end-of-terrace house at £210,000, the semi-detached next-door at £220,000 and the detached at £235,000."
Yes, it may not be 100 per cent rational, but by and large the property market is built upon the principle that living in a block of flats or row of terraced houses makes you one of the herd - whereas moving into a semi-detached is the equivalent of sprouting antlers on one side of your head: you get the full set when you become fully detached.
Should that day ever come. For most of us, the prospect of reaching that top rung, and achieving the ultimate property owner's goal - total isolation - is, if not impossible, at least not imminent.
So what I say to all semi-detached owners is, this: let's enjoy what we've got and not look too far ahead. After all, why ask for the moon when you've got an alleyway?
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