I feel like a traitor. Earlier this month – despite knowing how deleterious our national obsession with home ownership is to the young – I bought a one-bedroom flat in south London. I’m now a fully mortgaged-up member of the Kirstie Allsopp club.
The Allsopp attitude – spread across the country through brainwashing with property porn – is that renting is purgatory, ownership heaven. Houses aren’t just places to sleep and collect tales of DIY woe, they are money-makers. It is a view shared by our leaders.
Help to Buy – George Osborne’s attempt to build an Englishman’s castle in the sky without recourse to bricks – is celebrated by the Treasury, and lampooned by economists. It is pushing up demand without any extra supply: figures this week show that the number of affordable houses being built has fallen to an eight-year low.
You can sniff the desperation among the so-called “Renty-somethings” to get on the ladder. But many of my generation are more keen to escape renting than they are to buy.
The tenant’s lot is often a pitiful one. Most leases last a year or less. Landlords can give just two months notice; that’s an irritant as an individual, a crisis for young families. And our omnipotent overlords don’t always use their power responsibly. A friend believes she was booted out of her flat after complaining about the damp. Another had to leave after a year when her rent was increased by 15 per cent.
The cost is the biggest problem, of course. Rent is deemed unaffordable when it demands more than a third of gross income. Analysis by the Financial Times this week showed that graduates on the average starting salary (£22,400) cannot afford a room in a four-bedroom house in more than half of London postcodes. So they “hutch up”: turning living rooms into extra bedrooms, or couples squeezing into rooms together. These issues are particularly severe in the capital, but renting in the private sector is the least affordable type of housing across the country.
Many have argued Help to Buy should be Help to Build; why not make homes specifically for the young, where the rent has to remain affordable? Longer tenancies, a national licensing scheme for landlords and tougher regulation of lettings agents would also help.
But what really needs challenging is the mentality among politicians and the public that ownership is always best and that renting is just pouring money away. We don’t see our food shop or water bill that way. On Friday, even an estate agent – Susan Emmett, residential research director at Savills – called for an end to “our obsession with home ownership”.
Sitting in my new home on the first night, my second question – after how to make a voodoo doll of the previous owners in revenge for leaving me with their gas and electricity arrears – was “Why on earth is this worth so much?” The answer is because, as a nation, we have bought into a false dream.