Mark Steel: So did Neolithic settlers have estate agents?

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The Independent Online

As an expert on economic indicators, I can predict one positive effect of a falling housing market, which is an end to those television shows with names like Buy a House Where I Tell You To, You Idiot, in which slithery property experts say: "We simply must persuade Julia and Simon to buy this charming disused crematorium as it has such potential for conversion into a four-bedroom maisonette using original features such as this gorgeous fire for central heating and just look at these exquisite drapes.

"And in this prime location outside Maidstone they can offset outlay by housing a family of Latvian asylum-seekers in the basement and within a month their investment will quadruple."

Surely any economic disaster that lessens the obsession with other people's houses must be welcomed. I never know what to say when someone's bought a house and excitably gives you a tour of the place, squealing: "And there's a socket over there and a socket over there and another socket over there." I just feel like saying: "Yes it's got a ceiling and doors, it's definitely a house, so you've not been done."

But lately I've had to go through the rigmarole of buying a place, and it doesn't seem to be the romantic pursuit portrayed in magazines called Property Property You're Not a Filthy Peasant Are You? Then buy some PROPERTY, with a spread called "Property of the Week – The Taj Mahal – go on, spoil yourself with this period dwelling in India, only £870 trillion".

First there's all the people you have to meet: estate agents; solicitors; mortgage brokers. Each of them tell you with a smile there's a signing-on fee they need immediately, for no reason you can figure out but you've no choice but to pay it, so after a while someone could say: "Now I'll introduce you to Howard. He's from the egg marketing board and before we can proceed you'll have to give him a fee of £570", and you'd hand them your credit card.

Then to get the mortgage, every day you have to send them more things: bank statements; credit references; utility bills; stuff relating to a washing machine you bought on credit in 1995, until you expect them to say: "Now all we need is a letter from your local aquarium, confirming you don't owe any outstanding debts for a Great White Shark or rare breed of octopus and we can proceed, Mister Steel."

And now all of this is supplemented by oceans of conflicting advice about whether it's a good or bad time to invest in property, so you hear an item on the financial bit of the news about a pepper pot manufacturer going bust in Detroit, and wonder whether this means the house you're buying will soon be worth thirty-five quid.

So somehow this massive investment, which for most people is not just their shelter, but represents their life savings, security and everything, revolves around a huge gamble.

It's as if the process of buying a house involved going down to an office and having a game of snap, and if you win, your place doubles in value after you've moved in. But if you lose you spend the rest of your life replying to bailiffs.

Would anyone, starting from scratch, organise our housing system like this? Maybe they would. Neolithic settlers built their village, then a designated agent said to the tribe: "Now off you all go – bid. To start with, who'd like this one, just five minute's walk from the well, with easy access to the stone circle for weekly sacrifices?"

Not long ago, there was an aspiration in this country that everyone would live in comfortable housing, secure and paid for by an easily affordable rent.

Now that hideous antiquated idea has been replaced by leaving everything to the whims of the market. And there's no doubt the credit crisis has its cheery side, especially if you're John Paulson who, it was also announced yesterday: "Is believed to have netted a staggering $3bn plus in 2007 due to his success of his Paulson and Co fund in predicting the sub-prime collapse."

Maybe a more deserving beneficiary of the credit crisis is the old Jamaican man, whose house I was sent round to see as it was up for sale. I noticed his pile of records and he showed me his wonderful collection of old ska on vinyl, then said: "Me no want move, me wife she want move but me happy here, I not going anywhere."

"Right, so there's no point in me looking round then," I said.

"Not really," he said, and we spent the next 20 minutes talking about Prince Buster.

If the housing market collapses, that's the sort of house-hunting that should take its place.

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