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Rhiannon Harries: Why buy when you can rent?

My generation is far from in thrall to the dream of home ownership

Four sash windows, two neat flowerbeds in the front garden, roses curling sweetly around the front door – such was my infant-school vision of my future home. Of course, it was wildly unrealistic – I forgot to sketch a cross-looking landlord arriving at the gate to have a look at our leaky boiler for a start.

Renting, not buying, is the reality that people in their twenties and thirties have had to accept, and, it seems, we are doing so with a willingness that would once have surprised me. I have ceased to think about buying a house at all – not only because it would be financially impossible for me to buy the kind of place I would like to live in, but because I'm just not sure I care about owning my own home at all any more.

According to a survey published yesterday for the Government's Tenant Services Authority, mine is an attitude shared by an increasing number of people. Of 21,000 tenants living in council and housing association accommodation, a mere 12 per cent said they would like to own their own home, less than half of the 32 per cent who expressed the same desire in 1999.

Clearly, the "right to buy" no longer holds the appeal that it did for the two million tenants who took advantage of the Thatcherite policy from its introduction in 1980 until the mid-Nineties. Seemingly the embodiment of the Tory dream, those buyers found their hard work and saving rewarded with entry into the self-sufficient, property-owning class that has hitherto inspired such a peculiar ardour among the British.

But fast-forward almost three decades – post-bubble and post-bust – and for many people the idea that hard work will guarantee you an option on some bricks-and-mortar to call your own seems laughable. Moreover, if you are able to survive the hardships of scraping enough cash together for a deposit and secure a mortgage, property simply no longer represents the security it did for previous generations.

My own attitudes may well have been shaped by a year spent living in Paris during which I didn't meet a single person who owned their own flat or house. The staple, British renting-versus-buying conversation never arose, and I found it quite liberating. In France, where half of households are renting, and in much of continental Europe, home-ownership just isn't bound up with the same notions of pride and achievement that it is in Britain. The mobility that this has allowed French workers has proved one of the few upsides of the recession.

The attraction of property lies in its associated sense of possession and permanence, whether that means a place to put down roots or something to pass on to our children. Both are understandable desires, but in an age where few things – jobs, marriage – are necessarily for life, neither feel realistic. Renting, by contrast, offers a flexibility that is far more relevant to the way we live now. I may have to suffer magnolia walls for the rest of my life, but it's a price I'm happy to pay.