Lebensraum und Schadenfreude*

No-one came particularly well out of Panorama’s Bursting the House Price Bubble programme last night (though arguably better than the People’s Republic came out of University Challenge with an all-time low of one correct answer, and certainly not as badly as the cute little baby deer came out of David Attenborough’s new Life in Cold Blood series. Or rather didn’t.)

The featured property developer, Morris Properties, looked a lot less pretty than their brochures. Apparently they diddle the land registry into recording higher selling prices for their properties than was actually paid so as to keep the market buoyant, and also waive deposits from the buyer without telling the banks, who as a result are the only klutzes to have actually shelled out for these places. Ooh, clever. A fraud investigation is underway on behalf of the poor little banky-wanky-woos, who after all are only international multi-squillion dollar operations and therefore cannot possibly be expected to do complicated things like display a modicum of common sense about sloshing money at people.

Stand down, the banks are safe. But unless I am much mistaken we were also invited to emote on behalf of the buyers. Now, these were not your ordinary buyers. They were buy-to-letters, the explicit target market of Morris Properties, whose shiny promises I forget exactly, but the small print was something along the lines of “If you keep your fat middle-aged cash out of deposit accounts and pensions and all those other silly unsexy things and instead buy one of our rejuvenated rat-holes in the gun-heavy area of Nottingham, you will achieve rents of seventy thousand pounds per week and be a billionaire in one-point-three minutes (subject to market fluctuation).” Summat like that. The presenter at one point offered the puzzling shock revelation that the buy-to-let market was “totally unregulated”, by which I guess he meant it was no more regulated than any other corner of the housing market, but was particularly infested by buyers who haven’t a clue what they are doing. This is not necessarily a coincidence. I guess (I fondly imagine) there’s something about handing over x hundred thousand pounds of your own money when you don’t already have a home that makes you careful, and counteracts any natural tendency to cretinism you may have.

No such natural restraint was in evidence here. Apparently we were supposed to feel sorry for these lackwits who blithely believed the developer’s estimate of projected rents in the area without so much as turning on a computer to get confirmation, and who happily remortgaged their own living space in order to lord it over other people. Because that’s what it’s really about, isn’t it. Call me an unreconstructed cynic, but moi, I say bollocks to your retirement plan, it’s about being on a ladder above someone else who not only can’t afford the second property that you can, but can’t afford a first – what used to be called a “home” – either. Why else is the bumf littered with all that high-end market speak? Become a “property millionaire”, own a “property portfolio”. You’re buying into an aspiration there – the idea of having a property portfolio has been associated for so long with the kind of people who tend to lounge on yachts. Hey! Maybe if I buy a rathole in Nottingham and condemn another set of human beings to live in damp drudgery in it because they don’t have a choice, I too will lounge on a yacht!

A harsh judgement on a bunch of credulous bumblers whose age makes the prospect of ever extracting themselves from this mess unlikely? Bah. Of the three buy-to-letters featured, two of them hadn’t even seen the properties they bought. This isn’t about the fact that they were stupid enough to put their own houses in hock on the hardly disinterested say-so of a shiny brochure. This is about the fact that they saw no affront to human decency in not personally viewing the properties they were going to be personally responsible for foisting on other human beings in the way of living space. I am continually left open-mouthed by society’s attitude to rental property. I remember once being taken around Islington by an exceptionally nice estate agent with whom I was genuinely getting on well right up to the point when he said “Of course, people are fussy about the size of the kitchen, or whether there’s a garden or whatever, but it’s only rented, isn’t it.” Er, yes. And we have to LIVE there, this is where we will be conducting what laughably passes for our LIVES for the next six or twelve months. Somewhere about the People’s Republic I’ve got a little scrap of paper which I tore out of the furniture section of Loot for the express purpose of exercising my blood pressure (I have very low blood pressure) which carries the following ad for a sofa: “good condition but dated design; ideal for a rental property”. What in the name of arse makes you think that I’ll be happy to sit on some pile of tired old crap that you wouldn’t have in your own house? Oh no, wait, that’s a totally meaningless questions because I don’t have a choice, do I. Silly me.

When you stop to think about all this for anything above twenty seconds, whoever you are and whatever your situation, you will realise that this is just a bit sick. When did we lose sight of the basic truth that house and flats are there to be lived in? It came back rather quickly to haunt one of the buyers, whose own house is now (ooh! the delicious irony!) in danger as a result of her failed buy-to-let experiment. There’s a decent chance she’ll lose it by 2009, or as she tremulously put it, “By this time next year I could be . . . homeless.” No, you terrifyingly self-absorbed baby-booming old baggage, you’ll be a private tenant. Come on in, the dry rot’s lovely.

* Living space and, er, schadenfreude


  1. You know what? This might be heresy, but I have been on the property ladder, I have owned my own house… And when I left my ex I very purposefully /left him/ and got myself a nice little rented house. I was quite particular about the actual house I rented and the landlord I rented from, though. My landlord is lovely, and is very happy to fix things and sort things out, should it be necessary. He’s fine with me putting up shelves and pictures, and happy about me having my doggies.

    I don’t have to worry about all the stuff I had to worry about when owning – the structural integrity of the building, the reapir bills, etc. – and I am loving it.

  2. No, not heresy at all. I love my flat and flatmates and the landlords are half decent (not to the point where they’ll fix the lights in the kitchen, and obviously I can’t always use the bathroom when I want because I can’t afford to live on my own, but you can’t have everything). My point is partly that I, and everybody else, have lived in some real shit-holes and that I am therefore ill-disposed to pity the baby-boomer who is trying to perpetuate exactly these conditions for people, and also that I’m fed up with being treated like a second class citizen in a million tiny niggling ways because I can’t afford to buy a shoebox. I’m objectively not that fussed about actual ownership – it’s actually quite likely that I’ll never be able to afford to buy if present conditions continue – but the rental sector needs to dramatically revise its attitude in line with continental norms (and, basically, your situation needs to be a lot more common). Quite who or what will make this happen, or what could, liberally speaking, “make” it happen I have no idea. But it would be a worthier focus of everyone’s attention than ten times salary First Time Buyer mortgages and fiendishly complex part-ownership schemes.

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