Squeezed Middle: A dangerous addiction to estate agents

How can house prices be so high when seemingly nobody has any money?

New Statesman
Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

Shhh, don’t tell Curly. I am looking in the estate agent’s window. I am not supposed to do this. Just as other people are addicted to class-A substances, to porn, or to internet gambling, I am addicted to gazing through the windows of estate agents.

This is my first relapse for a while; it’s probably been, ooh, two weeks since the last time I looked. The nice terrace off the high street has been snapped up for the extortionate sum of £325,000. No surprise there. More worryingly, the flat on our road has been reduced, but then it has swirly wallpaper and no central heating and was originally on the market for £200,000. Perhaps there is some sanity in the world, after all.

My eye wanders longingly across the card advertising a large terraced house by the park. It’s the Platonic ideal of a middle-class family home: sturdy, red-brick, period features; a sitting room with a fireplace, and a garden. It wins a Brucie bonus for having a wisteria, my favourite creeper (yes, I have a favourite creeper) growing over the door.

I won’t look at the price just yet. The bustle of the high street recedes and I slip off into my favourite fantasy: summer evenings in the garden, dinners al fresco; cosy winter afternoons eating scones before the open fire; raucous Sunday lunch parties with a fullsized table to sit around; somewhere to put the Lego; a room for each child – no more moving cots around and unfolding furniture in the dead of night; a book-lined study in which I could pursue my Improving Activities or slip off to for a quiet doze.

Enough! Time to face reality: £650,000. It’s even worse than I thought. Prices are going up again – how can it be possible when nobody around here has any money? I spend a few enjoyable moments directing hate vibes at all the trendies rolling in from Hackney with their ironic T-shirts and their huge deposits, taking our houses . . . Admittedly, Curly and I moved to the area three years ago from Hackney but that was different. The new wave of squeezed-middle settlers is better dressed, richer and more annoying. There’s really no comparison.

Wait a moment – what is this? Right in the corner of the display, almost hidden from view, is a dog-eared card I have never noticed before. It’s a little 1930s two-up-two-down just around the corner from our slightly-toosmall flat, on a pleasant, leafy road a little further from the station. “Property needs some modernisation,” reads the blurb, but it doesn’t look too bad.

Unbelievably, it’s on for £240,000, which in all my years of estate-agent-lurking I have rarely seen before. If we sell everything we own and lie through our teeth to the mortgage company, there is a small chance we could afford it.

Before I know what I am doing, I have opened the door and marched inside. A very shiny man is sitting at the front desk and he looks up to greet me with a narrow, cunning smile. “Good morning, madam. How can I help you today?”

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