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Squeezed Middle: A dangerous addiction to estate agents

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

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?”

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on