Why I don't want my foot on the ladder

Observations on property

In a country fond of declaring that an Englishman's home is his castle, it is hardly surprising that attitudes to renting have traditionally been negative. To admit, beyond your early twenties, that you're still a tenant is to send middle-aged heads tilting on to shoulders, brows furrowing, hands wringing. "I'm sure you'll get on the property ladder soon," they opine, implying that to avoid the ladder is as unlucky as walking beneath one.

There have always been horror stories to bear this view out, but recent evidence suggests that Britain's younger generation have stopped worrying and learned to love their landlords. A survey found more than half of 18- to 34-year-old tenants happy to put off ownership, with two-thirds saying it allowed them to live in a better area and a third citing the freedom to live with friends.

This is, of course, lucky, given that even the narrowest house in London (all 5ft 5in of it, beside a massage parlour in Shepherd's Bush) can tip the coffers at more than £500,000. But I, for one, was pleased by the survey, interested to see we're moving towards a continental view of renting, and relieved to find that I'm not alone.

In the past five years I've shuttled, spider-quick, between rented houses and flats, between new and old boyfriends, lost and found flatmates, somehow ending up moving a total of 12 times. At first I tried to kid myself that this was bohemian, but now I've accepted the truth. I'm just plain indecisive.

There are downsides to renting, of course - the regular theft of your maintenance deposit, the two months' notice informing you that you have to move out, the fact of throwing good money after bad - and I'm certainly not a fan of the embryonic property tycoons who have cropped up, determined to out-yuppie the bankers of the 1980s. Overall, though, I like renting. While I can see the point of investing in a property, any escalating value is really only relevant if you plan to move to a cheaper area or downsize. And I like the freedom of being able to move when I choose (yesterday, Brighton; today, London; tomorrow, the world!), to up and leave a house when it becomes too small, too dark or too damp.

Because to buy a house is to settle down, apply the brakes and accept that you're staying put - a lot like a marriage. This connection is borne out by the survey: one in five young renters say they'll only have the impetus to buy if and when they get married.

This makes sense. Marriage and house-buying have always gone together, the difference being that, way back when life expectancy was lower, people leapt into both in their early twenties. It's only more recently, with the growth of our property obsession, that people's first house purchase has often been made alone, or with a more casual lover or friend. With many people delaying marriage or commitment until well into their thirties, it's perfectly rational to put off property purchase too.

And, like dating different people before settling down, renting before buying can have benefits. In going out with different people, we find out what we can and can't abide in a partner and it helps our emotional development, helps us recognise "the one" .

And so with renting. By ricocheting from property to property I've realised, for instance, that I can never, ever, live in a basement. I've realised that if you don't check first you could spend six months or more in a balcony flat whose one window (yes, just the one) is covered at all times in thick plastic sheeting. I've found that two foot square of outside space can only, in the very loosest of terms, be described as a "garden", and that it doesn't matter how gorgeous the flat is at the top of those eight flights of stairs - you will soon hate it.

The beauty of renting is that when you do start loathing the property, or the person or people you're sharing with, you can move on. Not so once you've bought. As with divorce, property buying and selling is a matter of extreme emotion, and very often great expense, and, as such, not for rushing into. For now, then, I'll keep renting and wait for "the one".

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