Britain’s housing crisis is a peculiar sort of madness. Photo: Getty
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How I fell onto the property ladder: a journey from rent boy to a housing millionaire

Almost by accident I’ve become property rich, cash poor, and without producing anything of use to the economy.

I’ve moved from being a rent boy to a housing millionaire. Back in 2004 I published my book Rent Boy, subtitled How One Man Spent 20 Years Falling Off The Property Ladder. It detailed my rented housing struggles in London from 1980 (the year of the first right-to-buy) via 11 homes and included living in an asbestos-ridden council tower block in yet-to-be-gentrified Westbourne Park with a – possibly quite literal – short-life house association. We were told that as long as we didn’t knock nails into the walls then we’d be fine. Now I’m not so sure.

My other rental experiences included landlords changing my locks in Fulham, a neighbour with mental health issues throwing a vase through my window and then posting pink knickers through my letter box, cockroaches in the kitchen, rows over housing rotas, withheld deposits for “washing curtains” in West Kensington, overflowing loos in Hammersmith, dodgy electrics in Elephant and Castle, £70 bills from an estate agent for changing a light bulb after I left (the minimum call-out fee apparently), and many more tales of housing woe. 

It wasn’t all bad; there was even a nice place in a Georgian house in Camberwell which had a chandelier and spiral staircase and the tenancy lasted two years. I made some good friends (mainly the people who didn’t mark their shampoo), had some great parties and got to know a lot of new areas.

But there was always that gnawing sense of insecurity and the fear of the latest eviction notice. Had I, as David Cameron now advocates, been allowed to buy a housing association flat I’d have done so through desperation. House prices were rocketing and as a freelance journalist mortgages of the right size were nearly impossible to get.

Then in 2004, having met my future wife Nicola (who had her own flat) we finally moved into home ownership in London for the then colossal sum of £330,000, aided by an inheritance from selling my aunt’s house in Stoke and selling Nicola’s existing flat. It wasn’t always easy even though we put down a decent deposit. In the digital age my writing income tumbled with the decline of print and at times we were struggling to pay the mortgage.

My parents died in 2006 and 2007. One of the most dehumanising aspects of the current market is that the death of your parents becomes good news property-wise. We managed to pay off the mortgage on our house after selling my mum and dad’s place in Norfolk. And as my income has gone inexorably down, so the value of my home has gone up to around £1m.

Almost by accident I’ve become property rich, cash poor, and without producing anything of use to the economy (bar keeping a few window fitters busy). My wife and I have written some half-decent articles and done a bit of teaching, but really we haven’t done anything to earn £700,000 in 11 years bar sit on our posteriors in the same house. And if we want to stay in London it’s a useless gain as every other property has gone up too. I wouldn’t mind at all if my property had stayed the same price since 2004.

What’s striking is the volatility of my housing history. Oh for something a bit more Germanic, years of steady renting at fixed rates and then perhaps buying a house that retained the same value.

Yet Britain remains addicted to property inflation as books such as Danny Dorling’s All That Is Solid have emphasised, while home ownership has become virtually impossible for those not on the property ladder. The Conservatives are going to inflate the bubble even more through selling off housing association flats without replacing them and encouraging splurging of pensions on buy-to-lets.

Ed Miliband’s promise to have three-year tenancies for renters is something and it’s encouraging that the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett actually suggested that homes are for living in and not an investment. But it will surely need more and someone to say the unsayable, that property prices and rents both need to go down and more affordable houses need to be built.

What I haven’t forgotten is the hell of not knowing where I’ll be living next month and measuring out my life not in coffee spoons, but in endless boxes humped up endless stairs to endless top-floor flats. Now my children will in a few years be out there in the rental cardboard jungle, their only hope of buying being the Dickensian hope of an inheritance from the death of an aged parent... It all seems a peculiar sort of British madness where endless property inflation, not building social housing and no rent controls are seen as a great triumph.

Pete May is the author of Rent Boy: How One Man Spent 20 Years Falling Off the Property Ladder

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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war