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30 January 2018

Congratulations on your new house… but I don’t want to own a property at all

We have reached a point where property ownership is a national fetish.

By Mic Wright

My grandparents own their bungalow. My parents own their bungalow. (We obviously love single storey buildings in my family.) Neither house is a particularly valuable slice of property. They are in one of the more ordinary bits of Norfolk. I am not in line for an inheritance. That’s fine. I’m not that bothered about inheritances. But something I’m even less bothered about is owning property. It’s something that baffles my dad – brought up in a council house, and already a mortgage holder while he and my mum were both still serving in the Royal Navy in their twenties – who argues intensely that I need to get my foot on that property ladder that people endless bang on about. But I don’t want to.

Saying you don’t want to own a house in the presence of a British person usually gets the same response as turning down a pint or saying you don’t really like tea (obviously I don’t do either of those things). I don’t care about whether other people buy property beyond being pleased for them if that’s what they really want.

I just don’t want to buy a house any time soon (never say never, even in virtual print) and I have my reasons. Chief among them is the cost. I’ve seen plenty of times how unexpected occurrences have caused my parents real financial stress — a broken boiler, a botched kitchen put in by cowboy builders who promptly disappear. I am just about to move into a new apartment and, if anything breaks, the landlord is responsible for that. I don’t want to spend my weekends in B&Q, hunting down supplies to fix leaks like some addled sea captain devoid of a crew.

But, I am privileged in so many ways. At the highest level because I can afford to rent privately and am able to earn money to sustain that. Britain is a terrible place to rent because the law leans heavily in favour of landlords. Unlike other European countries where renting is far more common, the UK has consistently placed renters on the back foot.

It is all too easy for landlords to make tenants homeless and before that to push up rents with a slow and terrifying inevitability, turning tenants into the axiomatic frog sitting in the pot that’s slowly getting hotter until it’s boiled alive. Loss of tenancy — often with as little warning as two months’ notice — is the single biggest cause of homelessness in Britain today. According to a Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Panning Research study, 80 per cent of private-sector rental evictions in 2015 were under the “no-fault evictions provision of the Housing Act 1988. The system is broken.

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And one of the underlying causes is the pervasive cultural argument that — just as Napoleon dismissed Britain as a “nation of shopkeepers” — we should be a nation of home owners. Young people, we are relentlessly told, are not buying houses because of horrifying spending on coffees, nights out and, horror of all horrors, the green menace that is the avocado. This thinking has it that young people should stop gad-flying about and knuckle down to acquire a house as if that’s why they haven’t yet.

But young people in my parents’ generation went dancing, saw bands and wasted money on drink, drugs and entertainment of all kinds. They could still buy houses. The spent a lower proportion of their wages on rent while they building up a modest deposit and were buying in a far less overheated market. The Office for National Statistics published figures last year which showed that house prices stand at 7.6 times the average annual salary, double the figure for 20 years ago.

I am not arguing against saving or investing to ensure you are okay in your old age. Of course, that’s necessary. But we have reached a point where property ownership is a national fetish. Property is just one asset class. And as we continue to make property ownership into the be-all and end-all, we will increasingly have a society where people over extend themselves desperately chasing that dream. 

Of course, renting wouldn’t necessarily make that situation better for them. But the notion that most people’s rent – even for 10 years – would mount up to the equivalent of buying a home is false. Martin Lewis, the money saving expert, is right to say that most of us can save money by reducing frivolous spending but I’ll also come out as a champion for frivolity and fun. So many people who have bought a home have benefited from inheritances. Others have given up most of the things they enjoy to live the lifestyle they believe they should have. Owning property is no more the only option than having a child or working for yourself.

When my tweets on this topic were featured in a Twitter Moment, I received two kinds of responses: 1) People saying “at last, someone else is saying what I’ve been saying for ages” and 2) angry screeds about my selfishness, desire to be Peter Pan and inevitable fate as a sponger on the state. But not owning a house needn’t mean I end up not well off. I own a business and earn above the national average wage.

I’m lucky to be in that position but my choice of housing situation is not really a measure of how responsible (or not) I am. It is merely a choice and one that doesn’t inevitably come with a future larded with destitution and regret. If you’re trying to buy your own home, I wish you all the luck in the world. Just promise me we won’t have to talk about tracker mortgages and what contents insurance you should buy. An invite to your house warming is fine.