September 03, 2004

Property qualification

They were talking about the property ladder on the television this morning, and they thought they were doing me a favour. I wasn't sure how. They were saying that a survey of householders showed that many of them would have difficulty in meeting their mortgages if the rate went up another 2% - and that this showed how many people weren't able to get on the property ladder.

I couldn't see how. I could see how it might make life difficult for people who were already on it. I couldn't see how it would make it harder to get on it in the first place. What makes it so hard is not that paying the mortgage would be hard but that paying the asking price is impossible. I can see that. I can see that because a small house in my relatively cheap part of London costs at least a dozen times my salary. It doesn't matter what the mortgage payments are or what the mortgage rate is. It might as well be tuppence or two million pounds, one percent or one hundred. The point is that I haven't got a quarter of a million quid and have no means of borrowing same. I cannot afford to buy a house. I cannot afford to buy a house in London. I cannot afford to buy a flat in London. I cannot afford to buy a house in Birmingham or in Manchester or in Glasgow or in Cardiff. Forget the bloody interest rate, I'm not remotely interested. I cannot afford to buy a house.

I really don't know what they were up to. It's like saying it would be harder for me to buy a car (and I can't afford that either) because the price of petrol went up. Maybe they really think that's why they think some people don't buy cars. And maybe they really think everybody can actually afford to buy a house - possibly they don't know anybody who can't - but they're not quite sure that the time is right or that's it's the right house for them or that they can afford to keep up the payments. At least the last of these has some purchase on economic realities, if no others. But in the circumstances it's neither here nor there. How many people are holding back from buying houses and getting on the property ladder because they're worried about the interest rate - next to nobody, I would respectfully suggest - compared to the millions of us who cannot afford to buy a house?

Perhaps the problem lies in thinking of housing, in the first place, through the concept of the property ladder. Any reputable investment advisor - and there may well have been ten good men in Sodom, if only the Lord had had the patience to look for them - could tell you that you do not treat your home as an investment. You do not treat your home as an investment because it is your home. Yet our entire discussion of housing in this country revolves around the assumption that we do just that. The television schedules are thick with programmes about buying them, selling them, doing them up so that we may sell them and buy another one. Or two, or several. No sooner have we bought one then we're looking to up sticks, sell it on and buy another, better one, as if we had nothing better to do at the weekend than buy or sell a house. What shall I do today? Wash the car, or buy a house? Couldn't get a tee time, so I sold the house.

This is not, in truth, exactly how people are living their lives. But it may well be how a lot of people think they are living their lives. That is what the property ladder is all about. If it is property rather than a home, then the reason for buying it is to sell it. Houses are first and foremost commodities, exchange-values rather than use-values, and first and foremost their purpose is to be bought and sold. And where do we find them, to buy them, and to sell them? Look in the paper and there you find, not houses, but the Property Section. We are supposed to be making investments, even though what we are buying is something that we shouldn't treat as an investment. And when we have done it, then we are on the property ladder.

The whole thing leaves me baffled. On the one occasion that I did buy a house, the bloke kept trying to describe me (he had obviously been on a course) as a cautious investor instead of some other, more adventurous sort of investor - I forget the actual phrase - as if I'd have been buying a five-bedroom detached house in North Oxford overlooking the river, if I only had the get up and go to get up and go for it. What I was actually doing was buying just about the only house in Oxford that I could afford to buy. I was doing this because I was desirous of having a place securely in which to live. The idea that it was an investment had never crossed my mind, and nor did it occur to me at any later date. I had no idea that I was on the property ladder.

As I had no intention of moving out, how could I have? Who on earth gets into anything that's good, with the intention of getting out of it as fast as possible? What on earth that's sane can possibly come from that?

This is true, and sane, despite the fact that when I did get out of it I realised several thousand pounds in profit, and that this helped put me through college, not least by paying an awful lot of rent. This happened not because I was a brilliant investor who bought a clever house in a clever location or did it up in a clever way, but because I got lucky. I bought when house prices were at their lowest for years - I mean, that's why I was able to buy - and sold when they had gone up a little at the start of the present madness. Had it been the other way round, no profit, no investment, just the foot of debt hard on my drowning head. Because a home isn't property, it's a home. You haven't got a property portfolio or a pied à terre. You have a home. A friend recently said to me: "it isn't property unless you've got at least two of them".

Of course people can't entirely be blamed for thinking otherwise. You work hard all your life and never make a penny, not unless you're one of the very few. (Not that they think they're the very few. I remember asking a man who was on the top rate of tax what proportion of the working population he thought were in the same position. "Oh", he strained, trying not to overestimate, "about half". It's actually about one in eight. As it happens, he was my landlord at the time.)

The very few have money for investments and trust funds and second homes. The rest of us do not. Practically every penny that comes in during the month goes out, in one way or another, before the month is over. Even what we save is saved towards a holiday, for relief from work, or maybe for a pension, for when we finish work. We never get ahead of the game.

Or the only way we get ahead of the game is if, by a stroke of luck, something unconnected with our employment comes our way. A relative leaves us money. A parent helps out with the cost of buying a house. A house we bought when it was cheap turns out to have gone up when we sell it. You only ever make money that's unearned. And it's for that reason that you reckon you deserve it.

So half the population think they're sitting on a fortune, in the difference between what they paid for their houses, and what they think they're going to be worth. In most cases it's an unspendable fortune - because to realise it, they'd have to spend it on another fortune-swallowing house, or simply because they've bought too late. The property ladder is like Jacob's ladder. Just as illusory, just as far to travel up in order to reach a non-existent top.

And I am not on it. And that is not what bothers me. I would like a house, a flat, a place of my own to live in. If possible I would like to buy a place, but as long as it's secure, mine to stay in and make in my own image, then there are other arrangements that would suit me fine. It's not being able to find security that eats away at people. Do these commentators have no sense of that, no imagination, no understanding of what it's like? I'm not bothered because I have to pay rent. I'm not bothered because I cannot invest in the market. I cannot invest in the Stock Exchange either and I lose no sleep over that. That's not what gets me down, and it gets me down all right, every time I read another story about house prices and how they've gone up five per cent since they told you last. Or maybe they're going down. Or up. Or not. It's relentless. And what it gives you is a sense of worthlessness. A sense of pointlessness. A sense of futility. A sense of wasting your time, all your time, and having no way of doing otherwise.

Not because you're never going to be able to accumulate. But because as far as you can see, no matter how hard you work, no matter how damned hard they make you work, no matter how many hard years of damned hard work they make you do, you are never going to have even as much as a secure place to lay your head. That is what eats away at you. Perhaps people cannot see that, if what they view as "failure" is no worse than not being a success. If what they mean by worth relates to the word's true meaning in the same way as property relates to home. But what eats away at you is much worse than that. It's the sense of playing against ridiculous odds. The sense of all of this being for nothing.

The property ladder is nothing to do with it. What grinds you down and wipes you out is simply this. The further you stretch for the balloon, the further away it always floats.


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