Buying a home – the facts (part 2, & this time it’s harsher!)

Iona Bain

These days, you really have no choice but to look at – ahem – “up-and-coming” areas if you want to buy property. Yes, these places may be bit down-at-hell (sorry, I mean down-at-heel, my mistake) and probably have one too many betting shops and pawnbrokers for your liking. But if you can overcome your inner Hyacinth Bucket, look at the positive side; homes in economically growing, as opposed to already prosperous areas, will probably yield the greatest return on capital in the long run. There are many parts of London, for instance, that were once beyond-the-pale, with reputations for poverty and high crime, but are now firmly gentrified with top-notch property prices to boot (think Notting Hill, Shoreditch and Clapham, to name but three). But even if that prospect for some areas seems a long way off, are you prepared to adjust your high standards and adapt to a less-than-ideal environment? If you can handle some slightly bitter medicine, read on… 

For some, making the adjustment from fantasy to reality is a bit too painful, involves a little bit too much legwork (investigating properties in-depth, being prepared to do some labour-intensive work on the gaff) and is not the wonderful lifestyle upgrade that they’d really like it to be. In the years before and after buying your first home, you’re trying to pay for possible renovations, furniture AND a mortgage all at the same time. Your savings have taken a hit and your outgoings have just shot up overnight so you do have to hunker down; eat out less, give up some luxuries and generally have a tight grip on the old purse strings. It’s not a bad existence by any means, as I explain later but it’s not bang smack in the middle of your comfort zone. Renting, on the other hand, can become quite the safety blanket if we want it to be. While it can be an awful, squalid experience in some extreme cases, very often it can also spoil you if you’ve grown quite comfortable in your surroundings; maybe you’re a bit too used to living with (or near) friends in a trendy area just down the road from a real-ale gastropub or artisan bakery.

Anecdotally, I can report a number of single young women who HAVE bought property in London, none of whom are high rollers. How have they done it? In a word, compromise. One girl received help from her parents (and is still paying them back), another had to buy and move in with her sister as well as get help from M&D. But critically, both had to buy ex-local authority homes built in the past forty years; they weren’t always in good nick, although the foundations were always excellent, and some hard work was required to put the life back in them but it didn’t cost a lot and the results were amazing. Another girl I know could have used a significant pay-out from an accident to rent in a very upmarket corner of London but chose to do up a scruffy (but very well proportioned) council flat in Homerton and live there with her sister instead.

I don’t know anyone who has managed to buy anything other than ex-local authority in London in the past five years – it suggests to me that this is the only way to go for normal buyers in London or the South East these days. Sure, you may not have parental cash at your disposal or the ability to team up with your sibling, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get on the housing ladder if you’re ingenious. A self-employed musician I know bought with a friend, and not even a particularly close one, in up-and-coming Forest Hill. He has spent the past few years living on a building site while essential renovations went on, but he sleeps well at night knowing his landlord won’t up his charges and that he can fix any problems for himself (as well as enjoying the freedom and personal space that comes with owning even half a decent property). 

By contrast, I know a lawyer who I’m sure earns far more than my musician friend. In fact, he could easily be earning the £77,000 benchmark for London’s housing market. He claims he cannot afford property in London but mutual friends say he has really set his sights on a posh Victorian terraced property with a status glass extension at the back rather than the humble (but excellently built) ex local authority house which can be an excellent starter home – he is a roving bachelor with no children. Another chap I know earns a very respectable amount and is keen to get his own space but saved a pittance throughout his twenties as most of his disposable income went on going out and smoking. Another well-paid friend saved thousands of pounds in free tube travel for a decade as a relative worked at London Underground, yet claimed he couldn’t save towards a deposit (although he has since proved himself wrong by buying a cosy family home in Essex). Another rents a property just down the road from one of the trendiest bars in London with an idyllic terrace out back facing onto a secluded tree-lined canal. He told me he won’t buy property unless he can pay for it in cash – mortgages are “bulls***”, apparently. (I wonder if he would feel differently if his landlord were to give him notice on his tenancy tomorrow. Bye bye terrace.) All these guys – and they just happen to be guys, I don’t know why – have paid a small fortune in rent over the years and it’s very unfortunate that they have absolutely nothing to show for it.

These stories, while anecdotal, show that (across London at least) there can be a massive gulf between young people’s expectations of property and the truth, which is this; if you save hard, do your homework and lower your expectations, you can get on the housing ladder but it won’t be glamourous or easy. What it WILL be is fulfilling, character-building and heaps of fun. Building your own space, with your touches and tastes, from humble beginnings is an immensely satisfying process. Once it’s yours, it can’t be taken away and only you can decide how it’s kept and how long you want to keep it for. So face up to the truth about buying a home; it may be scary at first but boy will it set you free.

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