Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Best of the Bikeshed — from the archive

This autumn my long-overdue next book will be published. It will be a selection of the best writing from Views From The Bikeshed, together with some new material on blogging for writers. In preparing and editing the drafts I've re-read hundreds of post, many of which won't make the cut, but perhaps deserve another airing. 

Yesterday the Times carried an article reporting that house prices had risen to a new high, with the average price of property reaching £330,000.  By coincidence, I also read the piece below which I first published in  November 2009. It is part of the 'Past Imperfect' series (see sidebar) which looks back on aspects and incidents in my life. How little has changed!

Past imperfect - Argyle Terrace

In July 1982 I bought the ground floor of a Victorian terrace on the edge of North Shields in Tyneside; I paid £7,700 including legal fees. In return, I became the proud owner of a spacious flat with high ceilings and original features, a great view over the fields and a neighbour with a punk daughter who played the drums at all hours of the night!

I was twenty years old and had just returned from my third year at university; there were three million people unemployed and yet somehow I landed a job as a sales rep for a newspaper. That break allowed me to buy the flat and in so many ways altered the course of my life.

Putting the price of the property into perspective, it was exactly the same amount as my first annual salary. I  borrowed £300 from my mother to cover the deposit and was so determined to repay her that I barely ate for the two months it took. Looking back, quite why I was so fiercely independent I can't say, but I don't regret it—or what it taught me. I have remained so ever since.

I lived at Argyle Terrace for three years before moving north to Northumberland. They were good times—formative, fun, and a long time ago in more ways than one. It would be almost inconceivable today for a young person to buy a decent first home for the equivalent of a year's wage.

And you know, it is not a good thing they can't.

I feel immensely lucky to have reached adulthood at a time when buying a house wasn't the crippling expense it is today. A blog isn't the place to discuss detailed personal finances, but in the twenty-seven years since I bought Argyle Terrace, I've never had to take a mortgage more than twice my salary. That combination of good fortune and circumstance (and huge a slug of prudence) has afforded me a freedom from debt that many people only a decade younger, and for no fault of their own, have struggled to achieve.

The view from my window - and my first company car!

My Grandfather lived not far from Argyle Terrace. He bought his first house when he was in his twenties and never thought to move until he was seventy-seven. His house wasn't an investment; it was somewhere to live and raise a family. That might sound old fashioned, Romantic even, but it has always struck me as the right way to look at it.

There is little that dismays me more than the property boom of recent years. At times I've wanted to scream. We are not richer when house prices rise - and certainly, we are not richer as a society. Even at an individual level the 'personal equity' school of thought seldom stacks up. In my case I have made a handsome paper profit - but what about my three children who will each need a home sometime in the future? As a family, we are immensely poorer.

A typical home in the UK is worth three to four times its price in 1995. But how does that wealth manifest itself? It's not as if we can cash in and live for free elsewhere. In practice, the real wealth of home-owners of my generation (providing they have been prudent and not borrowed against their equity) is in having a smaller mortgage - something everyone could have enjoyed if prices hadn't risen so aggressively in the first place!

And none of this even touches on how the housing market has skewed our economy, left millions in a mortgage trap, warped our values about what's important. I could make jokes here about  TV programmes like Home Front and Location bloody Location having a lot to answer for - but it's way too serious for laughter.

Most of all I feel sad for those starting out. Young people thinking of buying at inflated prices are to some extent damned if they do and damned if they don't. A friend of mine said recently, ' Perhaps they should rent like everyone does in Germany.'  That's unrealistic: we don't have their housing infrastructure and in any case, cultural norms are an important part of our self-worth—in the UK owning a house is, for the vast majority of aspiring people, a central aspect of making progress in life.

But if ownership is legitimate, a lust for rising prices and the putative wealth it brings is destructive. It has always struck me as perverse that housing is the only essential product we want to see increasing in price—imagine if we had the same attitude to energy or food. I could go on, but I'd probably scream after all.

Of course, every generation has its challenges to face. But as I look again at the photo of my first house, I'm struck by how fortunate I was to have been starting out then. I hope one day the cost of housing will return to something near affordability—though I doubt my particular definition of that word will be possible.

More's the pity, because I suggest we'd be better off if it were.


  1. Here in Bath it is difficult to find any house worth living in for under £1 million. Things are not looking good for the next generation born to parents who are not rolling in it.

  2. Hari OM
    How much more true this is now. I have my own tale of property ownership... and it is what drove me to repatriate from my beloved OZ after 30 years away. It's all rather depressing... YAM xx

  3. The greatest problem for the young is the risk aversion of the lenders since the financial crash of 2008 and the requirement of the large deposit by the lenders. Many young people are paying out more in monthly rent than monthly mortgage repayments would be. In this area property is still affordable but it is nigh on impossible to get a mortgage.

  4. Very similar here in the states. Of my four children, only two have been able to buy their own houses.

  5. I bought my first flat in Wandsworth, London in 1986 and it seemed expensive then, but in retrospect of course my generation were so lucky, as you point out. There is indeed something badly askew with our relationship to property ownership and prices in the UK.

  6. Not sure where to start on this one. I also think it is terrible that houses are sold on pure profit all the time, leaving our young people in the expensive renting market, throwing money away to rentiers who become profiteers in a society that would rather watch 'Escape to the Country' and someone coming out of London with £800,000 to buy some pile in the country. Basically it is not fair, there is no bottom rung in the housing market for the young to start.
    Both my children's home are owned by them, though I have to rent in the future, but I have always believed in the family home, somewhere safe and secure.

  7. Home prices are very high in the US too. Today, with people working at home remotely, city dwellers are moving to the suburbs for homes and more living space. Sellers are getting 100K+ over asking price and often a bidding war takes place.

  8. I think it depends on where you live. We live in NW PA, and home prices are not crazy. Our market is unbelievable compared to last year at this time. Houses are being snapped up the same week they are listed. The demand is high. We have helped two of our children buy houses (we buy the house outright, and then they pay us back over time, an interest free loan.) Two others do not need our help. One is not ready to make that jump to ownership yet. The highest we have ever paid for a house is $65,000. The lowest was $3000. We buy and we fix up and rent or resell. It's made us a nice living. My daughter and her husband live in UK, and quite honestly, I don't think you could do that in your country.

  9. You write an article I could have written myself here in New Zealand, but not quite, firstly I could not imagine buying a first floor only ( must be why I left the UK ) in NZ I bought the land and built the house myself, that is why I came to NZ.
    I struggled to get started and came to realize you only get started on the ladder when someone helps you ie parents so if there are no parents to help??? so this skews the home ownership abilities, yes I have helped my son, and with him being in big debt due to education he was on the back foot when it came to borrowing.
    In NZ we own our land the smallest I owned was 620M2 and now on over 800M2 these days it feels too big as I have to cut the grass but I am soooooo pleased I live here.
    As you so rightly say "but what about the young folks"?

    1. Thanks for your comment on my blog.
      Each to their own, you are good at what you do I know I have read what you write and after 50 years of fiddling with wood I am getting better.
      This world of blogging makes for some interesting brushes with others, so good.

  10. It's STUNNING to me that you were able to buy a home (or flat) for less than £8,000 pounds. We spend that much on about four months of rent! I would love to be able to buy the place where we live but I bet it would sell for a million pounds, and it's hardly a luxury property. Prices are so insane, especially in London.

    And you're right about the market being skewed. So many very wealthy people own two or three or more properties, treating them as investments -- even people who don't live in this country. Meanwhile, people who live here are priced out of the market. As some of your other commenters have observed, the same is true in many parts of the US (like NYC, where I lived before London).

  11. My son has just bought a one bedroom flat in West London for £500,000. Probably very similar to that flat you bought in North Shields almost forty years ago. In a civilised country people should be able to secure affordable homes but instead "The Market" has been allowed to hold sway.