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.