Perhaps in retrospect I should have taken it as a sign. My first brush with the London property market ended with a brush-off. It was March 2011 and I had just shaken hands with an estate agent on a one-bedroom flat in Bow, east London. True it was only rented, and my partner and I would be forking over more than £1,000 a month – no small expense – but that didn’t matter right then. The deal closed, I walked out with a pep in my step, a glide in my stride. I had grown half a head taller. Then, an hour later, the phone rang.
It was the estate agent calling back.
‘Sorry about this,’ came her consoling voice. ‘But the landlord’s pulled out. He’s found himself another tenant. A banker. Canary Wharf. £50k a year basic. Sorry if we’ve messed you around. Check your account in an hour or so – your holding fee should have been refunded.’
With a curt goodbye, she rang off. Suddenly I felt as lifeless as the dialling tone to which I listened. Just like that, we had been denied. London, which worships at the altar of money, had looked us up and down and not liked the size of our sacrifice. It didn’t matter that we were good for the rent, nor that the flat itself was nothing special. This was the city telling us to know our place. We’d tried to rent a home that, apparently, was only for financiers with telephone-number salaries to try to rent.
But when one door closes, a different one opens. I use that expression with the darkest irony, because the problem with our next one-bedroom flat in Bow was this: we couldn’t get in the door. Even now, I’m not sure what went wrong – was it door, key, or a door-key conspiracy? Push as we might, and curse as we did, nothing budged. Mutely, I began to wonder: were the gods of the housing market trying to warn us off? First they had refused us for not being moneyed enough. Now they were literally slamming the door in our faces.
Oh we got in, eventually. But in a larger sense we’re still stuck outside. Still shouting in exasperation, still pounding on the door, still peering in an uncaring keyhole. Because as everyone knows, being a tenant is only the runner’s up prize. In many respects, it’s no prize at all. For the last few decades, the true – the only – ambition of any good citizen of the UK is to become a homeowner. Indeed, why aspire to anything else? Behind its brick skin, an owned home is more than just a place to hang your hat; it’s the guarantor of your financial future. There’s just one roadblock on this property-owning superhighway: how in the name of Felicity J Lord are you to save for a deposit when palming the lion’s share of your earnings off to a landlord?
In our five years as London tenants, we coughed up, at a low estimate, £60,000 on rent. Money that would have made a decent deposit: in the landlord’s trousers. The result was five years of financial stasis, where we’d pay the rent every month, but could put by only pennies – at best – for the future. Keep it up until the day of judgement, and we’d have been no closer to tasting the heady mead of home ownership than before. We’d spent so much for so little. Insofar as those five years taught us anything, it was of the unpleasantness of spending the springtime of your life as an economic unit in service to an exploitative property market. But that’s the private renting for you. Predatory and wolfish, it devours tenants until they can pay no more, then spits them out.
In September 2013, we were spat from our flat in Bow, the landlady having announced she was selling up. Presumably word of the UK’s chucklesome house prices had reached the southern hemisphere – she worked at a Sydney bank – and the time was ripe, in her professional view, to liquidate her London asset. Either way, we weren’t sorry to leave. Geographically distant as she was, her tight-fistedness with money was all too evident. It took fully four weeks for her to bestir herself into ordering a new washing machine, and longer still to replace a desperately clapped-out boiler. (As if the wealth discrepancy wasn’t Victorian enough, we became scullery maids running kettle baths and hand-washing laundry.)
No, not all landlords are rip-off merchants who laugh their tits off while counting a fat wodge of your banknotes. But such is the lack of oversight in private renting, you never know the nature of the devil with whom you choose to sup. Yes, they could be a saint. But they could also be a rogue. Having been elbowed out from Bow, we had no choice but to play another round of landlord roulette when we moved to Leytonstone. Airy, bay-windowed and slam in the middle of town, the new flat itself was beautiful. We loved it on sight. Early indications on the landlord front, though, were less encouraging. There was no disguising the condensation in the double glazing, while the meanness of the sofas and bedsteads seemed to hint at another skinflint owner. For all its period spaciousness, the property was unloved in the way only a rental property could be.
Thankfully our luck was in: the landlord, when we finally met him, was a reasonable fellow. He was swift in attending to our knackered boiler and borked washing machine, and we transacted our business over two-and-a-half years without incident. But that’s the nub of the problem: property in the UK is a business. We hear daily of ever-spiralling house prices and unprecedented returns for BTL landlords as if it’s a cause for national cheer. The housing market has well and truly gone off its onion, but we’re equally mad for paying whatever figure that Foxton’s pull out their arse for townhouses in Wandsworth or bedsits in Bromley. We’re fools for houses. Or perhaps we’re just fools.
There is a postscript to this tale of property – and poverty. In the summer of 2016, loath to pay another penny to landlords Australian or otherwise, we moved back in with my parents. If anything this move was overdue. Unable to save for a deposit, we had been in a fool’s paradise – which was in fact no paradise at all. The rent had risen remorselessly, and the downstairs neighbours were so noisy that by the end we could hardly stick the sight of them. Our patience frayed; we left. Living at home isn’t without its consolations, of course. Rent comes in at a much more reasonable £200 a month, and the only noisy neighbours are the ones my parents watch every night on EastEnders. But it’s hard not to be jealous of my parents’ generation: the baby boomers who could buy a Hampstead townhouse and still have change from a 20p piece.
How do we start putting the property market the right away up? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or even a housing minister, to come up with a list of fixes. Build more houses. Reintroduce rent controls. Rebalance the economy so all the chips aren’t piled on London. We can all agree: house prices are farcically high, and the trend-line is only pointing upwards. It’s hard to resist the conclusion, then, that house prices stay high because those that have capital assets in our society want them that way. In the UK in 2016, fairness and logic are rather like houses themselves: in short supply.