Generation rent

London garden

The garden of our old flat. We were told to leave when the flat was sold to another couple.

I grew up in the same house for practically my whole young life. It was an ordinary house – nothing grand or special – but it has some sort of mythical quality for me because it represents stability, childhood and a time in my life which I associate with innocence.

That’s why ‘home’ is always my parents’ home. I don’t know why I can’t shake this feeling, despite now having children myself. Why isn’t my adult home on the same level as theirs? The simple answer is because our home is rented.

I am part of a growing number of people who have been nicknamed ‘Generation Rent’. The media love to put labels on things but this one seems apt for describing those who have missed the boat on owning their own property and who are now stuck in the vicious renting cycle.

According to the latest census figures in the UK, home ownership in London has fallen below 50% for the first time in 30 years. Today, just 1.6m out of the 3.3m homes in the capital are owned by the people who occupy them. In just a decade, properties owned with a mortgage have dropped nearly 20%.

Meanwhile, the percentage of people renting from a landlord is up 62% since 2001.

The English Husband and I are one of those people and it’s not always a comfortable place to be when you have children. Hanging over your head is the threat that you will be evicted with little notice. It’s something we’ve been through twice before, once before kids, and once after. This kind of insecurity makes you reluctant to invest in both your home and the neighborhood you live in. Why bother when you don’t know how long you will be there?

I admit, there’s something rather scary and grown-up about writing off the next 25 years to a mortgage. One thing that has held us back is the feeling that perhaps London is not the place where we see ourselves growing old. I’ve never quite been able to commit to it fully. But now that we have kids I feel like we should make a stab at living somewhere for more than a few years.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me just say that we do own a small one-bed flat not far from where we live now – we bought it over 10 years ago and it has appreciated in price. We now rent this out to a friend. This small flat, however, is unlikely to help us move sufficiently up the property ladder in this expensive city I live in. No wonder I fled to California last year – to the parents’ home no less – which is hardly bargain central.

It’s a hike

Here’s another stat for you: according to Barclays bank in London, moving up from a one bed to a two bed will cost an extra £100,000 (or about $160,000). A third room will cost £154,000, while a move from a three-bed to a four-bed property will incur a whopping price hike of £259,652 on average across London.

I suspect the figures will be even more stark where we are now, an upper-middle-class London ‘village’, where our closest neighbors are probably sitting on a house worth close to £2m. It’s a nice house, a very nice house, but it’s certainly not palatial. And that’s why everyone with an ordinary pay packet lives in flats.

It makes me wonder if the dream of owning your home is over. Forget it, especially if you live in a big city like London. The same would apply in other world cities such as Paris, New York or San Francisco.

You’re fine if you bought your house many, many years ago when lending was less tight and prices hadn’t literally skyrocketed. The recession, for all its played up, has done little to dent the rising cost of living in London.

I like our flat for the most part, but I am dead tired of renting. The pro-renters will argue that you don’t have to make constant repairs to the house or worry if your boiler breaks down on Christmas Eve. But try getting a landlord to fix things quickly. It’s like willing the tortoise across the finish line against the hare – it will happen eventually but not at any great speed.

I look around my flat and I see mold everywhere (I’m afraid I’m fixated on this). Never mind that it’s a health hazard. Our landlords keep promising that something will be done, but nothing happens. A builder came round and half-heartedly painted over some of the worst signs of damp, but did little else. Will the problem get solved? It’s doubtful.

In the meantime, I am surrounded by noise, the noise of the family upstairs who I believe might actually be killing each other if their arguments are anything to go by; and the noise of another neighbor who lives above our bedroom and keeps rather strange hours. Some nights he gets home late with his on/off girlfriend and amuses himself til 4am, some mornings he’s up around 6am. God help me but I do want to maim him, if only I could recognize him on the street.

Maybe one day we will own our home, like my parents’ generation could. I hope for it. But if the average mortgage is 25 years, we’ll be paying for the house well into our retirement. In fact, we might never get it paid off. If things keep inflating year on year, maybe we won’t be able to afford to heat it.

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