First world problems (or, On buying a house in 2014)

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We’re currently in the process of buying a house. It’s actually the one we ended up renting after our plans to move abroad fell through. As the saying goes: when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

Previously when we’ve bought houses we’ve known that the chances of us being in it for more than a few years were quite slim. This was for a number of factors: the ‘housing ladder’ <shudder>, changing jobs, and just being in our twenties without an absolutely clear plan of what we wanted to do with our lives.

The house we’re planning to buy is situated in a market town within the North-East of England. I can see us staying here a while now that our eldest is in school and our youngest starts full-time next year. Knowing this means we’re thinking less of the ‘value’ we can add to the house and more about how to make it liveable as a family home.

We can (just) afford to live here because I work remotely rather than from an office. The house we’re buying may only be going for an amount just less than the national average but, if I had to commute every day, we’d be struggling to afford it. And it’s not anything spectacular: just a two-bedroom terraced house with a small front garden. Our generation was screwed over by my parents’ generation – and goodness knows what the economic crisis has to the next.

By this point in my life, I kind of expected to live in a reasonable sized family home with a garden large enough for my kids to run around in. But that hasn’t happened – and it isn’t likely to happen any time soon. We’re not alone in this. If you haven’t watched the video above yet, then now’s the time to do so. Skip to about 3m 54s and watch Vinay Gupta pick apart the western dream piece by piece.

The implicit assumption, he states, is that we work in the city until we have kids, and then move to the countryside to bring them up in rural bliss. The trouble with that, of course, is it remains a dream for most people. Given intense competition (in housing, in jobs, socially…) it’s difficult to generate enough money to do anything more than remain within commuting distance of the city centre.

Vinay’s point is that in developed countries, the current and next generations become ‘trapped’ in cities. Due to the increases in population, the concentration of wealth, and increasing resource scarcity, we simply cannot afford a middle-class lifestyle for everyone no matter where they live.

What we can do though, I suppose, is make cities nicer places to live. Cities are actually pretty good per square mile in terms of efficiency. Making them nicer places to live, though, would mean jettisoning our rugged individualism and inherent competitiveness with peers. These are the kinds of things that lead to families buying two cars and driving everywhere instead of demanding better public transport. And, you know, if we pooled together we could all work 21 hour weeks while providing a minimum basic income for all. We could end poverty, at least in our own country.

But we don’t do any of this. Why? Because we’re trapped and immobilised by a nostalgic mythology. Instead of demanding and working towards something different and better, we’re spurred on by consumer culture that tells us we ‘deserve’ more of the same. The truth is that most of us aren’t going to attain the dream they’re peddling. All we get to do is silently, seethingly observe in the media other people doing things presented as ‘normal’. The truth for most of us is that those things are increasingly merely a distant dream.

Image CC BY-NC-SA Jonathon Hurley

5 Comments

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  1. I know where you’re coming from Doug. Currently in the same boat, trying our best to buy that lifelong family home in the country but struggling with crazy house prices. And all the time thinking about interest rates and bubbles. This was another interesting read this weekend along these lines: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/27/if-we-cant-change-economic-system-our-number-is-up

  2. Try the ‘haven’t even got on the ladder yet and living in central London’ boat ;). That’s a choice I’ve made, I guess, and these things are a complex mixture of structural factors, the choices we make and the opportunities we luck out on.

    I swing between thinking that continuing to rent and moving to one of the most expensive cities in the world is a good idea to buck the traditional notion of buying property being the end-game, and thinking that it’s a huge mistake and I am wasting years of salary I could be ploughing into equity.

    Vinay’s concept of exiting at the top or the bottom being down to a choice has really got me thinking.

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