In 1950 my Australian grandmother bought a five-storey, Regency terraced house in what was then the no-man’s-land between Kentish Town and Highgate village. It was dilapidated, had no bathroom and cost slightly less than £1,000. She tarted it up enough to make it habitable, lived there for a while herself, before returning to Melbourne. For the next three decades it was mainly lived in by my dad, who in time filled it with a wife, three children, lodgers and itinerant Australians (including, at one point, a young, unemployed Barry Humphries).
In buying a house in Grove Terrace, my grandmother changed our lives. The place made us members of a slightly lefty, intellectual north London set, and gave us a deep aesthetic snobbery about the superiority of a square-paned window. Even though my parents sold the house in the mid-1980s, the magnolia tree my mother planted in the front garden is still there. Every time I drive past (it is all much smarter now and owned by the tenor Ian Bostridge) and see the tree, I think: that is where my roots are. That house used to be ours.
If I was born a fan of home ownership, the years since leaving Grove Terrace have made me an even bigger one. In 1983, I bought my first flat in Camden Town for £27,000. I sold it seven years later at a profit of almost 400 per cent, moved abroad and, returning a couple of years later with a husband and a child, bought a family house in Islington. This we did up and sold, bought another, which we also did up and sold, before finally coming to rest in a large, if undistinguished, house round the back of the Arsenal football stadium.
As everyone knows, buying property used to be like standing in front of a fruit machine that was jammed on three cherries. Wealth came pouring out. And as everyone also knows, that machine has now stopped dispensing cash. You can’t buy a house that will change your life like my grandmother did, nor buy a flat that makes you rich, like I did when I was only 23. Most people can’t afford to buy anything at all.
Two weeks ago House & Home ran a superficially persuasive article by the designer Ben Pentreath, arguing that our continued obsession with home ownership is dotty. Renting, he said, has all sorts of things going for it: it is cheaper; it means you can afford to live so centrally that you can walk to work; when the boiler explodes it’s not your problem; you are freed from the boredom of Farrow & Ball colour charts; and if you feel restless you can easily up sticks and move somewhere else. Yet for me, the clincher was the pictures. These showed his two staggeringly gorgeous places – a romantic stone house in Dorset and a Georgian beauty in Bloomsbury, both far lovelier than anything I have ever lived in. He omitted to disclose the vital detail of the rental cost of either, but implied he was better off than if paying a mortgage on a small London house somewhere insalubrious.
Reading the piece I had a minor crisis about my continued faith in home ownership; half the readers of the Financial Times evidently had similar crises judging by the hysterical debate that subsequently raged online over which was better – to rent or to buy?
The next day I found myself browsing the internet for elegant Bloomsbury rental properties, and briefly got excited on finding, among the scores of extortionate-yet-beastly flats, somewhere with the right windows – but with the wrong everything else. It was tiny, on a major bus route and cost £1,100 a week.
In a way, the answer to the question of rent-or-buy is so obvious as to be hardly worth stating. If property prices are going up, then owning a house is a wise move. If property prices are falling, then renting is smarter. At the moment, no one is sure – hence the anxiety.
But a more interesting part of the story has nothing to do with money, and everything to do with culture, emotion and family. I suspect that even if I were offered Pentreath’s flat at the sub-market rate he evidently pays, I might still say no. The simple fact of ownership matters to me.
To try to understand what this madness is all about, I have been asking my family if they feel it too. The answer seems to be if they are young, they don’t, which is just as well given they will probably never experience the dubious rush of handling their first title deeds. My 23-year-old daughter has a job in Leeds and rents a room in a shared house, which she says is fine for now. As for the future, she’d rather not think about it.
Being responsible for a house means you have to take care of it, and taking care of a property is like taking care of a person. It binds you to it
Then I asked my 87-year-old father whether it matters to him that he owns the flat where he lives since he moved out of Grove Terrace. He shrugged and said he couldn’t care less. He likes being in a familiar place, but whether he owns or rents makes no difference: you don’t take your bricks and mortar with you.
Yet for those of us in the middle, the emotional pull of property is irresistible. My sister, who owns a handsome house in unhandsome New Barnet (a place that Pentreath would hold in contempt), says it’s simple: she wants roots for her children and a rented house can’t provide them. She wants to be able to pretend where she lives is permanent; and she doesn’t want to be reminded that it isn’t by paying a rental cheque every month. As for the responsibilities – yes, they are a drag. Though being responsible for a house means you have to take care of it, and taking care of a property is like taking care of a person. It binds you to it.
In any case anyone who really thinks that you don’t need to worry about leaking roofs and dodgy boilers in rental accommodation hasn’t met my daughter’s landlord.
For me, like for my sister, owning a house is also about permanence and children and responsibility. But it’s about something else too, something rather less honourable. It is about acquisitiveness and being able to do what I like with the house itself.
At this point I hear Pentreath tutting and spitting over the way that people put in new stainless steel kitchens, hardly use them, then sell the house to someone who puts the kitchen on a skip and installs an even more vulgar one instead.
Of course that is mad, bad and utterly wasteful. And yet I understand the drive to “improve” a house. Through my thirties it was a crazy compulsion. Twice we bought houses in a mess, and each time I gained deep and slightly dodgy satisfaction from “rescuing” them. When we moved into the second house, I was exhausted and pregnant with my fourth child, but still couldn’t stop the habit of flipping through property pages. I remember one day driving up to Oxford to look at a Gothic stone house that I had fallen for on the strength of the picture (ravishing) and the price (a steal). Fortunately it turned out to be both on the ring road and under offer.
Now that period is over; I have no more energy for renovation. The house I have lived in for 14 years I don’t particularly want to improve (though one day I might get around to replacing the worn cream lino in the kitchen. Bright yellow, perhaps?). But now I have found a new reason to enjoy being a homeowner. The winter flowering cherry that my mum helped me plant in the front a decade ago is now big and in full bloom. For the time being, I don’t want to live anywhere else. The house is neither especially elegant nor especially central. It just happens to be my home.
Lucy Kellaway is an FT columnist and associate editor
Letter in response to this column: