Property sex wars

At a party last week I had the misfortune to be cornered by a drunk and boorish estate agent who was desperate to tell me about the problem of women buying property.

The man, who usually shunts our conversations between his sexual conquests of women and buildings, was livid. Putting aside his usual brand of self-aggrandising drivel, he launched into a fierce tirade against his wife.

Together, they were in the latter stages of buying a house. Unforgivably, though, she had taken a unilateral decision that the investment potential of the property should take a back seat to whether or not she liked it. This had riled him. As well as being a great slight to his property nous and gender superiority, it was patently absurd that anyone should want to live somewhere just because it was “nice”.

After an ear-splitting five minutes of dissecting the idiocy of his spouse, he re-composed himself by brushing it off as “typical of the way women buy houses”.

He had a point. However, I don’t think it was the one he was trying to make.

Recent research by Barclays Wealth into the role of gender in financial decision-making found there is a lot to be said for the way women buy houses. Women, according to the report, “tend to value wealth as a source of security, not opportunity”. This sounds like an ideal formula for picking a house. It’s so good, in fact, I think it should be immediately added to the sales lexicon of responsible, post-credit crisis estate agency; “Two-bed, semi-detached townhouse with original pebble-dash façade. Moderate access to local shops. Would suit buyer looking for security, not opportunity.”

The reason for this wisdom, the report explains, is that women, with their greater propensity for emotion, are prone to “fear and anger, both of which can make the downside of risk more threatening”. By contrast, us men, for most of our lives high as kites on testosterone and immune to fear and anger, are “more likely to be confident, though not more accurate” when deciding where to invest. That doesn’t quite have the same reassuring ring to it.

But, as sensible as the female path sounds, especially in light of the past few years, I’m not at all convinced that the gambler in us all has let go of the idea that house buying should be, first and foremost, an opportunity to get rich. Even now, many people would be horrified at the idea of selling a house they bought in 2007 for anything less than they paid for it.

Estate agents have reacted accordingly. A neighbourhood’s up-and-comingness is routinely whipped out as a paddle to stir our buying juices. And it works. There is something irresistibly attractive about the idea of buying in a neighbourhood where you dodge crack dealers and pitbulls for three years and then waking up one morning to find yourself living in the new “new area”. There is probably even a neighbourhood investment-potential-matrix, which takes in things such as projected boy-racer hatchback to four-tonne SUV ratios, to track when a place has gone from up and coming to come up.

Cruelly, Zoopla, the online estate agent, has outed those – I assume mostly male – Britons who suffer profoundly from house-worth fixation syndrome. Last week it exposed Newton Road, Birmingham, as Britain’s “knowiest” street. Residents of the small crescent of low-slung houses apparently spent most of 2011 taking it in shifts to constantly refresh Zoopla’s price-tracking website, desperate to find reassurance that their houses were becoming valuable faster than their neighbours’.

Exhilarating as it is, though, there is a problem with this need to feel we are not just living under a roof, but on top of a gold mine. The preoccupation with what our home is worth risks sacrificing something fundamental about what it should be; a place to escape from the stresses of life beyond its walls. We have become so accustomed to the idea that our property should appreciate at a faster rate than our salaries – a fanciful notion on the face of it – that we feel cheated if our tenure provides us only with the pleasure of living in the house.

The pressure of getting a property purchase right is enormous, requiring a delicate balance between the ambitions of heart and head. We expect something to shelter us from the world outside while simultaneously earning us more money to go out and spend in it. The difficulty of getting this right explains why a lot of people wait until they are part of a couple before trying to find the right house.

My estate agent acquaintance has, remarkably, succeeded in the first half of this process. Sadly, though, barring an unlikely embrace of his feminine side, he is destined to feel as though he has been muscled out by a more savvy operator.

Ed Hammond is the FT’s property correspondent

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