Speculative bubble or Olympian squib?

Last week I huddled round a dead cow with a dozen adults from rival companies to learn about the craft of butchering. We all lifted carcass, chopped sinew and guessed the heft of the pinkish cuts. The head butcher made us all feel equally able. At the end, we swapped business cards and pleasantries and were rewarded with carefully weighed slabs in blood-soggied paper parcels.

The real takeaway lesson, though, had less to do with cow carving than it did with the merits of everyone getting an equal shot. The whole fairness thing is seriously in vogue – “being involved” and “effort” are in, “winning it” and “results” are out – and is becoming more so as we approach that totem of equitability: the Olympics.

The Games are preoccupied with fairness to the point of obsession. Athletes’ fairness to each other is sacrosanct. It is why they are penalised for false starts and discouraged from ingesting amphetamines before the race. The television coverage of the events, including the really dull ones, is on terrestrial channels so as to be fair to those who have not bought Sky. Even the geniuses behind the ticketing lottery were so concerned with it being just that they forgot to make sure it also worked. As a result, we got a postmodern take on fairness, where everyone got screwed equally hard by a system none of us understood.

One group, however, is emerging as the doped-up frontrunner in the race to break away from this cloying need to be fair: homeowners.

Around 4m people are expected to descend upon London during the Games. Most of them will not fit into hotels and, while we are all being encouraged to get into the “what matters is the taking part” spirit, the estate agent in all of us has sniffed the chance of turning a quick buck and we are damned if some nonsense about fair play gets in the way.

. . .

Among the 32.1m websites that come up on a Google search for “how can I make money from my home during the Olympics”, there are a few common threads of advice.

Homeowners are told not to expect the world for their two-bedroom flats in Tooting, but to be prepared to hold out for something close to it. “If you have a place in the countryside, go there,” is the much-echoed advice. You will rake it in from the comfort of your cottage while some unfortunate tourist fiddles about trying to work your oven.

One site that caught my eye is more direct than most, making the very sensible point that “if you live in or near London, you most likely have a product or service that will be in demand and you haven’t even thought of it”.

It doesn’t go on to suggest what the service might be (home-cooked meals, one presumes) but instead adds, “If I tell you, I can also show you how to profit from the Olympic Games for a very small outlay.”

Oddly, a search for “how can I rip people off during the Olympics” yields no results.

Aside from being a questionable interpretation of the spirit of the Games, all this fly-by-night landlording is creating a speculative bubble of epic proportions. Stupefied by the lure of a rising market and the dream of a paid-for week in Lanzarote, homeowners run the risk of holding out for more than anyone can afford and ending up with no trade. Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs is even getting a bit twitchy about the idea and is offering free advice sessions on how to rent out sensibly during the Games.

But the appetite to join this bricks and mortar bonanza is not confined to the unprofessional backwaters of the internet. Along with the e-invites to a seminar on how European zoos treat marsupials, drinks parties and watching Nancy Dell’Olio turn on Christmas lights, I received an advert from a reputable estate agent offering “an off-market house in Knightsbridge available for the Olympic period”.

The five-bedroom house is on the market for £65,000 a week.

Just think of that for a moment. That works out at about £6.40 for every minute that you stay in the house. You could probably get Usain Bolt to come and race you to the end of the garden and back for less.

The point is that while the idea of being decent appeals to us all, we, like athletes, are prepared to suspend our sense of fairness when the prizes on offer outweigh anything we are likely to be able to attain again.

For my part, I arrived home from my butchering, high on fairness, to find I had been burgled.

As well as the sadness of losing a laptop, TV and assorted trinkets, there is the spirit-sapping injustice of now having to pay more insurance in case it happens again. On the bright side, I can probably cover the additional premium by renting out my window box for £9.99 an hour during the Games.


Ed Hammond is the FT’s property correspondent

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