‘I really want a place of my own, our own,’ my girlfriend declared around the time we were hunting for our current, rented, flat. ‘Not somewhere rented, but somewhere that’s actually ours. As soon as possible.’
Ah, property ownership. So bourgeois, so desperate, so futile, so fundamental to the greed fuelled mess Western society finds itself in where the expectation of a hell of a lot for absolutely nothing caused a rupture. Five years later we’re still, at best, bailing out the blood from the sinking vessel. All these somewhat confrontational and overly righteous opinions I’ve spouted before and, indeed, they were easy to say, especially when it wasn’t an option. After being financially burnt down in 2008, although for different reasons, I spent the next three years clawing my way back into solvency and reasonably well-paid employment. Did I really want to throw away that sudden security, the freedom I’d only just regained of not questioning the purchase of every packet of crisps, every cup of coffee, every pint by flushing all my money into bricks and mortar?
Was I prepared to take the risk?
So we argued. I called them conversations with differing opinions, but she was right. They were arguments mainly because my ideals don’t always reflect reality. It became clear pretty quickly that this wasn’t conditional. If I wanted to be with her, then I needed to adhere to the plan and I wanted to be with her more than I wanted to be right.
‘I’m going to be in trouble when the revolution comes,’ I said. ‘They take the traitors first. Where do I sign-up?’
We had a saving schedule. X amount every month, a third or so of take home pay, away it went. I went back to debating every purchase. I kept a countdown of my expenditure for each month in a pad of paper helping me stick to budget. We expected to be ready sometime in mid-2013. In the meantime, she began to obsess over Rightmove, poring over properties trying to picture us moving between the photographs. Some were outright fantasies, some were realistic targets, but her research showed that the East London Line extension, which placed Brockley for the first time on the tube map, had not only seen too many film crews shooting programmes for Channel 4 about how it was the last secret of centralish London and a return of the Evening Standard’s intermittent campaigns for Honor Oak Park to be the new East Dulwich and Deptford the new Shoreditch, but it also meant that prices were actually rising faster than we could save.
‘Don’t worry,’ I cooed, not least because I wasn’t fully paying attention, blindly assuming that: ‘It’ll be fine.’
She couldn’t help it though. Part of her reasoning for departing West London and then (seemingly successfully) petitioning all her friends to join us was its affordability. I’d tempted her with flats about £250K, houses within touching distance and suddenly every bastard was migrating from their Islingtons, their Claphams, their Willesden Greens and heading to SE4 and its lovely Victorian avenues, open park land which makes it feel both on the edge and close to the centre of the city and sense of community.
My resistance, or feet dragging at any rate, was useless, though. It was either have no idea what we were talking about over dinner or start indulging in lunchtime Rightmove searches too. What, I began to wonder, would it be like to live in a flat like that?
Too late, I’d followed her in and from November through to February we were to become dull, property bores, obsessives who couldn’t find within their personalities anything else to talk about, bemoaning our first world problems, sellers’ greed and the eyeball gouging panic to be first through the door to anyone with the misfortune to be in earshot. But, and here’s the reason why: it was hard work. It took up almost all our free time, both the doing and the thinking, the discussions and the falling for places. It was heart-breaking. There were tears and harsh words too late at night. There were moments when we thought we had it and too many when it felt like nothing would ever work out. There were times when we just wanted our lives back.
Yes, buying a property is a privileged position to be in and it is a process that billions of people around the world will never even start to worry about because there are far more important things to keep ahead of first. Sure, even when you’ve fought your way to the front of the queue and someone deems to sell you a place, you’re still no better off, just switching a landlord for the bank only with more maintenance responsibilities. But there are also real people behind every house, every flat. From the moment it was built to when we wandered around and were dismissive of someone’s decisions to mount moulds taken of them while pregnant on the wall. Somewhere, buried underneath the hype and the panic and the abstract notions of ladders and security, there are stories to be told.
These are some of them.