Thursday 17 January 2019

Home truths: Extra space is great but is it really needed?

Once upon a time a kitchen was just a kitchen and didn't require giant fridges or granite-topped island units
Once upon a time a kitchen was just a kitchen and didn't require giant fridges or granite-topped island units
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

The other day I listened to someone describing with obvious disdain, someone else's home; a three-bed semi in which three shared a bedroom. Shock horror! "In this day and age you'd think children wouldn't have to put up with that sort of thing!" she hissed. The suggestion here was that the parent in question was in some way letting their children down - running a sort of a slum.

As it turns out the hissy one in question is the type of person who owns an old version of a flash car that will break down regularly, rather than buy a more reliable up-to-date economy model; she also prefers to rent a home in a swish area rather than buy a bog-standard version in an average location.

Each to their own. Needless to say I didn't mention that as a kid I shared a room with three brothers. My parents, like many of their peers, bought a three-bed semi. With five children, myself and my three brothers shared the big bedroom through the 1980s in two sets of bunk beds while my sister, being the only girl, got the box room to herself.

While there were fights over wardrobe space and such and the smell of used sports socks was often overpowering when the window wasn't open, we didn't think this was odd in any way. In our pretty much middle class estate, siblings all shared bedrooms (unless there were just two). It was normal. The house only had one bathroom that we all had to fight over in the morning. Now it seems parents expect their children to expect a room to themselves. That they're some sort of failure if they can't provide that. And a bathroom for every eventuality.

While the Celtic Tiger might have coughed its last breath more than a decade ago, it seems that the green-striped one still has its claws stuck into our national psyche when it comes to housing expectations. So now we don't have the money, but we still have the standards.

A house price study released this month by KBC Bank shows that Irish earnings have generally flatlined - average wages have actually fallen in the workforce since Q3 2016 - while house prices continue to surge and the price to income gap widens.

Ironically, we could afford relatively more in housing when our expectations were lower, prior to the Tiger. In the middle 90s, before the madness kicked off, an average three-bed family home in an average location in Dublin cost three times an average annual income. Now it costs 10 times that average income.

Meantime the recent Irish Independent/REA Average House Price Index showed a 20pc plus surge in prices for average three bed semi detached homes in places like Laois and Cavan. This is partly based on the fact that Dubliners who are planning to start families are now prepared to move two counties away and commute rather than forgo what they see as their right to a home of a certain size and standard.

Rather than start out in a two-bed cottage or terrace in the capital, and work their way up, as was typical before the Tiger years, they want that bigger family home straight away. The three or four-bed semi.

Unfortunately they are earning less, lending rules mean they access smaller mortgage loans and because of long-term shortage, house prices have hiked to 70pc of what they were in the Tiger years. It's not a recipe for happiness.

We should consider whether the historically elevated expectations of many new long distance commuters, have perhaps prevented them thinking about the three hours spent driving each day to and from work, the longer days their children will have to spend in crèches as a result and the overall impact on their quality of life. For them, the extra bathrooms and a bedroom room for each child is more important. But they're not. Before the Celtic Tiger, property owners did not suffer from bathroom mania. They didn't need at least two upstairs and one for guests downstairs to feel human. They didn't fret if they didn't have a stand-alone claw foot tub that costs €3,000 nor did they worry that their bathrooms weren't covered, walls and floor in travertine marble. It just wasn't an issue.

Before the Celtic Tiger there was no urgent compunction to convert attics so no child has to share nor to build on a teenage den. It was not considered a necessity to house your oldest child and his or her friends separately by evenings in a private area to ensure they are not bothered as they double tap on their phones or play Xbox.

Before the Celtic Tiger a sun room was not needed and the kitchen was just a kitchen - it didn't require giant-size American fridge freezers or stand alone granite-topped island units. It was a functionary space kept for life - it wasn't a fashion statement you needed to change every five or 10 years so you don't seem deprived.

Before the Celtic Tiger a newly married couple would happily start their families in a run down house in need of an upgrade - because it was all they could afford, because it offered potential to fix up in the future when they might have more money and because, importantly, there was no stigma attaché to spending a few years in a home with a bad kitchen, bare floor boards or leaky windows. It was considered a rite of passage. It was considered normal.

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