Wednesday 21 March 2018

Are homeowners the new smug marrieds?

Darragh McManus & Edel Coffey debate

More than half of house buyers 'are willing to spend up to €350,000'
More than half of house buyers 'are willing to spend up to €350,000'
Darragh McManus argues the case that homeowners are the new smug marrieds.
Edel Coffey argues the case against. Photo: Ronan Lang.

Banks reluctant to offer mortgages.

Wannabe buyers who've seen their salaries continuously slashed for years. A lack of decent housing stock. Prices creeping upwards once more.

Yep, it's getting ever harder to make it on to that property ladder at all, not to mind the whole way to the top. Indeed, new stats show that home-ownership in our nearest neighbour will soon fall below 50pc for the first time.

So is it any wonder homeowners are the new "smug marrieds", as it becomes more and more difficult for new members to join their "club"?

They are, you know. I should really say "we are", because I own a house myself. But I'd like to think I'm better than those graceless oiks who not only feel an intolerable self-satisfaction about their own circumstances, but actively look down on those who haven't achieved the Holy Grail of owning property.

You can see it in their eyes, the way they gaze down on those who rent a house or flat, with a look of pity, superiority and mild contempt. It's similar to how aunts and grannies look at single women in their thirties.

The unspoken message is: "Oh, what a shame. But chin up – it just hasn't happened for you yet, but the right one is out there somewhere, waiting to make you happy."

No matter how loudly the renter protests that, actually, they're quite pleased to go on letting someone else assume the responsibility (not to mention financial stresses) of property, the smug home-owner can't accept this.

"Oh, sure," they'll graciously concede, "renting is fine for a while. As a student, say, or when you're young and fancy-free. But eventually you'll find yourself dreaming of that little place you can truly call your own. It's called 'growing up', you see."

More than half of house buyers 'are willing to spend up to €350,000'

You insist you don't want to own bricks and mortar?

Don't be silly, of course you do. You like not being tied down to a punitive financial plan for the next half-century?

Well, that's a negative way of looking at it.

You don't define yourself by whether or not you possess property?

Why, that's practically un-Irish.

The smug homeowner has put so much of themselves into owning that property: time, money, effort, anxiety, dread, excitement, a huge chunk of their past and present and an even bigger chunk of their future. So they can't comprehend how someone else could remain indifferent to all this or, worse, hostile.

And owning your own place allows you to do all those other things that mark you out as a person of impeccable good taste: shopping for soft furnishings, pondering which new chair-and-table set to get for the conservatory, deciding between Carrageen Green or Burren Fawn paint for the utility room re-do, holding elaborate dinner parties for friends, having folks stay over in the refitted guest room with the new stressed-wood standalone wardrobe and the Peruvian throw, which really pulls it all together.

You can't really do any of this in someone else's house, which you're renting. You can't, in short, show off in someone else's house. It's only in your own place where you can display to the world how well you have 'succeeded' in the great game of life.

Which really is a weird thing to do.

Don't get me wrong: I love owning my own crib. (See, I even give it a cutesy name like "crib".) But home ownership doesn't define me or my life or its level of success, such as they may be. I don't look down on anyone who doesn't own property, and has no intention of ever doing so.

It's certainly nothing to feel smug about – even if so many home owners do.

No says Edel Coffey

I am of the generation who bought houses in the mid-noughties. Most of my friends spent their 20s in a frenzy of wanting to get on the property ladder. Any property would do, just a little bolthole that you could flip quickly and use the proceeds to leverage yourself into the home of your dreams. They were buying houses at the peak of the market – 2007/2008 – and we all know what happened next.

There is nothing smug about these homeowners as far as I can tell. I know most of them. They're living in areas they don't want to live in, in houses they don't love but that they feel they will be stuck in for the rest of their lives, paying off mortgages by increments that must feel akin to trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon.

At times it is I who have felt like the smug one. As friends began to realise that they were shackled to near-worthless apartments on the periphery of greater Dublin for the kind of length of time that makes life seem a little futile, they began to speak enviously of my peripatetic life, my rented accommodation, my freedom to come and go as I pleased, to give a month's notice and leave the country for a new life in Paris, should I so choose.


I've often felt like I might end up looking like the smug one, but I really do feel like I had a lucky escape by not buying a house in the property boom. When people would discover I rented instead of owning, I felt like an exotic single man who was continuing to live the most glamorous of bachelor lifestyles in the face of his hen-pecked married friends. I understood their arguments but I still felt my living arrangement was being romanticised just a little. Through no shrewdness on my own part, I had managed to escape negative equity. I simply hadn't felt the need to buy a house and settle down at that period of my life. Pure fluke. But I still had little security and living in rented accommodation in Ireland, which is never long-term in the way that it is in other countries, turns you into a bit of a rootless being, to the extent that you feel a little like a fugitive.

"But you have no ties," my home-owning friends would protest. "You can just leave, any time you want and start a new life," they cried, as if I was some character from The Bourne Identity. "And if your boiler breaks down, it's not your problem." Don't get me started on what they've been saying about the property tax and bin charges.

My friends' description of my own life and my living arrangements felt alien to me. I was seeing it from the other side, one of insecurity. The idea of ever having to move house again is one that gives me physical symptoms of anxiety (too many books). I would dearly love to own my own house, a place where I could work on the garden over years' worth of seasons and decorate my own interior instead of always considering the fact that I don't love mauve paint or oxblood carpet, but I still don't feel much of an impetus to buy somewhere, at least not until the conditions are right for me. More and more, renting is becoming the norm – a new UK report has shown that home ownership will drop below 50pc within the space of a generation. The more people who rent, the more conditions are likely to improve for tenants.

So, I can't say I find home-owners smug. Mostly, I find them a little stressed-out and taking on big financial risks for the privilege of owning their own home. But who knows, maybe they will end up as the smug ones after all. As the housing shortage in Dublin starts to create another mini-bubble, perhaps they will be the ultimate winners, cashing in their starter homes and getting out of negative equity and off that ladder. Maybe I won't feel so sympathetic then.

Irish Independent

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