Sunday 26 January 2020

Stepping off the property ladder

THEY say old soldiers never die, they only fade away. It's the same with property writers. And the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Dear long-suffering reader, today's column is my Last Hurrah. With an equal measure of relief and regret, I am finally hanging up my spurs and -- having reached a certain age -- riding off into the sunset. Those who say I have already bowed out more often than Frank Sinatra will look in vain for my musings after this: my valedictory message, my Ultimate Perspective.

About time too, I hear you chorus. After 42 years in journalism, man, boy and hack, enough is too much ...

Most of my career in print has been devoted to property writing. With impeccable timing, I entered this fray in 1980 -- just in time for the last great property crash.

Now I am exiting Stage Right after an even more catastrophic slump. The majority of my best contacts being either retired or dead, I sensed now was the time to get out while the going was good. I may not have made a fortune, but there have been few dull moments.

Highlights abounded -- if I can lay claim to having made any contribution to my trade, it was to be among the very first to apply business reporting techniques to property journalism, too often erroneously dismissed as a mere adjunct to advertising.

And lowlights too -- like interviewing the wrong MD on one inglorious occasion, unaware that I had actually arranged to interview his neighbour in the building next door!

My property travels have brought me to the smallest house in Britain (10 ft by 6 ft) in Conwy, Wales -- last lived in by a 6ft 3in fisherman. To a 23,000 sq ft house outside Washington, built by a US developer-cum-bloodstock breeder. And to a clutch of castles on my home patch.

Colourful characters flitted across my career path, not least an altogether credible builder who, I learned years later, was one of The General's men. Perhaps my most poignant moment, however, occurred just over a decade ago when I wrote a series of articles for this newspaper on Irish property in the 1920s. You could buy a house in Dublin for Ir£300 or thereabouts back then. A lady (I guessed of African extraction from her accent) phoned and quizzed me querulously in broken English about where could she find these cheap houses ...

Down through the years, I watched property professionals dream up ever more effective mousetraps to lure buyers on to the property ladder and prise prices upwards in the process.

Single income buyers were duly replaced by double income mortgagees. And well-meaning parents were eventually persuaded to top up their children's borrowing capacity.

For my part, while I have spent most of my working life writing about property, I never got caught up in the borrowing frenzy that has lately blighted so many lives.

A house has always in my view been first and foremost a home. Buying one is about making a prudent, affordable lifestyle choice.

The trouble for Irish buyers began when the market here abruptly flipped from this mode into an investment/commodity trading exchange.

Mind you, while I did feel the residential market was dangerously overheating, the implosion of commercial property values took me completely by surprise.

From my vantage point on the sidelines, I have witnessed the property industry undergo massive changes. When I first entered the arena all those years ago, many builders were reluctant to even tell readers the square footage of their houses. The thinking was: if punters were told how many bedrooms there were in the showhouse, they wouldn't bother turning up to view it.

Informing buyers just how many houses would ultimately be constructed in large housing estates would have been taboo too if certain developers had their way.

He who pays the piper (ie the advertiser) calls the tune, they believed. Their patronising applecart was happily upended by an emerging consumer-conscious generation.

The Great Recession has stopped the property industry in its tracks, of course. Now the emphasis is back where it should be -- on providing value for money.

While those of us who are lucky enough to own their own homes bemoan the slide in values, the good news is that the more prices tumble, the more value there is out there for first-time buyers. This dynamic will ultimately set the market in motion once again.

Alas, not on my watch.

The grandchildren beckon. Time to hand over the baton -- and to swop this laptop for some paintbrushes.

Que sera, sera ... .

Irish Independent

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