Odd, isn't it, that the biggest financial undertaking of our lives is one for which we have absolutely no preparation, education or expertise. We have almost made it a cultural obligation for young people to buy a house without any prior lessons whatever in finance, structural engineering or the idiosyncrasies of the property market.
Instead, they must depend on a bizarre cocktail of family folklore and estate-agent voodoo. Yes, I know, I know, we all want to blame the bankers for the ruin that has befallen us -- but we must surely have been a bunch of dupes and halfwits to think that such massive financial arrangements, involving decades-long contracts which will probably last until gangrene has turned our toes pale green, could be undertaken with no serious comprehension whatsoever of the many complex factors involved.
In most areas of life, we insist that knowledge precedes experience. This is why we don't choose our airline-pilot with a lottery amongst the passengers shortly before take-off. Gynaecologists are not generally selected from the men's wing of the Sunset Home for the Elderly & Bewildered. We prefer our dentists to know more about teeth than they do about 20 interesting things one can do with an anaesthetised patient without her ever finding out.
On these same general principles, we like our attic-convertors to be more knowledgeable about roof-spaces than they are about executions by ligature or stately dances, ie, they can tell the difference between a garret, a garrotte and a gavotte.
Yet we expect people to buy houses without any education whatever on the subject. This is simply mad, and is the reason why I am drawing your attention to the new edition of 'The Irish Property Buyers' Guidebook', by Carol Tallon, the champion of housebuyers' rights. No such advice as hers was available when I bought my first house in Dublin, 25 years ago this month. Naturally, the engineer I employed to survey it was as qualified to assess a building as a mole is to discuss interplanetary flight. He probably thought mildew was an Israeli flour-maker. And of course, I gave the asking price for what was actually a toilet--cistern masquerading as a dwelling.
Moreover, as I discovered once I moved in, the house had more funguses in its foundations than you would find on a Christmas cheeseboard in March. My walls were actually immured columns of water. So I soon moved out, and builders began to reconstruct the entire downstairs, at a cost equal to half of the original (and already excessive) purchase price. However, the experience was not entirely negative. I told my builder to install some more electric plugs in the walls. After taking two months longer than promised, naturally, this worthy, plus his gallant crew, finally withdrew, and I was able to re-inhabit my home. It is part of the honour code of builders that they leave tea-bags, rotting milk cartons and assorted debris wherever they have been, so that their employer can enjoy the privilege of cleaning up after them. I plugged in the vacuum-cleaner into a new socket, but the hoover stayed as silent as stone. When the builder returned for final payment, I pointed out that the socket seemed to have no power.
"Oh," he said, astonished. "Did you want it connected? You never said."
All in all, I paid £63,000 -- in 1987 money -- to enable me tell that little story, making it the most expensive anecdote since the tale of the White Star lookout, his missing binoculars and the iceberg. And of course, I too had sailed into my own personal maritime disaster, which also included dry-rot, wet-rot and rot-rot, plus 35 different kinds of brick-eating yeast. Why did this happen? Because there wasn't a single book anywhere that would tell me how to buy a house. Yet there are so many things you need to know. Is it all right if the bath-taps are attached to the electrical-mains? Is it normal for a two-foot toadstool to be grinning at you from the ceiling? There's a dead nun under the floorboards, is this standard practice?
Now let me freely admit that this space is to investment advice what the Norbertines were to childcare.
For example, when I first heard about Facebook, I slapped my thigh in derision, snorting confidently: "Bankrupt within a week!" Yet -- regardless of anything I say here -- the value of property must sooner or later stabilise and then rise, when buyers will inevitably need to know how to acquire a house at the right price. And contrary to what almost everyone has apparently believed since Strongbow waded ashore at Wexford, waving the very first title-deed in his grubby Norman paw, this is not instinctive knowledge, issued with your DNA. You really do have to consciously acquire it.
Moreover, if everyone had shown a little more savvy about property prices five years ago, Ireland's catastrophe could not possibly have been as comprehensive as it has been. Ours was a ruin rooted in a hysterical ignorance, for which -- thanks to Carol Tallon's meticulous and impartial property-buyers' handbook -- there should no longer be any excuse.