How It Feels To Be The Generation That Will Never Own A Home

New figures out this week confirm homeownership in England is at a 30-year low. The housing crisis has left a generation of young people facing a lifetime of renting. How does it feel? And is the solution simply giving up on the dream forever? Sam Parker meets those at the foot of the ladder, and wonders whether a man's home will ever really be his castle again

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When I was small, the thing my friends and I most liked to do was build a den.

We'd find a clearing in some trees somewhere, drag in a few wooden pallets, upturn a few boxes for seats, hammer a few nails about and… I don't remember what, exactly. Probably smash it up and start again.

As a teenager, the same excitement would return when an older friend got a house we could get drunk in, and beyond that, when we got the keys to our halls of residence at university.

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Then renting, of course – a succession of shared houses and flats that got slowly – painfully slowly – tidier and more pleasant with each passing year, the empty beer cans making way for wine bottles, posters morphing into framed prints, dead plants being replaced by merely struggling ones.

The thrill at acquiring all these makeshift homes was always simple and always the same: a growing sense of independence, reaching a new marker of age and maturity, having somewhere to try and take girls. It's a pattern men have followed more or less forever.

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Except that today, as we all know, it's a pattern that grinds to a screeching halt.

Because the next stage, the important one, the one you've been practicing for all along – actually buying and owning a home of your own – is now impossible for almost everyone in their 20s or early 30s, thanks, of course, to The Housing Crisis.

The Housing Crisis – like The Financial Crash and The Austerity Age – is a phrase that entered the public discourse in the past ten years and lay in wait for my generation to grow up and become adults, hovering ominously in the next level like a mechanical wasp in Sonic.

The precise cause of – and more importantly, solution to – The Crisis is a debate that will be paid lip service by politicians this election year, but for now let's look at some facts.

Average houses prices in London reached £500,000 in 2015, rising by £260 a day in 2014, while across the rest of the country it hit £265,000.

The national average annual wage in Britain is £26,500. But let's say you're a recent graduate, bumping it up to £29,000. In fact, sod it – let's say you're a few years out of university and doing well and you're on, say, £35,000 by the time you want to put down some roots, start a family or just stop having to email your landlord sixteen times to get your washing machine fixed.

The 20% required of most first time buyers to buy an average priced home works out at £100,000 in London and £53,000 elsewhere – in other words, at least 150% of your entire annual income, and probably a lot more.

In short, the gig is fucked. The generation that preceded us, homebuyers in happier times, could get 100% or 95% mortgages and understandably snapped those babies right up. Now they're watching the value of those homes sky rocket, using the profit to buy extra properties and renting them back to us.

And so the choice facing young men in 2016 is clear: wait for a large inheritance (if one exists), become a banking executive / pop star / moderately talented Premier League striker or rent until the day you die. If only I were being more flippant.

Given the entrenched nature of the situation and the fact it is out of our hands, the next question is perhaps not 'what are you doing to do about it?' (answer: there is nothing we can do about it), but 'how are you going to feel about it?'

In other words: should we let go of the dream, passed on to us by our parents, and rethink how we view home ownership entirely?

Ben, an Education Manager at a not for profit NGO, described how last year he and his girlfriend decided to pool their resources and try to buy together.

"We were spending around £1400 a month on the two rooms we rented in separate London flats," he explains. So they sought help from advisers at various high street banks.

"When they found out we were only looking to spend £250,000, their interest cooled, then fizzled out. It was a thoroughly underwhelming process, and the flats we saw were absolute crap."

"I'm not angry about the situation, I'm frustrated more than anything. I think I would be seriously unhappy were I in a position that I had a family and I couldn't ensure that they had a permanent place to stay. I think then I would feel like I had failed," said Ben, adding he'd rather emigrate then face decades renting.

Peter, a 26-year-old Coordinator living in Newcastle, feels being frozen out of the housing market is affecting other areas of his life, too.

"I just feel that I cannot get on with 'living'," he says, "Because I need to bear in mind that I will need substantial monies to get on the "ladder".

"Each big decision in life gets more expensive. Education, house, marriage and kids are becoming something to justify, rather than the inevitability they were for our parents."

Philip, also 26, from Yorkshire, joined the swelling ranks of young people moving back into their family home with an aim of saving for a place of his own.

"By the time you have saved up an extra £1000 towards a deposit, the house values have gone up by £2k, £5k, £10k. It's impossible," he says of his experience so far.

"It's embarrassing to still live at home with your parents, even though I know increasing numbers of people in their 20s are doing so. It's annoying that my life in that respect hasn't turned out how it planned. I left uni at 23 telling myself that my move home would be for a few weeks at most, and I'm still there 3 years later..."

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The Housing Crisis, of course, affects women just as much as men. But even today, there is evidence of a lingering sense among guys – mainly self-imposed – that we ought to be 'breadwinners', or in any case that financial success is our main goal in life and our biggest responsibility to our families, present or future tense.

Many of the men I speak to describe it as a "personal failure" or an "embarrassment" that they can't afford to take the key step towards being a responsible, happy adult enjoyed by their fathers and grandfathers before them.

One though, Jamie, a Business Manager for a Health GP Company in Northumberland, has a slightly different view on renting.

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"I have no issues with it. There is, to a degree, temporised value; you can often live in a nicer area, nicer street etc. for a cheaper monthly payment than a mortgage payment. 

"Some see renting as 'throwing money down the drain' but I see it differently. Renting allows you to become, in some odd regard, a more static member of the travelling community."

Maybe he's right. Maybe we need to stop seeing renting as money wasted, because for now there is no realistic alternative. Maybe we need to think of paying for having a roof over our heads more like paying for food or heating – you don't own any of it long term, you're simply fulfilling a fundamental human need.

And maybe we ought to remember that home ownership has not always been seen as the basic right we've been raised to think it is. The British obsession with it largely began with Thatcherism and the introduction of Right to Buy schemes, designed to get the working classes onboard with her vision for capitalism and an aspirational "property-owning democracy".

Other countries are less uptight about it, notably Germany. Berlin is often cited as an example of a city just as vibrant and desirable as London where renting is an accepted way of life: only 13% of the population own their own home.

The problem with that, of course, is that renting in Britain is a generally a horrible experience.

The twelve landlords or letting agencies I have rented from in the past twelve years have been uniformly awful to deal with – overpriced, rude or hair-pullingly unresponsive on even the most urgent security or maintenance issues (sometimes, all three) – an experience I am yet to hear contradicted when comparing notes with friends. It is, compared to other sectors, a wild west of ineffective and greedy companies who hold far too much power over their tenants (particularly students).

But there are many local tenants associations, as well as national organisations such as Let Down, who are campaigning for longer secure tenancies, limits on rent increases and proper regulation of letting agencies. At the same time, politicians are slowly starting to respond: Labour  made better renting conditions a central pledge of both their last election manifesto (not much use now, admittedly) and the new London mayor Sadiq Khan said he is "determined to get a grip on the private rented sector", while the Conservative's Rnt to buy scheme offers some glimmer of hope that renting may pave the way for ownership in the long run.

Perhaps empowering tenants by making renting a less demoralising and unstable way to live is a more realistic solution than relying on banks to make a responsible return to lending, or waiting for the government to build more affordable homes.

David, a 72-year-old homeowner, offered this advice to young people hoping to get on the property ladder:

"It has always been very difficult for young people to save to buy their own home, but I think if you are single-minded and make it your number one priority then almost anything is possible.

"This means no holidays, no expensive phone contracts, no rip off interest rates, walking not wheels, tap water not wine, woolly hats and jumpers. Boring, but worth it."

There may be some truth in the older generation's view that we're simply not prepared to make enough sacrifices – although the many young people who do make enormous efforts to save, only to find themselves wrong-footed by escalating house prices, may strongly disagree. But even if extreme saving did guarantee a step on the ladder, would dramatically reducing your quality of life in yours 20s just to get a mortgage in 10, 15, 20 years time really be worth it? Would our parents have thought so, if they'd have had to be miserable for so long?

Never owning a home may be a dispiriting thought, but perhaps a pragmatic one for our piece of mind. Maybe we need to let go of that expectation – both of the market and of ourselves – and think of it less as a passing crisis and more a reality. In 2016 and for the foreseeable future, we're not buying homes but making dens. We might as well get used to it.

This is an updated version of an article that first appeared in 2015.

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