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IMAGEwrites: Is anyone else daydreaming about property during the lockdown?

by Lucy White
10th Jul 2020

First there was the housing crisis and now coronavirus has unforetold implications on the global economy. So why am I still fantasising about bricks and mortar I can’t afford?

My name’s Lucy and I’m a Homes Under the Hammer addict. There. I’ve said it.

If the first step to addiction recovery is admitting you have a problem, then consider this my rehab. Avidly watching a property programme might not seem like “a problem” like, say, imbibing six bottles of rum per day or snorting CBD oil from the navel of an Arabian prince, but it’s what my Homes Under the Hammer obsession during a global pandemic represents that’s problematic. At best it’s escapism, at worst, delusional.

Ever since I left home at 19 I’ve been in rental accommodation and, due to climbing the publishing ladder from the very lowest rung, it never occurred to me to pursue the bricks and mortar dream in my twenties and thirties. It was one or the other, you couldn’t have both, I decided. Never once in my newspaper and magazine career spanning three continents was I offered corporate health insurance and a pension, the very concept of savings, retirement and job security being things that happened to other people in better paid but, perhaps, less exciting jobs. That is the trade-off.

And so off I went, writing for magazines in Thailand and the Middle East, living hand to mouth with the vim and vigour of youth. Like the past, middle age was a foreign country; a far away place that only really old people moved to. And then during the year of my 40th birthday I read Out of Time: Midlife, If You Still Think You’re Young by Miranda Sawyer – purely on the basis of her being one of my favourite journalists since Smash Hits and not because of the theme – and the penny dropped that I had, in fact, reached middle age.

Bad timing

In my mind, renting was delightfully non-committal, proportionate to my uncertain industry; to him, it’s money down the drain and furniture that the early noughties forgot

I’d been in Ireland for a decade at that point and to say that my long-term boyfriend was frustrated at my lack of enthusiasm for home ownership was an understatement, himself having a steady job and also co-owning a house with a friend looking to buy him out. In my mind, renting was delightfully non-committal, proportionate to my uncertain industry; to him, it’s money down the drain and furniture that the early noughties forgot.

Mortgages feel especially scary when your line of work becomes ever more precarious. In 2012 I took voluntary redundancy from a Dublin newspaper and last month my seemingly steadfast print magazine job was furloughed due to C-19 – and within weeks of my parents kindly offering a little financial help towards a deposit.

With the cost of living in Dublin being so high and our monthly rent increasing almost year on year, my so-called mortgage fund long became a plateau from which I boomeranged money to and from, to top up my ailing current account. The Bank of Mum & Dad, yes, even as a 44-year-old woman with a senior job, was the only way I could ever hope to get on the property ladder. And then coronavirus happened and none of us know yet what the far-reaching economic impact will be.

It’s hard not to wonder if my unstable working sector coupled with my advanced age could scupper my belated domestic fantasy altogether

Admittedly I’m writing from a place of white middle-class, first world privilege and not everyone has the luxury of kind, but by no means flush, parents offering us a helping hand. Thank god I have any savings at all, and I’ve also been redeployed by my company to work online part-time.

We’re lucky, too, from a cashflow perspective, that we’ve no mouths to feed but our own. But, the point is, unless you’re in the one per cent and blithely moving between various holiday homes on private jets, or cocooning on Necker Island, every single one of us is firstly, working out how to pay the bills, and secondly, renegotiating our best-laid plans.

Being made redundant once is bad luck and while Irish banks will have no choice but to make allowances to the hundreds of thousands of workers currently claiming emergency benefits and employer subsidies, it’s hard not to wonder if my unstable working sector coupled with my advanced age could scupper my belated domestic fantasy altogether. 

Couch prospectors

And so – perversely – my C-19 routine revolves around, chiefly, BBC One’s Homes Under the Hammer, which has become televisual elevenses for my WFH partner and I; an extended midmorning tea break spent passing judgement on developers, estate agents, architects, construction workers and anaglypta wallpaper as if a) we know anything about it and b) we’re taking notes for an imaginary home.

We live vicariously through small-town impresarios at auctions, snapping up hovels to add to their sizeable portfolios. Every weekday at 10.45am we witness once-beautiful Victorian family homes transformed into bland bedsits in 50 shades of grey – the new magnolia – and ill-advisedly hang office-grade Venetian blinds at PVC windows. 

There are exceptions, of course, and interestingly, it’s mostly female developers who invest more care and money into decor and finish. But by and large it’s cocksure blokes sweeping in to save crumby properties from certain ruin, routinely declaring a timeline of mere weeks and a budget of £10k to flip it into turnkey condition. They almost always fail, on both counts, sometimes as a result of not reading the legal report or – quelle horreur – not viewing the property before buying it.

They did a cursory upgrade, painting over hideous wallpaper with hideous magnolia in a project that came in under budget “because we’re tight”, she chortled

It’s amazing what you can do, though, without moving bathrooms upstairs or extending a galley kitchen – you know, stuff that can really improve the quality of a residents’ lives. To paraphrase one (female) developer, with a hulking portfolio of rental properties, if the renovated dwellings is good enough for her to live in, it’s good enough for her tenants.

She then went on to explain that post-renovation, she and her business-partner and qualified vet husband, were going on a cruise around the South Pacific. She has high standards, I deduced. Maybe they’ll instal, you know, an Aga or a hot tub. Or an Aga in the hot tub. But no. They did a cursory upgrade, painting over hideous textured wallpaper with hideous magnolia in a project that came in under budget “because we’re tight”, she chortled.

Familiarity breeds comfort

Other reliably familiar motifs are the show’s now-infamous song choices, which are laughably literal, ie an owner is a first-time buyer so they’ll play Pulp’s Do You Remember the First Time? or if a shower cube is so small, it’ll be the titular Living in a Box. Also guaranteed to raise a titter/swear word is when an estate agent says “per calendar month” (which is six times per episode btw). We know what monthly rent means, stop saying “calendar”!

The surprising damp! The load-bearing wall conundrum! The auctioneer’s jazzy tie! It has more drama than an episode of EastEnders and makes passive developers of us all

It’s the predictable unpredictability of it all that provides comfort at this uncertain time. The surprising damp! The load-bearing wall conundrum! The auctioneer’s jazzy tie! It has more drama than an episode of EastEnders and makes passive developers of us all.

And it’s not just Homes Under the Hammer that has me itching to throw down roots (and obligatory grey herringbone flooring). I was very late to the Beebs’ Your Home Made Perfect party, excellently fronted by our very own Angela Scanlon, so have only just started watching the second and current series (BBC One, Tuesdays, 8pm). But it’s brilliant. The VR renderings are an effective gimmick to help home owners visualise potential revamps that might include a completely reconfigured, wheelchair-accessible garden room or restore a 1930s house to greatness after having been effectively vandalised by a developer, probably in the 1980s, adding an extra bedroom for commercial, rather than ergonomic, reasons.

Throw Dermot Bannon, Kirstie and Phil, George Clarke, Maggie Molloy, Kevin McCloud, Escape to the Chateau’s Dick and Angel, whoever’s fronting A Place in the Sun these days – and of course, our very own Amanda Kavanagh, editor of Image Interiors and Living, into the mix, and what you have is a crack team of experts I’d love to transform my dream house into a dreamy home. 

Wistful walks

Aah, my dreamy home. We have one, you know, an actual real life unattainable dream house in our village on to which we project all our C-19 hopes, dreams and delusions. Himself and I go for a local walk most days and at least once a week, one of us will say, “Shall we go past Our House?” We have claimed it for ourselves, even though we’ve never stepped foot in it and would need a major lotto win to give it the condition it deserves.

It’s a four-bed, one-bathroom late Victorian/early Edwardian villa that’s presumably so tired inside that the likes of Daft are only showing a handful of photos, one of which is of the garden, another a bird’s-eye view of the Martello tower on Ireland’s Eye that I’m 99 per cent sure cannot by seen from the actual property. But yet it is still “our” very own imaginary money pit, and thanks to Homes Under the Hammer, Love it or List it and Your Home Made Perfect, we know exactly what we’d do with the kitchen sink.

In uncertain times, bricks and mortar have simultaneously become a cipher for our insecurities and a beacon of hope

And it’s not just me. The C-19 pandemic is seeing home improvement posts and house sales trending online. In desperate, uncertain times, many of us are seeking comfort in the concept of “home”; of safety and permanence – and even though we know full well that home ownership is anything but ‘safe as houses’, as the economic crash of 2008 testified. In uncertain times, bricks and mortar have simultaneously become a cipher for our insecurities and a beacon of hope.

“Our House”

Now we have the time and space to meet our elemental selves, we can really pull focus on what is really important. COVID-19 has turned us all into characters in a Beckett play, except, our raison d’être isn’t Godot, but steely determination. And while it will now take us much, much longer to achieve our goals, at least drifters such as myself now have goals.

Mine isn’t to snap up hovels at auction and turn them into grey-hued shoeboxes in which tenants are expected to eat, sleep and crap within four square metres. It’s not even to eventually book a real-life viewing of “Our House” that we could never afford pre or post-pandemic anyway.

It’s knowing that not only can I live without the trappings of consumerism, it’s a sacrifice I now want to make. As the cliche goes, home is where the heart is and this rental flat, where he and I are muddling along, still working from home at our too-high dining table with too-low chairs, are laying down the foundations for whatever comes next. 

In the spirit of Homes Under the Hammer: cue Billy Joel’s You’re my Home…

Illustration by Laura Kenny

This Victorian terrace in Blackrock is up for sale for €2.75 million

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