MELANIE McDONAGH laments:Why am I still renting in my 50s?
Generation Rent is what you call young people locked out of the property market because of the soaring rise in house prices. So what do you call someone over the age of 50 who rents rather than owns their flat? Stupid, probably.
That, however, is my position. I am the sucker who never got round to buying a home. Instead, after I graduated in the Eighties, I rented a room in someone’s house.
Later, in my 30s, when my contemporaries were busy paying their mortgages, I was introduced to a nice landlord who was asking less than £700 a month for a flat in a part of London I was already living in. He was benign; a paternal figure who owned a family property business.
I began living in one of his flats in a characterful mansion block. Later, I gravitated to another next door which had two bedrooms.
Melanie McDonagh (pictured) revealed her regret at not buying a home, as her landlord in London raises her rent to £2,000 a month
It was still affordable; a bit over £800 a month. Why would I want to own somewhere less congenial? So I remained where I was, even after I got married and had two children.
The answer came when my nice paternal landlord was succeeded by the next generation of the family. The rent almost doubled, to £1,500, about four years ago.
As he wrote to me apologetically, his extended family had got involved, including the in-laws. And I’m afraid they — including the American daughter-in-law — didn’t think about the business in a paternalistic way, but as a means of maximising income.
They gave me a couple of months’ respite, in case I needed to find new schools for my children, before the rent went up.
I found the money, but at a stroke my disposable income nosedived to very little. I work as a journalist, critic and columnist — a terrific occupation, but rather less stable and well paid than it was when I began my career.
Then my landlord got in touch again to say he was selling the mansion block, with its tenants, to a property company. And the inevitable happened; they told me the rent would be going up by £150 a month, each year, until it reaches £2,000 a month.
Naturally, I wrote to the agents to ask them to reconsider; they refused. So, at a time when my job changed and my family income took a steep downturn, I have to pay more than £19,000 a year — rising to £24,000 — after tax to stay in a flat I’ve occupied for decades.
Melanie (pictured) said that she chose not to buy a property in her 20s because she just wanted a congenial place to live, not an investment
Meanwhile, all my contemporaries, who bought their homes in their 20s, have paid off their mortgages and are worried about how to get their children a home of their own.
Mine are a son of 16 and a daughter of 13 who have to share a cramped room with bunk beds.
Was I wrong? And if I was, how did I get that way? I have lived through a generation of ever increasing house prices. For as long as I can remember, apart from a blip after the 2008 crash, property prices have always been on the up. And so, it’s easy to imagine that you’ve already missed the opportunity to buy.
You assume the market can’t go much higher; that you may as well stay put, because it can’t get much more expensive, can it? (It can.)
But the real problem lies in the words ‘property ladder’. If there was anything that could make me comatose with boredom, it was that phrase, which summed up the relentless striving of my generation for ever-increasing values. I just wanted a congenial place to live: I didn’t want an investment.
And the interminable dinner party discussions over how someone’s home is worth a dozen times more than he bought it for really irritated me.
Melanie (pictured) believes she could’ve easily bought a property when she was single and earning a reasonable amount in her 20s
So long as you have somewhere to live, that’s all that matters, no? I was too busy with everything else to spare the energy for dull solicitors and estate agents.
But I don’t find mortgages quite as boring now that I’m probably too old to get one. And my children observe with bitterness the flats in my neighbourhood that I could easily have bought when I was single in my 20s and earning a reasonable amount (‘That would have cost £200,000!’) and never fail to reproach me for not snapping them up.
If I didn’t care about home ownership, the same isn’t true for them; my daughter has announced she’ll be getting her own place as soon as she has a salary.
My real mistake, though, was to assume that my old landlord’s way of thinking would last. He belonged to the generation that regarded stable, reliable tenants as valuable. He wanted to have long-term relationships with his tenants on the basis that a more modest, but stable, rent was preferable to a large rental income but an enormous turnover of tenants.
My daughter has announced she’ll be getting her own place as soon as she has a salary
I happen to live near good schools, which means that many tenants only stay in my block long enough to secure a place for their children, and then move on.
That change means it’s difficult to get to know the neighbours.
When I first arrived in my mansion block, most of my neighbours had been there for years. They left only when they died. I knew almost all of them. Now I know only two out of ten.
Melanie (pictured) who believes renting means you can’t ever stop working, said she feels like an idiot at the only renter in any room
Landlords’ willingness to shed tenants to maximise income is one reason why London is so much more fragmented, with less sense of community, than before.
When I first arrived, there were quite ordinary families in my block; downstairs was a butcher married to a lady who worked in John Lewis. You’d never get people like that here now. We’re less socially mixed, and that’s a loss.
Of course, I regret not buying a home. Of course, I feel an idiot as the only renter in any room. But I’d never felt there was any shame in not being a property owner.
I had a long vanished view that rented lodgings are perfectly fine. And so it was … until drastically increased demand from the Eighties onwards meant that prices increased at an unprecedented level and went on increasing, by well over tenfold between 1986 and now.
There is an advantage, if you can call it that, to being a renter. You can sympathise with the young complaining bitterly about being priced out of the market and their resentment at the oldies who snapped up flats for ridiculous sums. Except I could have been one of them. Having to earn your rent also means that you don’t, can’t, ever stop working.
I am, then, one of Generation Rent. Just older.