April 23rd: Easter Came and Went: On Easter Monday I decided to take Kit, visiting the Hackwriter Towers this weekend, to Brigg. Brigg for those who don't know is a little town in Lincolnshire with a great coffee shop art gallery The Steel Rooms. We'll have lunch I said. You'll love it. Seems that Brigg didn't get the memo. It was a ghost town. Even ghost towns would be scared to venture forth. Tumbleweed cascaded down the streets. One shop had dared to open - Poundland - with oceans of plastic out on the pedestrianised road. Nowt else save a rather depressing pub that serves coffee from a button pushing box. Can't we ban those things? Kit was dumbfounded. Where was everyone? Not a soul walked the earth. It was a bleak place, but the sun was shining. Who on earth would live here? Had a virus broken out and they didn't want to mention it?
As we slunk away depressed, wondering what had happened to the railway station, we drove towards a sign that said Garden Centre. Remember that scene in 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers ' when the hero discovers all the townsfolk at the pod factory collecting 'plants'. It was stunning. EVERYONE was at the garden centre - the entire town I think. Highly suspicious activity. Button machine coffee sadly. But the cafeteria was bigger than your average Wal-Mart and everyone seemed to know each other. Weird. Not wanting to alert the aliens that we were in their midst, we felt obliged to buy a few plants so we could pass for 'normal'; didn't want any swivelling heads and sudden shrieking and pointing as we tried to leave the car park clutching our pods. What a strange place England is sometimes.
So is there a housing bubble in the UK or not?
I can speak from experience on this as both my best friend and my sister have been trying to buy something since around last August and it’s been quite an education. A rollercoaster still nowhere near ending.
Two very different budgets but same problems. It has been quite sobering. Both wanted a ground floor flat with garden. This it seems is the one commodity in desperate short supply. Neither will compromise.
My sister isn’t a pushover but she doesn’t always notice the details. Point in question turning up for an open day for one flat at around £350,000 which in reality was just two hours for around 25 people to tramp through an apartment (each allocated ten minutes viewing time) and being forced to make an offer on the spot. Take it or leave it. No access to nooks and crannies, no looking in the roof. Complete ignorance of council tax band, lied about the shared freehold, utter indifference to questions about the building. ‘Take it or leave it – plenty of people won’t ask questions’.
Turned out the owner didn’t actually own the shared freehold and never got planning permission for the conversion. Not only is it unsold now, it has to apply for retrospective planning permits and many thousands of pounds worth of remedial work before it can be sold to some other sucker. Couldn’t the estate agent found this out before it went on sale one asks?
My friend had the same ten minutes at three flats in Berkshire where the windows were rotten, gutters broken, the conversions so badly done you had to laugh at the conditions of some of the places. Ok the price was around £150,000 and it doesn’t buy you much down south, but ripping out the staircase and putting it outside the house where it rains? Leaving a hole so wide in the exterior wall you can put your hand in it. ‘Hurry up, the next people are coming to view.’ The estate agent says as my fingers made a permanent impression in the damp walls.
When I was selling my house you had to provide a sellers pack with all details of alterations and floorplans and generally you had to be make sure it was tidy and everything was serviced. All that has gone. You only have to look at some of the images on Right Move now and people don’t even tidy their homes. In fact the pace of sales is so fast many houses aren’t getting listed at all. 'Give us your phone number and we’ll call you if anything comes up for sale'. Is the norm. One place we were booked to see last month sold over the phone. I took my pal to see it in Streatham for a laugh. Cracked windows, rotten doors, smashed gas meters, two beds for £400,000, you can remove the mattresses from the overgrown garden yourself. She wouldn’t even get out of the car, but yep, some sucker bought it for the asking price.
Right now my friend is waiting for the sellers solicitors to actually reply. One bed flat with garden is how it is advertised. But guess what, turns out they don’t actually own the garden. According to the lease you can hang your washing out there once a week and that is the only use you can make of it. Oddly enough she hasn’t paid the money down. But every time you engage a solicitor it costs money to find out these hidden details and you don’t know what kind of rabbit hole you are about to fall down. One thing is for sure; estate agents lie through their teeth, do not check the details, are completely indifferent to enquiries and just keep saying ‘Someone else will buy it.’ Service and integrity have completely disappeared in this bubble. *April 14th It's been ten weeks now and still no word back from the leaseholder.
Of course renting sucks too. Not content with rent and deposits, they want unrefundable ‘fees’ for just listing a flat. This from people who will cream off the top every month you rent.
They say there’s around twenty or thirty buyers for every property on sale down south right now and I tend to think this is true. Part of the reason for that is the paltry interest rates banks offer, but everyone thinks of a house as an ‘investment’ not a home and that is not the right attitude at all. I live in a home. It means you have to keep it well maintained, clean and it is an endless job to do just that, but so often now I am viewing properties that are part slums and clearly nothing has been done for years. Case in point we viewed one place in Norwood for my sister where the smell was so bad we thought the owner might actually be buried under the floorboards. 18 people viewed in two hours and it went that day for thirty grand over price. Cash. It would need at least 50 grand to bring it up to scratch. Altogether half a million for a two bed flat in nowheresville. This is crazy.
I live well outside London. Houses only go up in value very slowly here. There’s virtually no speculation and the average house takes sometimes a year to sell or longer (although I have noticed a house that has been on the market for two years suddenly sell this week and another strangled by leylandi sold in just three months). Only small bubbles here by the North Sea coast. One has to ask yourself though, is it really worth going into debt to the tune of hundreds of thousands to live in the London catchment area? Especially if you have a boring job or are a teacher, librarian, shop manager with little prospect of a raise, or health worker, or worse work in publishing where salaries are terrible. And if you can’t afford to rent either – then who will do these jobs? Romanians? If you don’t already own in the south I can’t think of why you’d want to work there and pay extortionate amounts just to live in what often amounts to rubbish. Far better to relocate to a northern city where jobs are going begging, prices are easily 50% less and life less stressful. Hell there is even some culture too, not to mention Universities, orchestras, farmers markets...
Perhaps people don’t know this or are scared they won’t ever see a latté again – but really – this bubble will end in tears – big time, and one day the bosses will look around and wonder why they can't get anyone to work in London or clean their houses or teach their kids, or collect their garbage. Right now people are queuing to buy semi-derelict properties in the hope of making a killing. They might, but last one holding the cards is a sucker I say. Enjoy the dry rot folks, queue here.
© Sam North April 2014