Journalism

Second Homes

March 11th, 2004

portrait_jw03c_shopfrontIn the reign of Elizabeth the First, life expectancy was around forty years,
In our Elizabeth’s reign, it is eighty years and rising.

If we are living twice as long as our forebears, what are we going to do
with this strange gift of a second life? What we call the mid-life crisis is really the chance of new beginning, It’s the classic moment when men run off with their secretaries, or buy a motorbike. Women tend to go for one more baby, or a big leap forward in their careers. My advice is to buy a second home.

Before you protest that this a crassly materialistic response to a time of transition – or just another way of the rich spending their money – let’s
look at what it might mean, and how it could be achieved.

In Britain, flats and houses have stopped being homes and become investments. Young people who should be renting somewhere cheaply
and enjoying life with their money, before the responsibilities pile up, feel compelled to get on the property ladder. The other side of the problem is that key workers cannot afford to buy anywhere at all.

So why on earth am I crying ‘Buy a second home?’
I want it to be just that – a home, a place you love, a place whose value cannot be calculated by the estate agent. If we changed our attitude to our homes, we could change the ethos of the property market. Anyway, I am fed up of money being the core value, but I don’t take the Socialist line that the best medicine is to bleed us to death.

George Monbiot, a writer I truly admire, would like to see second homes taxed at every level, but why? This will drive a few families back to the city, and the rich will carry on as
they always do.

jw_outhouse3_150In any case, only in Britain do we beat ourselves with the double whip of greed and high-mindedness when it comes to property. We rejoice when house prices rise, and then we worry about the ethics of a second home.
It is not wrong to have a second home. What is wrong is to buy in to a system that puts money first.

So, don’t buy to let, don’t buy as an investment, buy because it will make
you and your family happy.
Friends of mine just sold their house in Spitalfields, so that they could
divide their money between a smaller place in London and a castle in France. I should say that this castle cost less than a two bedroom flat in Hampstead.

Financially, they were advised not to do it, because Spitalfields still has plenty of ‘upside’, and neither of them has secure incomes. They also have two kids. They went ahead, and they are much happier. Life suddenly seems to be about more than earning money.
It doesn’t have to be on this scale. I have another friend who earns £20,000 a year working for a charity, and who has just leased a beach hut in Margate. She gets it for ten years, keeps a kettle and a deckchair inside, and feels like queen of the world.

Another friend has a hut on stilts in a forest. You don’t need planning permission for a building without foundations or services. You dig a hole for your loo, carry water with you, cook and keep warm with a wood burning stove, and wash outside with two pans of water. I stayed there for a week with my godchildren, and we loved it.

I am beginning to sound like those dreadful American gurus who urge you to ‘think outside of the box’, but the truth is that once you start looking for happiness, and not a nice little investment, life opens up.

My own situation is simple. When I moved out of London, nine years ago, it was the bottom of the recession, and I reckoned I could buy a place in the Cotswolds, and get a studio flat somewhere close to Paddington.

What happened was that I bought a1780’s house in Spitalfields, opposite the fruit and veg market, as it was then. The house had no roof, had to be bought ‘as seen’, and ten days later, the District Surveyor came and slapped a Dangerous Structure notice on the door.

Never mind. It had a cold water tap in the basement and all the fireplaces worked – at least they did once I took the boarding away and got the paving slab off the collapsed chimney pots.

jw_outhouse4_150It was the same price as a studio flat, but it took two years to renovate it. During that time, Spitalfields began to get trendy, and now people say.
‘How did you get this house? It’s amazing! What a steal!’

Well, dude, it was on the market for fifteen years and you could have
bought it, but you didn’t because it was such a bad investment.

So every week, without fail, a note comes through the door, offering to buy
it for silly money, because of course, the old market is being re-developed, and the area is sexy and sought after. But I’m not selling my house. I love
it. I bought it because it was wonderful and romantic and needed rescuing.
I bought it for reasons that had nothing to do with money.

It is the only way. We can’t live our lives as slaves to market forces. Even with double the span of the Elizabethans, this life of ours is too precious to waste and worry over. The only limits are in our minds – and it is our own limitedness and fearfulness that market forces rely on.

I don’t know about you, but my pension has halved and I don’t have any stocks and shares. I am a writer, so my income is not fixed or certain. I come from a two up two down in Lancashire with an outside loo, and there won’t be any inheritance or windfalls.

What there will be is other houses and different lives. I’ll sell the country place and maybe go to Paris or Rome. I will not go to Bulgaria, which we are told is the next big thing, because I couldn’t care less about Bulgaria. I want to live well, and to pack in as many of those different lives as I can, but not because a selling agent tells me where to live.

Two homes gives you more than two lives; two homes gives you the freedom to find out what makes you tick, what makes you happy, what you will give up as well as what you would like to keep.

Or you can just be a commuter with a pied-a terre, or a rich person, or an investor, but where’s the fun in that?

Or you could spend £10,000 on a country place in Bulgaria, because secretly, you have always wanted to be a peasant.

Anything, so long as it’s not an investment.