Why can’t I buy a house?

Youth worker Melissa Jane Knight gives her personal take on Britain’s housing crisis…Monopoly Houses

Last night I awoke at four o’clock in the morning. This may happen to lots of people, but never me.  I’m one of those lucky ones who fall asleep as soon as their head hits the pillow and I only stir with the morning light.  But something has been troubling me.  House prices.

£400k for a flat in Brockley!

My friend, who lives in a modest two bedroom flat with a garden in Brockley, south east London, just had her property valued at £400k. Even she was ashamed to say it, admitting she didn’t think it was worth such a vast amount. I had good news too.  I’d just got a new job contract which guarantees me work until December. This is amazing news for me.  It means that I now have full-time paid work for the next 15 weeks, something that hasn’t happened to me since 2010. 

I work with young people, often for small charities, and since I began in 2003 there has been a dramatic shift in the way youth workers are contracted and paid.  Most charities can only pay staff based on successful funding applications.  These roles are now contracted out as freelance or sessional workers.  Contracts can vary from single sessions to weekly sessions with the majority of my contracts lasting a school term or 10 to 12 weeks.  There is no need to pay me when I am sick, or during school holidays, and no obligation to continue the contract once it has ended. I seldom get paid for spending additional time planning what I am going to do during these sessions in advance, and working in different places clocks up some pretty hefty travel time.

There are advantages. I am what the market calls a ‘flexible’ worker and this gives me autonomy over my working day and lots of free time.  But being forced to holiday with no pay makes for some dull living. I see the daylight a lot more than a regular eight-to-six worker but I rarely get paid on time and never regularly.

I could go and work in a large company but I have been a youth worker since I was sixteen and I truly love my job.  I never get that dread of going into work.  The day never drags and I often spend hours thinking about how I could improve. I like my role so much I even volunteer as a youth worker on the side.

But then there are the disadvantages: My Future.  The Road Ahead. My Life’s Plan.

Zero net–worth individual

I have saved a whopping £11,500 since finishing university in 2008.  My student loan debt –the only debt I have – now stands at £15,000.  In 2014 I am set to reach a very important goal: to be worth nothing.  That is, to have in savings the exact same amount as I have in debt.  To be worth absolutely nothing. What bliss.

My next dream is to buy a house.  It’s a long-standing dream I have had since I was eighteen.  In some ways, I can accept that debt more easily than the one I spent on education; studying social policy at £9,000 a year had its tough moments spent sat in the library comparing the different higher education models of Europe, wondering whether Britain had actually robbed me.

I can see that with a house I am buying a tangible asset, something of value that increases and becomes a wise investment (that’s not to say university isn’t a wise investment, it’s just bloody expensive).  But there is a limit to how much I am willing to pay for something before it peaks the bell curve and starts to decline into a dangerous tragic waste of (very) hard earned cash. 

I have never been a spender.  To the detriment of my credit rating, I don’t own credit cards.  I don’t drive, don’t smoke, don’t wear designer clothes and I’ve learned the art of appreciating lentils.

I do accept that my lifestyle choices can prohibit me getting to my goal: I travel to see relatives and friends already priced out of London. I give to several charities each month, including one for rape victims and another for women who have suffered acid attacks and are now social pariahs; this helps when I get too far into my own misery to remember things could be worse.

Even if I wanted to, I could not afford £400k for a two-bedroom property.  I can’t even afford £200k.  And with my erratic and insecure work pattern, getting a mortgage approved seems a million miles away.  And I can’t understand why.  I’ve followed the path of a normal citizen: school, sixth form, travel, university, work and volunteering.  I pay my taxes.   I pay my rent; I’ve been paying my rent, myself, since I was nineteen years old.   How is it possible that the next step on the property ladder looms over me like a toddler assessing the lion plinth on Trafalgar Square?  I don’t wish to moan.  I don’t require pity.  I certainly don’t want to wake up in the night over-thinking my options. But what are my options?

What choices have I got?

The government’s “NewBuy” scheme is designed to help people with at least a 5% deposit buy a newly built home.  The problem I have with this is that new builds are often inflated in price (in an already inflated market), and are built on the cheap: small rooms, thin walls and lacking storage.

Shared ownership schemes offer similar downsides, with an inflated retail price often in apartments with large service charges, no flexibility to extend and add value and no guarantee of being able to sell afterwards at a profit.  Basically the same reasons I was always told never to buy a brand new car: a new build loses value the moment you put your feet up on the sofa.

The “Help to Buy” scheme which comes into effect in 2014 allows people to buy a property worth up to £600,000 with a 5% deposit.  The government will underwrite 20% of the value with no interest for five years.  On the one hand, my £11,500 looks handsome when dressed in a 5% deposit suit and it almost feels as if I am part of my country again…but then what happens when all of a sudden the floodgates open to hundreds of thousands of buyers?  I’ve seen the stampedes on television for the One Direction Store. Suddenly my friend’s already super expensive two bedroom flat will hit the half a million mark. 

There are other options. 

I now treat myself to a scratch card once a month.  I’ve thought about marrying a property-owning widower on his last legs but that’s something my boyfriend is not supportive of.  I can’t rent out my womb and carry babies for rich Americans because I have a blood disorder which causes my ovaries to haemorrhage. I could sell a kidney but my entire family is riddled with diabetes so that would be plain silly. Not a fan of prostitution, it’s all wrapped up in misogyny and weird power dynamics.

 I’d get the giggles doing phone sex. 

I have finished the first draft of a novel, but my research has shown a debut novelist is lucky to make £12k on a two-book deal.  Two books! It may be better to remain in my poorly insulated rented flat with gaps between the windows and say to myself: Just five more shivering winters and then this government-supported property bubble is going to burst like fresh adolescent acne…