It’s 8AM on a Saturday. You’re already awake because the flimsy blind stapled across your bedroom window only covers a sliver of glass. Outside, someone is shouting. It’s your landlord, dressed like a well turned out Year 9 on work experience, her camel coat billowing, her limbs flailing. She’s filming a TikTok about your flat.
You lie back on your mattress – a mattress stained by the many tenants who have come before you – and listen to her scream about “securing a passive income”. The resulting video, captioned “TFW you’re financially free at 25” goes viral. You get an email from your landlord the following week, saying she’s noticed you haven’t liked it yet. Your rent increases by £75.
To paraphrase Karl Marx, landlordism is the phenomenon in which one part of society makes money from the other part, by allowing them to inhabit the earth. Seemingly no longer content with making the task of finding shelter as miserable as humanly possible, landlords and estate agents are now using housing not only as an opportunity for profit, but for content.
#PropertyTok is the loose umbrella term for content made by estate agents, landlords and property investors. A tepid dilution of Selling Sunset, the videos blend “property-porn” style shots of bleakly homogeneous, refurbished homes with “life hacks” and “investment tips”. To give you a sense of the creative capacities of the property-based classes, I’ll describe two of the genre’s most risible videos now.
Gesticulating wildly at a main road in Huddersfield, Samuel Leeds begins his TikTok with, “I work in London, I live in Buckinghamshire, but I invest up North.” With the vocal inflections of a disappointed PE teacher, Leeds bellows at his viewers to “Buy properties in cheap areas, and then rent them high,” so they can earn “passive income [and] can have financial freedom”.
The second video, captioned “Passive income is something that deserves celebrating”, sees a young woman shimmying to the Vanilla Ice cover of “Jump Around” outside a red-bricked terraced house, while various figures pop up on screen, explaining that the property was purchased for £98,000, at a £153 per month mortgage. With its £570 a month rental charge, that means £417 profit every month.
Given how sensitive landlords get when you imply that making someone else pay off your mortgage does not constitute a job, it’s hilarious that both the videos emphasise “passivity”. As an aside, when one estate agent’s video boasted “No work required”, I briefly mistook the statement as a surprisingly honest declaration of landlord ideology, before realising it was in fact a reference to the lack of renovation required on the property.
Now, I’m no financial expert, but having spent hours watching PropertyTok videos, I’m not convinced that “buy a semi-derelict house in Burnley, fix it up for free by somehow possessing the combined skillset of a plumber, carpenter, joiner and roofer, before renting it out at an extortionate rate to some unlucky family, and repeat” amounts to a viable business plan.
As property prices have risen at a faster rate than wages (house prices are now ten times the average salary), it has become almost impossible to get on the property ladder with an average wage. At the same time, social housing has been eradicated, to the extent that the Local Government Association fears the council housing waiting list in England will nearly double to 2 million people in 2021. The combination of these factors has resulted in an explosion of the private rental market, exorbitant rents and the transformation of homes into financial assets.
Despite this being the economic reality of renting, the landlord economy functions on a level of detachment and abstraction: there’s the generalised notion that landlordism is philanthropic, as it provides people with a place to live; the misplaced emphasis on whether a landlord is “good” or “bad”, and even PR events like the Landlord of the Year Awards. Put another way, regardless of how “actually alright” an individual landlord might be, when they deduct money from your deposit – even if the dispute is ostensibly about a single greasy Blu-Tack mark – you know the real reason is because they want to take as much money from you as possible.
What makes PropertyTok videos both so galling and perversely addictive is that they fail to conform to this abstraction. In part, it’s because the videos force you to witness the hubristic glee of the landlord, as they dance to songs like “No Money” or “Moving On Up” while at least half a million private renters have fallen into debt due to the economic impact of COVID-19.
It’s also a consequence of the language of the videos, which has a knack for disappearing tenants and their inconvenient humanity. Phrases include: “tenants ready to go”, “already tenanted”, “start receiving rent as soon as you’ve completed on the purchase of the property”, “walking into a ready-made investment”, “owner plans on refinancing, renting out and going again”, or even “investment opportunity”. The closest any video comes to acknowledging that real people’s lives are at stake is in a screen-recording of a Google search, where the process of typing in “How to get started in property” initially prompts the search suggestion “homelessness Manchester”.
Landlords, it should be said, aren’t the only ones. Estate agents rightly get a lot of flack for being “shit” at their jobs (when my flatmate called our estate agent to let him know we had what looked like raw sewage leaking through our ceiling, he told her he “wasn’t sure how this problem related to him”), but it’s actually more useful to think of their ineptitude as a strategy. As the intermediary between landlords and tenants, their job is to humanise the fact you’re living in a safety deposit box.
Social media trends are broadly fun and enjoyable because they draw on our commonality as viewers, a commonality I refuse to allow landlords (or estate agents) a part of. Watching what looks like just another relatable TikTok, only to discover it is in fact an estate agent explaining “In 27 seconds we will show you how to make £27,000”, is like biting into a doughnut to find it’s filled with pus instead of custard.
In the The Asset Economy, Lisa Adkins and Martijn Konings argue that the chasm between those who own property and those who don’t is so vast that it’s redrawing traditional class lines. For them, it’s now a person’s relationships to an asset – rather than their employment status – that shapes their ability to succeed and attain the good life. In one video addressing how to fund an investment property, one genuine suggestion is just using “other people’s money”, highlighting the role that intergenerational wealth and inheritance plays in this dynamic.
So, landlords, I’ve got a proposition for you! If you ever film a financial “life hack” TikTok outside a flat that I’m being forced to shell out more than half of my income on, I will unfortunately have to “hack” you into pieces. And I’ll still be less of a criminal than all of you!