We’re a nation hellbent on owning our own homes, and while house prices continue to soar, the demand is higher than ever. According to the latest House Price Index from Rightmove, the average price of a property coming on to the market in May broke new records by jumping up 1.8 percent to just over £330,000.
If you want to buy outright, that means you’ll need around a third of a million pounds. But much of the property advice out there isn’t for prospective millionaires – it’s heavily targeted towards young and impressionable first-time buyers like me.
We’re led to believe that cutting back on a few lattes is all it takes to save the perfect amount for a deposit (not forgetting, obviously, a chunky sum of money from the bank of mum and dad). Renting is often seen as flushing hard-earned cash down the toilet, with buying seemingly the be-all and end-all. But for some people currently on the property ladder, it’s been far from the dream.
Gemma Southren, 33, always knew she wanted to be a homeowner. After years of hard work, she was able to save up for a deposit on what she thought would be the perfect starter home in the form of a brand new leasehold flat in east London. However, she now fears her dream of homeownership will leave her bankrupt.
“I assumed because the flat was fairly new that it wouldn’t have any hidden issues,” she tells VICE. “I got the standard surveys done for the mortgage and had the routine checks.”
Broadly speaking, there are two types of property ownership in the UK. If you’re a freeholder, you are the outright owner of your property and the land it’s built on. If you’re a leaseholder, you lease your property from a freeholder. One key difference between the two is that leaseholders have to pay a yearly service charge to the management company, covering the maintenance of their building or estate.
This is where it all started going wrong for Gemma, even though she’d initially done everything right. It began with a £6,000 charge to fix the car stack parking system and lift in her building.
“Then came the cladding scandal,” Gemma says. “Our flat block failed its EWS1 form [a type of safety assessment] and has sub-grade cladding and no fire breaks, the latter being entirely illegal at the time the flat was built.”
The EWS1 form was just one of the initiatives implemented after the Grenfell Tower fire, where flammable external cladding led to the deaths of 72 people. A number of tower blocks in the UK are covered in similar material, leaving hundreds of thousands of leaseholders footing the bill for these poorly designed buildings.
“At the moment I am in limbo awaiting potential costs if funding fails,” Gemma says. “The lowest figure for the bill I've heard is £30,000 but I suspect it could be double. I can’t even sell because my flat is worth zero until these problems are fixed. It's all a bit too much to bear at times.”
Tom White, 31, from Birmingham, knows all too well of the issues with cladding. He’d live in his family home in Walsall up until his mum passed away in 2014. He inherited the house, sold it in 2017 and used the funds to purchase his own one-bed flat.
Like Gemma, Tom was satisfied with the routine checks and couldn’t see any major issues – he assumed that all his property needed was a lick of paint. But subsequent surveys after the Grenfell fire found a number of issues with the building, including its cladding.
He tells VICE: “We have received an estimated cost of £13.8 million to correct the issues, which work out as an average of £40,000 per household – on top of having to pay £5,000 a week for waking watch across the development, which is a team of people who walk around the building 24/7 to make sure it is not on fire.”
While Labour recently called on the government to set a 2022 deadline to fix all homes with dangerous cladding, Tom believes – with good reason – there’s a lot of anger towards the government due to their current lack of support.
Vanessa*, 29, from London was attracted to the nice area and respectable management when she was in the process of buying her flat. She tells VICE: “I even had my father look over the details and we mutually agreed it all looked good.”
However, she soon found that her new home wasn’t up to scratch. “We had noisy ventilation, leaks in communal areas and broken doors,” she says. “Four years on and we’re still waiting for many of these issues to be fixed.”
Vanessa says she regrets her decision of buying her current property as she feels her complaints haven’t been properly handled. She also thinks the housing sector needs more regulations. “There should be a strict code of conduct by the government so that people aren’t exploited and fewer unethical practices.”
Mortgage broker Kev Tilley thinks that one of the most common reasons for buyers’ regret is a failure to appreciate the hidden costs of buying and owning a home.
“Many simply fall into the mistake of only considering the property price and attempt to compare it with their current rental costs, so when they do finally purchase their dream home, all the other mounting costs can be quite a shock,” he says. “It certainly doesn't help that there's a lack of affordable housing. Young buyers will typically need a large deposit – meaning by the time they become property owners, their savings are practically non-existent, making emergency situations even riskier.
“Young buyers need to do a full check on finances and account for all hidden costs – a failure to do so is a major cause of buyers regret.”
It’s impossible to predict the future of homeownership, but Gemma, Tom and Vanessa’s experiences are cautionary tales in our generation’s rush to get on the property ladder. If nothing else, they prove that buying your own place doesn’t necessarily mean the end of your housing woes – it could just be the beginning of an entirely different nightmare.
*Name has been changed