Life

Inside the 'I Bought a House At 21' Clickbait Cottage Industry

We spoke to the writers of these kind of articles, and asked the young homeowners who agree to take part to ask them, "Why?"
August 17, 2021, 8:30am
FirstTimeBuyer_Lede
Collage: VICE

What do the Daily Mail and the Guardian have in common? Before you start spitting tea from your “Brexshit” or “Remoaner tears” mug, this question is rhetorical. Just one thing unites the British media across political divides: articles about young people who’ve managed to buy a house.

From series like The Sun’sMy First Home”, The i’sHow I Bought It” and Metro’s What I Own”, to one-off articles in the Guardian and every local newspaper going, the house-buyer-article industrial complex has been thriving for years. The format is simple: find a young homeowner and ask them how they managed to afford a house. The answer is (usually) simple: mum and dad. This call-and-response is so common that it’s now heavily memed, from parody articles entitled “You won’t believe how far into this ‘millennial homeowner’ piece it takes for us to mention their inheritance!” to two Simpsons screenshots that now represent the entire trend.

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Beyond “are rich people open to adopting 27-year-old babies?”, these articles raise a number of questions. Why do these stories keep getting written, and why do they get such a violent response online? How does it feel to have taken part in one of these interviews – and more to the point, why does anyone agree to do so in the first place?

It says a lot about the current state of the housing market that, 60 years ago, the average first-time buyer was 23, and today, anyone under the age of 30 buying a house is worthy of the national news. In this environment, it’s understandable that people get angry when they click on an article entitled, “How I bought a house by giving up curry”, only to scroll down and read the words, “I saved £10 by giving up takeaways and saved £10,000 by asking for money from my dad.” On Twitter, some have theorised that these articles are deliberately designed to entice rage – that “hate clicks” are an in-built part of the business model. But freelance money journalist Lily Canter says it’s more complicated than that.

“The intention is to have a nosy around the house and see what it looks like, but it’s also tips on saving, explaining Help to Buy ISAs,” says Canter, who has written a number of these articles for The Sun. The freelancer says that the paper aims to feature “someone their readers can relate to, someone who hasn’t just inherited a big load of money, someone who has found savvy ways of saving”, but admits that finding these people can be “a nightmare”.

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“It’s difficult to find people who haven’t had help,” she says, adding that the issue is exacerbated because often these stories come through PR companies that represent housing developers (and misrepresent first-time buyers).

“They say ‘they did it through this means’, but you interview them and find out it’s not really the whole picture, but by then you’re sort of committed,” Canter says. “You then have to think, ‘What is the strongest angle here?’ and some of that [other] information may end up going further down.” After a few “frustrating” experiences, Canter now refuses to use PRs and approaches homeowners directly.

As a freelancer, Canter doesn’t write her own headlines, but she defends The Sun’s (seven paragraphs into “How I bought £205k flat by giving up manicures, cutting back on smoking and ditching luxuries”, we learn that the eponymous luxury-ditcher was also gifted £4,500 from her mum). “They will pick up on one thing, one saving technique, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to have a headline,” says Canter, “The story gives you the whole context.”

Sometimes it can be hard for Canter to get this context herself. “You have to dig and dig and dig. I’ll do the sums and think, ‘Something’s not adding up here – there’s 50 grand missing.’” Problems arise when PRs don’t tell interviewees exactly how much detail they’ll need to share. “It’s a bit like Cribs – people want to show people round their new home,” Canter says – but they don’t necessarily want to disclose their monthly income.

Jessica Friend-Bartlett is an 32-year-old from Warwickshire who didn’t mind answering penetrating questions about her finances for an i News article entitled, “How we bought a £240,000 three-bedroom house before turning 30”. The article includes everything from Friend-Bartlett’s council tax to the cost of her haircuts. Naturally, it also mentions the £15,000 gift from her and her partner’s parents. 

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“I think we should be more open about our finances,” says Friend-Bartlett, adding that she is “the first to admit” how much her parents helped her out. Friend-Bartlett believes that homeowner articles – as well as money diaries – can educate people about finances (she personally is a big fan of the First Direct Regular Saver account). “Our financial education at school is quite lacking,” she says. 

Friend-Bartlett works in PR, and jumped on a request for a homeowner to chat about their experiences partially because she wanted to promote her lifestyle blog. “At the time, I was one of the first people amongst my friends to buy a house,” she says. “I’d been having a lot of conversations with my friendship group about the process, so I kind of saw it as an extension of that.”

Zlata Rodionova, the freelance journalist who interviewed Friend-Bartlett, says a lot of people sign up to be interviewed but disappear when they realise how much information they need to share (she’s also written for The Sun’s series). Contrary to rage-click theorists, Rodionova says she tries to avoid articles that will generate backlash – but this is difficult because commenters don’t just get angry at people with inheritances, they also rage at those who saved intensely to afford their house.

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“I often see, especially on Facebook, backlash of people saying, ‘Is it really worth it? I’d rather have my life than stay home for a year’,” says Rodionova. Thankfully, Friend-Bartlett wasn’t the victim of an online mob. The same can’t be said for Aimee, a first-time buyer who was interviewed by a tabloid about her first home (her name has been changed because she wants to avoid “unearthing any more backlash”).

“It was horrific,” Aimee says of her article, “It was so embarrassing.” The property developers who built Aimee’s home put her forward to be interviewed, and while Aimee tried to pull out after being asked invasive questions, the media manager said it was too late. Aimee was able to afford her home because of a large sum of money given to her by her parents. Despite this, the headline on the article implied that she had simply given up one monthly expense.

Aimee says she received “bordering on racist” comments about how her parents earned the money, as well as insults about how she “looked like a toad”. Aimee says she asked the journalist to emphasise her parent’s support (and how grateful she was for it) to avoid backlash. Ultimately, this information was buried deep in the piece.

“The way it’s written is like, ‘You can do this too! By the way, you need your parents to help you.’ I’d be angry too if I read that, because it’s completely misleading,” Aimee says. She doesn’t see the value in any of these articles: “You can’t just give up buying clothes for a year and buy a house, that’s ridiculous.”

Millennial homeowner articles are clearly popular – whether for the right or the wrong reasons, they’ll inevitably keep getting clicks. Canter and Rodionova note that many of these articles can be helpful and informative, but people pay less attention to them. “There was a guy in his late forties who bought his own house, and he literally just worked his arse off basically, had no help from family… But that obviously doesn’t get a reaction, because he did it the hard way,” says Canter. 

If this clickbait cottage industry truly angers you, the best thing to do is ignore it. The worst thing to do is send the people involved in these articles abuse. The backlash faced by those who take part in homeowner articles is so severe that one interviewee for this piece dropped out, fearing a second round of abuse.

“I think everyone should be able to buy a house,” says Aimee. “The issue’s not with me, the issue is with the housing market.”

@ameliargh