This article originally appeared on VICE Australia
I've just spent a month building my own house for free, which actually means "built out of stuff from a garbage dump." This started because I turned 30, and thought about buying a house only to quickly realize I couldn't even slightly afford one. As you may have noticed, house prices around the developed world have detached themselves from wages and rocketed out to some fantastic land of random numbers. You earn $70K? Then a $1 million price tag is about meaningless. It might as well be a billion. Or $7 billion. Fuck it, make it infinity dollars. I'm about at the stage where if I saw an ad for a treehouse in Antarctica for infinity dollars I wouldn't even blink. I'd just be like, "Oh Antarctica has trees? I didn't know that."
So I was feeling angry and, yes, melodramatic and I decided to build a house for free. You can read the full tale of construction in part one of the article here. But then I had my parents over for dinner. They told me I should pull my head out of my ass, stop being weird, and just save some money. And they were right, of course. In the end we all just give up and start saving, bitterly.
So I decided to turn my shack into an asset, and put it on Airbnb. At first, I couldn't figure out why I wasn't getting any inquiries, but then I realized I needed to lie in the description more. After all, I'm sure real estate agent training manuals all start with a chapter titled Lying is Incredible.
I changed my listing to "Micro-Lux Outdoor Rejuvenation Hut" and wrote some crap about how it was made from "gorgeous recycled timbers" and "situated on a grassy acreage." What is an acreage anyway? Does it involve acorns?
Quickly, the inquires began rolling in. People were nice. People were polite, and their emails contained an aura of sweet optimism. They were tourists who dreamed of staying somewhere cheap and fun, with maybe a kangaroo to ride about in the morning. They'd stumbled upon my place and thought they'd hit gold.
I felt like a dick. It wasn't just that I was renting out a house made of garbage. It was also the fact I'd built a house made of garbage. A huge percentage of the world's population have to live in shantytowns and refugee camps, in cobbled together shacks like mine. Friends asked if I'd considered that my first article seemed to be smugly parodying this sad reality. That had never even crossed my mind. Now I was trying to make money off it?
But then I realized those property flipping, negatively geared millionaires aren't haunted by these thoughts. They don't make time for ethics. And I didn't want 20 investment properties, I just want one home. Stay the course Julian—make money, get house.
This is Leilah and Lucca from Germany. I still don't really understand why, but they wanted to stay. "We just like nice adventures," explained Leilah as I drove them from the airport to my house. "And this will make a funny story." But as we pulled into the shitty industrial estate where I'd built the place, the car fell noticeably silent.
We parked, I showed them over a fence and through some trees, and the two backpackers went inside. I took this photo and left, wondering what sort of a story I was trying to write.
The story I'm trying to write is that entry-level houses shouldn't cost a million dollars. Houses represent the human desire to not stand about in the rain, and it's unfair to twist this desire into a commodity.
As Leilah and Lucca stayed at the house, I spoke to Philip Soos, an economist and co-author of Bubble Economics: Australian Land Speculation 1830-2013. I wanted to know why houses were so expensive. According to Philip it's all about banking deregulation.
"What we're seeing since countries began deregulating their banking systems in the 80s, is banks lending money to anyone who wants it," he told me. "That's turning housing into a speculation game, which throughout the 90s and 2000s significantly ramped-up housing prices. In the US this obviously led to the Global Financial Crisis."
I asked Philip what evidence there is for this, as opposed to it being a result of simple supply and demand. He response was simple, "If housing prices were being driven by a lack of supply, rental prices would have risen at the same rate. You can see on this graph this just isn't the case."
"No, house prices are driven by lending, and by a reluctance by governments to stand up to banks."
I went back the next morning to collect Leilah and Lucca. They said they'd had a good sleep, even though a section of the roof blew off in the night. "When we got here last night there were candles and it was cozy," explained Leilah with that slightly funny earnestness possessed by all Germans. "Then we woke in the morning and I was like, 'Eh? What is this place?'"
I told them I was sorry and refunded their money, then drove them to an actual hostel where they could get on with their lives.
I hadn't made any money, but somehow my house had made headlines. Part one of this article had come out on VICE and other actual journalists were trying to scoop a piece of the hut. It was at this point that my Airbnb listing went bananas as weirdos everywhere clamoured to stay in a politically insensitive shack made of garbage.
I couldn't keep up with it. Have you ever posted a photo of your dog wearing a hat on Instagram? Then you'll know what it's like to get some attention on the internet. Now imagine what it's like if you have to respond to every person that likes your dog-hat photo, otherwise Airbnb will drag your status rating down to "unreliable host." The stress of this was debilitating.
It was about this point that the whole thing stopped being fun. Suddenly I realized that I hadn't built a house, I'd just built a sort of adult cubby, which are two words that look creepy together. Building a cubby was a bad way to deal with turning 30.
Adult life is hard and houses are expensive, but these are realities. I'm not going to be in a boy band. I'm not going to Hollywood. I'm not going to invent anything remotely useful or solve any big problems. This is life now, and that effortless mansion I'd always expected to be just around the corner probably isn't. Also, I'm just a guy who's treated fairly well by modern living, and maybe expensive houses are one of its very few drawbacks.
So I called my parents and told them they were right. I would just have to start saving and get on with life like a normal person. And then I went and said goodbye to my house.
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