Why is everybody so obsessed on the idea of owning a large house?
Nothing is perhaps more important to the average citizen of Planet Earth than owning a sizeable chunk of that planet. From the moment humans first settled down into communities, an imposing permanent abode has always been viewed as a big deal. It’s a sign of someone who’s made it, a large flashing billboard of status and social standing.
Banks and mortgage providers know all too well how desperate we are to get our hands on prized estates. Posters for home loans typically feature a young and attractive couple standing in front of their dream home. Around them we see a driveway, a freshly-painted mailbox, a pristinely-manicured lawn, and most importantly, no visible sign of any other property nearby. People in mortgage posters never buy flats, only fully detached houses.
Governments are equally as keen on the idea of home ownership. Just think of how much they stand to gain from a typical dwelling, let alone a mansion-sized one. Firstly, they collect taxes and fees from property developers. Then they collect stamp duty every time the property changes hands. Then they collect company tax from the vast profits made by the banks. Then they collect income tax from the individuals forced to work a good portion of their life in order to pay back the mortgage. And in some parts of the world, governments also stand to collect inheritance tax or capital gains tax. Or both.
A house is a bulging pot of gold sitting under the rainbow. No politician – unless a card-holding member of the communist party – would ever claim that home ownership is a bad thing.
A. Sacrificial Lambs
As a result of the mad scramble to climb on to the property ladder, do we sacrifice more than we realise? Is home ownership really worth the pain?
The financial costs can certainly be astronomical. This isn’t only referring to the insane amounts of compound interest that accrue over the life of a typical mortgage. Home ownership also helps to create a legion of dutiful and loyal citizens, those entrenched in the fundamental debt cycle of modern society. These are the folks who spend little time in their massive property as they’re too busy earning money to pay off their massive debt. The mortgage commits at least one person to full-time work for the duration of the mortgage, which could be twenty years and beyond.
People often accuse those who rent of paying ‘dead money’. I’ve never understood why compound interest isn’t assessed in the same way.
Interest payments aside, the homeowner must also keep the property operational: electricity, water, gas, phone, broadband, council tax, insurance, and maintenance. And only then do we get to furnishings, fittings, renovations and extensions. That’s an awful lot of moolah.
I’ve recently decided I’ve had enough of home ownership. It’s just not for me, at least at the present moment in time. Three years ago I bought myself a small and cheap flat in Scotland, one that I could use as a base for travelling the world. However, having the responsibility of looking after my own slab of Planet Earth is no longer as attractive as it once was. Owning a house, I’ve decided, has become a planet-sized pain in the arse. It stops me doing what I really want to be doing: writing, travelling and of course running. There’s always just enough maintenance and housework to keep me stuck at home during the day.
I’ve therefore decided to sell the flat and become a global nomad, one with no fixed abode. Since my regular work can be performed remotely, it makes no difference where I live. To start with then, I plan to travel around in my old campervan. Then I’ll move beyond the UK, seeking short-term rentals of the Airbnb kind, of which there is no shortage, especially to a single person who can be quite flexible in his movements.
As of writing, I’m about to embark on this exciting journey. Who knows where I may end up. Suddenly home ownership doesn’t seem that enticing… if it ever was enticing.
B. Small is Beautiful
I’m not against the idea of home ownership entirely. There’s a lot of good things about having a property under your exclusive control. As an investment, property is a safe and reliable option, with only a moderate risk of the property failing in value. Given that most properties in a region go up and down in value pretty much at the same rate however, fluctuations in property price are perhaps not as earth-shattering as the media makes it out to be, unless you’re thinking of exiting the system entirely.
The most attractive benefit of owning a property is that it offers you security in your advanced years. It’s all very well to be mobile when you’re (relatively) young and active and capable of earning an income, but there comes a time in most people’s lives when stability and routine become more appealing. Having your own house available, one that is fully yours, is far more preferable to any of the alternatives. Does a ninety year old really want to be packing their cardboard boxes after being served with a thirty day notice to vacate?
My main objection to home ownership instead revolves around the sort of housing that is typically available. Most of it is just way too large. A single person interested in a more frugal and minimalist lifestyle has little choice. The majority of houses include at least two bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom (possibly two bathrooms), and a lounge room. Most new builds are even larger, being aimed squarely at families. Three bedrooms are the bare minimum
Although some developers dabble with the idea of smaller properties – especially in major population centres such as London – these dwellings are still seen as a novelty for rich kids, attracting much scorn from people who can’t imagine how anyone would want to live in a shoebox. And despite being shoe-boxes in size, they are still ridiculously expensive to buy.
I personally don’t have a problem with living in a shoebox. In fact, I’m highly drawn to the idea of micro dwellings. I’ve spent about six months in total living in pint-sized flats around Earls Court in London. Although property magazines are not something I typically read, I’m somewhat addicted to photo books that feature ‘cabin in the woods’ type of housing.
Small, apart from being beautiful, is cheap, practical and stress free. It also satisfies my main requirements for a residence: (1) it gives me a place to sleep at night, (2) it allows me to cook a healthy meal, (3) it gives me somewhere to store my modest collection of belongings, and (4) it can be easily locked up and left vacant for a lengthy stay away. Beyond this, I have no other expectations when it comes to occupying a house. I’ve never felt any strong desire to build a life in one tiny spot on planet Earth, setting down roots as if I were an elderly cactus. I’m more of an arctic tern, forever migrating between the hemispheres.
Apart from cost, another major benefit to small housing is the reduced time one needs to spend on cleaning and other household duties. And because there is less space to begin with, you don’t have to worry about buying a truck-load of furniture. Similar to travelling with carry-on luggage only, the lack of space forces you to think more deeply about what is necessary, and what is merely excess baggage. This helps to save even more money, as well as helping to save the planet.
And it gets better still. Because you have less stuff to begin with, this reduces the hassle and cost of any subsequent move. Small also encourages you to interact more with pubs and restaurants, which is not such a bad thing for local economy.
Small houses are commonly depicted as cosy and homely. And rightly so. In cooler climates, a small house heats up and stays warm far more efficiently than larger dwellings. The small house is a tiny and delightful cocoon to wrap oneself up in whenever fancying an escape from the outside world. Small does not have to mean impoverished or sub-standard. We have been conned into thinking that a big house is necessary for someone to be considered a success. This is a fiction promoted by banks, big business and Hollywood.
C. Six Objections
Since small houses continue to attract a lot of unwarranted criticism, let’s next consider six of the main objections:
One: how can guests stay over? You’re right, they can’t really stay over, unless they don’t mind sleeping on the couch or on an inflatable mattress.
But how often does the average person really have guests staying over? When we buy a house, we get this delightful notion that the place will soon be filled with neighbourly warmth and legendary, ‘Great Gatsby’-like parties. But in reality, modern life keeps people so busy that they rarely find the time to visit, let alone stay over. While it’s still a lovely perk to have a guest rooms available, I’m not convinced it’s a show-stopper.
Two: where can you store all your stuff? I confess that a garage or some form of external space comes in handy. This isn’t just for a car, but as a place to store bicycles and camping gear. It would also be handy to have somewhere to wash a pair of muddy hiking boots.
When someone asks you this question however, it isn’t about storage space. What the other person really wants to say is: “how on Earth can you live in a place that isn’t big enough to swing a cat”. This is probably true about the cat, but what exactly is so terrible about a modest living space? How much space do you really need? People already have far too many possessions, something that also goes a long way towards the current state of the planet.
According to an LA Times report of 2014, the average American has an average of 300,000 items in their home. Although this estimate is getting down to the level of individual paperclips, it’s still a scarcely believable figure. Even if the estimate were only ten percent true, does all this stuff really help the human race to survive and flourish?
Again, like travelling with a single carry-on bag only, a small property forces you to adopt a more focused mentality. Only what is necessary should be acquired. It also encourages you to regularly spring-clean the house, which also prevents useless items from turning into enormous dust collectors. This, as we’ve already seen has wider repercussions, such as a reduced carbon footprint and a less costly, less intrusive way of life.
Three: how can you live without a backyard or a garden? If you’re someone who sees your house as the centre-point of your existence, then some form of outdoor space would seem essential. But once you escape the belief that you must be tied down to a single space, the city around you will hopefully contain enough in the way of safe public spaces. People can also be surprisingly resourceful when it comes to gardening, making use of whatever space they have available to provide them with a satisfying hobby.
Four: how to do you get by without books, CDs and DVDs? This might have been a problem twenty years ago, but thanks to the digital world, one can explore music, film or literature without having to own physical copies of the items in question. I freely admit that nothing beats the smell of newly printed books or recently pressed vinyl. But like everything in life, it’s all a matter of priorities. Rather than trying to aim for perfection, I see no problem in aiming for whatever ‘does the job’. And digital products do the job adequately enough.
Five: what about all the undesirables (the ‘trailer trash’)? According to the naysayers, the only people interested in small dwellings are junkies, gypsy travellers and those struggling to make ends meet. Such people are assumed to make terrible and possibly even dangerous neighbours.
My current property in Scotland exists in quite a deprived area (one of the main reasons for its cheapness). While I don’t have much to do with my neighbours, they do leave you alone if you show little inclination to mix with them. Yes, there’s some things that I’d prefer to avoid – such as noise and lack of street parking – but these bugbears rarely impact my day-to-day life. In any case, bad neighbours are everywhere, regardless of wealth or social class.
Six: what about children? Don’t they need space to roam? In my own case, I’ll think about that ‘problem’ when and if it arises. But you’re right, a larger group will obviously need a larger dwelling. But why shouldn’t the acceptance of small housing also apply to families. Do you really want a dwelling that encourages the kids to stay house bound all the time?
D. Onwards and Upwards
Indeed. As I type these words, the storage space is booked, the delivery truck is on its way, and the local charity stores are receiving a larger-than-usual influx of goods. Those things that I really want to keep – such as books and bicycles – are about to be locked away in storage, where they will remain until I feel the urge to resume a housebound existence.
This might be a matter of weeks or years, but I can’t see myself bursting to return to the property market any time soon. At the moment I’m thinking more about all the time and money I get to save by not worrying about houses and how to fill them with wasteful junk.
As for looking after myself in my advanced years, with an aging population that most developed countries face, I’m assuming there will be more choice in the future for small, affordable living. I can also be surprisingly thrifty when the need arises, happy to save up the funds the old fashioned way before buying myself a nice little ‘humpy’. If it means living in a mobile home next to an Australian beach, the Running Mutty will be quite content.
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