Just recently someone asked me how people respond when they find out that I rent privately as opposed to owning my home. It was an important but tricky question which got me thinking a bit more about this whole issue of what our tenure says to others.
This is not my first mention of this topic. One of my earlier blogs opened with the Great British Class Calculator story which told me that the social class to which I belonged changed completely based on whether I owned or rented my home. It was but a frippery but it made a point fairly succinctly I feel : in the UK whether you live in your own home, rent privately or rent from a social landlord speaks volumes to any who may wish to categorise you or make assumptions about your life. It functions as a nice neat tool for identification purposes. It tells us whether the individual concerned is one of us or one of them. It offers us a common ground or emphasises our differences.
By way of illustration of this point, a quick search on Google Images for ‘homeowners’ will lead you to a page of happy smiling (dare I say, smug?) faces .Bunches of keys are there. Lovely detached homes. Smiley, happy families. All looks warm, inviting and secure with lots of blue sky and sunshine. To those who are convinced by this stereotypical view, there seems to be a clear pecking order with homeowners at the top. Those who fit into this category are ascribed all sorts of positive attributes based on the fact that they have ‘made it’. There have been right choices; an appropriate amount of scrimping and saving has been undertaken. They have worked hard; achieved professionally; succeeded in getting their foot on the ladder; planned for their future. They demonstrate that they are in control and seemingly fully deserving of this status afforded them.
Contrast this with another search for images related to ‘private renters’. No sunshine here, it’s all much more grim and realistic. Not only do the images lack the homogeneity of the ‘homeowner’ results; they also lack the positivity. Here we find ‘To Let’ signs; politics; placards; a glum-looking family; a couple of students; some poor conditions; me (!); housing bubbles; contract-signing; along with a few slightly dubious pictures connected to another kind of private renting I think! It’s not very scientific but there is a value in looking at these results if only in that it gives a snapshot of the cultural connotations of tenure in the UK.
But going back to the original question, what about me, what do people think when they find out I rent privately? Experience suggests that they first assume that I am already a homeowner but waiting to buy something new. They make this assumption based on my job (a university lecturer); my educational attainment (undergraduate and postgraduate degree); my age (45); and my family circumstances (married with 3 school age children). They might also think it because I do appear to be pretty middle class in a left-wing kind of way and surely if you are middle class, you own your home? I think people want me to be a homeowner because it makes sense to them that I would be, so they try to find an explanation for my predicament. However, at 45 I don’t have the excuse of the young students or professionals who are privately renting as they wait out that life stage before moving to something more permanent and ‘real’. My job suggests that I have made some of the right choices which ought to have me firmly ensconced in a home of my own so that is confusing. Having a family but not being a homeowner starts to suggest I’m irresponsible. I would say that above all what people think is: something has gone wrong.
And they would be right. My private renting predicament is part home-grown problem and part a problem on a national scale. I waited too long to buy because I worked outside of the UK for a number of years after graduating. When I came back I started a family, got married and so couldn’t/didn’t want to buy something too small to live in that I could then work up from. I’ve always wanted a home not an asset. And anyway, at that time my salary was too small and house prices too high. Later when my salary improved, prices had moved on even further. Now I am resigned completely to never owning my own home. That wouldn’t necessarily have to be too much of a problem if I felt my needs were being well-served by renting privately but as a mother of 3 children, that is patently not the case.
I’m not the only one who feels this. There are lots of us private renters who do not fit into the stereotypical view of those who live in this sector. Research has very effectively highlighted the diversity of individuals who rent privately yet policies seem only to acknowledge the short-term arrangement and ignore the families and other tenants who need long-term stability. It so needs to change.
Returning to those Google Images, I’m struck by the way in which homeownership looks so heavenly and in contrast private renting comes across as accommodation purgatory. And do you know what, it feels like purgatory. It’s a waiting place, you know and the landlord knows that this is temporary and the big question forever on our minds as private renters is: will the next move be a step up towards the pearly gates or down towards the hellish depths?