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What do people think when they find out I rent privately?

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?

 

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8 Comments

  1. Christina Soar says:

    They just don’t get it do they. I am in my early 40s and am perfectly happy living in a privately rented flat. The best thing about it is how easy it is to move about as I don’t have any children to worry about. Just give my landlord (who is not a monster and hasn’t raised my rent in 5 years) a month’s notice and that’s it. None of the complications of buying and selling a house. Maybe one day I will buy my own property but not yet.

    • fielsted says:

      There are advantages to being a renter as you describe, Christina. When I was single I took advantage of the fact that I could move around a lot. It meant I was able to build up a good career base as I took opportunities as they arose and moved pretty much at the drop of a hat. I have to say though, that there are many who either don’t want to or can’t have that kind of approach to their lives and for them the precarious nature of privately renting is not a happy thing. And that is part of the conundrum that is the private rented sector: lots of people with lots of different kinds of lives and lots of different futures but a set of policies which ignore that diversity.

  2. Isabelle says:

    The great thing about this blog, and particularly this post, is that is saves me writing down what we feel as private renters. Everything, but everything, you mention echoes with me. It is almost uncanny. And yes, the feeling of it all being temporary is a very hard one to manage, more and more so. Not sure how much longer we can stand it, really, before we throw in the towel and emigrate once and for all. I would love to think that a Labour government would somehow change the situation, but I fear it is too far gone. I definitely think having children changes the situation entirely – where once you relished the freedom that being a tenant afforded you, you now feel entirely at the mercy of someone else’s priorities.

    We have been renting our current place from a private landlord for around 11 months. After we moved in, we had to wait 8 months for local school places for our two youngest. They have only recently started to settle in their new surroundings. Three weeks ago, we were informed that the landlord wanted to increase the rent by 5%. I used the argument that this is way above inflation and any income increase (non-existent – our income has, in fact, fallen) to negotiate a small reduction (a “gesture of good will”, as the landlord and agent put it). We know that the same scenario will occur in a year’s time, if not earlier. We also know that we cannot afford another increase. But we also cannot afford another change of school, etc. for our kids.

    Moreover, the house next door (which is identical to the one we rent) has just gone on sale for 500K (mind-blowing, but this is London). We know our landlord bought his house for less than 300K three years ago… If/when he finds out about the sale of next door’s house, who could blame him for wanting to make a quick, easy and massive profit on the house he is letting to us?

    And so the deep feeling of insecurity, the lack of visibility and the pointlessness of trying to plan ahead continue. Frankly, it is exhausting.

    • fielsted says:

      Your last 2 sentences are so poignant. The lack of security, the invisibility, the difficulties in planning for the future all leave us feeling paralysed and powerless. It’s a huge problem for a large and growing sector of our society which desperately needs to be addressed.

      I wish I could wave a magic wand and put a leave-them-be-and-just-let-them-properly-live-their-lives charm around your family home. That would be lovely and ultimately that’s all we want isn’t it? Nothing dramatic or greedy just a place to stay in to allow our kids the opportunity to establish proper roots and not be forever fearful that we could have to move again all too soon. I feel for you.

      On the very minor plus side, your comments about how you feel reading these posts brought to mind something one of the teachers in ‘The History Boys’ says about reading. I know this because I watched it on iplayer only the other week and I actually wrote it down because it was so lovely. He says: ‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something-a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things that you had thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else you’ve never met…It’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.’ I’m glad that what I write resonates with you in the sense that it accurately describes our common experience. I just hope that as a result things might ultimately and very quickly change for the better in this minefield which is the private rented sector.

      Thanks Isabelle.

  3. Isabelle says:

    Thank YOU, Fiona. Your words are precious.
    And thanks for taking my hand…
    It will be alright, I know it will. Maybe the only way, for now, is to really live in the moment, in fact. Perhaps that is another thing our situation forces us to do – a small silver lining?

    • fielsted says:

      A miniscule silver lining indeed though I don’t think we should be searching for things to make us feel a bit better about our situation. We need to hold up all of these examples and tell it how it is i.e. really not very good at all.
      Are you on Twitter?

      • Isabelle says:

        You’re right. We need to fight the good fight, not resign to this ridiculous situation. I am vaguely on Twitter, i.e. created a handle once which I then hardly ever used. I am going to do it again.

      • fielsted says:

        Good. When you do let me know (@fielsted) and I’ll take great joy in following you.

        Maybe see you in a slightly different space soon :-)

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