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Even Recessions Have an Upside

The End of Property Porn

by ADITYA CHAKRABORTTY

London.

At the start of this century, a new race took over British television. They didn’t look so different from the people in whose living rooms they took up residence: they had the same receding hairlines and weight issues. But they had one apparently magic power: they could turn bricks into money. 

They were property presenters, and they had come to teach viewers how to cash in on the real-estate boom. Their programs fell into the genre of reality documentaries, where real people did real things (such as buy or sell or renovate houses), only with a film crew breathing down their necks. The format was stale, but the subject – investing in property – was intoxicatingly new. 

Real-estate debutantes could watch To Buy or Not to Buy for advice. Once you’d bought your home, the House Doctor was on call to tart it up. Fancied seeing how the neighbors were doing? Television allowed you to spy on Other People’s Houses. And when the time came to cash in and sell up there was Trading Up. Within a few years, the genre had advanced onto Property Developing Abroad – even this risky, fiddly business was now considered fun. Only one subject was guaranteed never to be covered: what to do if you couldn’t keep up the mortgage payments. 

This flood came during the biggest real-estate boom in British history, with house prices rising by around 20 per cent a year. Mid-market newspapers regularly splashed property surveys across their front pages, while venerable home-furnishings magazines junked features on the perfect table lamp for spreads on kitchen extensions. 

Still, it was television that really got the housing bug, showing 20 different programmes a season at the height of the bubble. Every day of the working week, a property-drunk nation could stagger back to their homes – which had appreciated more that day than their owners had earned at their jobs – and soak up an evening’s advice on how to cash in on the boom. Digital channels offered repeats to keep one going into the small hours. 

The presenters were not shiny TV folk or (heaven forbid) probing journalists. No, they were from the property industry: estate agents, developers, interior designers. That these people had a vested interest in keeping the bubble inflated seemed to pose no problem: many kept on their day jobs, or leveraged their new fame into other real-estate businesses. 

Yet they did not pass on expertise so much as a dogma: buy it, fix it up, flog it, pocket the proceeds – and do it all over again. 

Summing up this attitude was Sarah Beeny, a mumsy blonde 30-something who presented Property Ladder. Her show pulled in more than four million viewers, making Beeny a semi-celebrity. 

Yet it was a one-trick programme: every week, she would track couples (they were always couples) who had just bought a home they planned to do up and sell at a vast profit. The sums they spent and stood to make floated over the screen in large graphicised figures. 

Before Beeny and her gang pitched up, TV’s interest in property had been restricted to decorating and DIY. The genre’s icon had been Barry Bucknell, who specialised in nailing ugly hardwood over pretty Victorian doors. But commissioning editors were slow to pick up on Britain’s growing interest in house prices. When Margaret Thatcher began selling off public housing in the 1980s, fewer than 60% of the population owned their homes; by 2000 that figure was more than 70%. In the decades following the second world war, housing had been a necessity to be provided by the state; now however, it was solely an aspirational good, to be saved up for by private individuals. 

This was a bandwagon Labour wanted to ride. Just before becoming prime minister, Gordon Brown plotted how his country would become a "home-owning, asset-owning, wealth-owning democracy." For many modern voters, however, the three were the same: a home was an asset that was a source of wealth. After the dotcom bust, after the scandals at Enron and WorldCom, and under increasing pressure to look after their own pensions, the British turned to their piles of bricks and mortar to provide. 

So the British stopped thinking about houses as homes, and started treating them as properties – commodities to be traded like shares. 

Beeny articulated this shift. "I think there is a bit of everyone that thinks it would be nice to be a property developer," she said. A successful developer herself, she tried to show them how. Yet almost every week her would-bes slipped back into bad old sentimentalism; they sought to make their properties individual, personal or downright nice. Under the new rules of the property game, they were only meant to make them profitable. To bend le Corbusier, houses were now machines for printing cash. 

Beeny’s students usually knuckled under. After all, they were also in it for the money. As the presenter noted: "You go into these houses and there are shelves full of self-help books like How to Be a Millionaire in a Year." 

And a new home aesthetic caught on. David Pollock has been an estate agent for over 25 years in a part of London often featured on the TV shows. As the decade wore on, he noticed a change in the get-up of local houses. "The walls were magnolia or eggshell white – you wouldn’t get bright blue or dark red," he says. 

"It was bland, boring, characterless – and about 20% of all the properties we were selling were like this. Forget about individual touches: people were designing their homes with one eye on selling, rather than living in them." Television had taught its viewers well. 

These programmes soon had a name: property porn. The term was coined by Rosie Millard, a former BBC arts correspondent turned property pundit (perhaps only in today’s Britain would that career move be considered a good one). "Property porn is addictive,"she wrote in 2002. 

"You a) work out how much your London home is worth. Then, b) turn to the advertising pages of the property section[s]. Figure out whether you would like to move to a stone farmhouse in [the countryside]… a nine-bedroom manor… or the neo-Palladian palace… We had dirty thoughts about the Rookery, which has an orchard and a moat." 

If all Londoners did this, the gap between capital prices and those in the rest of the country would soon vanish. But like her readers, Millard was not bothered about the big picture. 

"Every week the papers are full of juicy graphs and prophecies that show the remorseless escalation of house prices in the southeast," she went on. "The danger is that you start to worry about moving into, say the Rookery, in case your old house appreciates without you in it. Which was when we started to venture down the buy-to-let route."   

Ah, the letting boom. This was the height of Britain’s property fever. As the masses got used to the idea of trading houses, they quickly graduated onto buying them to let out. It was, after all, the same bet on rising house prices – but doubled up. A mere 29,000 buy-to-let mortgages at the end of 1998 had risen to 850,000 by the end of 2006, making almost a third of the UK’s entire private rented housing buy- to-let. First-time buyers found themselves competing for one-bed flats with purchasers twice their age not after somewhere to live, but a nest egg. Newly built flats were a particular favourite among amateur landlords, with over 60% of new property in London in 2006 bought to let out. 

Anyone could see that buy-to-let was a new, potentially risky experiment. After all, one of the British banks to have collapsed this year, Bradford & Bingley, specialised in buy-to-let mortgages. Yet property TV treated it as absolutely normal. Presenters counseled homeowners on how to rent out their London pad and buy a place in the country on the income (just as Rosie Millard longed to do), or gravely advised them about the rental prospects of that bolthole in the Dordogne or Tuscany or Krakow. 

How much was property porn responsible for the inflation of the bubble? Long before becoming chief executive of the housing charity Shelter, Adam Sampson did academic research on sexual pornography. He sees the two as having a similar impact: "Pornography can make feelings and behaviours that are otherwise unacceptable seem normal. Property porn didn’t invent the pastime of using houses to make money – but it gave it legitimacy." 

And now the game is up. In the past year, property prices in Britain have dropped around 10% – and many expect them to fall by around the same again. Amid a recession, TV producers are not only wary about making get-rich-quick programmes; they also find it difficult to find the necessary material. 

Now that bank loans have all but dried up, few can raise money to buy and renovate that promising Victorian terrace. Now that the housing market is frozen, few want to put their homes on the market – let alone put in offers on others. One BBC series last summer showed programme after programme in which the TV presenter and his or her would-be house sellers waited for viewers to pop in – only for one or two couples to pay the most cursory of visits. 

"I don’t think property will ever be off air, but it needs a different approach," one senior TV producer told The Guardian last month. "Property investment shows are over." 

Even recessions have an upside.

ADITYA CHAKRABORTTY is a journalist at The Guardian, London.

This article appears in the January edition of the excellent monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles  from LMD every month.