Tuesday, November 01, 2022

I’M a fan of the RTÉ series ‘Cheap Irish Houses’. It promises so much; rural homesteads with Agas in the kitchen, stone outbuildings and mature trees.

That’s how I like to romanticise it, but the reality is often very different. Budgets are far from cheap and I can’t get my head around how miserable a lot of the properties on show are!

Now there’s another version called Build Your Own Home on RTÉ which is going to suck me right in too. It’s not that I’m trying to get on the housing ladder, it’s that I’ve been there, done that and have a never ending fascination with building ever since.

When I think of “cheap” I think about prices from the 1980’ when I was trying to figure out how to find a home too. Even as a couple with two jobs, willing to rebuild or renovate it was hard to find anything under 7,000 to 10,000 punts. Yes, that was our budget for the whole lot! We needed to buy something for less than £5,000 and have another £5,000 for the upgrade.

The crazy enterprise involved living in a windy shed with a couple of babies. It called for resilience and back breaking building work. It wasn’t easy.

In the middle of it all, the bank refused to increase our mortgage from £9,000 which would have allowed us to finish what we started. Our repayments were already horrendous.

But the pair of us had one trump card, we were naive and utterly idealistic about rural Ireland, nature, fresh air and living near the sea. That extra little ingredient gave us hope in what seemed like a hopeless situation. Our interest rate on the mortgage was soon 16.25% and not something I am ever likely to forget!

In those days housing was definitely “a ladder.” The idea was to sneak onto the first rung and crawl your way up to something that could actually be called a family home. And crawl was what we all tried to do.

Looking at housing now, I wonder why we are not being more creative about how to make wonderful homes available for our people to live in. It is probably one of the most important indicators of a healthy and fulfilling life; a room of your own, a roof over your head and your own hearth.

Rory Hearne has been highlighting the crisis in the Irish housing market for years and this Tramore man now has a definitive book on the subject called ‘Gaffs’. His starting point is to see housing as a human right and to work towards that as a goal for the country.

Ireland has the 10th highest rate of derelict and vacant homes. Our house prices are way beyond the scope of our citizens and there are too few homes available.

Now the Catch 22 of house prices is that far too many Irish home owners have invested in their house as their only asset. Therefore too many people actually want house prices to keep rising!

Unfortunately this excludes the next generation from any prospect of getting on that first rung and they end up living at home with Mum and Dad until they can afford to buy. A vicious circle.

But back to the option offered by ‘Cheap Irish Houses’, is rural living still a possibility for the future? How far out of town is reasonable? Without proper rural transport, villages and town lands will die too. I talk to people who long for the simpler rural life but even that is unattainable in spite of Cheap Irish Houses promoting it.

So what can we do? Well first of all why not get all the relevant heads together in Waterford; the local council, the many talented architects and town planners, the housing agencies and builders all together in one room working out a plan.

The task really is how to supply A-rated houses, quickly and cheaply into the market. Perhaps an adaptable one house design could be created and given freely to villages, towns and developers to get this moving?

We need a plan for how to reclaim and conserve old and derelict buildings. Outside the box thinking could maybe include a plan on how to revitalise apprenticeship training and all the new specialisations in design and sustainable building?

On the other side of the equation, maybe house hunters also need to think more creatively too. After a few years of living in the windy shed in the 1980s we finally managed to reroof and expand. Gradually we got there and yes it was all worth it.

We can’t keep moaning. We have to fix it. And if we do, it could lead to some very positive outcomes for us all.

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