‘I think it’s starting to resonate that millennials aren’t just complaining’ – The Irish Times
It is not unusual for angry people to take to social media platforms to express their outrage about how crazy things are getting, whatever those things might be. It is, however, most unusual to see an angry tweet or Instagram post plant a seed that blossoms into a resource and then a community offering hope and inspiration to people, mostly millennials, who badly need help.
In 2018, Dublin schoolteacher Ciarán Mulqueen and his wife Melissa, a fellow teacher, decided that with their 30s looming and their jobs steady, it was time to put down roots.
So they did what so many young people have done before them and began trawling property websites and estate agents’ windows to see what kind of house they might buy in Dublin 8 and how much they might expect to pay.
What followed was a year of increasing frustration as it became all too evident that two young teachers with full-time jobs would struggle to buy in Dublin while adhering to bank lending rules which meant they could only borrow up to 3.5 times their combined salary and at a time when house prices were going through the roof. Again.
In August 2019 after months of knock-backs, Mulqueen spotted a house on daft.ie which particularly enraged him. He decided to set up an Instagram page specifically to give out about it and called the account @crazyhouseprices.
The house had the dubious honour of being known as Ireland’s skinniest home, measuring just 180cm wide. It carried an asking price was €265,000 and was – by every measure – small. Very, very small.
So Mulqueen posted the picture and wrote: “34 square metres is the size of a decent shed, but at least you could lie down sideways in the shed. This gaff is 6 foot wide, it was a laneway! Someone managed to get planning permission and just threw a roof over it. Over a quarter of a million for this bad boy. Has been on the market quite some time. Can’t understand why? Mind your head getting up in the morning”.
His Insta-debut was not an instant hit and that first post was liked just 134 times and attracted 37 comments. But it proved to be a launching pad for Mulqueen. His @crazyhouseprices account on Instagram now has more than 90,000 followers with tens of thousands more following him on Twitter. His posts routinely attract thousands of likes and hundreds of comments.
Mulqueen’s high profile on social media also saw interest from publishers and led to his new book which carries the fairly self-explanatory title How to Buy a Home in Ireland. The book, he says, was almost a collaborative effort between him and his army of home-seekers.
While the account that spawned the book initially lived up to its name, highlighting some of the more insane asking prices, it quickly morphed into something else, a resource from would-be house buyers. It also became a place where he could document his own house-buying adventures which – spoiler alert – ultimately ended in success.
That success did not come fast. He points out that in times past “two teachers could quite comfortably buy a house somewhere you know, not a mansion but you got a decent house in a decent area. Once I started looking, that very quickly became unachievable, unless we got help by being able to live in my in-laws house and then also getting more money from a bank because 3½ times salary wasn’t going to cut it.”
The couple managed to get an exemption from the bank rules and so had 4½ times their joint salary but they still struggled and were repeatedly outbid by people and entities with more cash to spend.
Eventually, Mulqueen decided to try a different approach. “We bid and we looked at so many houses,” he says. “As a person, I generally try to problem-solve so I asked myself what’s the problem here? The problem was the bidding wars. We could not afford them so how could we get around that? Get rid of the other bidders? How do we get rid of the other bidders? By trying to buy a house that not that many people know about. And then the only way to do that is to go direct to people.”
He posted letters through dozens of doors in the Liberties area of Dublin asking if owners were considering selling and if they were, might they consider selling to him.
They don’t really get how outrageous the house prices are until you give them homework
— Ciarán Mulqueen
“We got lucky,” he says. “It was an older woman. The house and the gardens were immaculate and the house was immaculate and the bathroom was immaculate and all that.”
But despite all the immaculateness, once the couple had secured the property at an agreed price, they gutted it. “It just wasn’t to our taste but also they’re old houses, they’re cold and I kind of always wanted to renovate and do a full retrofit.”
So, suddenly, the Instagram page that was about crazy house prices and the trials and tribulations of buying a home in Ireland was also about renovations and retrofitting and his follower base grew further.
He had handy friends – notably an electrician and a builder – who were able to help him out and over more than a year his project came together just as the couple became a family, with their daughter born in the middle of the project.
Mulqueen says the road he has taken, long and winding as it has been, should give hope to others.
There are, he says, “stages to buying a house” with the first one being “when you’re just kind of thinking about it. Then you start to take things seriously. And you’re like, ‘Okay, what can we afford? Where would we like to live?’”
He suggests that people who are not at this stage don’t really understand just how bad things are out there with people who bought in the 1980s and 1990s particularly adrift from the grim reality of the current market.
“They don’t really get how outrageous the house prices are until you give them homework” he says. “I would say to people who didn’t really understand: ‘How much were you earning when you were my age? Multiply that by three and a half. Now go find me a house for that’. And once they do that it doesn’t take long for them to realise, okay, maybe it’s not just complaining.
“I think every generation thinks they’re more hard done by than the previous one, that’s a common theme. But the research and the facts do back the argument that for this generation, it is more difficult to buy a home than it has ever been and it’s not just supply, it’s prices.”
“Look at what percentage of people’s disposable income they spend on housing compared to the 1990s, it’s nearly double. Look at the number of people in their 20s and 30s, who are living at home compared to the 1990s when two-thirds of people by the age of 28, owned their own home…now the average age people are leaving home is 28 just to try to get out of their parents’ box room.”
He accepts that the housing crisis is “a global issue” but does not accept that is “a good enough excuse to just say, ‘S**t happens. It’s happening everywhere’. You get that a lot from people who have their own home.”
Mulqueen is at least optimistic that the divide between the have-houses and the have-no-houses is narrowing and understanding of the scale of the problem is growing. “I do think things are improving in terms of the narrative around housing,” he says. These days there is less “stop eating your avocado and toasts, young people, and work hard and you’ll be able to afford a house just like I did”.
“I think that narrative, thankfully, is going because people are realising: ‘Okay, hold on this is crazy, I was able to buy my home on one income and it cost maybe three times that income. Now, that’s impossible, you’re looking at 10 times one income.”
With the one-income model almost entirely off the table, two people have to work so they often need to pay for childcare “on top of that and then everything else is way more expensive now than it was. So I think it is starting to resonate with people that these millennials aren’t just complaining anymore.”
He says the popularity of his social media accounts is down to “stumbling on a bit of the zeitgeist but it’s also that Irish people are just fascinated by houses, by who paid what and what it looks like, inside. I don’t know whether that’s, you know, a hangover from a few centuries of being colonised, where we had land taken off us.”
Added to the enduring nosiness is the current housing crisis. “It’s so insecure renting at the moment. [People] need to kind of have something secure so that they’re not at risk of being evicted. And because of that, people just were drawn to the page. I don’t think I’m special or anything. It has become a bit of a support network or a support group for people who can feel like somebody is on the other end of it, someone who can understand exactly what they’re going through, who can empathise. And they find like-minded people that are going through the same thing.”
[ Housing output still well off the mark despite positive signs ]
[ Housing pipeline ‘encouraging’ but downside risks to supply remain ]
Mulqueen does not simply use his platform to give out. He also shares good news stories. “Because I do think it’s important to show people that you can get there in the end. It’s not impossible. It’s way more difficult than it should be but it’s not impossible.”
He suggests people concern themselves less with getting on the property ladder, it is “a phrase I really don’t like, because it implies that you need to keep climbing. It’s like a pyramid scheme. And that’s kind of what housing has become in Ireland.”
The current and deepening housing crisis is never far from his mind. The lifting of the eviction ban prompted two people to message him recently. “I got two messages from mothers with young children who are now being evicted and they’re facing homelessness because anywhere else for them to rent is more than they earn. As a person who spends his day around children, my empathy levels are quite high and it’s devastating to hear things like that.”
Now that he is a homeowner, would he like to see prices climbing again to ensure his “investment”? Not a bit of it.
“I think it’s very easy for people to say I’m Alright Jack but I’m not one of those people. I would love to see house prices come down to an affordable level. I think just because we managed to buy, it’s not okay to try to pull the ladder up after you. There’s nothing worse than seeing people unable to afford security and a roof over their heads.
“I think it’s a fundamental thing we need as humans to exist. I’m not one of those people that hope prices go up. It doesn’t bother me. I don’t care and as I said, I hope to stay here forever. We love the area, it’s close to Melissa’s parents, it’s not far from my mom and we can walk into town, I can walk to work.”
“So we never really want to leave the area. The only thing that might force us to leave is if we ended up having more children, and we didn’t have space, because we don’t really have room to extend or anything. But then my mam was one of 12 kids brought up in a house much smaller than this in Finglas.”
How to Buy a Home in Ireland: A Guide to Navigating the Irish Property Market by Ciarán Mulqueen is published by Hachette Ireland