There’s a reason why…

8 December 2013
Ben Pentreath

….. why What?

Before I tell you what I really want to write about today, here’s some gratuitously beautiful photos of a walk on Hampstead Heath this morning, with my friend Robin. We  went to look at Kenwood, gleaming in the sunshine and in its new coats of paint like a piece of cake sugar.

(you might have expected me to approve of that room colour…)

The views from the Heath are amazing. I guess I don’t go up there very often – I’ve never been to Kenwood, in fact. It’s quite a pleasure making new discoveries on a beautiful winter’s day.

Hard to see St. Paul’s these days, tucked in between the forest of cranes that is the London skyline.

But – with the gratuitous shots out of the way, what I really wanted to write about was



It’s come up for a specific reason. This week was a big week for us in the office. In the New Year, we’re moving – we’ve finally run out of space at our lovely office on Lambs Conduit Street, which it occurs to me I must write about one of these days. We’ve been very crammed in for ages. And a little while ago, our brilliant landlord, the Rugby School Estate, got in touch (they knew about our space issues) asking if I wanted to have a look at a building that had come free just up the road, tucked down the end of a little hidden alleyway behind the main street.

It’s ideal, and I’m sure in the forthcoming months you might just be reading a bit more about it… here. For now, here’s a sneak preview.  Falling to bits, but with incredible potential (and a lot of weird office chairs).

You see what I mean? Fantastic, but it’s going to need a lot of work.

I’m doing a deal with the Estate, where I take on a long lease in return for doing it up right now.  The landlords are interested in good long-term tenancies and the terms are incredibly fair to both of us. I get a short but very generous rent free period but I have to fund the work. Now, I won’t go in to facts and details, in order to spare my blushes, but you can imagine that to do this building up is going to take quite a lot of cash. Which, not to spare my blushes, I am afraid I don’t just have sitting under the mattress.

So, what do you do if you need a substantial business loan for a couple of years?

Well, in years gone by, you go to the bank.  I bank with one of the big banks, let’s call them Barclays for instance, who a year or two ago nearly went bust for lending a lot of crazy money to a lot of crazy people.

I will not bore you with the details of the conversation, but in a nutshell, my bank won’t lend to me because… I don’t own a house. Why do they want me to own a house? So they could take it if something went wrong with my company repaying its debt. Lovely!

So paranoid are the banks, these days, about lending anyone any money, that the list of questions I needed to satisfy was long as my arm and almost entirely irrelevant to the specifics of my case. I have an aversion to paperwork, it’s true, but when I stared at the list of what I needed to put together… I just gave up.

A few months ago I’d heard an interesting interview, very early in the morning on Radio 4, with the boss of a crowd-funding website called Funding Circle. Check it out here. At the time, I’d thought to myself, perhaps these were the guys for me. And they were.

They have quite stringent requirements to meet, but fundamentally they are asking a question: ‘is this guy good for repaying this loan every month?’.  When you’ve been through their scrutiny mill, your loan request is posted on their website. Hundreds and hundreds of investors who want a bit more than they can earn in the bank then lend small amounts of money to lots of small and medium sized businesses.  So my request was fulfilled, in a great part, by people lending me £20 or £40 or £160 for a rate of return of about 8%. Within two hours of posting my loan request was fully-funded. Over the next few days the interest rate dropped as new investors underbid the earliest rates. And at the end of the week, the papers were signed and the deal was done.

You’ve got to be pretty worried if you’re one of the big banks.  This sort of business really is the genius of the internet.


But. I’m still not writing yet about the case in point, am I?

One of the niggling things that have come up time and again, both with the bank and with Funding Circle, is the question ‘but why don’t you own a house?‘.

They simply cannot comprehend that a successful(ish) young(ish) guy wouldn’t have got my foot on “the ladder”.

I’ve got to admit, it’s a question that comes up quite a lot in a dinner party talk these days as well.

So I thought I’d write some thoughts. And if you ever ask me again, you’ll just find me smiling sweetly, and being directed to a blog I wrote back in December 2013, called… ‘There’s a reason why…’


First of, let’s face it, I’m not very good at saving for deposits. I’d rather own five Coronation mugs by Eric Ravilious. In fact, I hate the idea of not doing this or that because I’m saving up for a rainy day.  (I’ve never quite understood saving for rainy days in the first place.  When it rains I like staying in. The only reason to save is for a sunny day).


Second, I hate being in debt.


Third, I’ve always been a bit terrified by the cost of a mortgage.   Let’s just say this.  If I wanted to buy a flat for £300,000, which as we all know these days in London would buy you a lovely studio box in Zone 3, and let’s just assume that I wanted to borrow, say, £240,000 from the bank, having saved up £60,000 of my own cash as a deposit (which would take rather a long time)…

… Well, I’ve just checked online. Forgive me, but the detail is important here. Assuming that interest rates NEVER GO UP in 25 years, which would be rash assumption, my loan repayment on that £240,000 would be, I am told by the calculator, £1107 – £1333 per month. Which doesn’t sound so bad does it (except it’s basically the rent on my nice flat in Queen Square); but if for a minute you indulge me, and times those numbers by 12 (months) and then by 25 (years), you will see that the cost of that loan is actually £332,000 to £399,000.

Now, if you were to be so rash as to tap in an interest rate of 7% (which is historically the base-line average interest rate for mortgages over long periods of time) that monthly payment jumps to £1696 per month, which is staggering £508,000 over the lifetime of the loan.

So your Studio flat in Zone 3, at the end of the day, better be worth £500,000 because that’s actually what you’ve paid for it.

You get my drift?  Oh, and please don’t forget the original £60K that you’ve got to pop in in the first place.


So fourth, and that brings me to a more fundamental problem, I’ve never just had a deposit given to me by anyone else. Almost every single person I know of my age who owns a house had their mortgage deposit paid by their parents, or their granny.  Good fortune, for sure, and I don’t resent it one bit. My Mum & Dad are the rock of my life, and they’re incredibly generous, but I’m not about to shake out their pockets for a 20% deposit for a flat in London, am I?


Fifth, I’ve never ever been able in my whole life to be able to afford to buy anywhere I ever wanted to live.  I admit it. I hate commuting, I’ve always liked being able to walk to work.  (Sometimes people ask me in incredulity ‘Ben how do you manage to get so much stuff done?’.  Do you know the answer?  In the last 10 years, I’ve had a 4 minute walk to work.  That’s an AWFUL lot of time saved).

So I’ve never been able to afford to buy any place I could walk to work from.  But I can afford to rent them.  In fact, not just one – but two!

I cannot tell you how much I love my house in Dorset and my flat in London. But let me be entirely honest. Both of these houses would be very very very expensive to buy. A staggeringly eye-wateringly large amount. The sort of amount that you could only just about cover if you happened to be… I suspect… a banker, or a lawyer.  Neither of which I would be very good at, I am sure you will agree.

The funny thing is, in both cases, I have a very good long-term landlord who is principally interested in securing good long-term tenants who pay their rent and look after the building.  They’re not interested in making a quick buck.  And because in both cases they’ve owned the building I live in for hundreds of years,  there is no mortgage to pay, no ‘buy-to-let’ investment to cover. My rent is the return.  There’s no need to squeeze a profit on top.

The second nice thing about this is that both landlords were very happy when I asked for long leases. We’ve all got security that way.  I know that I’m not going to be given my notice in 6 months time, and therefore I don’t mind doing the flat and the parsonage up.  I don’t mind spending money on the garden or the decoration, because I know that I’m going to live there for a long time.


Now a lot of people say to me at this point: “but you’re just throwing your money away doing up someone else’s house”.   At this point I look at  them curiously, at their expensive jeans or expensive haircut or think about the expensive i-pad they bought that is instantly redundant or think of their last expensive holiday abroad.

Nothing wrong with any of those things, I’m all in favour of all of them, believe me; but I’ve never understood why going out to an expensive restaurant is not a waste of money and as soon as I spend a bean putting a nice doorknob or fireplace into someone else’s property; well – I must be certifiable! Lock me up! Put me away!

And to which, I merely reply, I’m not spending it on the house. I’m spending it on my life. I’m buying a nice door handle or tap or fireplace because it is something I use and look at and enjoy every single day of my life.  And divided by a ten year tenancy, which is, let’s face it, 3650 days, my beautiful marble fireplace at the Parsonage costs about 35 pence a day, which is about the cheapest pleasure I have, believe me.  AND I can leave it there for the next people to enjoy.  It’s permanent, not transient, like so many pleasures in life.


What I really love in my flat is that if something goes wrong it’s not my problem. The boiler blows up? The landlord has to fix it. The roof starts leaking? A quick call and that’s the end of the matter as far as I am concerned.  I get to spend money on all the nice stuff, not the boring bits of owning a house.


I was once on a car journey with my friend George Saumarez-Smith.  One of the games to while away the hours was to speculate what single word could be used to sum up the others’ life.  Mine for George was Measurement, and for those of you who know George that’s quite a good word.  His for me was Improvement, which I think is probably about right.  And what’s fascinating to me is that rather often people will only look to improve things they own.  Sure, I’d like to have an investment in whatever I’m working on. I like thinking for the long term, and I like stability.  But I don’t actually have to own something in order to have to look after it.

The flip side of owning something is that it often makes you go much more mad in terms of throwing money away. You spend absurd amounts of money on something in the thought that ‘its an investment‘.  Kitchens and bathrooms are the usual case in point.  I’ve got to be bitterly honest, most £60,000 kitchens end up in the next owners’ skip before 500 hot dinners have been cooked in them. Whereas conversely, when I did up my kitchen in Dorset, I think I spent about £1000 on fixtures and fittings, and it’s about the nicest room I know. There’s a reality check involved in being a tenant. You will spend just enough to make something nice enough to live with for 10 years. But you never go mad. So who is really wasting the money guys?


Okay, before this gets boring, I would finally like to check that all the mortgage payers of life have a proper pension plan in place?   I very often hear at the same dinner party where my neighbour is scandalised that I don’t own a house the following phrase: ‘my home is, after all, my pension’.

Well that’s just great.  As soon as you retire and stop working the one thing you have to do is move down a size or three, ‘downsizing’, as it’s euphemistically called, or move to somewhere you don’t really want to live but pretend it’s rural retirement bliss, and release all of that expensive equity to produce something to live on.

For me, when I grow old? I want to live right in a tiny rental flat (where it’s someone else’s problem to deal with the boiler) in the centre of London, where I can zoom around on public transport or in endless taxis to all the pleasures of life in old age, theatres, exhibitions, cinema, taking my godchildren and hopefully a few handsome young gay admirers out to expensive dinners and generally having fun. I’ve never understood why people want to retire to the country.  I want to live in the country my whole life and retire to the city centre.

And so do remember that in order to get a reasonable pension, they say you should be saving about a quarter of your annual salary.   Are you?

Mortgages are not saving.  They are debts. You are borrowing a massive amount of money for a very long period of time and paying a lot of interest to do so.  That’s fine if you have to. But don’t forget that you’ve got to live and eat and enjoy life once you stop working and that’s not the same thing as owning a house where you can’t afford the heating – which is a problem that is facing many pensioners.  (Be a little scared, too, that if you own a house these days, the Government might make you sell it in order to pay your medical bills, but that’s another whole story).


Well, I’ve got a few things off my chest there.  You can tell my cold is better can’t you?


So, to end, here’s why I am now wanting to buy a house.  Because unless you do, as far as your bank, or in fact any other business lender, is concerned: you don’t exist.  And that’s not a great feeling.  I remembered it wasn’t so long ago that unless you owned a house, you couldn’t vote.  So watch this space. Maybe I’m about to start house-hunting.


36 comments on this post


Unfortunately I have a landlord who doesn’t care and doesn’t fix things. In London most landlords will risk that approach as they don’t need to keep the place in good condition or keep tenants happy, there is an endless flow of new tenants so no pressure. So many renters can’t just fix something themselves in good time, issues are often not fixed or only half done, late. It also means that you can’t adapt a place to your tastes or needs without investing a great deal of money in somewhere you probably don’t like that much and that you could be given notice for. I do think it would be scary to own and know that have invested in a property that could become a nightmare, but in most cases people who own pay far less per month towards a mortgage than a renter pays for a far inferior property, and at the end of all that the owner has something, hopefully, to trade up/down/cash in, while a renter has just given all that to someone else. I take your points, just another perspective.

Alice Pattullosays:

I am so glad they got the print….! It’s so lovely in there. x

Purple Jacarandasays:

I agree with you entirely. I also live in London, but pay £2,200/m for an ordinary Victorian little house in East Dulwich? £1,300 for a flat in central London?! You’re indeed a very lucky man for having found such a deal. Stay put!


Food for thought, Ben. There is of another option. You rent two properties; if you rented just one, you could save the difference for the rainy day. £1000pm x the 25 years in your example would save £300,000 (+interest), which you could (nearly) put in an ISA to keep tax-free. Result: hassle-free living being a renter all that time, and cash for the retirement (home).

I know of course, that in your case you enjoy renting the two properties, but to most that’s a luxury they don’t need.

Also, what if house prices decline? Investment is in property is often seen as a ‘sure thing’ since the steady increase in prices since the 80’s, but with the US economy is in a sorry state, and I don’t think that another global collapse is out of the question in the next 5-10 years. We could find that those with mortgages end up in negative equity if the housing market prices crashed. Renting is certainly not without benefits.

It is an very important topic to discuss that how home ownership make such rules for rentals. I think both parties have to follow their agreement.


Funny, but in New York City it’s the opposite: Rents are always going up so you have to lock in your costs (notwithstanding the comment above). What you say about getting to spend money on all the nice stuff rather than the boring bits is so true though. I wish I could buy antique furniture and rugs with the fortune I spend on plumbing.

Laura Harrisonsays:

I rarely read blogs, find them a waste of time,until I read this one. It was right on. I do own a house and have had for the past 25 yrs., but I don’t think it was worth the endless headaches. I have never seen a hearse followed by a removal van….so you really can’t take it with you. Best enjoy your life to the fullest NOW and don’t strangle yourself with a mortgage.


Don’t forget there is also an army of Pentreathians (sounds appropriately like an Architectural movement) who might consider investing in your talents.

While I am no enemy to house ownership, as a long term expat my experience is very similar to yours. Each place that we live is home, even though we are always renting. Friends are always shocked that I pay to have the painters in or order custom curtains and take down the ugly too short ones that are invariably there. In Tokyo, landlords could charge you for every nail hole in the wall as you moved out so I had friends who lived for 4 years without ever hanging a single picture! Can you imagine? That is just not living.

Cath Bournesays:

Great post (as ever – became a regular reader after you introduced me to fuckyournoguchicoffeetable…).
Good to own if you can last the course – my in-laws’ house will be a big asset for my children, although lovely to rent the Parsonage, where am loving the new sofa…
PS the customer service at your shop is really great.


Yes, Britons high and low used to rent; the upper classes even preferred to rent homes for their holidays. Yet, having done both kinds of living, with some bad experiences of renting, including those ghastly inspections, dilatory reactions to problems, and the rip-off retention of deposits, I still prefer to live in my own home with independence however expensive. Short-term renting doesn’t suit family life with children either. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of good, long-term landlords. Luckily for you, you have two of them. Good post.


Ah Ben, I was also in bed with a cold and sipping lemon, ginger and honey. And I too came to a life changing decision. I am selling my house in Nova Scotia and will move to Italy. I can afford a small bijou apt. and the joy of the fresh fruit and vegetables and general day to day life will more than compensate for the paying out of rent. My children will have their small inheritance now rather than waiting for me to ‘pop my clogs.’ I am in my mid seventies, so If I don’t go now… I too am open to any ideas or suggestions. Thank you for all your posts, they brighten every Monday morning and this last one is one of the best.


A way to satisfy the bank and continue to rent in both London and Dorset?….become a landlord yourself!
If all the bank is looking for is for you become a homeowner to secure your loan, why not buy a place and rent it out? I’m sure that you could find a very affordable property for purchase, say, somewhere between London and Dorset (university towns make great rentals). You’d be able to cover the mortgage payments with the monthly rental income and still be able to keep your wonderful, current rental situation. And you’d still be working toward having a place of your own (to live in, or sell) should you ever retire.
Tax benefits:


Dear Ben, Before you get too discouraged about the mortgage, take a look at its possible advantages. In the States, there are several tax write-off benefits/loopholes afforded by homeownership.

I respect all you have to say on this topic, and even more so that you end with the caveat that you may now be considering buying property, which on this blog is as much a promise that you will.

Speaking personally, I don’t care if home ownership is a losing proposition by some standards — I just love owning a house, and the attendant responsibilities. I feel grounded, literally, in a way I never did as a renter. I don’t have to rely on a landlord to install the crappy hot water heater that burns dirty oil at an alarming rate that I’m going to pay for at the end of the month and feel guilty every time I take a longer-than-usual shower. Instead, I can select the more-expensive-in-the-short-term, but less-expensive-in-the-long-term water heater that is more efficient and reflects the way I want to live my life. Same goes for thoroughly insulating my house — no landlord would every front the high cost, yet it has made my 230 year old home viable for the future, and lowered our winter energy consumption by two thirds. These aren’t romantic concerns, and trust me, I’m as seduced by a Max Rollit sofa as the next guy, but it pleases me that every day I’m consuming less energy than I ever would under circumstances dictated by a landlord, and acting as a steward for my historic home.


Well said!


Thanks for this post, Ben. Once again, you (most generously) usher us center stage for your thought process. Your rental rationalizing is clear and true, but I delight in your sudden change of heart about buying a house. Now the fun begins.


I can’t help thinking how lucky your landlords are though Ben. The Vicarage will be worth so much more after your fabulous touches and the Rugby School Estate ……. you are funding the improvements!! …… and they will be fabulous as well! ….for a small rent free period!!! You are the dream tenant!!! Would you like to rent some property for almost nothing in North Wales??


Dear Mr Pentreath,

I find your living arrangements perfectly sensible and your arguments compelling, although I would like to add that they are no so much a case against house-ownership as they are an account of a widespread confusion: the misconception that someone who borrows from the banks most of the money required to buy a property is actually its owner. In fact, their situation is rather similar to yours, except that they are “tenant’s in the banks property”: their loan repayments are entirely analogous to a monthly rent, and if they fail to pay, then the bank will “evict” them and take possession of the property through the mortgage that is included in the lending contract.

Where both arrangements differ is on the important aspect of capital gains: those who prefer to pay their “rent” to the banks will be able to realise income from capital gains, if and when they sell the property. In fact, it is the perspective of capital gains that motivates most people to contract long-term loans to buy property. While the rationality of this depends upon the characteristics of the economy, what I would like to point out is that because their expectation is of “buying in order to sell”, these property-owners effectively become a sort of nomads, and they will have no more incentive than someone like you to improve their own homes. In fact, if they expect to sell relatively soon, their attachment to the property can be smaller than that of someone living in rented dwellings. Other than feeling a tenuous connection with their houses, they are also likely to experience other unpleasant effects of their “ownership choice”: for example, they are likely to buy property in areas that are becoming more valuable; but those areas are likely to be new, without an established local commerce, distant from their working places and/or from their children’s schools. These costs are frequently an enormous burden in their quality of life, and they tend to be underestimated when people commit themselves to buying new property through a bank loan.

In summary, I would much rather prefer to go for your option: become a custodian of beautiful properties in long-term contractual understandings with their owners, while having the benefits of living in the places of your choice, and experiencing both their poetical quality and their practicality.

Gillian Stickingssays:

Brilliantly expressed, and for my money very true. Thank you.


Think this might be my favourite post ever. Lx

Margaret Powlingsays:

I’ve not done the maths, but you must also take into account that once a mortgage is repaid (even if the interest has been astronomical) at least the property is yours and you can then live in it mortgage/rent free in retirement. Of course, you might pop your clogs the moment you’ve paid off your mortgage but if a mortgage is set to end to coincide with the current State Retirement age of 65 (for men) you might have at least another 20+ years living rent and mortgage free, whereas if you rent, you will continue to pay rent until the day you die.
One of our son’s rents and has done for many years. We are considering ways of getting him on the housing ‘ladder’ because what he finds intolerable is that he has to have ‘inspections’ every so often, to make sure that he and his partner are taking care of the property which isn’t theirs. Maybe, Ben, you don’t have such ‘inspections’ and if I were a landlord I know I’d require them, too, but looking at it from his perspective, in his 40s, it is very undignified to have someone come into ‘your’ home and take a look-see to make sure you’re not trashing the place.

Elizabeth Cornwellsays:

That is very interesting.I cant understand where this obsession with house owning came from.As your last correspondent says it is fairly recent & as far as I can see poses endless problems if you are a bit strapped for cash.I am lucky in that I inherited my house but up until I did I always rented.Saves a lot on mainainance as you say.

Claire Howardsays:

Couldnt agree more,we are very lucky to live in a lovely old stone farmhouse in a very remote area,we would never be able to afford the mortgage on this property.There is a twenty five year tenacy so that gives you some security,it’s gives us reason to improve the house, as you feel you’ll benefit from the improvements,many of which you can take with you when you leave, eg aga,log burner.


Brilliant post, Ben – brilliant!

Frances Kassamsays:

Wow I Felt I was sitting right beside you at another dinner party…..revelatory views…great take on renting and living how one wants to.

although your mathematic/bank justifications regarding mortgages are a bit suspect, especially given the ever-rising london property values, i agree wholeheartedly with the tenor of the post. not to mention, i am more than a bit envious of your two rental properties. they look + sound great to me.


Just noticed the grammatical and punctuation errors in my post. Apologies – it’s early in the morning and the cat is draping herself over the keyboard.

Glad you’re over your cold!


A wise and generous post, Ben. As one who did everything you don’t intend to do – (householder, downsizer to the country on retirement) there is much that is thought-provoking in your comments. We were both lucky, though. I bought my first house in 1969, when you weren’t allowed to borrow more than two and a half times your salary, and through several house moves ‘trading up’, never had a mortgage of more than £13,000, and was always able to afford a holiday, books, wine and all the small pleasures of life.

You are lucky to have reasonable landlords. So many renters are funding a buy-to-let owner’s pension fund while able to save neither for a home of their own or for their own pension. Even renting can be a problem for some. I read the other day of a young graduate who had landed a dream job in London but couldn’t find anywhere at all to live; She ended up in cheap, no frills hotels. moving from week to week, while establishing herself in her new job.

Housing, bought or rented, is a nightmare for so many, and you and I should (and do) count our blessings.

I too am a renter for so many of the reasons you outline here, chief among them a neighbourhood and building character outside my pay bracket. Home-ownership is such a standard measure of success that sometimes I really question my own decision and reasoning though — so it’s wonderful to read this post (arguments that sometimes feel or sound weakly defensive when I say them) You are inspiring and I’m so glad you found a bank-alternative to raise your funding!


Glad you are feeling better Ben!! I’m buying a house at the moment (age 21) and I’d almost rather be renting!
Your office looks like the dream architecture practice…

I think May has something there! Put just a bit of your talents to work fixing it up…..and when my fellow Americans walk in the door and “Ahhhhh!”, then you’ll see all sorts of $$$! Brilliant!


Buy a scenic little but ‘n’ ben in the Western Isles for chump change, rent it out to American tourists for mega $$$, and then the bank will be happy and you won’t be entirely house-skint!


Wow. What an amazing post. Much to think about. Thank you.


WE ARE THE SAME PERSON! Except that I am a forty-something female lawyer living in Manhattan. But really — otherwise you have pretty much just summed up my views on home ownership. I can afford to rent a really quite spiffy apartment on the Upper East Side with fantastic river views, but could never afford to buy here. The barriers to apartment ownership in NYC are formidable — the required down payment is often 50%, unlike the 10% required in the rest of the U.S., and of course a million dollars buys you a rather cramped two bedroom in a nice but not swank neighborhood. The likelihood of me coming into half a million dollars (or even $200K, assuming I could find a place that only required a 20% down payment) is extremely remote, with the odds about the same as those of my becoming an Olympic figure skater. I also feel the same way about country living in retirement — “no way!” I want to be here in the city when I’m old — no need for a car, a surfeit of interesting things to do, many of which are not expensive, no lawn to mow or garden to maintain, top-notch medical care, etc. Of course if I win the lottery, all bets are off, but until then — I’m OK with renting.

How refreshing.. … when did we become so obsessed in owning our own home/property? An Englishman’s home has always been his castle it’s even joked about in’ Asterix in Britain’. It isn’ that long ago when the british rented or leased a house, a farm, an estate even. Lord Curzon leased Montecute House in Somerset and spent thousands restoring it, then he leased Hackwood and of course owned Kedleston . Chirk Castle in Powys was leased by Lord Howard de Walden who was responsible for it’s restoration and probably saving it. If those men did that today they would be thought mad for spending so much on something they didn’t own. Luckily for us they did.

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